He was a freelance documentary photographer, 27 and eager, but not inexperienced. He'd worked in conflict zones for several prestige newspapers and magazines and shot ad campaigns for corporate clients. One day in late 2017, he opened his email to find an unusual message. The first thing he noticed was the sender's name: Amy Pascal, the former co-chair of Sony Pictures Entertainment. That kind of thing didn't happen every day.
Pascal wanted to know if he would be interested in traveling to Indonesia to pursue an exciting project. They got on the phone the next day to discuss it further. His previous assignments had often taken him overseas. He'd explored 16 countries during the past year, including Indonesia. He knew the terrain and could hit the ground running.
After the call, he looked at the email again and noticed the URL: pascalfilms.com. Online, it didn't exist. Pascal, now a producer (Spider-Man: Homecoming, The Post), did have an outfit called Pascal Pictures, but the company didn't seem to have a website. He chalked this up to the fact that Pascal had been very publicly embarrassed in the 2015 Sony hack, resulting in the disclosure of her private emails. The lack of an online presence for her new company made sense.
When they spoke again on the phone, Pascal flattered him. She enthused about his still photography, which she knew intimately. She also was familiar with details of his corporate clients, specific personality quirks of people with whom he'd worked closely. "You wouldn't know these things unless you dealt with these people in very specific ways," he says now. "This gave her immediate credibility."
Over the course of several conversations, Pascal explained that she was reinventing herself after the Sony hack. "She said the news media had made the hack into more of a terrible event than it was," he says. "She said she was still very close with everyone, working actively with them." She had a new production company, a new staff, a slate of fresh projects. As part of this reinvention, she wanted to develop a pair of short documentary films. She was looking for a talented photographer with just the right aesthetic, someone who might even be interested in directing one day. She wanted to collaborate, to build something really special from the ground up.
She explained he would stay in Indonesia for about a week shooting images of landscapes, temples and iconic scenery for a storyboard that would bolster his bona fides with potential buyers. Together they would edit the results into a pitch they could present to financiers in L.A. She would arrange for hotels. He would pay in advance for the airfare and front the costs for drivers, translators, food and other sundries. She would reimburse him for all of these expenses. These kinds of financial arrangements aren't unusual for freelancers in creative industries. He reviewed the contract she sent. It was all pretty standard, a mundane but necessary routine in the life of a photographer. Nothing stood out, except that it was exceptionally professional.
Before long, he was on a plane to Jakarta.
Six months and $65,000 later, the photographer, who has requested anonymity out of concern for his safety, has come to understand that he was duped by one of the most elaborate scams to ever hit Hollywood. The woman he'd spoken to several times a day for weeks on end wasn't Pascal, but a sophisticated imposter who took him for a colossal financial and emotional ride.
For the past two and a half years, hundreds of unwitting victims around the world have been ensnared by a small but cunning criminal organization whose contours are only beginning to be understood. Three of the producers impersonated have retained the services of a high-end corporate investigations firm, K2 Intelligence, run by Jeremy M. Kroll (brother of the comedian Nick Kroll; their father, Jules, founded Kroll, considered a foundational benchmark in the world of corporate risk management). K2 Intelligence won't reveal specific clients, but sources confirm that one of them is Pascal (she declined to comment for this story). Hollywood companies also are getting involved. Earlier this year, when Lucasfilm's Kathleen Kennedy learned that she had been impersonated, she informed Disney's internal security. A spokesperson for Kennedy says she refers all cases of fraud to law enforcement.
Victims of the elaborate ruse are led to believe they are speaking to powerful female entertainment executives, including billionaire producer and philanthropist Gigi Pritzker; former Paramount head Sherry Lansing; 20th Century Fox CEO Stacey Snider; and Lesli Linka Glatter, a director and executive producer on shows including Homeland, The Walking Dead and Mad Men. "This is such a terrible thing — I was shocked," says Lansing, who left the industry a decade ago to focus on her philanthropic work.
