It’s a Friday morning inside a Philippines call centre on the eastern outskirts of Metro Manila, and dozens of staff are calling Australians.
This call centre is allegedly linked to sophisticated multi-million-dollar scams that have targeted Australians for their retirement nest eggs.
The ABC’s 7.30 program can reveal details of one scam that “cloned” or misused real details without permission from a company controlled by financial giant AMP.
Victims say the cloning and other deceptive tactics made the scam appear like a legitimate financial advice firm that was regulated in Australia.
The scam has triggered multiple ongoing investigations in Australia, with corporate watchdog ASIC confirming “some are at an advanced stage”.
Inside the Manila call centre, staff are seated close together in rows.
Wearing headsets, they read detailed scripts to gather sensitive information about the lifestyles, spending patterns and interest in investing of people thousands of kilometres away.
The phone operators are about to get a rude shock.
The Philippine National Police Anti-Cybercrime Group is ready to raid the call centre.
There to observe the raid is Australian cyber-crime investigator Ken Gamble. He travelled to Manila on behalf of Australian victims, who hired him to track down the people allegedly involved in the elaborate scams.
“We’re alleging that this operation is part of a big scam … and they are stealing the superannuation off Australian victims,” Mr Gamble said.
“We’ve come here today to observe the anti-cybercrime group conducting a lawful search warrant on the premises.”
Armed officers burst into the call centre and tell the workers to put their hands up.
Mr Gamble begins speaking to staff, who answer questions about what they’re doing.
They were pretending to be calling from Australia, according to Mr Gamble.
“They were purporting to be from Melbourne, we saw scripts up on the screen,” he said.
“I actually got to talk to one of the agents and he took me right through the script from the start to the end, and explained to me the process of how they talk to Australians and how they get them to give information up about their superannuation.”
Do you know more about this story?
Email [email protected] or contact him via the Signal secure messaging app +61 447 279 901.
Scammers ‘very, very good’
The raid was triggered by Ken Gamble’s firm IFW Global lodging a criminal complaint in the Philippines on behalf of six Australian victims.
They claim to have lost $3.3 million in two scams that targeted superannuation and are allegedly linked to the call centre in the Philippines.
Mr Gamble claims the call centre is the starting point and the information gathered here is passed on to another group.
He says Australians will then be contacted by a group of westerners who are fake financial planners.
“They have intricate knowledge of how self-managed super funds are set up and they’ve had a lot of experience in scamming people in this particular area,” Mr Gamble said.
“So they become very, very good at it and they’re able to put all the bells and whistles onto the scam to make it look legitimate.”
‘I couldn’t believe it’
In May last year, Queensland builder Rob Wade received a phone call from a number with a New South Wales area code.
When he answered, there was an Australian man claiming to be from a company called Australian Securities Administration Limited (ASAL) Group.
“[He] sounded Aussie to me,” Mr Wade said.
Mr Wade ended up having extensive dealings with the Australian and another man who had detailed knowledge of the superannuation industry.
“There was two guys, I was dealing with Justin and Justin was basically talking us into it, and then Michael was the fella who was the financial guy.”
Mr Wade said the two men gave a slick pitch about using a self-managed super fund.
Mr Wade already had a self-managed super fund and was looking for better returns.
The men claimed they used a high-performing product with US multinational Morgan Stanley.
“It looked fairly interesting. He sort of let me sort of sit on it for a couple of days, so there was never any pressure about it,” Mr Wade said.
Over the next five days Mr Wade checked key details, like the Australian Business Number (ABN) and Australian Financial Services (AFS) licence, searching to see if ASAL Group was a scam.
He decided to transfer almost $200,000 to ASAL Group.
“When I actually got the bank account details, which we had to transfer the money into, I thought it was an Australian bank, ANZ. It can’t be a scam,” Mr Wade told 7.30.
“They actually supplied me with an app, and you can see everything on the app, what was going on, showed me what the money was doing.”
Six weeks later, Mr Wade’s stomach dropped when he was told by his daughter Rebecca he might have been scammed.
“Felt a bit sick to be honest. I couldn’t believe it,” he said.
Rebecca Wade had also been considering using ASAL Group and had provided some personal details, but hadn’t shifted her super.
She said the scammers then forged a rollover form for her, which was picked up by her super fund AMP.
“I had a call from AMP … and they had received a form to roll over my super fund,” she said.
“I thought, ‘oh, I’m pretty sure that I haven’t done that but, let me just double check.’
“I physically felt ill, just knowing that, you know, my super fund luckily had been stopped … but my parents’ entire super fund had been taken.”
