Scamming has reached a heady new era of sophistication – and these days, con artists don’t just want your money, they want your dignity too.
“I do think the weaponisation of shame is on the rise,” agrees journalist Josh Dean, co-host of 2020’s most beguiling true crime podcast, Campsite Media’s Chameleon: Hollywood Con Queen. “For one thing, we’ve all put computers in our pockets, and we all hide behind avatars now. Catfishing is the crime of the modern age, and the anonymity in digital spaces makes it easier than ever to get away with a scam.”
Case in point: Scotland Yard detectives are currently investigating a bizarre scam in which men were duped into performing naked challenges in London hotel rooms, on camera, in the belief they were competing in a game show to win £5,000. They’re asking any victims who experienced a similar scenario between 2013 and 2020 to come forward – and considering last year saw a 400 percent rise in online scams, according to the FBI, you have to assume there are a number of them out there.
Then, of course, there is the extraordinary, aforementioned case of the Hollywood Con Queen.
“Whenever I tell anyone the story of what happened,” says Josh, “the first thing anyone asks is: ‘Why?’ And I don’t blame them. So little about the Hollywood Con Queen story makes any sense. The first thing I thought was there had to be a financial motive – and there was. But what transpired was far more complicated and far more strange than that.”
It started in 2017 with a phone call. Hollywood personal trainer Mark Twight picked up the telephone to a woman named Dee Bakish, who was offering him a lucrative contract to train actors for an upcoming movie shoot in Indonesia. Twight had worked on films like Man of Steel, Aquaman and 300. In fact, Dee said she’d got his contact details from Deborah Snyder, a co-producer of those three films. Mark was a busy guy and he couldn’t make the job work – but his friend Eddie, an aspiring PT, might be able to. Eddie was delighted: this could have been his big break.
Before handing Dee over to his friend, Twight had done a cursory internet search on the caller’s credentials and found that she was the wife of ViacomCBS President and CEO, Bob Bakish. Mark got work this way all the time – anyone working in creative industries does – so there was no reason to question Dee’s credibility.
Dee told Eddie she’d meet him a few weeks before filming was about to start in Jakarta. But could he cover his own expenses due to the last-minute nature of the commission? She said he’d be reimbursed when they met. Eddie flew to Jakarta on his own dime. He even paid for a first-class seat so he’d be primed to make a good first impression.
On arrival, Eddie was met by a greeter who took him to his hotel. He was assigned a driver and a private car, though he was asked to keep paying his own way, even for translators, tour guides and permits. Eddie estimates he handed over around $4,000 (£2,930). He’d spent around the same on his flight. All the while, Dee kept in touch by phone, making excuses about their failure to connect. Frustrated, Eddie lost patience and decided to go home. Dee told him she’d “ruin him”. As soon as he got back to the States, he hired a lawyer and contacted Dee Bakish’s representatives. They had no knowledge of any project taking place in Indonesia.
“The reason why the financial motive didn’t make sense,” says Josh, “is it just seems so much work for so little return. For it to work, this would have to happen over and over and over and over… but it transpired this had happened to so many people. Hundreds, if not thousands, fell for it. As I said to [podcast co-host] Vanessa [Grigoriadis], I can’t imagine someone ever sat down and thought, ‘I’m going to bait 1,000 people into coming to Indonesia and take a grand or two off each of them, and it’s going to make me a millionaire…’ There had to be more to it.”
There was more to it. Much more. In fact, the more Josh and Vanessa dug into the story, the more victims – many ashamed, some clinically depressed – were revealed. The scammer had targeted the worker bees of Hollywood: makeup artists, security, stuntmen, many of whom were aspiring to become stars in their own fields. Sums handed over ranged between $3,000 (£2,200) and $150,000 (£110,000). Hope can be a powerfully disarming thing.
The Hollywood Con Queen had grifted, impersonating Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy; former Chairperson of the Motion Pictures Group of Sony Pictures Entertainment, Amy Pascal; Wendi Deng Murdoch; and even Deb Snyder. It transpired that the scammer had often asked their victims to role-play sexual scenarios with her, testing their “suitability” for roles.
Later, it was revealed that the scammer wasn’t actually a woman, but a man. “His impersonations were so good,” says Josh. “When I go back and listen to the tapes, I can tell it was a dude. But at the time? Not at all. People were completely fooled. When the victims were told it was a man, many couldn’t believe it.”
“I think what happened was that this was a guy who liked to play characters,” explains Josh, “and who liked to troll people. And it’s clear there was some kind of psychosexual thing going on too. I think this person was someone who wanted to be successful but never got there, and so this was in some way about the crushing of dreams. I’m increasingly convinced, having spent so long investigating the story, that it was about power and control. He didn’t rape or murder anybody, but psychologically, these people feel completely tortured and abused.”
In late 2020, there was an arrest, far away from Hollywood – in Manchester, of all places. A 41-year-old Indonesian man named Hargobind Punjabi Tahilramani – also known as Gobind, a “foodfluencer” Instagramming as Pure Bytes and ISpintheTales – was apprehended on the 26th of November.
Josh and Vanessa’s investigative work had led them to Tahilramani, and before his arrest they had offered him the opportunity to comment on the allegations numerous times, but they never got a response.
Having appeared before a magistrates court in Westminster in early December of last year, Tahilramani is currently being held in custody in London. The US has made a provisional application for his extradition on the grounds of aggravated identity theft, wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud. A full extradition request is expected this month.
“I’ve been told it might take a year, because he’ll probably fight it,” says Josh, “and then there’s the issue of COVID. American prisons are rife with COVID. But how much jail time will he do? If it’s judged on how much money he [allegedly] scammed, he might only do a few years. The judge is going to have to look at the nuance of what has been done.”
Eddie, by the way, is doing OK. “He’s training the cast of Halo,” says Josh, “which is the largest Showtime production ever.”