EXCLUSIVE: An elaborate global scam is being perpetrated on below-the-line Hollywood professionals, some of whom have lost sums as high as $150,000. The victims find themselves seduced by the promise of a dream career job, offered most often in a call from a knowledgeable and very convincing woman claiming to be a powerful female producer-financier.
The woman is an imposter who has used names that sources said include Gigi Pritzker, Sherry Lansing, Amy Pascal, Stacey Snider, Homeland director-producer Lesli Linka Glatter and others. The caller drops casual reference of professionals that the victim knows, people who would make a recommendation in a business that is relationship-based. The imposter, who always calls and receives calls on a cell phone, sets the hook by offering these men their dream jobs, for large sums of money. She gets them to sign non-disclosure agreements — which dissuades potential victims from going back to their friends to see if in fact a recommendation was made, or from calling the actual offices of the female film producer-financier.
Emails are sent from bogus domains that are very close to the names of the actual prominent women, who themselves are being victimized and are horrified when victims swindled out of money call their offices after the fact, when the perpetrators have disappeared. This usually happens when victims have been lured to Indonesia. Presented with real-looking wire transfers that need a day or two to become official, victims are cajoled into fronting thousands of dollars to cover certain costs – transportation used in scouting trips is a common ploy – that the victim is convinced will be reimbursed.
The whole thing is a scam, which becomes painfully clear when the victim finds his contacts on the ground have disappeared, after the money is secured. By the time the person realizes they’ve spent money for a project that doesn’t exist, there is a good chance that over the course of dozens of phone calls, the victims have likely introduced the caller to other potential victims, who welcome the opportunity for employment since that woman has come recommended by the previous victim.
The victims are smart people. In some cases, victims are put up in hotels, and driven all over Indonesia under the guise of location scouting or for the purposes of planning security on a shoot there. Victims are asked to cover chauffeur charges. The amounts bilked range from $3000 to $50,000. The victim list started with aspiring hair and makeup artists from the UK; more recently, the list has swelled to include stuntmen, bodybuilders, bodyguards, social media influencers and assistant directors. There are also former Navy SEALs and ex-servicemen who routinely take jobs around the world and often find themselves fronting cash for which they are reimbursed. Only here, the scammers scatter once the money changes hands. The reimbursement never comes, nor does the promised employment.
This whole thing is shadowy, and even the private security types who are investigating the scam – likely on behalf of one or more of the women whose identities are being appropriated by the female caller or callers – haven’t been able to identify the perpetrators.
Several came to Deadline in hopes of at least slowing down the scammers by shining a light on the ruse. Their message is basically this: If a high net worth producer with a seductive voice calls with an employment offer that seems too good to be true, it probably is not real. At the very least, people who receive such a call better contact the actual offices of that producer to find out if in fact that call was made.
Various iterations of this scam have been perpetrated for the past 18 months, and it is believed to have originated from the UK, possibly perpetrated by the same culprits who used a similar scheme on aspiring hair and makeup workers there going back to 2015. This information is coming from security sources who so far have been unable to unmask the scammers. Those sources tell Deadline that at least 30 people have made trips to Indonesia, where the scammers have connections in hotels and with drivers who are complicit in separating people from their money.
There are slight changes to the scam, but the playbook is remarkably consistent in that it begins with a call from a wealthy female producer who over a series of call phone calls builds a personal relationship but sets the hook with irresistible bait: a dream job that could be a major stepping stone in a career.
How have so many smart people swallowed the hook?
Several factors facilitate these scams, say several who found themselves being courted for high-paying gigs and strung along in phone calls that sometimes take on a sexual overture. Many of these below-the-line businesses are relationship-based, where referrals are common and where the players routinely move from one job to the next. Name-dropping adds to the plausibility. Emails from a genuine-looking IP address add credibility. Insistence on non-disclosure agreements discourage communication between the mark and the people who supposedly referred the wealthy female financier to them. And there is always the seductive offer of a job that can be a career-changer.
