The woman who conned Hol­ly­wood

The anony­mous trick­ster who per­suaded count­less in­dus­try hope­fuls to hand over their cash is a lead­ing player in a new breed of fe­male fraud­ster.

Irish Daily Mail - YOU - - SPECIAL REPORT - Ju­lia Llewellyn Smith re­ports

Ben Sim­mons was fresh out of the British Army with two tours of Afghanistan be­hind him when he de­cided to launch his new busi­ness Bare Arms, ad­vis­ing the film and tele­vi­sion in­dus­try about mil­i­tary is­sues, such as how to use weapons re­al­is­ti­cally on screen.

A for­mer ma­jor, Ben, 34, was de­lighted to re­ceive a call in Jan­uary last year from a woman who in­tro­duced her­self as Sarah Brad­shaw, a film pro­ducer for well-known films such as Malef­i­cent and The Mummy (the lat­ter of which Ben’s com­pany had also worked on).

Brad­shaw said she’d rec­om­mended Ben to work on a Chi­nese film, star­ring Zac Efron and Priyanka Cho­pra. ‘From the way she talked she clearly knew a lot about the film in­dus­try and how it func­tions,’ says Ben, whose team also ad­vised on the hit BBC show Body­guard. ‘I had no rea­son to doubt her.’

That same af­ter­noon an­other woman, called Cather­ine Lam, fol­lowed up the con­ver­sa­tion in an email, ask­ing Ben to travel the fol­low­ing week to In­done­sia and Hong Kong to carry out a se­ries of as­sess­ments, for the hefty fee of €335,000. Ben duly flew off.

But just two weeks later, he found him­self in a ho­tel room in Jakarta, the In­done­sian cap­i­tal, hav­ing been conned out of around €7,000 by pay­ing up­front for travel ex­penses that he was promised would be re­im­bursed but never ma­te­ri­alised.

He was just the lat­est vic­tim of the scam­mer dubbed ‘the con queen of Hol­ly­wood’. The fraud­ster’s true iden­tity is a mys­tery, but one the­ory is that she might pos­si­bly have links to the British beauty in­dus­try, since she ini­tially tar­geted hair­styl­ists and make-up artists. Over the past two years she has im­per­son­ated var­i­ous fe­male film moguls, per­suad­ing hun­dreds of en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try work­ers to travel to In­done­sia on the prom­ise of lu­cra­tive work.

‘My world pretty much col­lapsed,’ says Ben, who is based in Lon­don. ‘To lose €7,000 and then to be stuck on the other side of the world with no one to turn to was hor­ri­ble. I just felt so stupid to have fallen for it, and it took me a long time to get over that feel­ing of em­bar­rass­ment.’

The Hol­ly­wood con artist was just one of a new breed of fe­male swindler, us­ing the stereo­typ­i­cal qual­i­ties as­so­ci­ated with women – such as vul­ner­a­bil­ity, trust­wor­thi­ness and kind­ness – to gain strangers’ con­fi­dence…and their money. And in this new dig­i­tal world, in which peo­ple’s lives, bank ac­counts and pass­words are there for the tak­ing (after a lit­tle per­sua­sion, of course), women ap­pear to be get­ting the edge over men.

The past sev­eral months have pro­duced such a rash of head­lines about fe­male fraud­sters that one web­site even chris­tened it the ‘sum­mer of scam’. So what’s changed? ‘There have al­ways been women con artists, but we rarely hear about them be­cause they’re so good they never get caught,’ says Maria Kon­nikova, author of The Con­fi­dence Game: Why We Fall For It… Ev­ery Time. ‘But re­cently we’ve been hear­ing a lot more about them be­cause the bar­ri­ers to be­ing a con artist are sud­denly much lower. In the old days, you had to tease peo­ple for one or two months to lure them into the con; these days scam­mers just go on Face­book, In­sta­gram or Twit­ter and, voilà, they have all the in­for­ma­tion they need to bait their tar­get.’

