NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - Danielle Churchill needed help. She was raising five children in Wollongong, on the Australian coast south of Sydney, and had to cover thousands of dollars in special therapy fees for her 10-year-old son, Lachlan, who has autism. She tried crowdfunding on the site GoFundMe, but raised a tiny fraction of what she had hoped for.
Late last year (2020), she received the message that seemed to solve her financial problems. It was purportedly an email from billionaire philanthropist MacKenzie Scott, a novelist best known as the ex-wife of Jeff Bezos, the Amazon founder, saying that she was giving away half her fortune and that Churchill had qualified for a grant.
Churchill searched Google for Scott's name and the word "scam." Instead of warnings, she found numerous news articles describing how Scott's representatives had emailed hundreds of nonprofit groups out of the blue with offers of monetary support.
"People were thinking they were scams, but then they came true," Churchill, 34, recalled thinking.
Over the course of 2020, Scott announced gifts totalling nearly US$6 billion (S$8 billion). Her unconventional model of giving was widely praised for its speed and directness. But some of the seeming advantages - no large, established foundation, headquarters, public website or indeed any way to reach her or her representatives - are exactly what made her ripe for impersonation by scammers, as Churchill would soon find out.
To receive the money, Churchill had to fill out a "membership form" sent by an organisation calling itself the MacKenzie Scott Foundation and set up an online account with Investors Bank and Trust Co. She could see that the foundation had transferred US$250,000 into the account in her name, but because she was in Australia, she was told that she had to apply for a tax number and pay some associated fees before she could get access to the money and begin spending it on speech and occupational therapy for Lachlan.
"I was doing my research, looking up everything they were telling me," Churchill said. She added that her grandmother had looked things over and thought it was legitimate. "Everything you ask, they send you proof. The online bank says everything is secure."
What Churchill did not know was that there is no MacKenzie Scott Foundation. The Investors Bank and Trust Co, once based in Boston, had been folded into State Street Corp more than a decade ago. And Churchill was not dealing with Scott and her team but a sophisticated group of scammers adept at preying on vulnerable people.
In Churchill's case, the scam involved not just the fake bank portal but counterfeit Facebook pages, WhatsApp messages and the use of a Bitcoin cryptocurrency app to whisk the money away, roughly US$7,900 in all, so she could not reclaim it with the help of a bank or credit card company.
An email-security company in Israel, Ironscales, said messages purporting to be from representatives for Scott had targeted roughly 190,000 email accounts belonging to its customers. The company began seeing the scam after Scott's announcement on Dec 15 of nearly US$4.2 billion in donations.
Now, months after she set up an account at a bank that does not exist, Churchill is aware of other apparent victims. She continued to watch the Facebook pages purporting to belong to Scott, and would notice people asking for help in the comments. Then the comments would disappear. One man posted photographs of his debit card. "Snap its back and front and the location of the bank," read the instructions next to a smiling photo of Scott.
And on Scott's Medium post from December announcing her latest grants, one man posted a comment asking about the same supposed business manager who solicited funds from Churchill.
Marti DeLiema, a professor at the School of Social Work at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, said the method that Scott used, notifying groups of a grant essentially out of the blue, was ripe for scammers to exploit.
"What a gift she's given them by this crazy way of giving that she's developed," DeLiema said.
Even people with Scott's resources can't prevent swindlers from using their names. Scammers have copied the webpage of the federal Small Business Administration and impersonated the Federal Trade Commission, one of the agencies trying to combat exactly these sorts of cons.
Scott gives to institutions - universities, food banks, other front-line charities - not individuals. She has no accounts on social media like Facebook and Instagram, only her Medium page and a verified Twitter account with just three tweets. Her organisation would never request fees upfront from grant recipients, a person with knowledge of her giving said. The person declined to comment directly on online deception taking place in Scott's name or what actions she might take to help prevent it.
Churchill did more research and realised it was highly unlikely that Scott had been in touch with her directly, but still she could not cut herself off from the scammers right away. She had invested everything she could pull together in unlocking those promised funds.
"My son needs it for a better life. And I have already lost so much," she said at the time.
