Widow loses $100,000 in Facebook hacking scam

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
Australian police investigating how a widowed Kiwi pensioner lost $100,000 in a Facebook hacking scam believe an offshore “mule” who received her money was an innocent victim who also lost $500,000 to a South African romance scammer.

The Australian-based man believed the stolen money which landed into his account was to help the sick grandmother of his South African “girlfriend” who he’d been told needed money sent overseas to pay for urgent medical treatment.

The South African romance scammer convinced the man she had money tied up in a company and had arranged for an associate who was holidaying in New Zealand to release the funds and wire them to the man’s account which he should then send to her via cryptocurrency.

When the money was deposited into his account under the Kiwi victim’s name, he believed it was legitimate funds from his girlfriend’s associate and immediately sent the money to the South African woman as instructed.

The Kiwi victim is a vulnerable 84-year-old West Auckland widow. In an email to her family last week, Australian police said the case involved a complicated web of money transfers between numerous individuals, some of whom were oblivious to the fraudulent activity.

“Obviously, this makes it difficult because numerous people are being scammed through this intricate network and thus [sending] fraudulent funds from one person on to another person, not knowing this is what they are doing,” a senior constable at St George criminal investigation unit in New South Wales wrote.

The officer said it would be impossible to recover the money sent to South Africa, but police were working to trace other stolen funds for the victim which had been sent “through various accounts in various states around Australia”.

The victim’s daughter-in-law Kim Weston told the Herald she was astonished at the lengths the scammers had gone to, to fleece her mother-in-law and the number of people involved.

“It’s bizarre. I don’t know what to make of it to tell you the truth. Unbelievable.”

Weston questioned whether the Australian mule was being honest with Australian authorities or downplaying his own culpability to save his own skin.

But she praised the thorough investigation undertaken by Australian police who in her opinion appeared to have gone much deeper than the New Zealand banks in terms of tracing the stolen money.

Weston said her mother-in-law was “still very fragile.

“She still hasn’t told anyone and doesn’t want anyone to know.”

The family had lodged a complaint with the Banking Ombudsman and was awaiting the outcome of that investigation.

‘We had to respect her wishes’

The victim lost more than $100,000 earlier this year after scammers hacked her elderly friend’s Facebook account and convinced the victim to send money overseas to unlock an imaginary Covid-19 subsidy payment.

Between February and June, the woman made 13 international cash transfers to three separate Australian accounts, each under different names. She made all the payments in person at her local West Auckland ASB branches with the assistance of ASB staff.

Though ASB eventually identified the fraud and froze her accounts in late June, none of the funds have been recovered and her family are furious bank staff did not alert relatives or police.

They only learned the octogenerian had been fleeced by chance two months later and immediately alerted police.

The family accuse ASB of failing in its duty of care by not flagging the woman’s highly unusual pattern of transactions as suspicious.

However, ASB has refused liability and says its actions did not contribute to the loss.

The bank said staff were acting on the victim’s instructions not to alert family or police to the scam.

“We had to respect her wishes.”

In a final response letter in September, ASB said bank staff questioned the woman ahead of each transfer to verify they were legitimate payments, that she knew the person receiving the money, was confident it was “not part of an elaborate scam”, and that if it was the money would likely be lost.

There was nothing in her responses that raised suspicion about the transfers, the bank said.

When questioned by staff, the woman said “she had made payments like this in the past, and that the funds were to help a friend”.

As the woman had authorised the transactions and the bank had taken immediate steps to try to recover the funds, ASB was not liable.