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I Went Down the Rabbit Hole of a Fake Climate Change-Themed Real Estate Firm

A hoax with a message.
December 7, 2015, 8:09pm
Screengrab: YouTube

A dystopian startup called Higher Tides mysteriously surfaced last week, claiming to sell undervalued real estate that will increase in value as climate change causes cities from New York to Miami to eventually slip beneath the rising sea.

Predictably, the internet went wild. Articles on Grist (later republished on Fusion), The Atlantic's CityLab and Engadget were published with varying degrees of credulity.

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"We are a real estate company that will prevent you from losing money from global warming," a promotional video for the company said. "We will help you find property that will grow in value because of global warming's effects." It's sensational stuff, and had a large kernel of truth to it. The timing of its release, at the height of the COP21 climate talks in Paris, made it all the more appealing.

It's also completely fake.

"Jake's completely fake, the LinkedIn is completely fake, the company is completely fake"

I was first contacted by Higher Tides on Wednesday of last week. The company was founded—only in part, I was told—by Nikolas Gregory, a New York-based designer who runs the "activist" design firm that previously brought us Data Arbitrage, a program that uses social media bots to subvert the data resale market.

"From the point of view of the studio here, it's definitely an activist message, but for Higher Tides, it's more of a way to get business," Gregory initially said when I caught up with him on Skype. "It's a little gimmicky, but that's what they do."

According to Gregory, he posed the idea a year ago to a friend, Jake Collins, who had years of experience in realty and acted as the company's sole owner and manager. In a separate interview, conducted over email, Collins claimed he had three real estate agents working for him out of an office in New York, and 15 clients in Queens.

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"We believe global warming is terrible. As of now, it does not seem likely we will be able to counteract all the effects of global warming," Collins wrote me. "No matter what happens, the real estate market has changed forever. Either you accept it or you don't."

Screenshot: LinkedIn

But it didn't take long for serious red flags to appear. My suspicious about Higher Tides started when Collins, who maintains a convincing LinkedIn page, declined a Skype meeting and instead opted to answer my questions over email. The photos I received of the "office" looked like they were taken in someone's apartment, which raised further questions. Collins' LinkedIn connections looked fake, and I couldn't find evidence he had once worked for Century 21, as claimed. I attempted to arrange an in-person meeting with a Motherboard colleague at Higher Tides' New York-based office for several days, to no avail.

Finally, Gregory contacted me and requested another Skype meeting. An email requesting that Collins be present for the call wasn't answered. When I rang Gregory, there was no Collins: just the young designer with cropped blonde hair and clear plastic glasses. He quickly copped to everything.

"Higher Tides is 100 percent satire," Gregory said. "You went far enough down the rabbit hole that I had to tell you. Jake's completely fake, the LinkedIn is completely fake, the company is completely fake."

On Skype with Gregory. Screengrab: Skype

Gregory worked on making Higher Tides appear legitimate for the better part of the year, he told me. He hired an actor to be the face of Collins' LinkedIn account, and the photos of the Higher Tides office were actually taken in the office of a furniture startup run by one of Gregory's friends. The whole thing was was convincing enough to elicit some earnest responses.

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"Real estate agents have contacted me to work at Higher Tides," Gregory continued. "A collective in Oregon came to us to inspect their property and see if we'd send people there, which is amazing. The New York City Waterfront Alliance asked us to partner with them so they could rebuild New York City as a place for global warming. Multiple people have asked me either to review their property or see if it can be purposed. If this was real, it would be incredibly successful."

I called up the New York City Waterfront Alliance, a nonprofit organization that works to influence waterfront planning and policy in the city, and a representative confirmed that they had reached out to Higher Tides, although no specific partnership was ever discussed. That part of the story, at least, appears to be more or less true.

The Higher Tides "office." Photo: Nikolas Gregory

So, some people (myself included, since I only narrowly avoided falling prey to the hoax) are probably pretty pissed right now. Nobody likes to be tricked. But the entire point of the project was to raise awareness about the consequences of climate change, Gregory said, and on that front, Higher Tides was a runaway success.

"Maybe see this through the eyes of a conservative who maybe doesn't believe in global warming," Gregory said. "They might think, well, if they're profiting off this, then [climate change] must be real. So, hopefully I've convinced a few conservatives to reconsider. The urgency of the emails I've gotten show that people think it's real."