The Grifters: 10 Stories of Scams and Scammers Part 2 of 2
Interview by Haley Cohen Gilliland and Andy Wright
Post From Issue No. 22 Belief
The College Exam Hustler
Rick Paulas, 37 - Writer living in Oakland, California
Taking a test is a lot easier if—with the help of classmates—you can look at the test questions a few hours before actually having to turn it in.
In 2003, I was a senior in my spring semester of college at Michigan State. There was a group of us in an advertising class, and we needed to come up with an advertising campaign as our final exam—I think it was for Kraft Mac & Cheese.
There were five of us in the group, and we didn’t really know each other. But we were just sitting around one night trying to come up with this campaign when one of us mentioned, “Oh, I have this macroeconomics final coming up,” and then another person said, “Oh, *, I do too.” We all realized that we were in the same macroeconomics class—it was one of these 1,000-person classes at the university, with multiple sections—and we would have the same final coming up.
One person said their final was at 3 p.m. that Friday, and another said, “Oh, I have the final at 10 a.m. that morning.” We realized the final had been split up into two sections. Maybe we could figure out a way to get that test beforehand.
The plan came together pretty quickly after that. A few of us would go into the big study hall that would have like 500 people or whatever, and we’d get the 10 a.m. test, fake taking it, and then as people were leaving, we would just leave with the test in our pocket and use it to study for the next few hours.
One of us was stuck actually taking the test at 10:00 a.m., so he was going to be our inside man. When we entered the classroom, he sat down at the front of the auditorium, and me and this gal sat toward the back.
There was a handful of TAs walking around giving tests to everybody. We both sat there and faked filling in answers. We waited it out until about an hour or so, when people started to go down to turn in their test.
At the front of the room the TAs were waiting, and when you turned in the test, they looked at your ID to make sure you were supposed to be taking the test at this time, and they’d scratch off your name. The professor was the only person who was looking out for cheaters. He was toward the front of the room at a desk, and he was barely paying attention.
When it was time for everyone to start turning in their tests, our inside man went to the teacher to distract him. Then me and the other woman used the opportunity to file out with the crowd that had finished the test. We each put the test in our pocket and just walked out.
We had a car idling outside with the other two people. We hopped in and then drove to Kinko’s and made some copies.
During the hour when I was just sitting there, miming taking this test, every time a TA came by I would kind of shuffle in my seat to hide the fact that I was not writing any answers down. That was nerve-racking. And I had to steel myself to get up and leave with the test.
I think the rush of it was really the thing that made it worthwhile. Having to steel yourself was, I think, the reward, in a weird way. I ended up doing super well on the test because, well, I had the test beforehand. I think instead of getting a B+, I got an A instead. The payoff wasn’t huge—it was really about the thrill of exploiting the security flaw.
I think it probably would have been horrible if it had gone wrong, right? Then it would be like, well, this is the stupidest thing that we’ve ever done, because the payoff wasn’t very big. I’m still glad I did it.
The Accidental Scammer
Matt Alston, 35 - Copywriter living in Brooklyn
A car rental company with a few garages spread around New York City, and a one-man customer service operation that involved impersonating different levels of management.
I had just moved to New York with my partner, and I was looking for any job I was reasonably qualified for.
After six weeks of just bar-backing, having no money, and watching my savings deplete, I reached out to an old high school friend who I knew lived here and asked him if he had a job. “I’m about to quit mine,” he said. “I can make sure that you have it next by recommending you.” Then he was like, “It’s a horrible job.
If you need to pay your rent, you should do it for six weeks to get enough money for the next two months, but this job has put me in therapy. It’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to me.”
And of course I said, “Oh, great. I’ll take it.”
The business was a by-the-hour car rental. It operated out of a large loft in Chelsea. It was owned by a man and his wife, who was pregnant, and they fought a lot. It was ostensibly—if you looked it up online—the same size and value and accessibility as Zipcar.
And it operated similarly to one of those businesses, in that you had your credit card or bank account on file, and you just had a little key fob that you went and scanned in the front of the car and it unlocked itself for you, and the keys were under the seat or something.
You were responsible for driving it around and bringing it back. Where this company was different was that it didn’t have a gigantic fleet of thousands or tens of thousands of cars across the country—it had a few, in some garages around town.
What would happen a lot is that people would come down to Chelsea moments after signing up, thinking they could drive a car that day. They’d walk in and it was just me sitting at a desk, scrolling through the internet or putting someone on hold, and the couple fighting in the office with the door open.
And I’d be like, “The cars are in Harlem, or Bay Ridge, or maybe there’s a few in SoHo or something, but it’s in a garage that’s 14 blocks away. Also, I can’t give you a key fob today.”