Andrew McLaren is a former Marine who arranges security for politicians and royalty in countries around the world. He also has numerous credits as a performer and producer, and was the star of Chrome Underground, a Discovery series in which he and several colleagues ventured into dangerous locations in search of vintage cars they brought back to the U.S. McLaren tells Deadline he was contacted to set up security and do advance work for a Chinese movie that would shoot in Indonesia. He was asked to survey the scene, and tasked with planning how to evacuate actors in case of emergency. The fee was to be $500,000.
“The reason I didn’t figure out it was a scam is, they picked me up, put me up in a hotel, and a buddy vouched for the caller, who was purportedly one of the most powerful women in Hollywood, a multiple Academy Award winner,” he said. “This was a big deal, and I was offered a ton of money to handle all the safety concerns in the largest Muslim country in the world. The film would be shooting at famous landmarks, including the largest Hindu temple in the world. I saw some beautiful places, and it all seemed legitimate. They send you a $25,000 wire transfer from China that looked legitimate, but there was a short delay.
“There were some costs to be covered in the meantime and you are asked to cover them while the wire transfer goes back to the U.S.,” he said. “If you’re expecting $500,000, and you are putting up $20,000 or $25,000 to help out a production that is ultimately going to benefit you, that’s why guys are falling for this. The people doing this are smart and articulate. You have to understand, it’s not unusual for me to carry a duffel bag with a million bucks in it, or for me to go out of pocket and get reimbursed. It is part of my business. They have pro drivers, and the scam is really elaborate. I was talking to people in China and England, but the transfers were all bogus.”
McLaren said that he was taken for about $7500, money he quickly made up with a couple of security jobs. When he doubled back to the buddy who had vouched for the scammer, he found out an unsettling truth.
“I was in complete shock,” McLaren said. “My friend was in a vulnerable position in his life and she tricked and conned him too, into believing he was going to be paid $2000 a day to protect her. He lied to me when he said he had met her in person. He never met her, but he admitted the woman had made him fall in love with her, over the phone. At the end of the day, he too lost money because he was the one who bought my plane ticket to come over. I’ve heard worse,” he said. “She convinced a former Navy SEAL commander to sell his car and advance the money for transportation. He lost $18,500 and I’ve heard of guys who lost $50,000. It sounds far-fetched, but we’ve guarded royalty and are used to amazing services. There were luxury hotels they paid for, good food. There are language barriers, and it’s a poor country and they aren’t choosy when the money is pouring in. You drop your guard and suddenly they are all gone.”
The element of sexual energy that caused McLaren’s friend to drop his guard was mentioned by two others who were preyed upon by one woman who appears to be central to all the scams.
Mike Smith, who started as a stuntman and gravitated into stunt coordinator and second unit director whose credits include Nightcrawler, also found himself with a potential life-changing offer.
“Out of the blue I get this call, ‘Hi, this is Gigi Pritzker and I got your number from Tony Gilroy,” Smith told Deadline. “I know these guys. Tony is Dan Gilroy’s brother and Dan directed Nightcrawler, which I did the second unit work on. Tony was one of the producers. She mentioned Dan’s producer Jennifer Fox, and everybody who was there. She said, ‘I have a project we’re going to announce in the trades in three weeks.’ ”
She was basically offering Smith his dream — to make his directing debut on a big-scale film. After accumulating second unit directing credits, and enough injuries from his stunt man work to motivate him for a change to behind the camera, this seemed an ideal next career step.
“She said, ‘I don’t want anyone to know I’m going this way, because I’m self-financing the film,’ ” Smith said. “I asked the budget and she said ‘between $60 million and $80 million.’ It was set in Nicaragua during the Contra scandal, the whole Oliver North thing. She said it had amazing writers and an amazing cast. ‘Before I can tell you about it,’ she said, ‘I want you to sign this NDA.’ Things felt a little weird right off the bat. This kind of thing doesn’t usually happen like that. But everyone she was referencing seemed spot on. She said, ‘I know your style aesthetically, and your tone in action is grounded and realistic and that’s the vision I’m looking for in my director.’ She mentioned another film and filmmakers whose style she didn’t want to emulate, and she was right in that my vision as a director is closer to Nightcrawler or Sicario. She’s telling me everything I want to hear. My jaw is on the floor and I’m thinking, this is too good to be true. And just like in life, if it seems too good to be true, it probably isn’t true. But this was my dream being offered, every person she referenced made sense and because I signed that NDA, I didn’t talk to anyone.”