In the Hol­ly­wood con artist’s case, it took only the most cur­sory Google searches for her to se­lect her vic­tims: peo­ple so ea­ger for their big break that many agreed to her terms with­out ques­tion. It was also child’s play for the fraud­ster to study on­line footage of prom­i­nent Hol­ly­wood women such as Brad­shaw, as well as Lu­cas­film pres­i­dent Kath­leen Kennedy and for­mer Sony Pic­tures chief Amy Pas­cal, and – to their sub­se­quent hor­ror – im­per­son­ate them.

‘There are in­ter­views and videos of them speak­ing on sites such as YouTube, so it’s easy for a good mimic,’ says Snežana Ge­bauer of K2 In­tel­li­gence, a cor­po­rate in­ves­ti­ga­tions firm with of­fices in Europe and the US which is look­ing into the scam on be­half of sev­eral vic­tims. Even if the ul­ti­mate brains be­hind the Hol­ly­wood scam turns out to be a man, the fraud­ster de­lib­er­ately chose to im­per­son­ate women, rather than one of the many male movie hon­chos. ‘A woman of­ten just gives some­thing a lit­tle bit more cred­i­bil­ity and it’s hu­man na­ture to trust a fe­male be­cause they gen­er­ally pose less threat than men,’ she ex­plains.

‘The qual­i­ties that make a good con artist, such as stay­ing quiet and learn­ing to read all sorts of sig­nals about a vic­tim, are qual­i­ties that women tend to pos­sess more than men be­cause we live in a male-dom­i­nated so­ci­ety and men don’t have to be so good at read­ing so­cial cues to suc­ceed,’ ex­plains Kon­nikova. ‘Women also know how to come across as need­ing help and that’s one thing con artists of­ten ex­ploit. They know peo­ple want to see them­selves as good hu­man be­ings so much that they’ll take things a seem­ingly frag­ile woman says at face value, rather than ques­tion if they’re ac­tu­ally le­git­i­mate.’

In an­other high-pro­file case that could have come straight out of the movies, ‘Anna Delvey’ posed as a mys­te­ri­ous Eu­ro­pean heiress and charmed her way to the cen­tre of the New York so­cial scene – clad in de­signer clothes and splash­ing the cash on friends and hang­ers-on. The re­al­ity, how­ever, was that there was no fam­ily for­tune and she now stands ac­cused of al­legedly fal­si­fy­ing doc­u­ments from in­ter­na­tional banks show­ing ac­counts abroad with a to­tal bal­ance of around €55 mil­lion in a bid to pro­cure loans. She is cur­rently on re­mand in jail after plead­ing not guilty to mul­ti­ple charges (see box, op­po­site).

‘What’s in­ter­est­ing about Delvey is that she never made any prof­its out of her scam; she was al­ways broke,’ says Kon­nikova. ‘That’s very typ­i­cal of con artists – most of them are liv­ing

be­yond their means. For them it is al­ways much more about power than money, for the con­trol it gives them over other peo­ple, the feel­ing: “I am in charge here and cre­at­ing your re­al­ity.”’

That cer­tainly seems to be the case with the Hol­ly­wood con woman and her ac­com­plices, whose as­ton­ish­ingly elab­o­rate ruses could only have net­ted at most a few thou­sand euro each time (though the vic­tims, who’d also paid for busi­ness-class air­fares they’d been promised would be re­im­bursed, of­ten lost as much as €45,000.) ‘The ef­fort she was go­ing to was ex­tra­or­di­nary; you can’t un­der­stand how it could be worth it,’ says Ben.

‘Ini­tially my of­fice had been sus­pi­cious; we looked at the risk but we thought: “There’s not enough in it for her,” so went ahead.’

Vic­tim after vic­tim – in­clud­ing ac­tors, hair­styl­ists, make-up artists, stunt peo­ple and se­cu­rity per­son­nel – tells how the Hol­ly­wood con woman, rather than be­ing purely in it for the cash, seemed to en­joy psy­cho­log­i­cally and emo­tion­ally ma­nip­u­lat­ing them. She would talk to men for hours at a time, for weeks on end in the mid­dle of the night, scream­ing at those who com­plained of ex­haus­tion: ‘In Hol­ly­wood, we don’t get tired.’

