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My High-Flying Life as a Corporate Spy Who Lied His Way to the Top
Phone to my ear, I listen to it ring the way a stage actor, surging with adrenaline, counts the final seconds to his cue. Eyes closed, I breathe in sync with it.
A woman picks up on the fourth ring. I recognize the voice and feel the tension in my knuckles relax a bit. My eyes pop open and I hit my mark.
“Hey, Zoe, it’s Kevin in compliance.”
“Hi, Kev,” she says.
“How you doin’?” I ask, my Philly accent like a fist tapping at the window.
“The cancer is back.”
It pains me to hear this. I’ve been calling Zoe for more than a decade, and she’s never been anything less than incredibly helpful. I count on her to help me do my job and do it well. Though we’ve never met, I like her and feel like we know each other. I hate the idea of her getting sick and leaving the company, one of the largest financial institutions in the world. Among other things, it means my work will get much more challenging.
I need her to look up the name, title and cell phone number for a high-level executive at the bank, plus the names and numbers of everyone who reports to him. I’m in kind of a hurry, but I’m not an asshole. I need to hear about her illness first.
“I’m sorry to hear that, Zoe. What’s the situation?”
“It’s not good,” she says.
I can tell she is going to say something else, and I’m pretty sure I know what it is. She’s going to share with me how much time she has left. I can hear it in her pauses. After so many years working the phone, I’ve learned to pick out the nuances, the things being said behind what’s being said, entire life stories even, in a hesitation or vocal inflection, in blank moments in time.
“Hey, I had a friend who was down for the count, and he’s still around five years later,” I say. “They’re coming up with new treatments every day. You’ve just got to stick around, and they’ll find something.”
“I’m on a new chemical now.”
“See? Don’t you worry. You and I will be having these chats for years to come.”
I mean it. She knows I do. I can hear it in the whisper of a smile on the other end of the line.
A few years ago, after she got divorced, Zoe tried to initiate a little flirtation. I was game. Among other things, that kind of rapport would help grease the wheels when I needed help with something.
“Are you single?” she’d asked.
“I am at the moment.”
“Do you ever visit Dallas?”
“No,” I said. “Working in compliance, I only get to travel to state capitals to meet with regulators. Austin is as close as I get.”
“My daughter has a softball tournament in Austin this weekend. Are you going to still be there Friday? You could stay on. It would be fun to finally meet you.”
“I wish. But I’m out of here tonight as soon as we file these docs, then on to the next capital for more of the same.”
“Darn it,” she said. “Maybe next time.”
Zoe didn’t stay single long. Once she remarried, our chats focused on my miserable, lonely days traveling around trying to please uptight state regulators. Zoe often reminds me that my life shouldn’t all be about work.
“I hope I’ll be around long enough to see you getting out there more,” she says.
“You and me both,” I respond, and my tone cues her that we need to get to the real purpose of my call.
“What do you need, Kev?”
I sigh and give her the name of a senior executive. I need to know his entire organization from top to bottom, every name all the way down to the junior analyst level, plus each individual’s location and cell phone number. Zoe knows I’m off-site and don’t have access to any of this information at the moment.
“Wow,” she says as she pulls up the name on the bank’s internal database. “He has over 200 people in his group. This is going to take forever.”
Zoe reads me all the names and titles. She gives me precise descriptions of what each team does and offers each individual’s cell number and physical location. My hand cramps as I scribble everything down. By the time she finishes, more than an hour has passed. I thank her earnestly.
“I’ve gotta take a break after that,” Zoe says. “I’m exhausted.”
“You deserve one,” I say.
Zoe knows that what I do is critical for our multibillion-dollar company to continue doing what it does, so she provides what I ask of her, over and over, year after year, even though it has absolutely nothing to do with her job. Even though it eats up hours of her time. Even though she is not authorized to give me any of that information.
And, most important, even though every single thing she knows about me, and everything I’ve ever told her, is a lie.
My name is not Kevin, and I don’t work in compliance.
I am not an employee of Zoe’s company, let alone an executive.
I’ve never met a state regulator, uptight or otherwise.
I am not sitting in an antiseptic office in a blocky municipal building in Austin. I’ve got my feet up on my desk in the converted toolshed that is my home office in Malibu. Shirtless, in board shorts and flip-flops, I gaze out at the Pacific and breathe in its familiar salty musk while I casually manipulate her.
