Six men have gone on trial in Paris accused of using a hyper-realistic face mask to impersonate a French minister and scam wealthy victims out of tens of millions of euros.
Two French-Israeli citizens, Gilbert Chikli, 54, and Anthony Lasarevitsch, 35, are alleged to be the masterminds of the group, with five others facing lesser charges of complicity in the crimes. The seventh suspect did not attend the trial.
The two main suspects are facing charges of organised fraud and usurping a person’s identity in an audacious scheme to con more than €50 million from wealthy figures.
Starting in 2015, scammers posing as Jean-Yves Le Drian – now foreign minister but then in charge of defence – contacted more than 150 targets seeking funds for a “secret operation”.
In some cases the money was said to be needed to finance an anti-terrorist operation, in other cases to pay the ransom demanded by the Islamic State to free soldiers or journalists.
The impersonators said they were calling on the individuals for assistance because the French government could not use taxpayer money to pay a terrorist ransom.
Besides being assured that they would be quickly reimbursed, the victims were also promised the Legion of Honour, a lunch at the Elysée Palace or an exemption from taxes for life. Some of the victims were called via Skype, on which Chikli is alleged to have appeared for a few seconds in a mask of Le Drian, sitting behind an office table, decked with French and European Union flags. The connection was quickly cut due to a “bad connection.”
While few of the people contacted fell for the scam, the Aga Khan, spiritual leader of Ismaili Muslims, took the bait in 2016 and transferred 20 million euros to the conmen. Three of the payments were frozen, but 7.7 million euros disappeared.
A Turkish businessman, Inan Kirac, also allegedly sent more than 42 million euros in what he was told was ransom money for two journalists held hostage in Syria.
Unsuccessful targets included King Philippe of Belgium, Gabonese President Ali Bongo, the CEO of the Lafarge cement company, church leaders and charities.
In 2015, a French court convicted Chikli in absentia to seven years in prison for similar scams in 2005 and 2006, in which he is said to have posed as different company executives and sent emails to employees asking them to transfer for money for secret operations.
Chikli and Lasarevitch were arrested in Ukraine in 2017. Investigators say they were preparing for their next scam, this time usurping the identity of Prince Albert of Monaco. Google searches for “face mask”, “silicone mask”, and “prince of Monaco” were found on laptops seized at the time of their arrest in Ukraine.
Researchers have been warning about the possible use of hyper realistic silicone masks, like that used in this case, to commit identity crimes. The masks are incredibly detailed, with hair, freckles and wrinkles. They cover the user’s head and chest, and include holes for the eyes and mouth that blend perfectly with the skin to create a realistic appearance.
If found guilty, Chikli and Lasarevitch face ten years in prison and a fine of one million euros.