And they would storm out, upset.
The line between it being a scam and just being a horrible business is blurry. The customer-service apparatus of the entire company, it was just me.
So if you couldn’t get into your car and you called me and I was on the phone with someone else, nothing would happen, or I would put the other person on hold and pick up and talk and then help you. But there was nothing I could do to help a person who was stranded.
The official company policy if you had a flat was to wave down a cab driver and offer them 10 or 20 bucks to change your flat, and then we’d credit your account. Obviously, no one ever did that, and I’m positive we wouldn’t have reimbursed them.
If someone called and had a monster complaint like the car had actually failed, or they had walked really far to a garage and the car they wanted wasn’t there, I was told that the best way to handle this problem was to tell them you were going to go get your manager, put them on hold for a second, and pick up in a higher- or lower-pitched voice. And just start over from scratch.
I never changed my voice, but I definitely was like, “I’ll go get someone who can help you,” and then just picked it back up and acted like I didn’t know what was going on. It works—people don’t know who they’re talking to.
It was extremely easy for me to rationalize a lot of this, because I knew that I was leaving the second I had something else to do. But my absolute final straw was when the owner hinted that we shouldn’t give accounts to people with certain types of names. It amounted to racial profiling.
I didn’t even make the two months’ rent I wanted to. I hope that guy didn’t make any money. I hope he didn’t walk away unscathed. I think he probably did, though.
When I quit, I wrote, “I quit—Matt Alston” on a sheet of paper and put it in an envelope and threw it onto his desk and ran out. I sprinted into the street, like it was the last episode of a TV show.
The Catfish In Love
Aris Apostolopoulos, 29 - Freelance writer and journalist based in London
Catfished a friend he was in love with using an online profile of a woman.
I was a gay man in the closet, growing up in a place where being gay was not that great. At the time I was in Greece, a place that was—I don’t want to say homophobic, but it was.
Still is. And I fell in love with my best friend—my best male friend. We were pretty close, but we were not as close as I wanted us to be. So I created an online profile on Hi5. As a girl.
The name I used was Demitria, the innocent goddess of agriculture and nature. I had downloaded some photos of a girl online, and I Photoshopped them. She was a brunette girl, pretty short. She was just like Scarlett Johansson but a little bit darker, because I knew that my best friend liked Scarlett Johansson.
Before sending him a request, I had to fill in Demitria’s profile so it didn’t look fake. It was a full-time job. I posted YouTube videos and quizzes, which were pretty huge back then. I shared articles, and I made sure that these articles didn’t reflect my own interests, but hers.
I wanted Demitria to be completely different from what I was. I tried to make her as girly as possible. I monitored what my female schoolmates used to post, and I would mimic their profiles. I posted songs, the songs that Europe listened to back then in 2003. “Crazy in Love” was really big then.
I became a fan of Beyoncé through Demitria. And of course, there was always Britney Spears, because I cannot hide my gay nature. Everyone acts straight until a Britney song drops. And the moment I sent the friend request, it all began. It was like a train. I cannot express it. I cannot explain.
You get this feeling of power, this feeling of control—that you can do anything, to be honest. My friend accepted the request and we started talking … and talking, and talking, mostly on MSN Messenger. I felt like I was on cloud nine.
I had a notebook because I couldn’t remember what I had said. So I had my notes. It was like Demitria’s journal: Today I talked with him, and he told me that he wants to meet with me. I told him that I was miles away.
This was the point when I realized that I would have to stop, because I had developed a different personality. This personality affected my real personality. At some point, Demitria took over Aris. I was thinking more like Demitria and less like Aris.
I found an online community, a catfish online community. At first we started like, “Look, I catfish.” And it was like, “Come on in.” Some people made fun of their victims. But eventually we started communicating about why we were catfishing people.
And this is how I stopped feeling alone. This catfish group was the group that helped me stop catfishing—it’s weird, isn’t it?
Eventually, I told my friend. I was so young, and looking back, I am really proud of myself that I did. We met, and I told him. And he was shocked, but at the same time, he laughed because he thought that it was just a joke.
So I got away with it. But at the same time, I wanted to come clean, to say everything because it was a burden. I told him, “I’m in love with you,” and that was when all hell broke loose. He was shocked. He was trying to play cool, but he couldn’t. I cried. I cried a lot. And I deleted my profile, and that was the end of Demitria.
I always knew that we would never end up together. I knew that. But I just wanted to have this fake feeling of being loved by the person I was in love with. Being a catfish doesn’t mean that you don’t have a heart.
