This is one of my favourite job-hunting tales to tell. It’s one of those experiences so bizarre, I can’t believe it actually happened to me.
Back in 2009, I was ‘hired’ by a ‘private equity firm’ headed by a ‘prince’. In true, cheesy, 419-scam style. Not just me, but about 11 others, from fresh rookies with 1-2 years experience to seasoned VPs and MDs.
And to this day, I have no idea what for. I didn’t lose any money, nor gave any details to my scammer that was particularly valuable (that I know of). But read on – you’ll see why a bunch of bright, street-smart professionals still ended up falling headlong into a dupe so classic, it’s cringe-worthy just remembering it.
Some of you may remember my 3-part series about the time I got laid off. This is one of the many fun side adventures immediately resulting after that.
Right after my layoff, I was aggressively looking for a new role, and although I wanted to try something outside of finance, my initial experience meant that finance roles were still my best chance. Thus, recruiters were also only interested in pushing finance roles at me.
Unfortunately, it was post-Lehman – jobs were as hard to come by as hens teeth. I look back at those days and smile now, but the reality was that my daily routine consisted of a whirlwind of recruitment calls, cold calls, CV tweaking, phone screens, and lots of wallowing in disappointment.
What Seems Like A Great Role Comes Along
So one day, I get a call from one of my recruiters, saying that they’ve potentially got a role that might suit me. 1-2 years experience in finance needed (check), based in London (check), and for a small private equity firm. I was told that this firm basically manages one person’s assets, who is the chair of the firm, and a prince of an African country that I’d heard of but didn’t know much about.
This guy – let’s call him Ted – liked my CV and was ready to interview. And the way the recruitment firm was aggressively selling him, you’d think he was a genetically-engineered hybrid of Prince William, Warren Buffet, and Santa Claus.
Why not, right? Interview, here I come.
The interview was held in a pretty swanky Regus temp office in Central London. The firm was new, and Ted was still looking for permanent premises. But meanwhile, Regus provided him with a prime location, new refurb, huge boardroom with a view.
I showed up early and met a Swedish-looking guy waiting to be interviewed in the slot before me. Jan. Ex-Goldman, CDS structurer, classic sub-prime crisis casualty. Seemed like a good enough guy.
When he got up to go into the board room, I got a glimpse of the people in the room.
Holy shit, I thought. Not just a big-ass room, but a big-ass room with a load of people in it. I’ve never been interviewed by more than two people at once, and even then that was a rare occasion. I saw about four people from my glance before the doors shut, but it looked like there were more.
Jan came back out looking slightly shaken. “It wasn’t bad. There were about ten people there, which is interesting.”
And it was now my turn. Strolling in with what I hoped looked like confidence, I saw that the Jan wasn’t lying – there were about ten in the room, all flanking around this large, suited man with a few gold medals on his chest.
Ted. Yes, he had gold medals on his vest, just like Morgan Freeman in RED. You can laugh at me now.
Anyway, the interview. I sat down, alone, on one side of a very long meeting table, while the ten seated themselves opposite me, Ted being directly opposite me. And we began.
The interview was kind of a disaster, from what I remember. Ted was actually quite kind and friendly, but between nine other alpha bankers all jostling to appear to be Second-in-Command, I was ripped to shreds. I remember thinking, knowing, at a particularly low point that this was clearly a bust, and I might as well just chalk the experience to something to tell friends after a few rounds at the pub.
So imagine my surprise when the recruiter called me a few days later saying that not only did the interview went well, but I’m hired. The recruiter then sent me the contract – reading it, my sweet, innocent eyes grew wider and wider.
Double the salary of what I used to earn. Plus bonuses. Flexible working hours. Company car. For a London role. For a guy with 1-2 years experience.
You know the old adage about something being too good to be true? I definitely was not thinking about that when I was looking at the contract. I officially started the following week.
The First (and Last) Few Days.
I was officially ‘hired’ for a total of 19 days. I checked. And in that 19 days, I actually didn’t really do much. At the start, he got me and Jan (he was apparently hired too) to visit his accountants’ offices to set up payroll. Where he gave me a raise, without me saying a thing, on my already-ludicrous salary.
I know. You’re rolling your eyes at this point. In my defence, I did have niggling feelings that this all seemed a bit dodgy from the start – a feeling that just wouldn’t go away. And it’s not as if I was happily swallowing all the nonsense he came up with. Right from before my interview, I have been trying to Google the crap out of him, to not much success, apart from what he’d already told me – went to Harvard, is rich, founded some companies, is of royal descent of some country.
But after the day at the accountants, although I had no hard evidence, I pretty much called bullshit on the whole rigmarole. I didn’t want to ruin my chances at this job in case it was actually legit, but in a mosaic-theory-esque logic, all this just didn’t seem right.
