K2 Integrity associate managing director Nicoletta Kotsianas has been the driving force behind the identification of an international scam artist and a critical ally of law enforcement in its pursuit of the perpetrator—initially pegged “The Con Queen of Hollywood.”
This individual has been impersonating a number of famous Hollywood moguls, mostly women, as well as wealthy socialites and high-net-worth individuals, in order to bilk entertainment industry freelancers out of hundreds of thousands of dollars. What is now a global investigation involving multiple law enforcement agencies from around the world, started one ordinary day with a call to Ms. Kotsianas from an attorney at a law firm in Los Angeles seeking guidance. A female movie producer’s good name had been falsely used to lure American photographers to Indonesia with the prospect of employment and a promise of reimbursements for expensive travel outlays.
Following is a Q&A with Nicoletta about the case and K2 Integrity’s investigation.
How do you feel about the case now, and what’s the status?
Well, it’s been a ride for over two years. Seeing an arrest being made and the investigation ongoing is really rewarding, particularly as we have known for some time who the Con Queen is, and we really have had to wait for law enforcement to get through procedural steps with other jurisdictions to make the arrest. There came a point some time ago where it stopped feeling like work and became just something I had to do, and I am lucky that the leadership at K2 Integrity agreed. At times, we didn’t even have a client, but I would serve as the liaison for victims who needed to share their story with law enforcement. Throughout this process, I’ve talked to hundreds of people—literally hundreds.
Well, let’s go back to the beginning to see the whole picture. Calls about identity theft must come to your firm each day—what was it about this call that piqued your interest?
Early on in my investigation I saw that this was not an isolated incident and it could not be treated as a typical identity theft case. If I had approached this from the vantage point of one client, I could have completed my work and put the pen down. Job done. But what I found was a network of victims—both those who were scammed, and those who were impersonated.
How long has this scam been going on?
Versions of the scam go back to 2013, revolving around a Chinese movie company. The current iteration really started taking off in 2018, when we uncovered how widespread the fraud really was, and I discovered the initial executive I was called about wasn’t the only one being impersonated. Every step of the way, another layer has been revealed. We’ve helped more than a dozen high-profile clients who’ve been impersonated. We believe that more than 20 executives and high-net-worth individuals—including our clients—have been impersonated over the last few years. Since the early days of the investigation, victims would reach out to me as well and I would work with them to share information and compile evidence for law enforcement. It became a big part of how I pieced the whole investigation together.
Impersonating more than 20 movie executives and others is huge. How does the scammer make it happen?
The scammer and his cohorts are very well organized and well researched. They take the time to learn everything they can about the person being impersonated so their victims have no reason to doubt. They know intimate details of their lives and also master their voices—both in accent and style. Much of the information they used can be found online It’s amazing how much information is available in the public record that can be used to construct a nearly fool-proof profile in order to pretend to be another person.
How is the scam orchestrated? How are victims entrapped?
Implicit in the scam is the Con Queen’s impersonation of various women movie executives, both men and women, up and down the chain of a team on a Hollywood production or high-profile assignment. The impersonator, via phone calls and email, reaches out to would-be technical personnel with promises of jobs on hot new film projects—or elite dinner parties, or high-profile photo assignments—if they can front thousands of dollars for travel expenses to and lodging in Indonesia. These promises of reimbursement are never kept, of course. Manipulation is a driving motivation, in addition to money. It’s about setting up a whole situation to fool people, and to prey upon people’s vulnerabilities.
Given the varying voices and factors within the scam, initially it appeared the imposter was a woman. At what point did you realize that you were dealing with a man, instead of a woman?
Multiple pieces came together—phone records, domain registrations, witness accounts—and we realized we were very likely dealing with one individual. Although this person was taking on the identities of high-powered women, as it would turn out, the Con Queen is a man. With that realization, several additional pieces were revealed, including a longer history of scamming outside of this version of the scam. It was eye opening and certainly a turning point in bringing the case to a rewarding close.