"The people being impersonated are a who's who of Hollywood, as well as high-net-worth individuals in New York," says Nicoletta Kotsianas, a K2 Intelligence investigator who has been tracking the scammers for months. "It's horribly upsetting that someone is making promises and behaving badly in your name," adds Linka Glatter, who was impersonated at least a dozen times between the spring of 2017 and today. "It would go quiet, and I would think it was over, and then suddenly it would start all over again."
The imposter works by using a combination of deceit, charm and intimidation to manipulate her marks. The victims travel to Indonesia on a promise of work and, once there, are asked to hand over relatively modest amounts of money at a time, up to $3,000 in some cases, to help cover expenses for things like car travel, translation, tour guides and fixers. A designated Indonesian "moneyman" arrives on a moped to collect the funds. Needless to say, the promised reimbursements never arrive. Over time, these small sums add up. All told, hundreds of thousands of dollars have been collectively stolen this way. "Even if they're bringing in $300,000 a year, that's a huge amount of money in Indonesia," says Kotsianas, who believes the same group is behind all of the cases.
At the center of the organization is the impersonator — a woman whose sophisticated research, skill with accents and deft psychological and emotional manipulation have earned her the begrudging respect of her victims and trackers. K2 investigators believe the woman is the "talent" of an operation that, while relatively small, may have legs on at least three continents, including the U.S., Asia and Europe. The victims come from all over — the U.K., Europe and the U.S. primarily — and represent a wide swath of creative industries: hairstylists, stuntmen, military advisers, photographers and cinematographers.
The Hollywood Reporter has obtained two separate audio recordings of the woman's voice, which has never been publicly disclosed. Both of the tapes date from an earlier incarnation of the scam, when the imposter was targeting makeup artists in the U.K. at the end of 2015 and early 2016. In one, she speaks in a distinct American twang, a flat, almost nasal intonation, berating her interlocutor (in this case, a victim's agent) about a missed flight. "To be very blunt with you, when I travel internationally, I use this number," she says, exasperated. "This number can be reached, it was registered 10 years ago. OK?"
In the second, she adopts a convincing British accent. These tapes predate the imposter's incursion into Hollywood proper, but the methods on display remain the same, according to victims.
The woman comes across as intense, intelligent and authoritative. Her rapid-fire speech is delivered smoothly and without any hint of deception. "This woman learns everything there is to know about her targets," says Kotsianas. "She tweaks her voice and accent and sounds like who she is impersonating. That's why she's been able to fool as many people as she has." The photographer eventually compared her voice to publicly available recordings of the real Pascal. He found them to be eerily similar — a blend of New York and Midwestern accents. The only thing missing was the slight lisp of the real Pascal.
Linka Glatter first learned that she was being impersonated from friends and colleagues. "I started getting calls from my agents and managers, friends, and friends of friends — they were all hearing from a fake Lesli Linka Glatter," she says, "And they would want to know: Am I doing this project? What's the deal? It was horrifying."
For a long time, Linka Glatter thought she was alone in being faked. She tried to contact the police and the FBI, but neither showed interest. The amount of money involved was too small, they told her. She hired a private investigator, who discovered that the scammers were using burner phones to cover their tracks and GoDaddy accounts for fake email addresses. She contacted corporate security at a major Hollywood studio, but that didn't help either. The calls kept coming. One day, a well-known political consultant in Washington got in touch.
"The fake Lesli had contacted him to collaborate on a project, but then she started sounding weirder and weirder and the political consultant called my agents to find out if she was real," says Linka Glatter. The impersonator had also apparently targeted several technical and military advisers who worked with Linka Glatter on shows like Homeland and The Walking Dead. "People believed there was a real job at the end of this," she says. "There is a whole group of military people that were targeted."