Smith said the woman never asked him for money, in a phone relationship he estimates spanned 50 or more calls, sometimes four times per day. The conversations were sometimes about breaking down story. Sometimes, it strayed into personal conversations, which he took as an overture to engage in phone sex. That made him uncomfortable and when he shut down those overtures, the caller would turn cold and even hang up. He told her of the mishaps on the job that pushed him from stunt work toward directing, and how he began volunteering with vets and became part of a national advisory committee helping returning vets break into the business. The woman asked to be put in touch with others from that group. She planned to fly Smith to Bermuda, she said. Promises to meet were made, and then canceled.
Smith put her in touch with buddies in the stunt and private security world, something he regrets.
“This is a very elaborate scam and we don’t know if she is doing information gathering and selling it to foreign governments, or if it is mainly about scamming people out of money,” Smith said. “She didn’t ask me for money, at all. I know bullshitters, but this woman is good. She does her homework. I don’t know what sick thing she’s up to. She has scammed people from art department heads to stunt coordinators, security operators and DPs. I’ve heard people have been scammed out of millions of dollars in total. I wasn’t taken for money because I made it clear, I’m a director and if you want me to come someplace to talk, you’re paying me to come.”
Later, Smith met a career military officer on a real project. During the course of a conversation in which he was asked to explain why he should be entrusted with the rights to the story of men who risked their lives on a battlefield, Smith mentioned being offered his dream job, and how the woman misrepresented herself. And that if he got this job, he was a man who could look the other person in the eye and keep his word. The military guy, who runs a business that sends former elite soldiers into dangerous situations for all kinds of tasks, began talking about an equally creepy encounter he had with Stacey Snider, the chairman of Universal Pictures. They realized together it was likely the same woman.
One of the men Smith referred the imposter to was Joel Lambert, a former Navy SEAL who has hosted Discovery Channel shows including Lone Target. He has also acted in such films as American Sniper. Lambert returned from a backpacking trip with his girlfriend in Peru when he saw a series of phone messages from the same cell number. When he finally connected with the imposter, it was an odd conversation which Lambert put on speaker phone with his girlfriend present. It began with the prospect of opportunities for him to become an action star in her movies.
It progressively turned toward a sexual nature, in which the woman asked if he would be interested in an older, powerful woman. When Lambert told the caller he had a girlfriend and that she was listening, the caller shut down and insisted that future conversations be just between them. She strung him along but when it came time to meet, she disappeared.
Lambert keeps in touch with his SEAL buddies on a private Facebook thread, and one of them wrote a long missive about a strange encounter with Dee Bakish, the wife of Viacom CEO Bob Bakish, who said she was getting into producing, and needed a special ops guy. The friend spent money to send several operatives to Indonesia, maybe $25,000 in the costs for flights, only to find no one actually there. The personal conversations had a similar ring to them and Lambert realized at that moment that this was likely the same woman who’d been calling him, purporting to be Pritzker. Another Discovery host colleague, Dave Salmoni, went through a similar phone calling ruse with a woman purporting to be Amy Pascal.
“The weird angle that is relevant right now is, powerful men do this shit to women all the time, but no one ever heard about it,” Smith said, referring to preying on ambition and tying it to sexual conversations that the imposter had with Smith and several alpha male former Navy SEALs Smith introduced her to. He believes he and the others fit that rugged type the woman was looking for as she steered conversations into a sexual lane.
“This woman, this fraud, was doing exactly that to me,” Smith said. “I said to my wife that I’d never been jerked around more in my life, because she had the one thing over my head that I was excited about, and that was directing a big movie with a proper budget. That was the only thing that would really motivate me to care. She was playing with my dreams and emotions and she knew it. I finally said, ‘You know what? This isn’t worth it.’ I began standing up for myself and that’s when I figured out it was a scam.