The Romance Scam, With A Twist
Donna Andersen, 62 - Founder of Lovefraud.com, living in Atlantic City, New Jersey
Met and married a man who claimed to be a successful businessman. He then began asking for money, up to $250,000, to invest in his various companies.
I met my ex-husband, James, online, although he lived not far from me, about half an hour away. This was back in 1996. He was originally from Australia but was living in my area of New Jersey.
He presented himself as a successful entrepreneur with a history in Hollywood and great business plans; he said that I was not only the woman he had been looking for all his life, but also a great partner in his business. He poured it on really thick, and I fell for it.
I owned a copywriting business. I was 40 years old and had never been married, so I was feeling like I really wanted to find a partner. James presented himself as exactly the type of man I wanted: successful, charismatic, intelligent, and an entrepreneur as well. We corresponded online for three or four weeks and then met in person.
Within a week of us meeting in person, he proposed, and we got married a few months later in 1996. At the time I was swept off my feet, and I thought he was so in love with me that he knew he wanted to be married. I knew of people who found love at first sight. I thought it had happened to me.
No one discouraged me. They knew that I wanted to be married and have a partner. Everyone assumed that I knew what I was doing; I only learned after the fact that people were talking among themselves, but no one said that to me before the marriage.
James moved fast on everything. Within a few weeks of his proposal to me, he asked ... well, how did he put it? He “offered me the opportunity” to invest in his businesses, telling me that it was sure to make a lot of money. It would be good for my portfolio, and if I just gave him $5,000, it would give me a certain percentage of the business. He made it sound like I couldn’t lose.
He never presented it as money for himself. He always wanted me to contribute and help pay the expenses to get these businesses going, so the way it appeared to me was that his business plans weren’t working out. Even as upset as I was about the money, and the debt that I was going into, I would say to myself, What kind of wife leaves her husband because his business plans aren’t working out?
He had three different opportunities that he was pursuing here in Atlantic City. One of them was developing a television station for south Jersey. He was also talking about an electronic theme park for adults here on the Atlantic City boardwalk, and also he wanted to establish a factory that manufactured synthetic decorative materials.
The way he talked about this was that all three of these businesses would support one another and there would be a lot of synergy among them.
Not only was he taking money from me, but he was not responsive when I wanted to talk about it, and he would essentially tell me to just trust him. I would be totally upset about all the money and where it was going, and he just had no sympathy whatsoever.
It wasn’t until after I left him in 1999, after three years of marriage, that I found out about the other women. I called one of them when I realized what he’d been doing. I said, “I’m Donna Andersen. I’m James’s wife. I’d like to recommend you don’t give him any more money.” She told me, “It’s too late. I already gave him $92,000.”
There are warning signs that a relationship is essentially a scam—things like the other person’s charisma and charm, finding a sudden soul mate, the relationship moving quickly, their blaming other people for things, the pity play trying to make you feel sorry for them.
All of those signs were definitely there, but at the time I did not recognize what the signs meant, and neither do most people who get involved in these relationships. I mean, typically, once you learn what to look for, you can look back and say, “Oh, my gosh, everything was there.”
I became best friends with my husband’s mistress—one of them, at least—and the two of us worked together to try and figure out what this man was doing, and to do whatever we could to recover some of our money. But it was still devastating.
I had figured out that he was cheating on me. But then to figure out that the whole thing was a scam? It’s just a body blow. It was awful.
I divorced James in 2000 and wanted to put my life back together and start dating again.
I knew that I would never fall for this again. Some people who get in these situations are so traumatized that they can’t even think about another relationship, but I was able to move forward after working on my recovery.
I’m a journalist by training and I knew, when I got hit with a story like a Mack truck, that I had to write it. In 2001, I met a man and we started dating, and we got married in 2005.
He had offered to fund my writing a book. I said, “Well, I definitely want to do the book, but first I have to do this website.”
So he funded that, and the website lovefraud.com went live in 2005. I write about my experience with sociopaths and narcissists and offer webinars and consultations with clients, so they can recognize and recover from these relationships.
The main thing that I offer clients is validation. People are often so confused by what’s going on, that they just can’t make heads or tails of it. They feel like they’re being abused, although they may not really recognize it as abuse, because the person keeps proclaiming their love. So it’s like, “Well, how come this person loves me, but I feel so terrible?”
If you add up the official numbers of people diagnosed with these disorders—antisocial, narcissistic, borderline and histrionic and psychopathic—it ranges from 6 to 17 percent of the population.
So if we say, on average, 12 percent of people are disordered, that means there are 30 million adult sociopaths in the United States. Nobody talks about it.