I am not single. My wife’s in the house doing yoga.
My friend who survived cancer? That actually is true. Every good liar knows you need to throw in one big truth to anchor the rest of the bullshit.
But all that internal data about reporting structures and titles and top earners? One of the largest executive search firms in the world has secretly hired me to steal it. And those private cell phone numbers? My client is going to target the bank’s best moneymakers and try to poach them, securing their meaty portfolios as well. It’s late 2006, and Wall Street is bursting — year-end bonuses are projected to be 10 to 25 percent higher than last year’s, netting the top bankers and traders as much as $40 million apiece.
All of which is to say, this seemingly innocuous phone call is taking place in a capitalist ecosystem defined by outrageous, unchecked excess and, yes, rampant deception. The world of corporate spying is shady but lucrative, and I am one of the best.
Zoe’s intelligence alone has netted me hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees over the years.
“Anything else, Kev?” she says.
“Nope,” I say, “that’s everything. Thanks again. Go take that break, yeah? You’ve earned it.”
“Ain’t that the truth,” she says.
We chuckle and hang up.
The truth. Funny.
It was the late 1980s and I’d finally worked up the courage to move to New York City to become an actor, dashing my father’s dreams for me to take over the family car business. Yes, I am the child of a car salesman but it goes way deeper than that. My great-grandfather sold horse carriages before cars were invented, then switched over to become one of Philadelphia’s first automobile dealers. My grandfather had taken over that dealership and my father had taken it over from him. Now it was supposed to be my turn but I found that the trickery of car sales didn’t feel right to me, which soon turned out to be pretty damn ironic.
My college roommate’s brother, Paxton “Pax” Freed, lived in Manhattan and had offered to show me around the city. A 5-foot-6 actor-musician with a mop of wavy brown hair, he was always clad in a black leather jacket like a mini Springsteen. One day, Pax mentioned his new phone job. He got me an interview with his boss, Leona, and I made my way to the Upper East Side, a section of the city I’d never visited.
Leona seemed old to me, though she couldn’t have been much more than 40. She wore leopard-print pants, a brightly colored blouse with matching silk scarf, gaudy gold jewelry and too much makeup, reminding me of Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate. I was playing it safe, wearing a suit and tie and carrying a briefcase with my résumé in it. I’m not sure what she was expecting, but she eyed me as if my leading-man looks had made a good first impression.
“Nice outfit,” she said. “You look like you should be selling cars.”
“Actually, I did sell cars,” I said, a little clumsily. “For my dad’s dealership.”
“I’m teasing you. Pax told me.”
She ushered me inside the cleanest apartment I’d ever seen. Everything seemed to be in perfect order, as well as white. On top of the wall-to-wall carpeting was some type of fur rug (polar bear, I would later learn). Whatever her business was, it was lucrative.
“I didn’t think you’d be so . . . tall.” Leona gestured for me to sit in a white, padded chair in the center of the rug. I prayed I hadn’t stepped in any dog doo on my trek from the subway.
“Pax tells me you left working for your dad to be an actor.”
“How did he take that?”
I was a bit flummoxed by the question. “Uh, not well,” I finally said.
“Why do you want to be an actor?” she asked.
I launched into a rambling monologue about how I’d started acting at the University of Pennsylvania and was cast as the lead in play after play. I explained the first few breaks were what gave me the guts to move to New York.
“It’s a hard life,” Leona said. “Hard to make a living. Hard to keep it going. That’s what your dad is worried about.”
“I can take care of myself.”
Leona sighed. “I have no doubt.” She stood and offered her hand to bid me goodbye.
She hadn’t even asked for my résumé, which I’d forgotten to pull out. Just like that, the Upper East Side fantasia spit me right back out onto the dirty streets of downtown, as unemployed as ever. It was time to pick up a crate of Kraft macaroni and cheese.
Pax called the next day. He said Leona was hiring me at the rate of $8 an hour, and I was to start training immediately. I couldn’t believe it. Coo-coo-ca-choo, Leona.
“She hires everyone,” he quickly clarified. “Because nobody works out.”
