Three French-Israelis are being held in Tel-Aviv accused of swindling a businessman out of €8 million by impersonating the French foreign minister and building a replica of his office.
The trio face charges of passing themselves off as Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French foreign minister, via emails but also video calls in order to embezzle the money. They said they need the funds to conduct covert operations as well as for ransom money to release hostages held by Islamic extremists.
The men, aged between 37 and 47, were reportedly arrested as they made a call to their victim in an apartment in a suburb of Tel Aviv in February by police and members of Israel’s international crimes unit Lahav 433.
“They called, sent mails and sometimes used the video call application Skype to pretend to be for the minister himself,” a police source told Le Parisien, the French newspaper. The three reportedly used an expert make-up artist to make one look like Mr Le Drian, while another posed as his chief-of-staff.
The scam, one of a string of similar confidence jobs in recent years say police, kicked off last September when the alleged fraudsters started putting in calls to top French company bosses.
They claimed they were discreetly seeking to stump up funds for hostages held in Mali and Syria. They contacted around 40 executives, along with various embassies and consulates.
To lend credence to their operation, Israeli media said the alleged fraudsters built an exact replica of Mr Le Drian’s office at the French foreign office in Paris, completed with tables, chairs and a portrait of President Emmanuel Macron hanging on the wall.
The trio reportedly urged their contacts to keep the conversations strictly confidential for security reasons and to avoid diplomatic embarrassment to the French government.
“Most of those contacted did not reply, because it wasn’t quite the usual method used in the diplomatic and business worlds. A number had already heard of a previous attempt at fraud using Le Drian,” a French police officer said.
However, one businessman fell for the scam and reportedly paid €8m before realising he had been cheated and contacting police. Investigators found it hard to pinpoint the trio after following a complex trail of banking operations from eastern Europe to China.
They were finally caught when they tried to ensnare another businesswoman. “We learned they had approached a new victim who was ready to give these three men €2m,” said a French police source. Officers accompanied the woman to a meeting enabling them to identify and locate them.
The three men have denied any involvement. Investigators said they had seized a yacht in Tel Aviv marina as well as freezing their property assets.