“She would call me at night and say, ‘If we’re going to be producer and director, what are we going to do when I see you?’ It was like she was trying to have this weird phone sex with me. I’m thinking to myself, holy shit, this lady is batshit crazy and I don’t know if I can make a movie with her. She would say I was being standoffish to her and I said, people lie to each other all day in this business and people like you don’t call out of the blue and offer people like me their dream job in a moment. So it’s like I’m talking to Santa Claus and at any moment it can all be taken away. She says, ‘Michael, you have to get over that. I’m here for you. I’m just nervous about making an announcement and having people think I’m crazy because you’re a first-time director. I said, ‘Let me stop you right there. I’m not a first-time director. I’m a director of second unit and I’ve sat behind geniuses and idiots for 20 years and I’ve learned from both. I have an opinion as a director, I just haven’t had a chance yet to put it out.’ That was when she offered to fly him to Bermuda to meet her, only to have her office keep canceling and postponing a face-to-face meeting that never happened. Smith realized he was living a version of the MTV show Catfish and was relieved when the calls stopped. And even more relieved when he found out it was a scam that only his emotions were toyed with and that he wasn’t taken for cash.
Unfortunately, this is happening with increasing regularity, and former military operatives are potentially being compromised through a referral system that once was a common way that colleagues recommended each other for jobs.
“When I came to Hollywood, I was an athlete who didn’t want to get a real job,” Smith said. “[As a stuntman] I’ve been James Bond and Batman, but that part of my career and life was over and she knew it. I wanted to direct and write. She knew that too and played on it once she got the hook in. But I’m also not stupid. Something didn’t feel right and I was guarded and when the letdown happened, it made sense. No multi-billionaire is going to cold call someone and offer their dream job. It is important that people understand what is going on, and the scope of it, which is why I am talking to you. They are preying on a lot of people who don’t deserve it.”
What is being done?
Several of those interviewed said that entreaties to the FBI haven’t gone anywhere, partly because the scammed sums are small in the grand scheme and because the scams are originating from overseas, with Great Britain most likely the focus. Private investigators are on the case, and a lawsuit was filed last November in California Superior Court on behalf of Jane Roe, a pseudonym for one of the producers whose name is being used by the scam artists.
Attorney Mark Mermelstein filed the suit against the unknown impersonators and named GoDaddy Inc and the technology company ProofPoint as third parties. Mermelstein said the filing of the lawsuit was a necessary step to gain subpoena power against GoDaddy, which the plaintiff believes has been selling to the scammers Internet domain names that are very close to the identities of the producer-financiers being impersonated. ProofPoint provides email security services for the email server used to impersonate his client and may have information helpful to uncovering the identity of the perpetrators.
Mermelstein declined to go further on what steps are being undertaken to unearth who is perpetrating these scams. He, and everyone else who spoke to Deadline for this article, did so because they felt that getting the word out on these scams might help the next batch of victims figure out the scam before they lose money.
“This is a big problem that has to stop,” Mermelstein said. “The only way scams work is if people remain in the dark. It looks like this variant of the scam began with hair and makeup people in the UK, and then it evolved to victims in Hollywood that have included actors and trainers. The basic scam is the same, involving people who are impersonating Hollywood folks with money, inducing people to get on a plane to Indonesia on spec and under the illusion they will be getting their big break. The victims spend money there on false promises. The details have changed a bit, but it’s basically the same playbook. The well dried up with the scam on aspiring British hair and makeup people and now they are targeting Hollywood men, with a woman impersonating four to five different wealthy or highly placed women.”
Everyone interviewed by Deadline said a version of what Mermelstein did. Basically, if a call comes out of the blue involving a dream job from a person purporting to be a high net worth individual, it is likely a scam. The best course of action would be to call the offices of the power player. Chances are, it won’t be the first time the producer has been called with bogus claims, and they will be able to verify that it is in fact a scam in the making.
If other victims have a story to tell, Deadline will add them to this story.