The day at the accountants’ office was the last day I ever saw Ted.
Ted didn’t actually require that we show up at the office (what office?) every day, but rather he would email or call us as needed. The next two times he needed us, I said I was ill, leaving Jan to attend more meetings.
In the meantime, my Google-fu finally yielded something. Earlier, after the 10-person interview, I introduced myself around the room, and one of the 10 interviewers, David, showed up on LinkedIn. It was when I contacted him that the penny finally dropped.
Turns out that he and the other interviewers also recently caught on to Ted’s scam. He’d been showing up for work for Ted, interviewing candidates like me and what not. But after more than a month went by, none of them got paid. After excuses about late payments, Ted simply went off the radar for them – David was surprised that Ted was still up to his shenanigans with me and Jan. Worse, one of the ten interviewers was actually thousands of pounds out of pocket. As it turns out, she paid for the temporary offices that I was interviewed in, with her own credit cards.
Turns out that Ted was, indeed, 100% fake. Which only came as a relief to me having finally addressed all those niggling feelings.
I called Jan almost immediately after getting off the phone with David, and shared my information. Unsurprisingly, he also had his suspicions, and we met in a nearby cafe to decide what to do next.
We had a hard think about anything that could expose us to identity fraud, or if we had lost out on anything, apart from our time. Nothing. Jan pointed out that we were contractually obliged to work for Ted until we resigned, so we decided to officially hand in our resignations and move on.
A hopefully simple end to a convoluted waste of time. Something to tell friends, indeed.
- Vulnerability. It was post-Lehman – as close to a zombie apocalypse in finance as you could get. And in the middle of it, here’s this guy saying that he has a job for you, and it pays well, and it’s doing something pretty interesting in finance. In times like these, people are more vulnerable than they think. You want to believe him.
- He had not asked for money or sensitive details (yet, in my case). I would probably have thought harder about things if I had to give up sensitive information about myself. I’d not progressed up to the stage where identity documents and details were handed to Ted.
- I trusted the recruiter, when I really shouldn’t have. Recruiters look out for themselves. They want to close the deal, and there are a fair number of them that cut corners when they shouldn’t. A recruiter should thoroughly check potential employers’ backgrounds – and there was none in Ted’s case. The result – a conman with no more than an email address convinced them that he owns a private equity firm and got them to hire 11 people for him. Trusting the recruiter gave credence to Ted. And that was our mistake.
- Ted uses people he’s duped to unwittingly help him dupe others. When a recruitment agency recommends an employer, and he shows up with 10 other minions working for him, that seems pretty impressive. As he ‘recruits’ more and more people, he looks more and more legit. One consistent fallacy of the recruitment and finance business is that no-one likes to come across as ignorant – which makes them hesitant to ask basic questions or fact-check among themselves. And that’s why his scam works.
- Ted reads people exceedingly well – and the guy does not miss a beat in his performance. Ted, aside from whatever dodgy business he’s up to, is an amazing performer. He just seems to know what to say at the right time to allay your suspicions just a little while longer. I suspect he’d been doing this a long time.
Right from the start something didn’t look right. But what kept this whole thing going – not just for me, but for everyone – was that there was never something definitive. Just lots of small details that were readily countered by the promise of a great job and great pay.
- Firstly, the firm wasn’t something I’d ever had heard of, had no company website. But it was supposed to be a small and new firm, and because it manages just one person’s assets, there was no need for clients.
- The disastrous interview, and yet being hired. The unreasonably high compensation package. Again, these were not solid reasons, and when ‘good’ things happen to you, you hope for the best, I suppose.
- Everyone seemed kind of new, although no one would admit to it. The recruiter, my other interviewers, the accountants – all working with him for the first time. Although they all come across as having done this for ages. I blame the industry-wide need to always seem more informed than one really is.
- Remember – confirming your suspicions will be a lot harder than it sounds. Conmen are by nature extremely persuasive and know exactly what to say to keep you going just a little longer.
The learning is simple – scammers are everywhere. Extraordinary as it sounds, there is such a thing as fake companies pretending to hire people for God-knows what random activity. I consider myself lucky to have caught on earlier than most. Conmen prey on the hopeful and desperate, and when you’re job-searching and hoping for your next big break, this can make you susceptible.
If you’re job-hunting, be sure to check out our guides:
- The 3H Job Hunting Guide: CVs
- The 3H Job Hunting Guide: Networking
- The 3H Job Hunting Guide: Interviewing
I’m sharing this with you, so when the next Ted comes along, you’ll be better prepared than myself. And because it’s a funny story, and we always need more of those. Give me your thoughts below!