Six men were convicted by a Paris court in a $50 million impersonation plot that conned wealthy residents into giving money to help the government with covert operations involving hostages, The New York Times reported on Thursday (March 11).
Gilbert Chikli, 54, was sentenced to 11 years behind bars in addition to a $2.3 million fine. Anthony Lasarevitsch, 35, will be remanded to prison for seven years and was fined $1.1 million. The two were considered the leaders of the plot.
Four other men, ages 27 to 49, were handed prison sentences ranging from 15 months to five years and fines of $45,000 to and $113,000.
The men were said to have impersonated Jean-Yves Le Drian, France’s defense minister from 2012 to 2017, mostly by phone — but in some instances, they staged a fake office and used a silicone mask for video calls.
The plot involved a fake Le Drian hitting up rich residents for millions to help France secretly negotiate the release of Syrian hostages. The victims were told that the operation was secret and time-sensitive. They were also told that public tax money couldn’t be used for ransom and that the government would pay them back.
The 150-plus victims included French and foreign embassies, religious leaders, executives, an environmentalist and even the archbishops of Lyon and Paris. They were asked to wire the money to accounts outside the country.
Investigators were alerted to the situation in July 2015 after some suspicious victims called the defense ministry to ask questions.
Chikli blew up after the verdict on Wednesday, yelling that the trial a “scandal.” He went as far as accusing prosecutors of creating the case at Le Drian’s request.
“You should be ashamed, prosecutor of the rich,” he said.
Le Drian’s attorney Delphine Meillet said the punishments were “satisfying.”
“It’s a signal for society that it is extremely serious to pose as a minister, even more so in a context as delicate as the fight against terrorism,” Meillet said.
Lasarevitsch’s lawyer David-Olivier Kaminski felt that the sentences were “dizzyingly high.”
“The court wants to send a signal that is completely disproportionate in financial matters,” Kaminski said.
Impersonation fraud is at a point where criminals are using deceiving biometric authentication methods using Deep Fake and other techniques. Earlier in 2019, for example, fraudsters made off with $29 million from the U.S. subsidiary of Japan’s largest financial media organization, Nikkei, by successfully stealing a Nikkei executive’s actual voice to order the wire transfer.