Churchill shared dozens of screenshots and webpages, unveiling a complex network invented to prey on the hopes of the needy. She said the scammers had known that she had no money, that she was borrowing from her grandmother and her sister to cover the mushrooming fees.
After a few weeks, Churchill went to the local police. They told her that she had been conned and that there was no way to get her money back.
"This experience has ruined my life, to be honest," she said.
She had already been struggling. Raising five children largely on her own, she relies on government support. Her mother is nearby in Sydney, but she is on dialysis and not able to help much. After Lachlan, her third born, received a diagnosis of autism, doctors said he needed specialised schooling and interventions she could not afford. Her GoFundMe page raised less than US$500.
At the time the message from the "MacKenzie Scott Foundation" appeared in her inbox Churchill seemed to be in the kind of emotional distress that makes people more vulnerable to scammers, said Stacey Wood, professor of psychology at Scripps College.
Experts say one of the best ways to prevent this kind of fraud is for people to come forward, but most victims are overcome with shame, blaming themselves rather than the criminals, and remain silent.
When she was first approached, Churchill didn't see any warnings from anyone else who had been scammed. The only web presence she found that appeared to be for Scott was a Facebook page filled with pictures of the billionaire and news articles about her generous giving.
Churchill sent a Facebook message to the administrator of this page, inquiring whether the email she received was real. Someone claiming to be Scott herself answered promptly, telling Churchill that the initial messages were from scammers pretending to be her but that she could help Churchill now that they were directly in touch.
Churchill was directed to a website for Investors Bank and Trust. It looked like a professionally designed site with slick photos, an email address, a phone number with an area code in New Jersey and an address in Los Angeles. Churchill set up an online profile, choosing a user ID and password, agreeing to the terms of service. The money quickly showed up, US$250,000 in what she believed was her Investors Bank and Trust account.
The purpose of the phony bank site is to convince victims that the money is already theirs. Experts who track scams call it "flashing." Membership fees, account fees, tax codes, transfer fees - there was a succession of payments that Churchill had to make to unlock the US$250,000 in the account.
The scammers told Churchill how to download the Bitcoin Wallet app to send them the money. Whereas a bank could have tried to help her recover the funds, once she hit "send" on the cryptocurrency, her money - Bitcoin transfers totalling 10,400 Australian dollars - was gone for good.
Scammer rings based in West Africa often use fake banks, said Steve Baker, international investigations specialist at the Better Business Bureau. The domain for Investors Bank and Trust is hosted by a Nigerian company, Whogohost, which bills itself as "the largest web hosting company in Nigeria and the West African region."
"Unfortunately, people believe that everybody should be able to instantly recognise a scam, the scammers are dumb," said Baker, who writes an email newsletter about fraud. "These folks are very often organised criminal gangs."
Once a group has gotten all that it can from a victim, it will often sell the person's details. Churchill soon found herself receiving a host of messages, one purporting to be from the International Monetary Fund and another from a woman in Congo who needed help selling gold.
"It's not a single scam involving one lone wolf," said Kari-Anne Liebling at ScamSurvivors, a group where volunteers track online schemes. "After the initial point, the victim is scammed into another scam and another scam and another scam."
DeLiema said prominent philanthropists should do more to protect people from falling victim to scammers operating in their name by warning that they would never ask anyone to provide payment to receive a gift.
It's not an unheard-of step. Charles F. Feeney, who made a fortune from his Duty Free Shoppers stores, gave away billions of dollars through Atlantic Philanthropies, until closing its doors last year. His philanthropy has just such a warning on its webpage. "Do not send money or provide any personal or bank account information," it says, then lists information for making complaints to the Federal Trade Commission and the FBI.
Churchill has tried to alert other potential victims. She found fake accounts for Scott on Instagram, and was blocked by one after posting a comment saying it was a scam. She believes a more organised effort, by Scott herself, is needed.
"I understand she probably wants to be left alone, and I could imagine why she hasn't got a website or anything. I could imagine all the messages she would get," Churchill said.
"Although what she's doing is great, her not having a foundation or a website is destroying people's lives. We matter, too."