It was only then I realized that Leona hadn’t asked about my phone skills or sales skills — or any skills, really. She’d also not said a word about what the job actually entailed.
The following day I made my way to the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn to work with Leona’s trainer, Deirdre. In the late ’80s, Brooklyn was the antithesis of the Upper East Side. The crack epidemic was hitting hard. The subway train I took over the Williamsburg Bridge was still covered in ’70s graffiti. I found the building I was looking for and trudged sweatily up four flights of stairs. Along the way, I heard yelling and screaming from inside more than one apartment. I knocked on the door of 4C and a cute young woman with striking green eyes opened it. She was wearing a flowing and flowery Laura Ashley-type dress.
“Top o’ the morning,” she said with a bright smile. “I’m Deirdre O’Conor. That’s with one n, not two, the way true Irish people spell it.”
“I didn’t know.”
“I’m American but Irish on both sides. What about you? Are you Irish?”
“Not at all?” She seemed concerned, as if she might not be able to train me if I didn’t have some Irish blood.
“I’m part Welsh.”
“Oh,” she said, suddenly happy again. “I love the Welsh. They’re almost as nice as the Irish.”
She laughed and showed me into her apartment, which consisted of two rooms: a bedroom and a living room with a bathtub in the middle of it.
“You’ll work in my bedroom,” she said. “Come on.”
Her bedroom. What kind of work was she going to have me doing?
Deirdre set me up at a small desk in front of her bed, which was just a mattress on the floor. She pulled up a chair next to me and handed me a writing pad.
“First, you’ll need a name.”
“For your ploy. You can’t use your real name. What happens when you get famous?” Deirdre said this as if it were a given.
“I need a fake name for phone sales?”
“We’re not doing sales. Didn’t Pax tell you that?”
Pax hadn’t told me anything, as if he was afraid to tell people what he did for a living.
“We get non-public information from Wall Street companies.”
“What kind of information?”
“Their org charts, for starters.”
I had no idea what these were. I guess it was obvious by the look on my face.
“Their organizational charts,” she said slowly, as if I were developmentally disabled. “You know: Who reports to whom?” Deirdre pulled a giant red book from a cabinet and flipped it open. “Like this.”
It was some sort of directory. At the top of each page was the name of a bank or financial institution and beneath was a list of the executives working at that company, along with their titles.
“We get information like this for Leona’s executive search firm clients. Their headhunters use our charts to identify the best people and steal them away to their clients.”
“Why do they need us when they have directories like this?” I pointed at the massive book, which had to be more than a thousand pages.
She scoffed. “This is worthless. It’s out of date the second they print it. Half of these executives are gone or in different roles. Wall Street is ultra-competitive. People are constantly moving around to better jobs, often thanks to us. But it’s a good starting point, which is why Leona buys it. We use these names as leads to help get us what we want.”
“I’ll show you.” She grabbed my pad and elbowed me out of my chair. “Always write your name down, so you don’t forget who you are.” She wrote Maeve on the side of a page, picked up the phone, pushed the speaker button, and dialed a number listed in the directory.
“Shearson Lehman,” an operator answered.
“Hello, how is your day going?” Deirdre-as-Maeve asked. She seemed to have put on a slight Irish accent.
“It’s fine. How can I help you?”
“I’m an exchange student from Ireland writing a paper. You haven’t been there, have you?”
“No, I haven’t, but I’d like to go. My ancestors were from Ireland.”
Deirdre looked at me and raised her eyebrows.
“You must come and visit. I live in Galway. Ask for Maeve O’Shea.”
The operator laughed. Her brusque, business-like tone from the beginning of the call had disappeared. “How can I help you, Maeve?”
“Do you have a Ken Monahan listed?” Dierdre pointed at a name on one of the pages in the directory to clue me in as to what she was doing.
There was a brief pause as the operator looked up the name.
“I do. He’s in investment banking.”
“Can you see which department within investment banking?”
“He’s the head of mergers and acquisitions.”
“Oh golly, that’s what I’m writing my paper on. Can you see the list of the people in that department?”
“I can. It’s very long.”
“Can you read it to me? Please? I’m sending out a survey, and if I don’t get enough responses my paper won’t count. It’s part of my citizenship application.”