The message we get from society is: “Everybody’s created equal and everybody just wants to be loved. We’re all God’s children.” Nobody tells us there are exceptions to this. There are 30 million human predators out there, and the rest of us are just sitting ducks.
The Wendi Deng Murdoch Influencer Scam
Henry Wu, 28, and Zornitsa Shahanska, 32
Editors and cofounders of This Life of Travel, based in San Francisco.
Got a gig taking photos for “Wendi Deng Murdoch” in Jakarta, Indonesia. Somehow, the payments never come through, and more and more “permits” need to be paid upfront.
Henry: We are kind of like travel photographers. We do content creation for a lot of brands and tourism boards. We get emails from people all the time: they want to do a project, and they want to know if we are available, our rates, etc.
So when we got an email from someone claiming to be Wendi Deng Murdoch in November 2018, it wasn’t unheard of. The email was from firstname.lastname@example.org, and it had markings, like “This is confidential,” to make it look legit.
“Wendi” wrote that we were referred to her by Pilar Guzmán, the editor-in-chief of Condé Nast Traveler—we had recently done some photos for the magazine—and that she was looking for some up-and-coming photographers to do a photo exhibit about China for the Winter Olympics in Beijing in 2022. We thought, “Oh, OK. That’s cool.” So we arranged a call to discuss it.
Wendi connected us to her assistant, Aaron, who lives in New York. He had a thick New York accent and played the part really well. When he put us on with Wendi, she sounded like Michelle Yeoh from Crazy Rich Asians.
She gave us a monologue about her childhood in China; it was very inspirational. She explained that the photo project would be about China’s influence in Southeast Asia, and she wanted us to document it.
Zory: They were looking at countries in Southeast Asia with large and historic Chinese communities. We had a couple of calls regarding this project while we were looking at the contract. Really lengthy calls; there was so much detail.
Henry: They were able to chat fluently about random things. Wendi would say, “So where are you from?” I’d respond, “Well, I’m from Texas, and my parents are from Taiwan.”
And then she was like, “Oh, cool,” and we started talking about Taiwan. She knew a lot, so I thought, “Of course it’s Wendi Deng ... she’s probably been to Taiwan; she can talk fluently about things.”
We discussed the conversations with a bunch of our friends in San Francisco, and they said, “She’s probably kind of weird because she’s so rich. So if she acts erratically, that’s probably normal, because rich people are weird.” We figured that’s why she was calling us—because why would she be calling us? On the fifth call, she increased the pressure and said she needed us to go to Jakarta immediately.
Zory: Her sell was, “We need to finish this before the [Christmas] holidays because no one will be working.” This made sense, because we were also working with other brands and everyone was trying to finish everything before the holidays.
Henry: We negotiated the price up, and then we said, “Hey, can you prepay a certain percentage?” Wendi responded: “I’ve worked with famous photographers”—she mentioned some guy who shot for Vogue—“and they just dropped everything to work with me.
Who do you think you are? Thanks for your time. Goodbye.” And we were just like, “Oh, crap.” So we said, “OK, sorry. Fine, we'll book [our own flights]. We won’t take the prepayment; we just want to do this project.” So we booked it.
Then Aaron, the assistant, called me the day of the flight. “By the way, sorry, we forgot to mention we’re going to need to get some photo permits to make sure everything’s legal,” he said. He told us we were going to have to pay it on the ground, from our own pockets. “Don’t worry,” he said. “It’ll all be reimbursed just like the plane tickets and everything else.”
Zory: We arrived in Jakarta, and there was a driver who was waiting for us at the airport with a sign and everything. Oh, OK, there is a driver, we thought. That's a good sign. It's not a complete lie. Because we were kind of joking to ourselves: Is it real? Isn’t it real?
Henry: We took pictures of the driver because we were paranoid. I said, “Oh, I just need a picture to add to my contact list.”
Zory: The driver took us to a four-star hotel, really comfortable. It was paid. We thought, The hotel is paid for us, so that’s OK. And the driver asked us for the permit money, which was about $1,000. We gave it to him, showered, and went to bed.
Henry: In the morning, we got a call from Wendi. She was freaking out. “I don’t know what happened, but the driver’s company, the logistics company, is claiming that you took a picture of him and that it was racist for you to do that,” she said.
“They’re going to cancel the whole thing now. I’m just going to pull the plug on this because I don’t know what’s going on.”
We thought, What the heck is going on? “We'll just apologize to him,” I said. But she went on and on. And we kept apologizing. Finally, she said, “OK, fine. We can probably make this work. You just apologize to him, and I’ll tell my people to do something.” And then she said, “By the way, sorry, there’s another permit fee for the next city I forgot to mention.”
