Credit: Illustrations by Robert Meganck

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This is the story in which you learn how a graduate of Columbia Law School—that’s me—and almost 80 other people, who really should have known better, got suckered into giving away all our personal details as well as up to two months of our lives for “jobs” that never actually existed. And then you learn why it all happened the way it did.

How I Got Involved With The Scam

An intriguing Craigslist job ad turned up on June 21 of this year at a time when I was feeling particularly bleak. I had spent the better part of that morning losing at online Scrabble and wondering if I had enough money to get a small falafel for lunch. Here is the ad; if you had been in my shoes, you’d have perked up at it, too:

Our financial information research company is going to be temporarily adding 15 top tier legal minds to our staff in order to conduct an intensive due diligence and legal research project in Washington DC. We are hiring individuals who are independent and can work from their home office and local law libraries yet can still be accountable to a team and are available to begin immediately. Areas of law that will be utilized during this project are: corporate, mergers & acquisitions, intellectual property, securities, contract (product licenses), and copyright law. Conducting time sensitive world class research, writing memos to upper management, and the production of contract drafts and strategic partnership and licensing proposals will be required.

Only the best need apply. $21k for full time June 25 – Aug 20 employment. Again, only the best need apply.

I might not be the best, but I was desperate. I e-mailed my résumé along with a hopelessly earnest cover letter that extolled my superior research skills and my ability to keep even the most salacious secret. I was sure I’d get the job.

But after a week, I hadn’t heard anything. I left D.C., where I was staying on a leaky air mattress with a friend who kept asking when I could contribute my share of the rent, and went back to my parents’ house in Rhode Island, where I took my dog for walks on the neighborhood beach and cried a lot. I had just come back to America after living overseas for five-and-a-half years on Saipan, a small tropical island near Guam. On Saipan, I had work and a great apartment. For some reason I thought I’d slip into a fully formed life back in America, too, one where my novel, which I’d taken the last year off to write, would be sold right away. But it didn’t happen, none of it happened, and I was having a crisis.

And then on June 30, I got this e-mail (edited slightly):

Good Evening:

Additions to our original 15 team members are immediately necessary as our company has decided to move forward with a full fledged…effort related to a large scale and confidential business combination within the financial information industry.

We are seeking 45 team members to assist in several areas. This project is difficult, important, special, and unique. The compensation has been set at 14k per month for 2 months. From what we have read about your history we believe you have demonstrated the ability to deliver on the level required of our team members.

If you are immediately available please respond to this e-mail with a statement that speaks to your ability to fanatically devote your entire intellectual acumen to this endeavor over the next 8 weeks. In your response include your potential team assignment preference from the following areas: Intellectual Property; Contracts & Negotiations; Technical Writing; Due Diligence; Leadership (both proven and untested)….

If your response strikes us as exceptional we will contact you and provide more information about our company and the assignment.

Thank You.
Hillary Newman
Office of the General Counsel

This e-mail struck me as extremely weird. How could I sell myself as someone who would devote two months of my extremely valuable intellectual acumen to this project, when I didn’t know what this project was?

Never mind. I wrote another painfully sincere e-mail to Hillary Newman saying that I was smart and hardworking and had two months free for the project, and I pretty much figured that was the end of it —time to sulk and drink again—except that four days later, I got an e-mail inviting me to join the company as a member of their legal team (duties, according to the e-mail, included negotiating and drafting contracts, as well as doing some other things I did not know how to do).

In this e-mail, I got an employment contract, too, reiterating the $14,000-a-month salary. The first month’s pay would come in two-and-a-half weeks. The contract was between me and two companies—one called the Global Speculator, located in McLean, Va., and another called the Alulim Willow Property Group whose headquarters, the contract said, were in India.

A Google search revealed that the Global Speculator had a placeholder Web site, theglobalspeculator.com, and there was nothing about Alulim Willow Property Group. The Internet had nothing to say about Hillary Newman or the person who was supposed to sign my contract, either, a person named James P. Cook.

This lack of Internet-accessible information was also weird. The fact that I would be hired to do this work without an interview seemed weirder still. But none of it was enough to make me delete the e-mail, not with $14,000 a month at stake and me so desperate for an income and my own place to live.