Her story sounded kooky as well as unbelievable, but sure enough the operator began to read off the names. Deirdre got up and handed me her pen, mouthing write. I scribbled down every name, filling seven or eight pages with my sloppy writing, while Deirdre flitted about her bedroom straightening up.
“That was the last one,” the operator said after Xavier Zoydius, or whatever name came last on her alphabetical list.
Deirdre returned to the desk and leaned over my shoulder. She smelled great and reminded me of the commercials for Irish Spring soap. “I almost forgot,” she said. “Does your directory list titles?”
“Can you zip through them real fast? This is the last thing.”
I noticed Deirdre had dropped her accent. I wondered if I should warn her.
The operator ran through the list again, this time giving me titles: managing directors and VPs, associates and analysts. I barely understood what they meant.
When the operator finished, Deirdre popped back to her position over my shoulder.
“I’m so sorry, but I need phone numbers, too. I promise, this is it.”
“You said that already.”
“I know, but I promise this time.”
The operator gave me the direct phone extensions for every name on the list.
“Thank you, operator. What was your name?”
“A good Irish name,” Deirdre said.
“I’m not supposed to do that, you know.”
“I know, thank you. We Irish have to stick together. Have a great day!”
Deirdre disconnected the call and did a jig, complete with Irish step dancing.
“That’s amazing,” I said.
“Pretty impressive, huh? This information is worth a lot of money.”
“No, what’s amazing is that she was stupid enough to give you all that. Why? Because you’re a student? Oh wait, because you’re an Irish student? With all due respect, your accent was going in and out the whole time. I don’t know how she didn’t notice.”
Deirdre stopped dancing. “She helped me because the Irish are kind, something the Welsh clearly are not.”
“I’m not trying to be mean. It just doesn’t make sense your story worked. You got lucky the operator was Irish.”
Deirdre shook her head, as if I’d failed my first test. “Learn this, smarty-pants. The operator is your best friend. I ask every single one if they’re Irish. You have no idea how many of them are. Irish immigrants pretty much built this city — that’s why they’re more than willing to help a young Irish girl new to New York. I always look for Irish names when I call people. By the way, once someone starts giving information, they rarely stop. They’re not listening to your accent anymore. They don’t even remember the name you gave them. They’re under your spell. You should choose an Irish name as your pseudonym.” She pointed a finger at me. “Though you better be nice if you use one.”
I trained with Deirdre for two weeks, taking the subway every morning to her apartment in Brooklyn. Then I discovered that Leona had another worker, an actress and playwright named Andi, who lived two blocks from me. As much as I enjoyed Deirdre’s delightful Irish frolic, I was eager to give up the commute, and Leona gave me the go-ahead to transfer to Andi’s place.
On my first morning there, I sat at the kitchen table while Andi made herself breakfast.
“Let’s hear what you’ve got.” She pushed the speaker button on the phone.
Doing a ruse call was hard enough without someone judging me as I did it. Plus, the firm I was calling was Goldman Sachs, by far the most difficult bank to research. Pax said getting information out of them was like robbing Fort Knox.
“Hello, this is, uh, Kieran O’Shaughnessy,” I said, making a feeble attempt at an Irish accent, which was far worse than Deirdre’s. “I’m a student at NYU.”
“Who?” the operator asked.
I went further with the accent, channeling the leprechaun in the Lucky Charms commercials. “Kieran O’Shaughnessy. I’ve just come from Ireland. I be a student at NYU.”
“NY who? I can’t understand you. Who are you calling for?”
“What be your name, operator?” In my head, I was obsessively repeating the tagline from the commercials — “They’re after me lucky charms!” — to help me get the accent right.
“We don’t give out names at the switchboard.”
“Ah, but you sound Irish.”
The woman sounded less Irish than any voice I’d ever heard. She hung up.
I picked up the phone, made a few more calls using the same lame script, and got nothing. Not a name, not a title, not a direct extension.
What worked consistently for Deirdre and Andi didn’t work for me. I’d spend hours and hours on the phone, yet often end up with only three or four names from groups that had dozens of people. Even in the beginning, I knew there had to be a better way, a better story, for me to get the intelligence Leona’s clients wanted so badly.
I went to pick up the phone again, but Andi put her hand over mine.
“Relax. You need to find your voice.”