It sounds so scammy now. But it was slick, because we were on the defensive, apologizing. So we said, “Of course. Don’t worry about it.” Then we paid the new fee to the same driver and he took us out shooting.
Zory: The driver took us to all the locations on the schedule—it was a full day of shooting. The last location that we went to was this Chinese neighborhood in Jakarta. As we were working, I noticed this other guy, a German, also taking photos. There were no tourists in the area, and he had a lot of equipment.
I was curious, so I approached him and said, “Tell me about the project you're working on.” He said, “Well, I’m doing this exhibit for the China Olympics.” And I was like, “Oh, really? With Wendi Murdoch?”
And he said, “Yeah.” And I was like, “No way. We’re working on the same thing!” He was super confused. That was a huge, huge, huge red flag. We compared a lot of notes. It was his third or fourth day in Jakarta, and he was telling us about all the things that were going wrong.
Henry: They were driving him around to all the wrong places. By the second or third day, [according to the schedule] they were supposed to fly you to the next city on [Wendi’s] private jet. But there was no private jet. So if you got past day two, they just drove you around in circles. They drove him to the wrong airport.
He was like, “What the hell?” And then they were like, “OK. We’re going to drive you to some random city in the middle of nowhere, and you photograph it.” We decided to keep in touch with the German photographer on WhatsApp.
Later, Aaron called us again and said we didn’t apologize to the driver. “We’re going to cancel the whole thing because you’re being racist,” he said. And I was just like, “I don’t know how an Asian person is racist to another Asian person by taking his picture. It makes no sense.”
Basically, their strategy was to flip out on us, have us apologize, and then if we did apologize, ask for another permit fee. But we weren’t going to apologize again.
So we told him: “Let’s think about canceling this, because I don’t think we can do it.” We still weren’t sure it was a scam or not, actually. We were just thinking, “These people are psycho. We probably can't work with them.”
Aaron threatened us during this call. “You’re in Indonesia on a tourist visa,” he said. “You know how easy it would be for me to call immigration and say you’re there on a job illegally? Do you know what would happen to you?”
We then reached out to the German guy and told him what happened. “Yeah, I’m going to hop on a flight and leave,” he said. “Screw this.’”
Zory: Henry and I started thinking about leaving, too, but we were concerned about the contracts we signed. If we were to cancel ourselves, it would be tricky if the whole fiasco turned out to be real. So we tried to get Wendi to cancel it, which she eventually did.
The morning of the third day, Aaron called and said, “We decided to cancel the project. But because we are really nice people, we’re going to reimburse you for the flight. So please send us invoices.”
Then he asked, “So what are you going to do now? You guys have some extra time in Asia.” Looking back, I know why they did that.
Because when I compared notes with other people who fell for the same scam, if they hadn’t realized that it was a fake project and stayed in Asia, Aaron would approach them in a couple of days or a week, like, “Oh, can you fly back [to Jakarta] and finish the project? We really like your work.” We met people who had returned to Jakarta three times before realizing that it was not a real thing.
Henry: We realized the scope of [the scam] when we later went to a photo shoot in Kuala Lumpur. We saw a bunch of other Instagram photographers there. I recognized one of them, Jordan, and we were chatting and he was like, “What brings you to Kuala Lumpur?” And I said, “I had a photo project in Jakarta.”
And he said, “Oh, what kind of photo project?” And I was like, “You know, something for China.” I was kind of vague. Then he was like, “Oh, Wendi Murdoch?” I was like, “Oh, my God. You too?” That’s why he was there.
Zory: Jordan’s really big—his following is around 400,000 on Instagram. The scam targeted people with followings of all sizes and focused mostly on people who create on Instagram. [Henry has over 89,900 followers on Instagram, and Zory has over 91,700.]
A lot of the photographers have worked with Condé Nast Traveler, too. I don’t know if they used that to search for their victims, but there are a lot of us who are connected to CN Traveler.
In the end, we gave the scammers about $1,800. Some other people paid three or four permits, or they went back. Our plane tickets ended up being about $4,500. So our total spend was around $7,000.
Henry: We have a rule now: we’re not going to accept people pressuring us. And if they don’t prepay for projects, that’s also a red flag. I overlooked a lot of stuff because they used Wendi Deng Murdoch’s name.
I couldn’t find the lawyer in her contract, but I thought: “Oh, she’s rich, she’s somehow hiding it.” I couldn’t find the name of the assistant, but I thought, “Oh, she’s megarich. She’s hiding his name.”
I did research on the domain wendimurdoch.com, but I overlooked the registration date, which was October 2018—so the domain was very recent. We overlooked most stuff because we thought she was just an eccentric billionaire, and that’s why the situation was so weird.
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