Day 6

How a scammer used a silicone mask to bilk millions from the Aga Khan

It's a scheme right out of a Hollywood script — and it worked, for a while. A Franco-Israeli man was sentenced to 11 years in prison for an elaborate scheme in which he pretended to be the country's defence minister over phone and video calls.

Gilbert Chikli erupted in anger in a Paris court after being handed an 11-year sentence, says Aurelien Breeden

Gilbert Chikli was sentenced on Wednesday for a scheme involving a silicone mask and the impersonation of the former French defence minister. He stole over 50 million Euros in total from a group of victims that included the Aga Khan. (SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Images)

Gilbert Chikli was one of six men sentenced on Wednesday for a scheme in which he used a silicone mask to impersonate a former French defence minister.

Chikli was already well-known in France for his previous scams. But this most recent plot involved him stealing a total of over 50 million euros (over $77 million Cdn) from a group of victims that included the Aga Khan.

Chikli was sentenced to 11 years in prison. His associate Anthony Lasarevitsch was sentenced to seven years; four other men received sentences ranging from 15 months to five years.

New York Times reporter Aurelien Breeden covered the trial. He spoke with Day 6 host Brent Bambury and Chikli's scheme. Here's part of their conversation.

How did this scam work?

It was brazen and elaborate. Basically, there was this small group who targeted a huge array of people and institutions. They would call these people and pose as France's defence minister, who at the time was Jean-Yves Le Drian.

They would provide some pretext saying there was a pressing matter of national security, often a hostage release, and they would say that France urgently needed millions of euros for some sort of off-the-books operation that couldn't be made public.

They would ask these targets to wire that money to foreign accounts in Poland and China or wherever. So the whole scheme was basically an impostor scheme. It was based on convincing people that this really was the defence minister calling for help.

Chikli would pose as French Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, pictured above. He would then tell potential victims that France urgently needed millions of euros for an off-the-books operation that couldn't be made public. ( JOHN THYS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

How many people were taken in by this?

To be fair, most people did not fall for it. Of the 150 or so who were targeted, in the end only three actually sent money. But those three people were very rich.

There was a very wealthy Turkish businessman. There was the French head of a very prestigious wine estate. And the Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of Ismaili Muslims, who is a very wealthy man. And so those three people alone [were] enough to pull in over 50 million euros.

How much of that 50 million euros was recovered?

Investigators are still trying to trace that money, because as soon as it was sent over, it bounced from shell account to shell account. And at the trial, the court asked for damages to be awarded to these three victims.

But there's very little hope, at least as of now, that that money will actually be recovered and that those damages will be awarded.

How convincing was this disguise that they put on for Skype video calls?

It doesn't look great. The fake office that this person is in looks almost comical. There's a very ancient phone on the desk. And I think someone looking at it now thinks there's no way people could fall for this.

But what they did [was] very smart. They kept the calls very short and the quality intentionally fuzzy. Everything was done so that if someone was already starting to fall for this, they might think: "Wow, OK, this is the real deal" — even though in hindsight you look at it and you think, "Well, I'm not sure how people fell for that." But some people did.

Prince Karim Aga Khan IV, imam of the Ismaili Muslim community, was one of Chikli's victims. (AP Photo/Jan Bauer, Paul White)

What can you tell us about Gilbert Chikli?

He is a larger-than-life kind of character. He's 54. He's Franco-Israeli. And he has this kind of swagger about him.

He was sentenced in 2015 to a very similar scam where he would pretend to be the CEOs of companies. He would call up employees and convince them to draw cash from the company accounts and wire it somewhere — again, always under the pretext of some sort of top secret operation. He was very good at sweet-talking people.

How did he end up getting caught for this French defence ministry scheme?

He was actually arrested in Ukraine with another person who was also convicted in this scam. They were in Ukraine for an unrelated reason. Investigators think they were trying to potentially develop a new scam where they would impersonate the prince of Monaco.

That maybe what they were doing in Ukraine — trying to find potentially, you know, someone who could make a mask in the prince of Monaco's [likeness]. But they were arrested in Ukraine and extradited to France.

What was the reaction in the courtroom when they sentenced Chikli?

He was very angry. There was an outburst on his part. He basically said that the prosecutors were working for the rich. He accused them of doing this at the bidding of the defence minister. And he sounded outraged that he was being asked to pay millions in euros in damages to these three victims.

Written and produced by Steve Howard. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

To hear more from Aurelien Breeden, download our podcast or click Listen above.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?