One such ex-military target was Rudy Reyes, an actor (HBO's Generation Kill) and former U.S. Marine who received a call from a man purporting to be producer Beau Flynn (San Andreas, Rampage), who said he was calling on behalf of Lucasfilm's Kennedy. When Reyes and his manager, Adam Handelsman, eventually spoke to the woman — who said she was Kennedy — she said she was interested in casting the ex-Marine as a supporting actor in Indiana Jones 5. The trio spoke for about 10 minutes. Then the woman said she was having trouble hearing and requested to speak to Reyes alone.
In an email, Handelsman summarizes the call between the con woman and his client:
"The first 30 minutes of the conversation was extremely professional. Then it started to get extremely sexual. She discussed how her husband Frank Marshall was never around, and that Rudy could stay in her Los Feliz home. She told Rudy that the role was his but asked over and over 'what was he going to do for her?' She was explicit in her request. Rudy repeatedly said no. She said she made Harrison Ford and Tom Cruise and will make him a star. This was against his morals, his warrior ethos — all he wanted to do was work. He fully rebuffed all of her sexual advances. She hung up."
A couple of days later, the man claiming to be Beau Flynn called Handelsman back. He alleged, without evidence, that Reyes had propositioned Kennedy during their one-on-one call. He said the call had been taped and threatened to expose Reyes. When Handelsman responded that California requires two-party consent to tape calls and accused the man of committing a felony, the man grew flustered and hung up.
While Reyes escaped, many other veterans weren't as fortunate. Last March, a former U.S. Marine who participated in the U.S. invasion of Iraq and was living in Bangkok, working as a private security contractor, received a call from a man who said his name was Jason Cohen. (The Marine has requested that his identity remain anonymous for security reasons.) Cohen explained that he worked for Christine Hearst Schwarzman, an intellectual property lawyer from Long Island married to private-equity billionaire Stephen Schwarzman, CEO of the Blackstone Group. Cohen told the Marine that Schwarzman was "building a security team to escort her around Southeast Asia as she builds her directing career." Before long, the Marine was on the phone with Schwarzman herself, who "had a very thick Long Island accent." The con woman promised the Marine a job as director of her security team and hinted at lots of high-paying work down the road.
"There is an important element of social engineering going on with these victims," says Snezana Gebauer, K2's head of investigations and disputes practices, who has worked on the case with Kotsianas. "They know everything about their victims' personal lives and use the necessary pressure points, and they use publicly available information about the executives they are impersonating." Investigators and victims seem to agree that while some of the information about the targets is publicly available (especially online and via social networks), much is not, and it remains unclear how the scammers have developed such extensive inside knowledge about the lives of their marks.
In her first phone calls with the Marine, the con woman showed a penchant for role-playing. In one exchange, she told him she wanted him to fire Cohen. Confused, the Marine asked for clarification, and she told him she wanted him to show her that he could be strong, to see what kind of man he was. On a subsequent call, during which both she and Cohen were on the line, the Marine did as she had asked. "I got aggressive. I fired the guy," says the Marine. "She's some kind of freak."
Not long afterward, she asked him to turn on his Skype camera so she could see him. She said she couldn't turn her own camera on because of security issues. (The imposter has never been seen in person or on video.) He told her he was only wearing a tank top — she said that was OK. She asked to see his tattoos and he pulled up his shirt. "Mmm," she said. "Gimme kisses, gimme kisses." It could have gone further, but he stopped it.
The woman told the Marine she wanted to expand her security team with his colleagues, so that it was more "like a family." The Marine would eventually refer his friends, including snipers, Special Forces operators and Green Berets. Each of them reported back the same experience: They had to "fire" Cohen; the woman asked for "kisses." With some of these other military operators, the Marine says, she convinced them to engage in graphic virtual sex with her via Skype.
A couple of weeks later, the Marine traveled to Indonesia at the woman's behest, forking over some $2,800 from his own pocket for expenses, with the expectation that he'd soon be paid nearly $10,000 in additional fees for his security analysis of various hotels and locations.
