The Story Of A Scam That Lured Hollywood Professionals To Indonesia
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
It's a story that sounds like a Hollywood movie. For several years, creative professionals in the entertainment industry - so think photographers, stunt people, actors - they have been lured to Indonesia on the promise of work from major Hollywood figures. Once there, they are tricked out of thousands of dollars. The promised work never materializes. At the center of this deception is a mysterious figure known as the con queen of Hollywood.
Well, on Monday the FBI launched a new website for victims of the scam. Scott Johnson of The Hollywood Reporter first reported on the scheme, and he joins me now.
SCOTT JOHNSON: Hi.
KELLY: So describe how this scam works.
JOHNSON: Yeah, so the victims will get an email from a well-known Hollywood person with what looks like a tantalizing job opportunity in Indonesia. They'll book a plane trip usually, get there. And once there, they'll be asked to start paying for ancillary services like driving, translating, things like that.
KELLY: So tell me one story of one of the people you interviewed who had this happen to them.
JOHNSON: Well, there was a freelance photographer I spoke to at some length who thought he was dealing with Amy Pascal, who was the former head of Sony and a very prominent Hollywood producer, and only later discovered that he'd been dealing with an imposter the whole time. But in the course of the scam, he had spent tens and tens of thousands of dollars. So that was sort of one element of the betrayal.
The other element was that a lot of the victims almost develop a kind of relationship with the con queen. So there's a great deal of personal betrayal that's involved here and psychological manipulation. And so the wounds that a lot of the victims feel are quite deep and, in some cases, very long lasting.
KELLY: So I want to bring in the voice of the con queen because you managed to obtain two audio recordings of her speaking. These were from 2015 and 2016. And I should add we're calling her the con queen because investigators don't know who this is. Is that right?
JOHNSON: Right. There are accomplices who are on the ground in Jakarta, which is sort of the epicenter of where the fraud is taking place because that's where the money is typically handed over. But there is one person at the center, and that person is still at large.
KELLY: OK. So let's hear her. You've got two recordings. In the first one, she is rebuking the agent of one of the victims about a missed flight.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: To be very blunt with you, when I travel internationally, I use this number. It's registered 10 years ago, OK?
KELLY: And then you have a second recording where she sounds totally different. She - here she is deflecting questions about why she has been missing payments.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I don't understand what you're talking about, another makeup artist in Southeast Asia...
KELLY: Scott Johnson, are we 100% sure this is the same person?
JOHNSON: Nothing is 100%, but we are very, very sure, yes, that this is one person in the guise of multiple people. And we're talking more voices, more personas, more personalities, more accents. This is somebody who is exceptionally skilled at voice work and impersonation, accents and particularly a kind of psychological artistry that involves, you know, getting people to go along with what seems in many cases like a sort of improbable scenario, you know, job offers that are too good to be true. But the con queen has this ability to get people to go along with these things in a way that perhaps most people wouldn't.
KELLY: What is the scale of this? How many victims are we talking?
JOHNSON: Hundreds of victims at this point. And taken together, all these hundreds of victims and their several thousand dollars apiece adds up to a huge financial toll and, more importantly I think, a massive psychological toll for a huge segment of the population that is trying to make it in the creative industries, be they stunt people, hairdressers, up and coming directors, actors and so forth.
KELLY: Thank you, Scott.
JOHNSON: Thank you.
KELLY: Scott Johnson of The Hollywood Reporter. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.