This man in a silicone mask impersonated a politician and stole millions

The idea of convincingly impersonating someone using a silicone mask is usually reserved for outlandish action movies like Mission: Impossible. However, a man has achieved just this - and has consequently procured millions from some of the world’s wealthiest individuals.

French politician Jean-Yves Le Drian made for an unsuspecting victim of this uniquely ambitious case of identity theft. The individuals involved plotted to impersonate Le Drian, then the defence minister, while speaking to business owners and foreign officials.

Victims who handed over their money included the owner of Château Margaux wines and the Aga Khan - who gave the scammers €18m ($20m). The fake Le Drian persuaded people to provide funds to be used in a Middle Eastern hostage situation involving French journalists. As the French government doesn’t officially negotiate with terrorists, the fake Le Drian assured the donation would be both secret and safe. It was then paid into a Chinese bank account.

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"Everything about the story is exceptional," stated Delphine Meillet, Mr Le Drian’s lawyer. "They dared to take on the identity of a serving French minister. Then they called up CEOs and heads of government round the world and asked for vast amounts of money. The nerve of it!"

Starting in late 2015, the scam artists stole an estimated €80m ($90m). On a number of occasions, though, a few phone calls weren’t enough to convince their mark. It is at this point in the story that the scammer donned a silicone mask of the socialist politician, who is now the foreign minister.

The pretend politician spoke from a mockup of a parliamentary office, complete with a flag and portrait of then-President François Hollande. Custom-made, the mask does resemble Le Drian. However, one has to question how it remained convincing throughout a video call.

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Questions have been asked as to why Le Drian was the chosen official to impersonate. But despite his relatively low profile, he had been involved with hostage situations before. Furthermore, a higher profile politician may have been more difficult to successfully impersonate.

The majority of would-be victims saw through the scam. However, in many cases, the calls were convincing enough to warrant alerting the authorities. As reports continued to come in, they eventually closed in on a man named Gilbert Chikli. A convicted French-Israeli con-artist, he seemed a likely suspect. In fact, in 2015 he was convicted of conning French corporations by impersonating their chief executives.

“Thirty-three banks and businesses were targeted between 2005 and 2006, including consulting group Accenture, the Post Office Bank, HSBC, aerospace firm Dassault, electricity and rail giant Alstom and the chic Parisian department store Galeries Lafayette,” reported the Times of Israel.

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“He managed to swindle a total of 60.5 million euros ($71.15 million), 52.6 million euros of which was later recovered." However, despite having now located him, Chikli was relatively safe living in Israel - as the Israeli government refuses to allow the extradition of its citizens.

"Looking back now I ask myself a lot of questions. But it did look like him!" Guy-Petrus Lignac, of Petrus wine, told a France Télévisions documentary. "And he was asking for my help as a service for the state! It's scary because maybe if he had asked for less money, I might have said ‘yes’."

Chikli, who is of Jewish descent and grew up in a working-class neighbourhood in Paris, made a pivotal error in judgement in August 2017. Travelling to Ukraine, he was arrested at the request of the French government. He claimed he was on a pilgrimage to the tomb of a well-known rabbi but evidence suggested he was there to buy a mask.

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In jail in Ukraine, he bribed the guards who subsequently provided him with a fridge full of steak and vodka. Here, he recorded curse-ridden videos - often aimed at the French judicial system - and uploaded them to social media. Another mistake perhaps, the French then successfully extradited him from Ukraine to France.

Strangely though, reports of the scam continued to come in. Even before Chikli’s arrest, it had got to a point where there were clearly multiple people involved, with everyone from charities to heads of government being targeted. (All were powerful “friends of France”.) Nonetheless, it had always been a questionable con - with the video calls taking place on Skype. In February however, three French-Israeli citizens were arrested near Tel Aviv and now the calls have stopped.

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With a cult following, Gilbert Chikli has almost reached celebrity status. His story inspired the 2015 film Je compte sur vous (Thank You For Calling) which was directed by Pascal Elbé and starred Vincent Elbaz. "He's an old-fashioned crook, a semi-crazy guy, but with a strong history,” said Elbé of Chikli. “He has my attention, but not my consideration.”

This was surely one of the most audacious cons in history. Yet Chikli and his co-conspirators had managed to fool some of the most influential people in the world. It will be many years before he has the opportunity to con anyone else again. However, this scam was run by a large team - so one question remains. Are there still people on the outside who were in on it? After all, anyone could still potentially receive a phone call from the fake Jean-Yves Le Drian.