As a pensioner, Kate couldn’t afford to lose the $4,000 she ploughed into an alleged cryptocurrency scam run out of acall centre in Kiev.
She couldn’t even really afford the initial US$250 she was convinced to invest in website CryptoMB by a man calling himself William Bradley.
“I didn’t have $250 in the first place,” Kate, whose name has been changed, tells Guardian Australia.
“So they said, ‘What have you got?’
“I said I’ve got $150, so they said, ‘Send it through.’”
Kate is just one of thousands of people across the globe victimised by the “boiler room” operation – which involves salespeople making phone calls to potential scam victims from a call centre – exposed today in an investigation conducted by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project and its media partners, including Guardian Australia.
Total losses wheedled out of victims around the world by a 140-strong team working the phones at the Kiev offices of the company behind the scheme, Milton Group, are estimated to top €60m (A$100m). Milton Group has been approached for comment.
Internal documents supplied by a whistleblower from inside the boiler room to Swedish daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter, which shared the data with the OCCR and outlets including the Guardian, show it had at least 20 Australian customers registered on its books.
Interviews with victims also show that they are sometimes ripped off by multiple internet finance scam operators who use similar techniques but do not appear to have any other links with each other.
Calls to victims seeking more money, often to release illusory profits ginned up by the scammers, have continued as recently as January.
Some Australian victims, like Sydney wedding dress designer Rhonda Rutherford, got off relatively lightly. She invested US$350 (A$530) after getting a call from a woman who was “so lovely, of course”.
“I’ve been totally swindled with bitcoin,” she says.
“I saw Hugh Jackman on television saying that bitcoin was the way to go. I thought I’d give it a flutter.”
Jackman is one of several celebrities whose likeness has been used by scammers to lend legitimacy to their claims.
Rutherford refused to put any more money in but now scammers won’t leave her alone.
“You get calls all times of day and night from all sorts of people,” she says.
The experiences of four Australian victims who spoke to Guardian Australia fits with a pattern reported by Milton Group clients across the world – and by victims of online finance scams in general.
First, victims were asked to make a small investment of a few hundred dollars in cryptocurrencies.
Then they were told that the value of their investments was soaring.
“These profits are amazing,” Kate told a CryptoMB representative who called himself “Colin Taylor” in a WhatsApp message, obtained by Guardian Australia.
Excited, victims try to withdraw their winnings – only to discover all sorts of obstacles in their…