Ms Wade has been helping her father contact financial institutions, law enforcement and government agencies after he was scammed.
She said it was a difficult experience and that she believes the way those bodies deal with scam victims needs dramatic improvement.
“It’s probably the first time that I’ve just felt so deflated and down, like nobody wants to help, nobody is taking any sort of accountability,” she said.
How the scam worked
ASAL Group used a flashy website, which has now been taken off the internet, to convince victims to part with their superannuation.
ASAL Group’s company name was “cloned”, with real details taken from a business owned by AMP.
The website, which AMP says was a fake, claimed ASAL Group has been offering “expert financial advice to Australians since 1985 with decades-long success”, and had a core team of 60 people.
AMP issued an urgent security alert to the public within 24 hours of the fake site being identified in June last year, an AMP spokesperson said, but it was too late for some.
“They will just clone the name and clone the credentials and they will set up a website, make it look just like the real one,” Mr Gamble said.
“They will then tell the victim to actually go ahead and check them out.”
Part of the pitch was using a self-managed super fund to invest in high-performing funds, including a product with Morgan Stanley.
Detailed information about the product was on the ASAL Group website.
Morgan Stanley told the ABC it was “not aware of this alleged scam prior to receipt of ABC’s email”.
“Morgan Stanley has not authorised Australian Securities Administration Limited to promote and sell such fund to customers,” a spokesperson said.
‘I was scammed by some very, very, very clever people’
Louie Rinaldi’s retirement plans are in tatters after he lost several hundred thousand dollars to the scam.
The IT professional said he did his own detailed checks and that he still found it difficult to accept what happened.
He said he has had “many a sleepless night” over it.
“I thought I had my retirement mapped out pretty well,” he said.
“Some people could say it was my fault. I openly sent that money.
“But I was obviously scammed and I was scammed by some very, very, very clever people that have a lot of resources behind them.”
Mr Rinaldi paid the money into the same ANZ account that Rob Wade used and he believes the bank owes him and other victims an explanation.
He said a detective with Victoria Police told him the money was quickly moved.
“He informed me that the funds within the ANZ account had all been sent overseas, either overseas or in crypto, and he informed me that [it] happened within 24 hours,” Mr Rinaldi said.
“Ideally, ANZ would be able to refund me everything I’ve put in there, because as far as I’m concerned ANZ dropped the ball.”
In a statement, ANZ said it reported the matter to Victoria Police after becoming aware of the ASAL scam and couldn’t comment further.
Call centre investigation continues
After the call centre raid, Philippines police raided the Metro Manila home of a British man allegedly involved in running the call centre.
Authorities are continuing to investigate whether he has links to the scams targeting Australians.
No charges have been laid against him or 30 other people as authorities continue to comb through the contents of seized computers.
“If he’s charged with cyber fraud-related offences, which we hope he will be, depending on the evidence, once the forensic examination is completed we hope to find evidence that may implicate him in our clients’ frauds,” Mr Gamble said.
“Those offences carry between six to 12 years in prison.”
Lieutenant Colonel Jay Guillermo, the officer in charge of the Philippine National Police cyber response unit, said call centres operating scams would “destroy the image of the Philippines”.
“The good thing about this case is there is a complainant,” he said.
“We are receiving reports that there are a lot of cases involving investment scams in the Philippines, but it is very hard for us to investigate if there are no complainants, especially coming from foreign countries.
“If there are no victims we cannot investigate it.”
An AMP spokesperson said: “We are sorry to hear the experience of people who fell victim to this scam.”
“Of the five AMP customers that fell victim to the scam, AMP was able to recover or reimburse funds for all but one,” they said.
“In instances where people are concerned they may have been scammed, it is critical to contact their financial institution as quickly as possible to increase the chances of funds being recovered.”
An Australian Federal Police spokesperson told 7.30 the AFP searched three premises in Melbourne in August 2021 in relation to ASIC’s investigation into the matter.
The spokesperson said a number of “items were seized during the searches” and the investigation “remains with ASIC”.
ASIC’s deputy chair Sarah Court confirmed investigations were continuing.
“These matters are a powerful reminder that Australians need to treat contact by any third parties in relation to their investment and superannuation with the maximum caution,” she said.
“Financial scams are becoming more frequent and increasingly sophisticated with the use of company impersonation and leverage of access to some personal details to gain trust — all of which contribute to enhancing the appearance of legitimacy,” she said.”
Watch 7.30, Mondays to Thursdays 7.30pm on ABC iview and ABC TV