I said to my mother, “Mom, to me this feels like I’ve met someone on the Internet, and I think maybe I want to go on a date with him, and he’s asking where I want to register for our wedding.”

And my mother said, a light in her eyes, “You think you might get married soon, too?”

The Scam Begins

I signed the contract. I also filled in my Social Security number on tax forms and wrote out my bank account number on a direct-deposit form. I faxed these documents to someone called Margaret, the company’s chief administrator, who (Google told me) may have been in some legal trouble in Qatar and who also shared a fax number with a hardware store in Maine. When my brother—also living with my parents at this time (they were so proud) —suggested that I might not want to give away my identity so easily to people of questionable provenance, I reminded him that there was no money in my bank account to steal, and my identity was also, at the time, pretty worthless.

“Someone wants to be me?” I said. “Bully on them.”

But instead of someone taking my identity and running, I got a company e-mail account. Its existence seemed to indicate that the Global Speculator was a real thing; the fact that Margaret sent out instructions that we were each to come up with a motivational quote and use it in our company e-mail signature line seemed obnoxiously validating, too. Who but a real live bureaucracy would have a rigid e-mail signature line policy? I still had no work to do, still had no idea who I was working for, but I did spend a good long time coming up with my signature line quote, and finally I decided on lyrics from a John Denver song, “The Hitchhiker”:

Where you’re headed I don’t mind
I ain’t been there in some time
And it’s just exactly where I want to go.

Other people’s quotes were by Einstein and Gandhi and the Dalai Lama, and deep down I knew that any company that would let me use this John Denver quote in my signature line could not possibly be a real company, but at the time I just liked feeling sassy and employed.

On July 9, the team had a conference call, which I took in my pajamas, sitting on the floor in my parents’ living room. The call was led by a man named Gerald Edward, who identified himself as the Global Speculator’s acting chief operating officer. Gerald Edward had a deep, intelligent, arrogant voice. He told us that the Global Speculator was going to be a new Web site that would bring comprehensive information about investing in every country in the world to small-money investors. This Web site was going to revolutionize investment opportunities, he said, by putting important information about world markets in front of billions of eyeballs.

This idea seemed just dull and practical enough to be highly profitable. But what of getting paid? Gerald Edward said that the company had $50 million to spend before the end of the summer, but that the funders wanted to remain anonymous for now, so we could not be given their identities or more information than what we had. I thought, naively but not unreasonably: Maybe startups are like this?

This lack of information was disquieting, but the Global Speculator team was reassuring: lawyers, researchers, writers, computer programmers, designers, administrators, executive assistants, and the one mathematician named Kermit, some of whom had been working since early June, when I first saw the Craigslist ad. And I trusted the wisdom of the group: There were almost 80 people working on this project. That is a lot of people, too many for everyone to be as silly and desperate as me. Surely someone in the group had a good reason to be there, and I thought I’d ride along on their coattails. Plus, one of my new co-workers was, it turned out, someone I’d worked with on Saipan, and I marveled at this reassuring coincidence; I knew this guy was smart, and if he was willing to believe that this was a legitimate enterprise then perhaps it really was. Unfortunately, I think he might have applied some of that reasoning to me.

Soon after the call, my first assignment came in. The work was tedious, much like a real job. I had to research a bunch of things about investing in a long list of Central European countries: Latvia, Slovenia, Slovakia, and so on. Do they have stock markets? What sorts of equities and bonds are available in those markets? Do they have foreign exchange markets? Money markets? Fixed-income investment opportunities? Are there laws governing foreign investment in these things?

Of course, the reason this Global Speculator Web site seemed like a good idea in the first place was because there wasn’t any place on the Internet where you could go get answers to these questions. Most information about investing in, say, Slovenia, was not in English. I do not speak Slovenian. But I got up every day and answered the morning message sent out by an executive assistant—she’d e-mail and say, “This is your morning Roll Call!” and I’d reply “Good morning! I’m here!”—and then I’d spend eight or 10 or 12 hours on my computer trying to find out what a fixed-income investment opportunity is and how you’d know if Slovenia offered one.

This work, quite frankly, sucked. By now you know that money is not my strong suit; researching the intricacies of foreign investment in Central European countries was very much outside my ken. But I am a lawyer, and I have been asked—by legitimate clients, even—to do lots of work that is outside my ken. That is what you do when you’re a lawyer. You figure out how to learn what you don’t know, and you quickly become an expert in new, tricky fields. Haven’t you ever noticed that lawyers know everything?

