A small Canterbury business has been swindled out of more than $32,000 after its owners fell victim to an elaborate fraud involving fake emails from a New Zealand university.
Jackie and Murray Marquet operate Canterbury Power Solar (CPS) from their Christchurch home, providing renewable energy systems.
On January 25, the company was sent an email purporting to be associated with the University of Otago.
The email, which was signed off with the name of a legitimate university employee in the procurement department, asked for a quote for 100 solar panels.
Murray Marquet replied to the emails, which had the addresses email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org, and sent a quote for the panels on February 1.
On February 7 the fraudsters replied, asking to proceed with the purchase. A fake approved purchase order, featuring an Otago University crest, followed on February 9.
On February 20, CPS emailed a tax invoice to the fraudsters asking for payment of $32,890.
Before payment was made, the panels were collected from CPS' Australian supplier, Visa Global Logistics, on March 13 and were to be shipped to Peterborough in the UK, according to obtained DHL shipment records.
The Herald understands the eastern England location is an abandoned airfield.
According to DHL's records the panels travelled to Auckland, Singapore, Hong Kong and Germany before arriving in the UK.
However, Jackie and Murray Marquet were still waiting for the money, and sent several more emails, politely asking for prompt payment.
They were met with delay tactics.
"Hi Jackie. Need to have a meeting with the senior financial controller on this, unfortunately she is not in the office today ... sincerely sorry for the late payment," one fake email to CPS on April 5 read.
"Good morning, will get to you. Am expecting the confirmation from the financial controller, some payments were made on Wednesday, hopefully yours ought to be in this group [sic]," said another on April 14.
A final email on April 20 was sent to CPS reading: "Good morning sincerely sorry for this disappointment, i had taken this up with the financial controller and she assured me that your payment top of the list this month remittance, hopefully you should have the payment confirmation by 28th of this month [sic]."
Further attempts by CPS to make contact with the scammers failed.
"When the emails bounced I'm thinking, 'oh something is not right here'," Jackie Marquet told the Herald.
She googled the email addresses and found a warning on the University of Otago's
website about the threat of potential scams.
The university warned people last month of a fraud that targeted existing and potential suppliers of goods to the university.
Jackie Marquet then contacted police on May 3.
"We're just a small firm, a family-based firm. I feel like an idiot. You just feel gullible more than anything else, because it did come across as being genuine, especially the purchase order," she said.
"If you look at the invoice now more closely you start to think, 'hang on, some things just don't add up'. But it looked legitimate at the time".
She said CPS, which had never been targeted by a scam before, has completed past deals with schools and universities.
Financial crime unit Detective Sergeant Michael Cartwright said police were doing what they could to locate the panels, find out where they were delivered, and who was behind the scam.
"We have not identified a New Zealand connection as far as offending goes," he said.
"CPS were victims back in February, which meant that the goods were shipped overseas before we could do anything. Since then we have managed to close down the domain addresses with the help of a company in Canada where the Otago University domains were registered."
He said fraudsters were now using fake Canterbury District Health Board email addresses registered to a company in France.
Police issued a warning this month about forged district health board invoices being used to swindle goods from New Zealand businesses.
"There are a number of businesses who have received false purchase orders but luckily we have intercepted them before they were shipped offshore. CPS were the first to lose anything that we know of."
Cartwright said DHL was also trying to determine exactly what happened. Investigations showed the DHL account used to ship the panels may have also been caught up in the fraud.
The panels are yet to be located, and CPS has made an insurance claim for its losses.
Tips to spot invoice fraud
• Lookout for invoices for goods or services you didn't order.
• Always confirm if goods or services have been requested and received.
• Limit the number of people in your business authorised to make orders or pay invoices.
• If you notice a supplier's usual bank account details have changed, call them to confirm that the invoice is legitimate.
• Make sure you call the supplier using the phone number you have on file, or look it up on their website or in the phone book.
• Don't call the telephone number on the fake email or invoice, as this will likely be the scammer's phone number.
• Immediately cut contact with scammers who try to bully or intimidate you.
• If the bank account looks like it's an overseas bank account, or you have any suspicions about the payment details sent to you, investigate further and notify police.
This week is Australasian Consumer Fraud week, during which police financial crime fighting units and financial institutions raise awareness to help people identify fraud, scams, internet cons, and extortion. We look at some of the fraud occurring in New Zealand.
REST OF THE SERIES:
YESTERDAY: ATM skimming
TODAY: Fake invoices
TOMORROW: Social media scams
THURSDAY: Email extortion
FRIDAY: Lottery cons