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FBI officials and the NYPD have opened investigations into the identity of a con artist who impersonates powerful female entertainment industry executives in order to scam industry workers, sources with knowledge of both operations tell The Hollywood Reporter.
The moves come after tips began pouring in following the publication of “Hunting the Con Queen of Hollywood” in THR on July 11, which detailed a privately funded investigation of the global scam and included two voice recordings of the alleged imposter in action.
The “Con Queen” has stolen hundreds of thousands of dollars by impersonating female industry executives, including former Sony Pictures chair Amy Pascal, Star Wars producer Kathleen Kennedy and Homeland director Lesli Linka Glatter.
According to sources, there is some evidence to suggest that the “Queen” may in fact be a man.
At least one of the tips that investigators are actively pursuing involves a male con artist who appears able to disguise his voice to mimic the powerful women. Though investigators will not divulge details of the ongoing case, one person who has been briefed confirms to THR that a special unit within the NYPD is “working to confirm the identity of the scammer.” At the same time, the FBI has opened up a parallel investigation that spans the U.S., Europe and Asia. The NYPD and the FBI both declined to comment.
Meanwhile, the con appears to be continuing unabated. Two more high-profile women have been impersonated recently by the scammer, and more victims continue to emerge. One of the newly impersonated individuals is a successful Hollywood executive. The other is a high-net-worth public figure. Sources declined to reveal the identities of the women.
Last month’s THR investigation detailed the efforts of corporate security firm K2 Intelligence, a company hired by several of the impersonated executives.
The “Con Queen” ruse is centered around a cunning imposter who, perhaps with the help of a team of collaborators based in Indonesia and, possibly, the U.K., uses the personae of these powerful executives to persuade people in the industry — stylists, stuntmen, photographers and others — to travel to Indonesia with promises of work.
Once there, the “marks” are asked to hand over their own money for upfront travel costs, with promises of reimbursement. The work never materializes, and the targets are never paid. It is estimated that collectively the con artists’ victims have forked over hundreds of thousands of dollars. In addition, many of them have suffered a psychological and emotional toll from their long exposure to the con artist’s deceptions.
After publication, THR received multiple tips suggesting that the voice heard in the recordings might actually belong to a man. Prompted by these tips, THR enlisted two linguists to analyze the recordings of the scammer. The linguists’ findings actually reinforce K2’s original conclusion that the person on the tapes is a woman, or perhaps two different women.
“The impersonators in both videos have a female voice,” says Juliana Wijaya, a lecturer who teaches Indonesian languages at UCLA.
A second linguist says the imposter is probably an Asian female. “I conclude that both voices are female,” says Carole Chaski, a forensic linguist based in Delaware who directs the non-profit Institute for Linguistic Evidence, which provides analysis for criminal and civil cases. Chaski points to the relatively high pitch of the imposter’s voice, the occasional whispering and other linguistic markers, such as “prosodic variation,” which describes the range of a voice’s pitch, that indicate a likely female voice.
Chaski, who has testified as an expert in state and federal cases, believes that while the speaker on the tapes is “fluent” in English, the voice is not a “native American” speaker. “The accent sounds to me like Asian English, possibly from Malaysia, Indonesia or the Philippines,” Chaski says. “The traces of British accent could be due to age, with the person having been educated in a British-dominant country before the 1990s when American English became more common in schools in Asia, or it could be due to having lived in the U.K.”
Her findings jibe with the conclusions of K2 investigators, who had previously found that the imposter was likely an Asian woman, fluent in English, but based — and thus perhaps from — outside of the U.S.
Both linguists working with THR caution that more audio evidence could alter their assessments.
Meanwhile, a lingering question for investigators is whether the same person or group of people is responsible for all of the alleged cases of impersonation.
In fact, several recent tips indicate that the scam may date back to at least 2013, and perhaps even earlier, suggesting that it has morphed and evolved over time. It’s also possible that multiple similar scams have been underway contemporaneously.
For instance, in late 2016, THR ran a story about an elaborate fraud taking place across Asia by a group targeting makeup artists and their agents with promises of work on a film being produced by the China Film Corporation. The scammer in this case was a woman calling herself Li Duan Zhao, or Leslie. The work offers were fraudulent and the promised production, an action-thriller called The Master, never materialized, but not before plenty of people lost a lot of money. It remains unclear whether the perpetrators of both scams are the same.
In recent months, say sources, the scam appears to be moving more and more away from Hollywood and increasingly into the world of wealthy public figures, whose reputations and life stories can easily mined online.
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