And besides, whenever Slovenia’s investment opportunities were too obscure, I thought about the money. Fourteen thousand dollars a month. Even a fraction of that could get me an apartment, a haircut, some new clothes, student loan payments, tickets to Kuala Lumpur…

I tried to keep my expectations in check. I called this my “job” in scare quotes and laughed and said that I thought one day my “boss” would steal my “identity.” Whenever I talked about the Global Speculator with friends or with my parents, I always made sure to say that I still didn’t know enough about this whole thing to be sure I’d really get the money. But I was sure I’d get it. This work was too hard, too ordinary, and I needed the money too badly, to go uncompensated.

Plus, I thought, no one would ask for all that personal information and steal our identities only to keep us working on this dull project while they had a good time using our brand new credit cards. They’d get our Social Security numbers and run.

And I had another thought: Who indeed would be stupid or brazen enough to hire all these lawyers and then cheat them out of money?

My brother said, “You know, it’s that kind of cockiness that would make someone brazen enough to cheat a bunch of lawyers. You all think no one would cheat you, so you let down your guard.”

OK, but still, I reasoned, let’s say it is a plan to cheat us: What’s the payoff? What would they do with all this research on Slovenia’s investment opportunities if this Web site weren’t for real? What could anyone do with all this work that would make it worth going through the trouble of cheating us?

It was this dead-end question that gave me the most confidence of all. I could not fathom what the point of all this would be if it weren’t for what Gerald Edward said it was.

The Scam Gets Loopier, And We Do Not Notice

On July 19, my 34th birthday, we had another conference call, and during it Gerald said that the Global Speculator was going to try to get the Bancroft family, which owned Dow Jones and the Wall Street Journal, to sell to the Global Speculator instead of to Rupert Murdoch. “They don’t want to sell to Murdoch,” Gerald said in his deep, intelligent, arrogant voice. “They’ll want to sell to us because we’ll let them keep control—we just want to unify our businesses.”

Gerald said he had a meeting with the Bancrofts in a week, and that he’d need us to work at full speed to put together a packet of materials that he could bring to them. We needed to get the Web site put together; we needed our country research to be finished. I was tasked with figuring out the top financial Web sites in the world and then writing scathing critiques of them. I was supposed to write about how these sites purported to be sources of objective financial information, but that in fact they were in the business of delivering consumers to advertisers, no more and no less. (The Global Speculator was going to distinguish itself by not accepting advertising. It was going to fund itself with subscriptions, at $5 a pop.)

“Are you sure this is what Gerald wants?” I asked the lawyer who was coordinating this part of the project. “This is kind of hackneyed stuff. I mean, it’s an old argument that any media with advertisers isn’t really objective, but it isn’t a very powerful argument.”

“I’m sure,” she said. “Just write it.”

There wasn’t time to agonize over hackneyed and spurious critiques, anyway. Gerald had us working until the wee hours of the morning on his project; he had us working on the weekends. While we lawyers did our work, designers worked on the logo, programmers worked on functionality, Kermit the mathematician did something (I never found out what). I was very happy that I would soon have my own place to live, since I was now officially too old to be blowup-bed surfing or living with my parents. The materials all came together. By Monday evening, they looked wonderful. We had gelled as a team and had made something to be proud of—the 79 of us worked together, from our homes and in our pajamas, day and night until we had a handsome logo, some specious but tough critiques of our competitors’ sites, and a pretty package for the Bancrofts. At least we thought we did.

The Scam Ends, And We Notice But Do Not Understand

Gerald’s meeting with the Bancrofts was supposed to take place the afternoon of Monday, July 23. Our first payday was to be the next day. When I woke up on that Tuesday, before I had my coffee even, I checked my bank account online to see if I was richer by $14,000. And, of course, I was not. My mom found me furiously scanning the New York Times business section for perhaps the first time in my life and asked if I had gotten paid or knew what happened with the Wall Street Journal. I screamed at her to leave me alone.