Warning signs began to appear during the trip. The locals she had asked him to meet were continually demanding money; men seemed to lurk around the car he had been given, only to disappear whenever he approached. The trip ended one night when his driver refused to go where the Marine asked, and then ignored his requests to stop. The Marine finally lost patience. "If you don't stop the car, I'm going to beat the fuck out of you," he says he shouted. The driver let him out and took off. When the Marine asked an old man standing nearby for a ride, the old man gestured to people nearby, saying, "Very bad people, very bad people."
The Marine eventually found his way back to Bangkok. He remained convinced that he was talking to the real Schwarzman; he just thought she was an unstable, sexually rapacious alcoholic who was being protected by the people who provided security for the Blackstone Group. When he asked for payment, she promised that it was coming in three days. When the fourth day came, he contacted a friend who worked at a bank she had mentioned. "He calls and tells me the [wire transfer numbers] aren't real," says the Marine, "nothing is real."
While the impersonator's voice is now public, her identity still remains a mystery. K2 investigators believe she might be Asian. People who have spoken with her say they can detect very slight markers in her diction that point to Asian nationality. One of her personas is a Chinese film producer who speaks rudimentary English. Investigators also theorize that the woman may have small children, based on a conversation one victim had in which she was overheard telling the children to behave. "Honey, be quiet," she said during that call. "I'm on the phone." (Though they can't rule out that the aside wasn't simply an elaborate component of the impersonation). They also have reason to believe that she may have traveled at various points to the United States. A final clue: Because the scam originated among makeup artists in the U.K., the investigators have speculated that the imposter might be a former makeup artist herself, with some experience in Hollywood.
Investigators believe the con artists went to great lengths to conceive of a scam that would escape the attention of law enforcement. The organization appears to be dispersed across multiple jurisdictions, for example. Calls might originate in the U.K. A victim would answer in the U.S. But money might only be exchanged in Indonesia. And the sums were small enough to be brushed off: one or two thousand dollars at a time. The average financial hit is between $5,000 and $7,000, say K2 investigators, but victims have been lured in multiple times, and several people have been taken for upward of $50,000.
It's unclear how the collected monies are distributed among the perpetrators; a figure referred to as the "boss man" by drivers and translators in Indonesia often runs interference if victims begin to ask too many questions or demand answers. The boss man speaks perfect English and Indonesian and has been known to use threats to coerce the marks into compliance. "He'll tell people, 'You're working but you're here on a travel visa, it would be a shame if you got in trouble for that,'" explains Kotsianas.
In an attempt to ferret out more about the scammers, one of the Hollywood producers has filed an anonymous lawsuit alleging intentional infliction of emotional distress in Los Angeles Superior Court against an unnamed perpetrator. "As a result of defendant's impersonation, Jane Roe has suffered extreme humiliation, embarrassment, mental anguish, anxiety and emotional distress," the complaint reads. The lawsuit hasn't resulted in any revelations about the con woman's identity, but it has given the victims subpoena power, which has allowed them to go after the phone companies and internet providers whose services have allegedly been used by the criminals.
K2 investigators consider the scam a highly complex form of identity theft, which is becoming increasingly common and varied, forcing law enforcement to play catch-up. "Identity theft is not just email and Social Security numbers," says Gebauer. "The perpetrators have to be much more sophisticated these days."
"I have a hard time trusting people," says the photographer during a recent phone call, momentarily breaking down. "She really, really messed with my head."
About halfway through his Indonesia trip, the con woman asked the photographer if he could stay on for a few more days. So he traveled farther afield, to Yogyakarta, a historic city on the island of Java. The longer he stayed, the more their relationship began to evolve, even as it started to take strange turns. At one point, she told him that she knew he had parents on the East Coast, but that perhaps one day she could become his "mother in L.A."