It sounded a lot like the advice my acting teacher was giving me.
“Look,” Andi continued. “Deirdre is great at training people because she’s a sweetheart. But right now you sound like a poor imitation of her. A couple of times your accent was more Scottish than Irish.”
She laughed, and because it was true as well as funny — I was terrible at accents — I laughed with her.
“Do you know how many actors Leona has hired to do this job? Hundreds. Everyone sees her ad in Backstage and thinks how great it would be to have a flexible, part-time job. Do you know how many people have worked out? Three: me, Deirdre and your buddy Pax. You could be the fourth. But you’ve got to find your own style. Oh, and pick a shorter pseudonym. One-syllable names generally work best.”
Andi picked up the phone and hit the speaker button. She dialed and the same operator I’d spoken with earlier answered.
“I’m sorry to bother you,” Andi said. “I’m the assistant of an executive that does business with your firm, and like an idiot I lost the Christmas card mailing list you guys sent us.” Andi’s voice slipped as if she might cry. “I’m going to lose my job.”
“Sorry to hear.” The operator’s tone seemed different.
“Me, too. I’ve got a kid, you know.” Andi’s voice cracked now like she actually was crying.
“I’ve got two myself.”
“Is there any chance you could check this one name for me? Gus Walraven? I think he’s in structured finance.”
“Sure, no problem.” There was a brief pause as the operator looked for the name in her directory. “Got him. Yup, structured finance.”
“What floor is he on? I need that for the card.”
“He’s on seven, but if you are sending something you’ll need the mail stop. The code for the structured finance group is 7B36.”
“You saved my life.”
“Happy to do it.”
“One more thing. Can you read me the other names in the mail stop?”
Over the next decade, my acting career grew in fits and starts. I landed theater roles in New York opposite future stars like James Gandolfini and Calista Flockhart, and when I moved to L.A. a few years later, started booking TV jobs on shows like Chicago Hope, Melrose Place and ER. It always seemed like my big break was just around the corner. When I was featured in the ads for the Sisters episode in which I killed George Clooney, an actor friend of mine called from New York to say he was proud of me for making it in Hollywood. I declined to tell him that my acting income, after commissions and taxes, wasn’t much above the poverty line.
What did pay the bills was rusing. The $8/hour survival job that helped me make rent in New York blossomed into something bigger. As I got good at it, I started hearing from other firms and took on work from multiple clients. I had no idea how they found me since I certainly wasn’t advertising my unethical and, ahem, likely illegal services. Still, it was just a job; something to pay the bills in between auditions. Shit, what was the harm in finagling a few names out of unthinkably rich corporations anyway? But it was about to become something bigger and much more dangerous.
I’d met my girlfriend, Gardia, a few years earlier. She worked for Madonna’s record company, Maverick, and in addition to being brazen, she was Southern California through and through. She’d even been part of an all-girl punk rock skateboard gang called the Hags. Gardia wasn’t fazed by the ethics of what I did. She had seen music business dealings that made lying on the phone seem quaint.
She was also sick and tired of being an undervalued and underpaid assistant, so after a blowup with her boss she decided to come work with me. Gardia quickly helped turn my survival job into a thriving enterprise. She bought filing cabinets and developed a detailed filing system. She began typing up the research to make it look professional, as well as legible, since my handwriting was atrocious. By taking over the parts of the business I sucked at, Gardia enabled me to focus on what I did best: rusing.
Instantly, our revenue increased. A lot.
Gardia and I moved into a rented house in Santa Monica together and set up an office in the basement. She even tried to make some ruse calls herself, but like nearly everyone before her, she wasn’t able to handle the constant lying.
As we approached the turn of the millennium, the computer bug Y2K was projected to wreak absolute havoc on computer systems and networks across the globe, when electronic calendars failed to comprehend the transition from the year ’99 to ’00.
I’d like to say I was the one who recognized the potential in using the computer bug to our advantage, but it was my old buddy Pax who was the genius. Though I lived in Santa Monica now and he still lived in New York, we spoke on the phone regularly and remained competitive about our rusing techniques like we were fighting to be salesman of the month at my father’s old dealership.