According to the Hollywood Reporter, lower-level film workers taken in by the scam—hairdressers, makeup artists, ex-military officers as technical advisors—have been taken for $3,000 to $7,000 each, on average.
Yes, that is true, and that is a lot for those individuals, and also adds up to a lot across the entire scam. I have spoken to some people who have made multiple trips and have lost close to $100,000. In all, there are well over 100 victims that I know of—and I’m sure many more who have not come forward. Freelance film workers have been ravaged, with entire networks of workers affected.
How did these people realize they were being scammed?
Often, I had to be the one to tell them. On the phone, I’ve had to walk people through the airport as they are trying to get out of Indonesia, realizing they’d been scammed. They thought they were getting the opportunity of a lifetime, but they’d just lost $25,000. I told them, “Get on a plane and come home!” At that point, I wasn’t wearing my investigator’s hat; I was trying to help people.
What was your approach to the investigation?
At K2 Integrity, we have a strong belief that our job is to keep pushing and to continue our work until the scam is stopped. We use old-school tactics—such as interviewing and building a rapport with sources—along with newer digital techniques and legal maneuvers. This case was complicated by the fact that three different jurisdictions were involved in piecing together the framework to make an arrest, and by the sheer number of people that have been affected. Along the way, we had to throw up some legal roadblocks to stop the impersonation.
What kind of legal roadblocks?
A key decision we made early on was to file a civil lawsuit against the perpetrator, which gave our client subpoena power, and helped unlock certain information that gave us a peek into the scammer’s operations. Some of the information unlocked pertains to domain registrations, which we then shut down. When we discover fraudulent domain registration information, we share it with affected parties, sometimes warning them even before they find out they are being impersonated. And we are working hand-in-hand with law enforcement.
Do you sometimes encounter resistance from registrars when you attempt to shut down a website?
Yes. They’re apt to say, “You need a court order.” So, we piece together the scam for them to make them view it as a liability issue for them, in that their voice is being used for a scam organized around their product.
How did the FBI and other police agencies get involved?
Initially, our firm was driving the investigation. Law enforcement wasn’t actively on board. These are white-collar crimes, with not a lot of money taken from victims individually. But once we showed them the evidence we had amassed, the pervasiveness of the scam, and the combined money losses, it wasn’t a tough sell any longer. We are working very closely with the FBI to share information and ensure as much as we can that no one else ends up a victim.
Is there anything unique about this case compared to other scam artists you’ve seen?
It really came down to manipulation. I don’t want to downplay the money—we’d estimate there have been upwards of $1 million lost, and that amount could be even higher. But the case is unique in the sense that it seems to be just as much about the “game” for the Con Queen as it is about the money. From learning the unique details about people’s lives to the sexual component of the scam, where the Con Queen was tricking victims into intimate conversations with no tangible gain, there were many more layers than just collecting sums of money from victims.
How did the scam change over time? Did the Con Queen continue to use the same tactics?
The tactics did largely remain the same, but the story and victim-targeting would be different. There were also different targets over time, professionally and geographically. We saw him move to regions like the UK, Australia, Europe, and China to find new victims, and move through professions, targeting stunt doubles, physical trainers, hairdressers, photographers, chefs, athletes, and security guards. There were times, for instance, that he focused on Instagram influencers and photographers while posing as an ultra-high-net-worth individual, and other times where security personnel were sent out to supposedly scope out a region ahead of a trip. Over time, the general crux of the scam remained the same—offering the opportunity of a lifetime and playing a manipulative game to keep the victim hooked for as long as he could.
You mention that you’ve grown and evolved with the case. How so?
I have learned that patience is a virtue when you’re serving as a partner to law enforcement. I have also learned a lot about how social media can be used for nefarious purposes and that this scammer used a lot of information that people provided about themselves to tailor the scam for them. In the end, having this case wasn’t about making us money—at times, we didn’t even have a client, but we just kept investigating. What it really came down to was that it was the right thing to do.