She called him twice daily, sometimes more. The imposter appears to have an unquenchable thirst for engaging with her victims, often for hours a day, for weeks on end. His phone sometimes rang at 4 in the morning. Once, when he told her he was jet-lagged and tired, she grew angry. "I don't work with tired people," she warned him. "In Hollywood, we don't get tired, we're driven. If you're going to be tired, I can find someone else for this job." He apologized and from then on woke up early to do push-ups to "get my energy levels up" in anticipation of her call. He cut back on sleep. He noticed that she questioned him on every modulation of his voice, however slight. He started to pay attention to his speech in ways he never had before. "I would have to defend or explain everything," he says.
Every time he asked why the promised money wasn't showing up, she provided an elaborate excuse, each more well-thought-out than the last. She had entered the wrong ABA number on the wire transfer, so she would need to do a new wire, which meant another five business days. But the holidays were coming, which would delay it further. A wire from a business account took extra time. And on and on. "I took her word for it," he says. "This was a lot of money to me, but for a producer worth millions, it wasn't anything. I assumed she just didn't have perspective on that."
Eventually he returned to the U.S., whereupon she told him that she wanted him to turn right around and head back to Bali — a well-known producer was interested in "that quintessential Bali look," she explained. By now, the photographer had grown suspicious. He drafted an email to the woman and told her he needed to be sure she really was Amy Pascal. He needed to meet with her in person, or on a video Skype. He meant no insult, he told her, but he required some kind of authentication.
"She was really, really angry," he says. He stood his ground, pointing out all the broken promises she had made. She quickly switched tactics, saying it would be a shame if all his work so far was wasted. She came up with more elaborate excuses. "This master manipulator found a way," he says. "I don't know how because I pushed back really hard, but she really screwed me up." He went to Bali.
The trip ended badly, and within a day he was back in L.A. He told her he had blown through his life savings. She kept calling. She promised to meet in New York. She didn't. Toward the end of January, he emailed her but the email bounced back. "I thought to myself, 'Finally, this is it, she's ghosted me,'" says the photographer. "At least now I know." Relief washed over him. Until that night, when she called again.
In addition to the tens of thousands of dollars he forfeited, the photographer struggles to wrap his head around the fact that she toyed with him so aggressively long after his funds were depleted, after she had gotten everything she would ever get, when it was simply a game she appeared to enjoy. "At what point does a crazy evil genius say, 'I've got enough out of this person, let's move on to someone else?'"
Eventually, she did ease off. She called only once a day. She stopped emailing. He contacted the FBI. An agent told him that if he had a signed contract, which he had, it was just a bad business deal. He tried to explain that it was so much more than that. A second FBI agent repeated the same thing. Finally, on his third try, he found a sympathetic ear, but was told the amount of money in question wasn't enough to warrant an investigation. He consulted a lawyer, who found a way to get in touch with the real Amy Pascal's office. "You're one of many," the lawyer told him. Pascal's office had gotten "dozens" of the same complaints over the last several months.
Despite a growing push by law enforcement agencies around the world, the scam continues. K2 fields two to three calls a month from new victims, with the perpetrators seemingly growing more ambitious by the week. Recently, they have begun going after high-net-worth people in the New York area. "As of yesterday, they were targeting a woman who is one of the richest women in the world," says Kotsianas, declining to name the mark. "She trumps everyone else we've seen so far in terms of how well known she is. They're getting more brazen."
The scam has created a sense of chaos in the lives of everyone it touches. Kotsianas recently spoke with someone who, after weeks of back and forth with the imposter, demanded what he was owed in person. "This person showed up at the actual residence of one of these producers and was standing in a New York high rise and shouting 'I want my money!'" says Kotsianas. "Eventually he was put in touch with the woman's real assistant, who of course had no idea what he was talking about."
The former Marine says he and his colleagues were the wrong people to mess with: "These are people who will slit her throat in the dark if we ever find out who she is." The photographer says he has "no doubt that if the mystery is ever solved, we'll learn she's not only brilliant, but probably is some sort of sociopath." He is still coming to terms with it all. "After I realized what happened, I just lay on the floor for a long time. Nothing made sense. She was so involved with me, knew everything about me. Then I learn she had the same level of detailed relationship with all these other people. It's just mind-blowing."