“I’ve got a wicked new ploy for the millennium,” he bragged one morning. “I say I’m in IT working on Y2K, and all anyone wants to know is whether we’re going to make the deadline. I tell them we’re working night and day, and that we have to input every single piece of information manually. I’ve never had people more willing to give up intel. They feel sorry for me!”
Pax was right. The impending “disaster” of Y2K was a gold mine. We were able to obtain more valuable intelligence than ever before, which also enabled us to raise our rates. In 1999, I made more than $100,000 for the first time.
Even after an expensive wedding and honeymoon on the Big Island, Gardia and I still had money to sock away to buy a house. I should’ve been happy, but I was depressed about the state of my acting career, which was in its death throes. I’d arrived in L.A. with big dreams that were starting to fizzle. Those plum TV jobs were drying up and now I was lucky to get roles on B-grade shows such as Renegade and Pacific Blue, which seemed to solidify me as a second- or third-tier TV actor.
Beyond the wrenching disappointment of my artist dreams slipping away lay the cold reality that all I was left with was the ruse. Yes, I was doing better than ever with it, but the situation had started to feel like whoring either way.
But now that I had a mortgage, I no longer cared about legal or moral implications, and I resented my old classmates who had gotten MBAs from Wharton and bragged about their millions. Exclusively targeting executives making ridiculous money felt like poetic justice. So I left Leona and started my own spying firm; I figured if I got in and out of each call carefully, the odds of any corporation coming after me were manageable, or so I prayed late at night.
Wall Street assistants were paid by the hour and left the second the clock struck 5. After that, most executives answered their own phones. You’d think they’d be tougher to squeeze for intel, but I found them to be far easier marks than their assistants.
“Jim Cassel,” one executive answered. Wall Street guys didn’t go in much for greetings or small talk when they answered the phone.
“Hey, Jim, it’s Tom Chirico in tax,” I said, using the real name of the tax department head. “One of the partners from Price Waterhouse was in here this week. As you know, they do the audit for us. They’ve got tickets for the Knicks and the Rangers and have some openings for upcoming games. You guys in institutional sales have been killing it, so I figured you deserved first crack. You into it?”
“It’s a suite, right? With booze and food?”
As if the free tickets weren’t enough.
“Come on,” I said. “It’s a luxury suite.”
“Hell, yeah! What games?”
“I’m not sure yet. I’ve got to put together a list first to send to them. Read me the roster of the people on your desk, but give me the top producers first. We don’t want one of your junior guys getting a front row seat, now do we?”
Jim told me the names of his team members with the heaviest hitters first, which would be incredibly valuable information for my client since now they would only be stealing the best executives from their top rival.
“Anyone else? Don’t be shy. The more names you give, the more tickets I can get.”
“You want the traders, too?”
“Sure, why not? The more the merrier.”
Jim read me the names of the traders, the sales traders, the research department and the junior analysts. He would’ve given me the names of the janitorial staff and told me which one cleaned the windows best had I asked.
“Perfect,” I said. “I’ll be in touch with dates.”
I felt a twinge of guilt and even a bit of fear about what might happen when those tickets didn’t arrive, but I reminded myself that the guy on the other end was raking in an unconscionable amount of money, as were most of the names he’d given me.
They could pay for their own damn tickets.
By this point the ruse was providing a powerful stream of revenue, and it only continued to grow. From 2002 to 2008, my annual income increased rapidly — from $204,000 to $352,000 to $498,000 to $916,000 to well over $1 million to, eventually, nearly $2 million. Clients were so desperate for the non-public intelligence and other dirty little corporate secrets we provided that they kept offering more and more money. One even paid double and overnighted me the entire fee in advance when I told him I was too busy.
There was such demand for top Wall Street talent that multiple clients often tasked us with extracting the exact same intelligence, enabling me to make double or even triple for one job. It had never occurred to me that I could make this kind of money.
In 2005, we started getting a ton of work in the financial derivatives space. I didn’t even know what a derivative was, not that it mattered. And soon I came up with the most nuclear ruse yet: the compliance ploy.