By midmorning about 4,000 e-mails had gone around among the unpaid Global Speculator staff. Many of these e-mails alleged that this whole project had been a scam. These e-mails had the word “SCAM” followed by five exclamation points as their subject lines. But I insisted to my co-workers that this was not the case. What was the scam, if this was one? Why would we have done all this? For nothing? Moreover, how could I have done all this boring work and be as bad off as I had been when it started? Did this mean no Kuala Lumpur? No falafel?

Gerald sent an e-mail to everyone late in the day. He said that the money was being wired into our accounts and should be there by Thursday at the latest. Or maybe a few day after that. This delay, he said, was a normal payroll glitch, an administrative problem that could happen with any new company.

On Thursday, July 26, I got an e-mail from the embassy of one of the countries I’d been researching. I had e-mailed them a week or so earlier to ask for some information, and they had just responded. I forwarded the message to Gerald, with a note that said, “Do you still need this information?”

Gerald wrote back: “Of course we need the info! You are a valuable member of the team Arin. I’m looking forward to everybody getting back to work on Monday.”

“Me, too,” I wrote back. “It’ll be nice when this drama is over.” I really hoped that the drama would end soon, and, well, it felt so good to get this little bit of praise from my boss, who was probably not going to pay me the money I so badly needed.

In the next few days, most of the Global Speculator team continued to e-mail one another. One especially clever lawyer sent a message asking for everyone’s personal address so that, in case the company system was shut down, we could coordinate our efforts in getting paid. There were hundreds of e-mails about calling the police and changing bank account numbers and even some heartbreaking missives that just said: “Why?” It was depressing beyond words to get terrified, angry e-mails from co-workers that were followed by motivational quotes like this one:

Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed is more important than any other.—Abraham Lincoln

On Saturday, July 28, we had not gotten paid, and Gerald sent an e-mail to the group, saying that our pay would be to us by Monday, and that we would resume work after that. We never heard from Gerald Edward again.

I did continue to hear from my fellow dupees, who expressed a panoply of sad and predictable emotions: hope that our project would continue and our pay would eventually come, shock that this had fallen apart after all the work we’d done, fear that our personal information—our Social Security numbers and bank account information—would be sold to terrorists. People said they were really suffering. At least one woman, an executive assistant in the Ozarks, had bought a car with the promised money. A writer in St. Louis had quit one job and turned down another based on this job’s excellent pay.

They were having trouble sleeping and didn’t know who to trust anymore, which before long led to members of the team accusing other members of the team of having been complicit. The lawyers, especially, took a beating on this front. Some of our teammates said it was understandable that writers and executive assistants and even mathematicians named Kermit had been duped, but it was unbelievable that the lawyers hadn’t done a better job of making sure that Gerald Edward and the Global Speculator were on the up-and-up before we’d all become so involved. As criticisms go, it seemed spot-on.

And yet the evidence had all been there from the beginning, for anyone—not just lawyers—to see, and it was this obviousness that made me feel worst of all. This job had so clearly been all wrong from the start. We were going to buy the Wall Street Journal? Come on!

But I understood why I’d let myself get caught up in it all the same. This work had represented my freedom. It had been a powerful wish-fulfillment fantasy, albeit one that involved too much time thinking about Slovenia’s equities market. My dreams of haircuts and Kuala Lumpur and paying off my student loans and buying health insurance…all dashed, leaving me with the same banal reality I’d returned from the tropics to face.

My mother loaned me some money, and I moved back to my very understanding friend’s apartment in D.C. I signed up to do legal temp work. It was not the free-spirited, work-in-pajamas existence I had hoped for and it did not leave me a lot of time to work on my next novel, but it was OK.

When it comes down to it, I realized I had not lost all that much, except, of course for my dreams, my pride, and a few weeks of my time. And I gained something else: a distinct, somewhat academic interest in what had happened to us. I wanted to understand why Gerald Edward had us working like educated dogs, all for nothing.

The Answer, I Think

The group of 79 “employees” splintered up into smaller groups. I was part of a group of eight Global Speculator types, mostly lawyers but a couple of writers, too. This group wanted to file a lawsuit against Gerald Edward and Global Speculator. It was hard to think much about getting money from the Global Speculator at this point; it felt like another fantasy. For me, the attraction of the group was being able to talk some more about it with people who understood this fiasco from the inside. We were in daily contact. We each did what we could to track down leads. It was mostly unavailing until July 31 when Margaret—you will remember her as the chief administrator for the Global Speculator, the person who had spent time in Qatar—sent a message to us all saying that she had known this was a scam for a few days longer than the rest of us and that she had agonized over telling us what she knew. She felt guilty, she said, and to assuage this guilt, she sent us Gerald’s e-mail password, which happened to be: fooledyou. Well, indeed.

