The robotic falcon maker who lost £100,000 to cyber criminals

John Donald

Entrepreneur John Donald sells robotic falcons around the world but still can’t believe that he fell victim to cyber-crime during the pandemic.

The tech-savvy grandfather said he was he was targeted by fraudsters when his family business was struggling to cope with a 95% fall in its turnover.

The 72-year-old was deeply suspicious but eventually caved in to their demands and transferred nearly £100,000 to a fake bank account.

He told BBC Scotland: “When my wife came through the door just at the end of this process, she thought I was having a nervous breakdown.

“It was very, very stressful. I wouldn’t wish it on anybody.”

New figures released by Police Scotland show there has been a 68% increase in fraud since 2018, with 17,000 cases recorded last year – the vast majority online.

Robotic Falcon

Mr Donald’s company Robop, now based in Arisaig, makes robot peregrine falcons for bird pest control.

The firm sold its products in 17 countries but was hit hard by Covid.

At 16:30 one Friday afternoon in December 2020, Mr Donald was agonising over the company’s future when he received a call.

It set in motion one of the worst experiences of his life.

Speaking in a well-to-do Edinburgh accent, the caller said they were from a joint banking task force and had discovered fraud in his account.

“I was under a lot of stress at the time and the way it was done was very, very sophisticated,” said Mr Donald.

His gut instinct told him something was badly wrong.

But when he asked questions, it became clear that the caller knew a great deal about him and his business. Mr Donald felt their answers were plausible.

Using another phone, he tried to call his bank but couldn’t get through.

Person typing on a keyboard

The caller then ramped up the pressure.

“They basically said we’ve got this time window because there’s a gap between what we see on our system and what you see on yours, so we need to get this wrapped up as quickly as possible,” said Mr Donald.

“They asked me to transfer money out of an account into another account in my name.

“This wasn’t a five minute affair. This went on for an hour.

“I felt incredibly stupid afterwards but at the time it seemed like the only option that I had.”

A friend put Mr Donald in touch with the Cyber and Fraud Centre Scotland and six weeks later, his bank refunded the missing money.

The centre’s chief executive Jude McCorry said others had not been so fortunate.

She added: “We’ve seen a recent fraud where there was £700,000 transferred on a property deal that went to the wrong account.

“That involved an individual rather than a company. It was huge and the investigation is still going on.

“Instead of always reacting to these crimes, we need to look at how we prevent it.”

Senior officers at Police Scotland believe cyber-crime is massively under-reported and the latest figures represent the tip of the iceberg.

It has become such a challenge that the detection rate for fraud has halved in recent years and now stands at roughly 16% of cases.

‘There is a significant threat in Scotland’

Assistant Chief Constable Andy Freeburn warned that Scottish crime groups were increasingly involved.

He said: “What we have seen over the last year is emerging serious and organised crime groups operating in that space, trying to exploit the Scottish public through cyber, through fraud, and we are now actively working against those gangs.

“This is something we are not going to arrest our way out of. There is a significant threat in Scotland.

“We are having successes in identifying people and recovering money in consultation with banking and financial partners.

“But we are also improving our prevention messaging, making it very clear to the public how they can help themselves by not giving out details, making sure their software is up to date on their computers and reporting anything suspicious to us.”

Police Scotland is investing an additional £4.3m in its cyber-crime strategy to buy new equipment and provide training for all of its operational officers.

The force has also drawn up a protocol to ensure its use of new technology is ethically sound.

Meanwhile, Mr Donald said the public need to know how sophisticated cyber scams can be.

He added: “My simple advice is, have your bank’s fraud line on speed dial on your mobile phone.

“And, for the bank, to please answer when people call these numbers.”

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