With male vic­tims, she was of­ten flir­ta­tious. ‘She would call me at night and say, “If we’re go­ing to be pro­ducer and di­rec­tor, what are we go­ing to do when I see you?” It was like she was try­ing to have this weird phone sex with me,’ re­called Mike Smith, a US-based for­mer stunt­man, hop­ing to move into di­rect­ing, who was of­fered the ap­par­ent chance to di­rect a big-bud­get film. After nearly 50 phone calls, some­times tak­ing place as of­ten as four times a day, the woman even­tu­ally backed off, be­cause Smith re­fused to pay up­front for travel.

What dev­as­tates many vic­tims – even more than los­ing their money – is be­ing de­prived of what they thought was the ca­reer chance of a life­time. ‘It’s heart­break­ing,’ Mandi Martin from the Mil­ton Agency, which rep­re­sents some of the world’s top make-up artists, has said. ‘The money is the con, but in terms of a shat­tered dream it’s just tragic.’ Martin was ap­proached by the Hol­ly­wood con queen to send her clients abroad, but re­fused after be­com­ing sus­pi­cious.

Not only are vic­tims’ ca­reer hopes de­stroyed, their con­fi­dence is also of­ten shat­tered. ‘Peo­ple think they have a spe­cial re­la­tion­ship with a high-rank­ing in­di­vid­ual who says “I rate you, I want to take you away and join my world” and then it all comes crash­ing down,’ says Ni­co­letta Kot­sianas, also of K2 In­tel­li­gence. ‘A lot of peo­ple suf­fer long-term psy­cho­log­i­cal ef­fects from that – they are emo­tion­ally trau­ma­tised.’

Fraud­sters know that their vic­tims have lit­tle le­gal re­course, with the po­lice of­ten say­ing that the sums stolen are too small to war­rant an in­ter­na­tional in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Ben even­tu­ally re­alised he’d been duped when he was asked to travel on to Hong Kong where he would need to pay ‘a few thou­sand’ for a he­li­copter flight to recce an is­land. ‘I have a mil­i­tary back­ground, I know how far he­li­copters can fly and this was well out of range.’

He called the woman he thought was Sarah Brad­shaw on the pri­vate num­ber she had given him to warn her that her In­done­sian em­ploy­ees ‘are not who they say they are’. She fobbed him off so dis­mis­sively that – on alert – he called her back, but this time on an of­fice num­ber that he’d found on­line. ‘They called me back and

said [the real] Sarah Brad­shaw knew noth­ing about this what­so­ever,’ he says.

Ben re­ported his sit­u­a­tion to the In­done­sian po­lice but was told he would have to stay in the coun­try at least six weeks for them to take things fur­ther. ‘I just wanted to get out of there as quickly as pos­si­ble,’ he says. ‘I didn’t have the will to stay a se­cond longer.’

Other vic­tims are too hu­mil­i­ated to own up to be­ing duped. ‘There are no good sta­tis­tics on con artists and there never will be be­cause many vic­tims are too em­bar­rassed to re­port it and sim­ply refuse to be­lieve they could have been swin­dled,’ says Kon­nikova. ‘And when they’ve been swin­dled by a woman that’s even more likely.’

The les­son for ev­ery­one, say in­ves­ti­ga­tors, is to re­mem­ber that fraud­sters are ex­pert at ma­nip­u­lat­ing our emo­tions, and to be sus­pi­cious of any out-of-the-blue com­mu­ni­ca­tion bring­ing amaz­ing news. ‘Trust your gut,’ says Kot­sianas, adding that the Hol­ly­wood con woman ap­pears to have now moved on to im­per­son­at­ing wealthy New York busi­ness­women, whose names re­main un­der wraps while the in­ves­ti­ga­tion is on­go­ing.

‘In the case of the Hol­ly­wood con, so many vic­tims have told us: “Some­thing seemed a bit off, but I wanted to be­lieve it, so I did.” But if some­thing seems too good to be true, it prob­a­bly is.’

Ben Sim­mons, above, and, left, dur­ing his Army days, was scammed by the Hol­ly­wood con queen

The FBI and the New York Po­lice De­part­ment have opened in­ves­ti­ga­tions into the no­to­ri­ous ‘Con Queen’ who has swin­dled thou­sands of dol­lars

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