How One of Australia’s Richest Men Lost $1 Million in Email Scam

The multi-millionaire founder of Twynam Agricultural Group Pty Ltd. lost $1 million in an email fraud, a London court heard Thursday. The British man who facilitated the theft says he’s a victim too.

John Kahlbetzer, who is on the Forbes list of the 50 richest Australians, lost the money when fraudsters tricked the administrator of his personal finances into transferring it to them, his court papers say.

Fraudsters emailed Christine Campbell, pretending to be the 87-year-old and asking her to pay $1 million to an account held by a British man, David Aldridge, which she did. Kahlbetzer is suing Aldridge to recover the funds, but Aldridge says he was being “unwittingly used” and was himself the victim of a fraud involving a woman he met online and believed he was in a loving relationship with.

Email frauds where companies’ staff are tricked into transferring money are a growing problem. U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation statistics show “business email compromise” cases, where criminals ask company officials to transfer funds, have cost more than $3 billion since 2015. That type of scam “continues to grow, evolve and target businesses of all sizes,” the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center says on its website.

Aldridge’s lawyer, Nicholas Towers, and Kahlbetzer’s attorney, William Buck, declined to comment. The case settled Friday morning, according to the court.

Romance scams

Lawyers for Kahlbetzer, who has a net worth of $950 million according to data compiled by Forbes this year, say Aldridge “actively facilitated the payment of the sum to his account.” He then transferred 61,538 pounds ($82,600) to another of his accounts and used some of it to settle his tax bills. He transferred most of the money to accounts in countries including the U.S., Hong Kong, the U.K., the United Arab Emirates, Ghana and Nigeria.

Aldridge said he was sending the money on the request of his girlfriend, Nancy Jones, who told him it was being used to pay death duties on her parents’ estate “so that he could jointly benefit from her inheritance and the two of them could live together,” Kahlbetzer’s court papers say. They say he’s never met Jones and hasn’t provided any proof of her existence.

Aldridge’s court papers say he “is also a victim of the fraudsters, who have tricked him” into letting his account be used to defraud Kahlbetzer. The evidence doesn’t show that he knew he was assisting a fraudster, they say, and he “had no idea” that a fraud was being committed against Kahlbetzer.

Aldridge was “entitled to the belief that he was dealing with an honest person” because Jones was his girlfriend of four years, his court filings say. Jones has written poetry to Aldridge “and has on many occasions told him she loves him.” Aldridge’s lawyer Nicholas Towers told a London court Thursday that he thought by transferring the money he was taking steps that would allow them to “properly be together” and “effectively live happy ever after.”

Like Campbell, Aldridge “followed instructions from someone he had known for many years and whom he trusted,” his papers say. They say that if the judge finds he’s liable for $1 million and Kahlbetzer’s legal costs “then he will be even more of a victim” than Kahlbetzer.

Kahlbetzer’s papers say Aldridge “has experience of romance scams” having previously paid money to a fraudster posing as a Dutch woman called Iris who he had a drink with after meeting on a dating site.

Fake Email

The message asking Campbell to transfer the funds came from an email address that was one character different from Kahlbetzer’s personal email address but that had been manipulated so that it appeared on screen as his exact address. The email was written by “an unknown third party,” Kahlbetzer’s papers say.

On the witness stand Thursday, Campbell said it was “reasonably normal” to get a request to transfer $1 million from Kahlbetzer’s account. She said that with hindsight it was clear that the email asking for the funds to be transferred wasn’t in “perfect English” but she hadn’t picked this up as a problem at the time because it looked like Kahlbetzer was emailing in a rush.

Aldridge says he paid the 61,538 pounds into his personal bank account in April. That’s the “maximum extent” of his benefit, and the most he should pay to Kahlbetzer, he said.