Gerald’s account was full of leads. For example, there was some pretty compelling evidence from several documents and bills that Gerald’s real name was John McDonald. We also found some evidence that Gerald/John had met with investors in Boston and that a suspiciously similar-sounding John McDonald had been arrested in Boston for securities fraud committed in Maryland a few years back (when we spoke with people at the Maryland prosecutor’s office about this coincidence, they said they thought our Gerald Edward and their John McDonald might be the same person, but they were still trying to confirm it).

There were some addresses, too, including one on Massachusetts Avenue, one in the 1400 block of 6th Street NW and another in the 1000 block of 11th Street NW. I went there and knocked on doors and left notes, but did not find John McDonald or Gerald Edward or the Global Speculator.

I enjoyed this part of the job more than I’d liked the Slovenia part of it—this was fun, if still perplexing. Boy, had we been stupid! But now we were gaining information, bit by bit, small-time detectives on the trail of our cleverly fraudulent employer.

My splinter group sent around updates and messages of support and we got to know one another well in the process. I heard about the reasons these others had gotten involved with the Global Speculator, despite its whiff of fraud from the start: One person had treated the job like a poker hand, deciding that even if the odds of being paid were low, the potential payoff was great enough to go ahead and do the work; another person had seen the Global Speculator as an excellent excuse for quitting a job he’d hated for a long time; yet another, a lawyer in his 60s, had just sold his long-time business and was looking for something to keep him feeling engaged.

The group got together for drinks at Mackey’s Public House downtown and traded theories about what John McDonald had really wanted from us. Maybe our work was being used to lure investors, and John McDonald was going to steal the investors’ money. The lawyer in his 60s offered up the possibility this was an elaborate prank designed to embarrass the lot of us—a sort of “see what I can get you to do based on no more than a Craigslist ad.” None of these reasons rang true with me, and when the e-mails among the group mostly stopped—which they did, in mid-August as people got new jobs and stopped caring so much about those two-and-a-half weeks in July—I kept looking through Gerald/John’s e-mails. A lawsuit was filed by the splinter group against Gerald/John eventually, but I was no longer interested in the money; I just wanted to understand why. And while there is a lot I still don’t know and might never know, I do think I came to understand why this all happened.

In mid-August, about a month after it began, I was once again perusing Gerald/John’s e-mail, looking for overlooked clues. I found one: a July 27 e-mail from Gerald/John’s account to a strange gmail address. The e-mail simply told the recipient, Sheena, to give the two attached documents her undivided attention; the attachments were more revealing.

The first document was called “Read This First.” Here’s an edited version of what it said (edited only because John McDonald is clever but verbose):

To My Cherished Mademoiselle:

Before we die we must accomplish something unequivocal for the benefit of this planet. I can imagine all of the great letters that have been written….

This is one of those great letters….

We can’t organize a benefit concert or have people wearing T-shirts with a slogan or just be very articulate and public about “what is wrong with the world.”…I know exactly what we have to do, literally. It’s not rocket science, in fact rocket science itself is not that complicated….

What I will propose to you is just that, you and I fixing global poverty, not writing books or giving interviews or any bullshit, just getting it done….

Wasn’t your family’s patriarch a great general? Your family legacy comes from a man of action. The world is at War Sheena, and on the heels of an even greater World War. You must become the smartest, most savvy, cunning and intelligent woman on the planet. Right now. You have gone through all of the necessary stages that each hero must go through before they must save their people.…

Plain English we need to own a global consulting company and a global bank. Not a bank to help the poor, just a great global bank. New cities need to be built, and cities aren’t built without banks.…

Now think of India. Imagine if in 18 months you could raise any amount of capital for projects that could employ (and capture the imagination of) hundreds of thousands of people. Imagine if you could do it and still live a calm life. Imagine the sense of pride within your family of you actually doing something.…

I have designed a global financial information tool that tens of millions of people will find useful. These individuals will pay for $5 per month for the tool and we will have the initial capital required to invest in a bank. I have recruited a great team of bright minds to build the tool. I have hired a team of great attorneys to execute my plan (for the tool).

