Google search that cost mum $500,000

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A woman who decided to take on her scammers after she was conned out of $500,0000 has revealed one of the “legitimate” looking emails which changed her life.

Jo O’Brien was left “heartbroken” when she learnt her half-a-million dollar divorce settlement had been stolen after she transferred her money into what she thought was a safe investment account.

The mother-of-two was sent the account details after using what she thought was a comparison website in May 2022. It was fake.

“I Googled ‘the best fixed-term investment rates’ and it came up as one of the first (links),” she told news.com.au.

“It turned out it was a landing board created by the scammers I think.”

The next day, she received three calls from men claiming to be from different financial service companies, including AMP.

Ms O’Brien said scammers pretending to call from AMP used the names of genuine employees and offered her a “slightly better” rate than other banks.

“I was checking and they were all AMP employees and all their phone calls were coming from Sydney,” she explained.

Over the next one to two weeks, scammers executed their elaborate plot and created what felt like a “real” customer experience.

They sent fake emails and forms Ms O’Brien claims were stolen from the genuine AMP website.

“They said fill out this form and now we’re going to take a day or two to check over your ID, and then I’ll pass you through to the legal department.”

At the time, Ms O’Brien said there were “no red flags” and nothing felt rushed.

Looking back, she has now noticed small subtle discrepancies she admits she didn’t pick up in email communications like “hyphens being used instead of a dot”.

“But even my bookkeeper looked over it and said that looks legitimate, there’s nothing to worry about,” she said.

After providing her personal details, she was sent the details of a NAB account which she was told was under her name and linked to her local branch in Melbourne.

But her money would actually be sent to an Australian company’s bank account, before being sent offshore.

“(They) said ‘here’s the account number when you’re ready to make the first transfer.’

“It wasn’t rushed, it didn’t feel dodgy or anything.

“The bank was down the road from my house so it didn’t feel weird at all.”

When she inquired why she was being sent a NAB account, she was falsely told by the fake AMP employee they would at times use NAB accounts in Melbourne and Sydney.

Before paying, Ms O’Brien called her bank – Commonwealth Bank – to change her daily withdrawal limit from $20,000 to $100,000 and was read a scam disclaimer.

In June 2022, she logged into the CommBank account on her phone and received a message informing her to call the bank.

She’ll never forget the day she made that phone call.

A CommBank worker told her they “had suspicions” she may have fallen victim to a scam.

“I (was driving and) pulled into a side street and I was shaking and bawling my eyes out. I couldn’t speak,” she said.

“It was basically nearly all the money I had.

“I feel let down by my bank because they allowed $500,000 – five separate transactions over two weeks – into an account (with the company’s name).”

She was one of nine people who were tricked into paying almost $1.7 million into a NAB account used in the scam.

Ms O’Brien claims NAB was slow to act and money continued to leave the account to go overseas after she first alerted them to the suspected scam.

No one has been prosecuted.

Tracking down the alleged scammers

Taking matters into her own hands, Ms O’Brien managed to track down the Melbourne address linked to the company whose bank account her money went into and fearlessly drove to the property to confront those behind the scheme.

“I’d lost everything. I just didn’t care. My mental health was so bad at that point, I just thought I don’t care … I wasn’t scared,” she explained.

Ms O’Brien knocked on the door and asked if she was standing at the company headquarters.

“(A man) said ‘no it’s not (the company) … I’ve never heard of them’. But I could tell he was lying because he was looking everywhere.”

She was eventually told the man who set up the company was overseas in Pakistan for a week.

She walked off, refusing to give them her name.

“Messed with the wrong person”

Still determined to get her money back, Ms O’Brien later managed to get a hold of the mobile number of a man supposedly called Muhammad Ali Waheed, who she was told had taken over the company.

In April 2024, she sent him a message on WhatsApp.

“I thought what have I got to lose? So I started texting him and he started answering me.”

“This is Jo O’Brien. The person who you stole $500,000 from,” she wrote in her first text message.

“I will not give up until I get my money back and/or ruin your lives.

“You messed with the wrong person.”

During their exchange, Ms O’Brien claimed she had a private investigator who would track down Mr Waheed’s family in Pakistan and expose him.

Mr Waheed seemed to believe her, replying: “If you tried to reach my family in Dubai or Pakistan, I assure you won’t get a single penny back.”

“Moreover, I also have many connections in Melbourne and Brisbane that could host you very well,” he wrote in another message.

Concerned the message was a threat, Ms O’Brien changed tactics and “started going all nice”.