As I was to learn, individuals working in compliance were feared by others within the firm. This made even surly assistants hesitant to take a stand. No one wanted to be on the bad side of compliance, the corporation’s version of Orwell’s Thought Police, who were constantly on red alert for any whiff of risk or malfeasance. This put me in a strategically powerful position. The flip side was that because almost all compliance officers were lawyers from top schools, they were exactly the types that could, would and did come after me. Before these super lawyers had moved to Wall Street to make the big money, most had worked in the public sector doing fraud enforcement for the Securities and Exchange Commission or the Federal Reserve. Now that I was actively impersonating them, they had more than enough incentive and resources, both professional and personal, to track me down and bust my ass. Departments with names like Insider Threat Protection, Surveillance Unit, and Financial Crimes Compliance scared the hell out of me.
I once received a letter from a Swiss investment bank after I’d foolishly given out my fax number in a fit of desperation. A kind secretary had offered to send me what I needed, but instead a cease-and-desist letter came through from the deputy head of the firm’s U.S. legal department warning that if I ever called again he would alert the authorities.
One of the most terrifying encounters happened when Pax and I were working on a particularly challenging assignment from opposite coasts. He called me in a panic.
“They’re after me!” Pax’s normally strong voice was shaky. “They came to my apartment.”
“The police. My neighbor said they were banging on my door. They told my landlord they’re looking for me. I’m going to be arrested.” He sounded like he was hyperventilating.
“Whoa, calm down,” I said. “Where are you now?”
“In my apartment. They were here an hour ago. They just missed me.”
“Hang up right now and call me from a pay phone.”
Suddenly, preparing for the audition I had that afternoon was no longer a priority. If the authorities had found Pax, it meant they were listening to his calls. If they’d tapped his phone, they had my number, too. For all I knew, the police — or the feds — would show up at my place any second. Before I could start hyperventilating, too, the phone rang again and I answered it.
“I’m going to turn myself in,” Pax said.
“Don’t be stupid, just hang on a second. Let’s think this thing through.”
I recalled the attorney who once warned us that what we did was in a “dark gray” area of legality. He said it was conceivable that an aggrieved corporation, sick of losing its top executives to rival firms, which could cost it tens of millions, even billions, of dollars, might take action against us for the theft of names that led to those losses. Since Pax and I were using the telephone (as well as fraudulent pretenses) to obtain the information, we were susceptible to federal wire fraud charges, punishable by a hefty fine or up to 20 years in prison. If the violation affected a financial institution, the potential penalties went up to $1 million and 30 years. Apparently each ruse call our stupid asses made could be considered a separate crime! Pax and I had made thousands of those calls. We could be in prison for the rest of our lives.
While Pax was packing his stuff to flee, he got a voicemail message. It wasn’t from the police, but from investigators with Sprint, a phone company he’d been targeting recently.
“They said they know what I’ve been doing.”
“Do not call them,” I shouted. “You must have pissed somebody off and they called their internal security. Those investigators have no authority to talk to you,” I said, “let alone arrest you. Ignore them. They’re just trying to scare you.”
I had no idea if that was the truth, but I needed Pax to believe it was. For his sake and, possibly, mine.
The following days I was on edge as I waited to hear from Pax. In the shower, I noticed clumps of hair coming off in my hands.
One week later, I returned from an audition and the phone was ringing incessantly.
“Dude,” Pax said when I answered. “They think I’m that computer hacker, the one being hunted by the Secret Service and the FBI.”
I recalled reading an article about him the prior summer. Mitnick had been described as the Darth Vader of the hacking world — aka the “Darkside Hacker” — and a threat to national security. Mitnick got passwords and codes so he could hack into corporations to gain access to trade secrets worth billions. I’m sure one wire-tapped phone call with my panicked friend had made it clear to the investigators that Pax didn’t possess the skill set — or the balls — to escape a parking ticket, much less run a worldwide hacking operation. Mitnick was eventually caught, arrested as a domestic terrorist and placed in solitary confinement. I got to keep rusing from the beach in Malibu, and I never took an assignment researching phone companies again.