Rupert Murdoch is trying to buy Dow Jones, Inc. the parent of the Wall Street Journal. The current owners are debating whether or not to sell. Think about it, they see goofy kids get $6 billion for their website companies and Rupert will only offer $2 billion for “The Wall Street Journal.” They are seeking an alternative solution to their money needs and long term wealth creation strategy. They know that there is untapped value in the Internet, they just have no imagination. My attorneys have prepared an analysis of the Bancroft’s finances, it is attached.…

I have all of the people in place; I just need a true and able confidant who can help me orchestrate the transition. This will require you flying around the country with me meeting with investors and prospective permanent executives and content partners. I will be behind the scenes yet be your closest aide.…I have shared with nobody my designs for a global consulting company and bank. You are the only one that knows. I trust you with my own life purpose hoping you are the kindred spirit whom will fly with me. You are the artist; I am the beam of light.…

You promised you would work with me. I need you to be interim CEO for a few weeks while we raise money and recruit permanent executive leadership. It would be very sexy for you to have created a quick $50 million of your own on something that was corporate, intelligent, and global, especially at your age. Your poise and eloquence applied to this project will represent it in the way I need for the completion of Phase I.

I know that you are busy and living your life but this is the most intelligent and well thought out purposeful activity you could engage yourself in…

The next document, called “Read This Second,” was the material we had put together for the Bancrofts, with the embarrassing critique about financial Web sites that allow advertising. The header read:

The Global Speculator
Preliminary Private Placement
Memorandum EXHIBIT
And CONFIDENTIAL REPORT
PREPARED FOR:
Sheena K.G.

Our names, the lawyers of the group, were also on the front page. So much for the Bancrofts. So much for not being associated with the specious critique. So much for all I thought I’d known and understood, which was not, admittedly, much. I suddenly knew what this whole Global Speculator project had been: It was a love letter, to the Cherished Mademoiselle Sheena K.G.

I e-mailed Sheena at her gmail address to ask if I could call her to talk about John McDonald. She responded that that would be OK. We talked a day later as I walked back to my generous friend’s apartment from my temp job.

Sheena, a 23-year-old who asked that her last name not be printed, says she met John McDonald on a bus in Georgetown three or four years ago. She bummed a smoke off of him; he started calling her every six months or so to hang out and get a cognac.

Sheena says John McDonald is in his late 20s or early 30s. She says he’s charismatic and used to be handsome, though he was looking hard and worn when she saw him last. When he would turn up to meet her for cognac, it was usually late, and he was wearing a tuxedo, which did not faze Sheena because she figured D.C. is the kind of place where you might be wearing a tuxedo on any given night. She hadn’t seen John McDonald in a long time, though, because she’d been in India, where her parents were from, and had gone from India to Oklahoma to teach school.

Sheena told me that John McDonald always called her from different phone numbers; he was also always changing e-mail addresses. It didn’t bother her because she didn’t want anything from him and, she said, her life had a lot of strange people in it who just came and went. John was always telling lies, though, and Sheena said it did bother her that he never thought she was smart enough to see through them. One time he told her that he was doing fundraising for a ballet company and had raised $30 million in three weeks, which she knew wasn’t true; it wasn’t even possible.

Sheena got John’s e-mail asking her to be the CEO of the Global Speculator and never responded. She could tell that the project was ridiculous and impossible, and she found it insulting that he would even suggest she might be CEO of any company that had anything to do with finance. “I studied poetry,” she said to me.

I told Sheena my new theory, that John McDonald had concocted this whole scheme in order to woo her, that wooing her was the point of everything—of my researching Slovenia’s equities laws, of us ripping apart the Motley Fool for accepting advertising, of the 79 administrators, lawyers, researchers, writers, and the mathematician named Kermit working so hard on such boring work, turning down other work opportunities, giving up their intellectual acumen, picking up then dropping so many fantasies of how the money would make our lives OK. It was for love.

“What do you think?” I asked her.

“He did always hit on me,” Sheena said. “But I’m gay.”