The plan worked, with Mr Waheed appearing to express empathy for her situation.

“I know it’s not fair … I feel your pain,” he wrote.

He then revealed information about a man he claimed was responsible – an international crime figure known as ‘Usman’.

“I can help you to chase Usman the original scammer, and he has 100’s of millions,” he wrote.

Mr Waheed proposed an elaborate scheme to get Ms O’Brien’s money back by offering Usman’s details to an Australian bank account belonging to a man in Perth.

After the funds were transferred into the account, the money would be stolen and used to repay Ms O’Brien.

But Ms O’Brien refused.

During their conversation, Ms O’Brien claims Mr Waheed told her there are “a lot” of fake bank accounts that are used for scams.

“He said Australia is a big target and (scammers) are making millions of dollars”.

Their conversation later went dark after Ms O’Brien messaged Mr Waheed about his whereabouts in Australia earlier this year.

“Let down”

Ms O’Brien said she had been disappointed in the handling of the case.

She claims she contacted police to inform them she suspected Mr Waheed was in the country earlier this year but claims they never called her back to follow up.

The mother-of-two said she told police what she believed was a threat to her safety, but claims police also did not follow it up.

Victoria Police told the ABC that investigators were not aware of the alleged threats made to Ms O’Brien.

She received an email in May from Acting Senior Sergeant Arnaud Lenferna from Williamstown Station, who said inquiries with Interpol and AFP indicated Mr Waheed left Australia in 2018 and has never returned.

“Although our investigations have led us to a point to indicate that Waheed is a person of interest in your matter, there is unfortunately insufficient evidence to prove criminal charges against in the state of Victoria,” he wrote.

“As such we have referred the matter to AFP and Interpol for further investigation. We unfortunately cannot provide any update as to the progress of the investigation on their behalf.”

The company allegedly involved in the scam is still registered in Australia, the ABC reports.

Ms O’Brien wants to see the laws to change and ASIC do more to hold “business accountable”.

In a statement to news.com.au, ASIC said “it would review any evidence that supported allegations a company or its office holders were breaking laws overseen by the agency.”

“We encourage persons holding such evidence to report this to us directly for consideration.”

Mental toll

Ms O’Brien said the two year ordeal has taken a significant toll on her mental health and has affected her two children, Lily, 26, and Ned, 25.

“The thing that hurts me the most is for them to see me in this state knowing they can’t help it. It’s a massive burden on the kids in the prime of their lives,” she said.

“Plus the fact that it’s the kids inheritance.”

Ms O’Brien has a conciliation with CBA next month and hopes to see “some kind of conclusion”.

Ms O’Brien said she’s also considering travelling to Lahore in Pakistan and hiring an undercover cop to get her money back.

“I’m going to knock on the family’s door and tell them what he’s done. Apparently, it’s the biggest thing if you shame the family. It’s the worst thing that can happen over there.

“That’s my absolute last chance.”

She said she has a clear message for Mr Waheed: “You’re going to be held accountable for your actions for what you’ve done to Australians.”

In a statement to news.com.au, Victoria Police said detectives from Wyndham Crime Investigation Unit investigated several allegations of online fraud which occurred in May 2021.

“Charges were laid however following advice received from the Commonwealth Department of Public Prosecutions and the Victorian Government Solicitor’s Office, the charges were withdrawn.

“Investigators maintained communication with the complainant throughout the investigation and beyond, offering support and explaining the circumstances.”

Police added information on alleged offending overseas with foreign partners had been passed onto the partners through the Australian Federal Police – Interpol Bureau.

AFP declined to comment when contacted and suggested the inquiry should be directed to Victoria Police.

NAB Executive Group Investigations Chris Sheehan told news.com.au the bank is unable to comment on specific cases but said it is “seeing a growing number of scams featuring money mules, an intermediary account criminals use to anonymously move money from one account to another”.

“Our team will always do whatever it can to get stolen money back, including supporting scam investigations led by other banks for their customers,” he explained.

“Anyone who believes they have been the victim of a scam should contact their bank immediately.”

In a statement, a CBA spokesperson said it “acknowledges the financial and emotional toll scams have on customers and the community” and has implemented new scam detection, prevention and education initiatives to help keep customers safe.

“We encourage customers to remain vigilant and stop, check, reject suspicious calls, emails or texts,” the spokesperson said.

“If you think you have been scammed or if you notice an unusual transaction or one you didn’t make, contact your bank immediately.”

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