But taking the ruse to new heights was a perpetually tempting gamble. I went so far as to impersonate the CEOs and COOs of some of the world’s largest publicly traded companies, and not just on Wall Street. Tech, pharma, consumer products, industrial behemoths, even defense contractors across the globe all fell victim to the ruse. Many of the men I pretended to be were regular talking heads on CNBC and Fox Business. Some were even on presidential commissions and advisory committees. I called them and listened to their outgoing voicemail messages to study their inflections and the timbre of their voices. None of the men had accents, which was extremely fortunate for me. Indeed, they all pretty much sounded (and looked) the same. Risky as it was, their elevated public status was why I chose them. If people believed I was the top dog, there was no secret they wouldn’t divulge: unreleased product intel, future plans and strategies, internal rankings of top employees — I could learn anything and everything my clients wanted to know. Indeed, most people were blown away that they even had the CEO on the phone, like they’d been gifted a rare audience with the king. They fawned, they flattered, they gave it up. More times than I can remember they’d say, “I can’t believe I’m actually talking to you.” And I wanted to respond: “You’re not.”
I kept rusing for years, and I kept making great money — until some tech industry folks created a little thing called LinkedIn that made publicly available much of the information I charged a lot of money for.
Still, there continues to be highly sensitive and extremely valuable information that firms simply cannot obtain on social media. And if they want it badly enough, they hire a corporate spy like me. All these years later, I still have many of my moles, including my longest-running one, Zoe. I gave her a call not too long ago.
“Hey, it’s Kevin, how’s it going?” I said when she picked up.
“Oh, hi, Kevin, this is Debbie,” said a woman I didn’t recognize, and my stomach plunged. Before I could dwell too long on the likely reason for Zoe’s absence, Debbie added, “I’ll get Zoe. She’s right here.”
Whew. But now I shifted to a different concern. No one else had ever answered her line before. I prayed Zoe wasn’t leaving the firm.
“You again,” Zoe said when she came on the line.
“Not a bit.” She laughed. “I have my own job, you know.”
“Please. You love these calls.”
“They make you realize your job isn’t so crappy.”
“That’s true,” she said. “I could never do what you do. I couldn’t handle the pressure.”
“You don’t want to do what I do, trust me.”
It occurred to me that despite myself I had just uttered a factual statement.
Zoe got quiet, and all at once I knew she had bad news.
“The cancer has spread,” she said, choking up. “It’s in my bones, in my liver.”
“Hey,” I snapped. “You’ve had cancer since I’ve known you. You’re not going anywhere, so don’t even think about it.”
She seemed to regain her composure. “I’m on an experimental oral chemo now. The doctors say it’s working.”
“What did I tell you? Does Debbie there know?”
“Yes. She’s kind of filling in. I’ve been missing a lot of work so they hired her to work with me.”
It all came together. Here I was worried that Zoe was quitting and what that would mean for my easy access to her prime intel when she was actually training a replacement because she was dying.
“She knows about you,” Zoe said, now trying to reassure me. “I told her you’d be calling now and then for information, that whenever she sees an anonymous number it’s probably you. I said you’re one of my favorite people at the firm.”
It was my turn to choke up.
Zoe and I had never met. How could she care so much about me? I was such a talented liar I’d somehow convinced Zoe I was a person worthy of her friendship, her praise. But then I was also a professional listener, something I did earnestly and thoughtfully. Perhaps unlike others Zoe had confided in, I was actually present in our conversations, as if we were scene partners. I actively searched for ways to comfort her. I genuinely tried to help. I always made her laugh. I desperately wanted our play to have a happy ending, not this hackneyed third-act fatality.
“I’m going to give you her direct number,” Zoe said. “In case I’m not here.”
I mumbled something indecipherable. There were no words I could say this time. Zoe was getting her affairs in order. And part of that was supplying me with a new mole, a small gesture for her that would have a great impact for me. Any comfort I would offer her now would ring as false as the name I’d given her all those years ago.
She read me Debbie’s number. “I’m going to miss you, Kev.”
Either way, I knew this would be our last call and that I’d soon be dialing Debbie’s number, since I couldn’t handle carrying the knowledge of Zoe’s impending death — which I truly cared about — while pretending to be someone I wasn’t.
It’s hard to be sincere when you’re lying about everything else.
“What do you need?” Zoe asked.
Since this was going to be my last call with her, I decided to go big.
“I need the names of every person in investment banking.”
Might as well go out with a bang. “Globally.”
This was likely close to — no joke — a thousand names. I waited for Zoe to freak out and say this was finally just too much, even for her.
“Well,” she said, “we better get started then.”
Want the full story? Order your copy of Ruse: Lying the American Dream from Hollywood to Wall Street.
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