FORGERS, FAKERS AND FILCHERS: A HISTORY OF HOLLYWOOD CONS
Some of the finest acting in town has been by scammers posing as stars, fleecing studios and selling artwork they never owned.
It would have been petty forgery, barely worth noting, except the guy who was forging the checks turned out to be the head of Columbia Pictures. Begelman got caught in 1977 when actor Cliff Robertson received a form from the IRS for a $10,000 payment from the studio that Robertson knew he'd never been paid. The ensuing investigation traced the bogus check with Robertson's fake signature back to Begelman, who had been forging tens of thousands of dollars of hot checks all over town. "But what was really interesting about it," says Wall Street Journal reporter David McClintick, who wrote Indecent Exposure, the best-selling 1982 book about the scandal, "was the drama it caused in the studio. They wanted to keep it out of the press, so there was a big battle on the board of directors over whether or not to fire Begelman." He ended up getting fired, all right, although his film career didn't end. He went on to become CEO of MGM in 1980 and then, in 1984, started his own production company, Gladden Entertainment, which went bankrupt in the early 1990s. A few years later, in 1995, he committed suicide at age 73.
It's not every scamster who gets played by Will Smith in the movie version of his life. But what Six Degrees of Separation didn't show was what happened to Hampton after John Guare's 1990 play and then Smith's 1993 film revealed to the world how, in the 1980s, Hampton conned wealthy Manhattanites out of money by convincing them that he was Sidney Poitier's son. After unsuccessfully (and ironically) suing Guare for "stealing" his life story, he went on to continue scamming people with false identities — pretending to be a Vogue reporter in Seattle who lost his wallet on the way to interview Bill Gates — before he died in 2003 at age 39 of AIDS-related causes.
He didn't look much like Stanley Kubrick — he didn't even have a beard — but for a couple of years in the early 1990s, he dined out in London pretending to be the reclusive American director. Among those who picked up checks thinking they were breaking bread with the Clockwork Orange auteur: the otherwise razor-sharp Frank Rich, then theater critic for The New York Times, who didn't learn till later that he'd been scammed by a former travel agent turned petty thief. Conway finally got caught when he tried to sign Kubrick's name to a bank loan to open a gay bar in London's Soho. He died of cardiac thrombosis in 1998, just months before the real Kubrick's death in 1999.
The Babe Ruth of celebrity identity theft, Rocancourt came to Hollywood in 1991 — fleeing French police chasing him on forgery charges — and began a series of lucrative impersonations. For a while, he was Sophia Loren's son, then he became Dino De Laurentiis' nephew, all the while making pals with celebrities like Mickey Rourke (who let him live in his house for a time) and Jean-Claude Van Damme (who talked about letting him produce one of his movies). But his most ambitious con was in the summer of 2000, in the Hamptons, where he pretended to be Christopher Rockefeller, scion of the famous banking family, and persuaded East Coast elites to invest money with him. He pocketed the cash (he once claimed he'd made a lifetime total of $40 million from his scams) and took off for Canada, where he was arrested and served time in prison, before returning to France, where he ended up serving more time.
Known as the "Bernie Madoff of the art world," Salander fleeced stars like John McEnroe (who invested $2 million in a painting by Arshile Gorky that Salander didn't actually own) and Robert De Niro (who lost paintings by his father, an abstract expressionist, when Salander sold them without permission). Salander's scams made him almost as wealthy as Madoff: He had a private jet, a six-story townhouse on the Upper East Side and a 66-acre upstate estate where he built his own baseball stadium. But in 2010, it all came crashing down. Convicted of fraud, he was sentenced to 18 years in prison. —Benjamin Svetkey
This story first appeared in the July 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.