Corporate spies are regularly hired by competitors to help poach employees with the best ideas. Listen on to know if it is happening at your company and how to prevent it. Robert Kerbeck is the founder of Malibu Writers Circle and his essays have been featured in numerous magazines and newspapers including Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and Los Angeles Times Magazine with one story adapted in the award winning film Reconnected. His newest memoir Ruse: Lying the American Dream From Hollywood to Wall Street is a look at the world of corporate espionage and his career as a corporate spy.“As companies digitized records and organizational charts, you could be almost anywhere within a firm’s organization remotely.” - Robert Kerbeck Click To Tweet
- [1:08] – Robert never thought he would become an infamous corporate spy. He shares his background and what led him there.
- [3:42] – He was hired and realized it was not the ordinary marketing job he thought it would be.
- [4:46] – The job was determined to be in a “gray area” legally.
- [6:00] – A lot of Robert’s job was over the phone trying to get information out of employees.
- [7:04] – Eventually, Robert would imitate major executives over the phone.
- [8:48] – A lot of the information gathered at the time was employment information.
- [10:07] – Some employees are not listed as team members to avoid being poached.
- [11:11] – Although so much data is available publicly online now, there are still pieces of valuable information that corporate spies can use.
- [12:49] – Corporate plans are valuable to competitors.
- [13:58] – In Robert’s case, blackmail wasn’t utilized, but rather poaching talent.
- [15:54] – Robert describes some of the information that he was gathering. He viewed himself as an actor.
- [17:38] – Sometimes the more outlandish something seems, in a strange way, it becomes more believable.
- [19:24] – In order to target the right person and use the right strategies, Robert had to do a lot of research on the companies he was contacting.
- [20:53] – There are certain areas in a firm where people aren’t following company protocol.
- [22:17] – In the corporate world, there are qualities that create a toxic culture.
- [24:53] – There should be training in place to ensure that employees do not reveal information if they do not know the person.
- [26:18] – Once someone has access to an organizational chart, not only employee names are available.
- [29:02] – The more time spent trying to break a company for the information desired, a corporate spy is gathering small pieces of data.
- [31:23] – There are scams that are designed to target people who have previously been a victim of a scam.
- [32:04] – Robert explains that he never used these skills in his personal life.
- [33:12] – In 2008, jobs were harder to find and Robert left his career as a corporate spy.
- [35:41] – Robert describes his experience in Corporate America.
- [37:27] – Through his experiences, Robert says it was very nerve wracking to attend corporate events as somebody else.
- [38:46] – Find Robert’s new book on his website.
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Robert, thank you so much for coming on The Easy Prey Podcast today.
Thanks for having me, Chris. I'm excited.
I'm really curious about your background. Do you call yourself a corporate spy?
OK, a former corporate spy. Before we get into the stories, what was your background that made you think that you had the skill set to be a corporate spy?
I never in my wildest dreams would have imagined that I would become a corporate spy, let alone a fairly infamous one. My hometown is Philadelphia. My family is in the automobile business. If you're looking for a deal on a Lamborghini, tell them I sent you.
My great grandfather came over from Armenia and sold horse carriages before cars were invented, and then he saw the writing on the wall and switched to selling cars. My grandfather took over that dealership. My father took over that dealership. I was the oldest son; I was expected to take over that dealership.
I went to the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. While I was there, I really got into acting and I really started to love acting. I wanted to move to New York to try to be an actor, but I didn't know anybody that had done that. It just seemed crazy.
When I graduated, I went to work for my father in the business selling cars. I did that for about a year or so and it just wasn't for me. The trickery of car sales just didn't feel right to me. I finally got the courage to move to New York. I needed a survival job. Who stumbles into a survival job as a corporate spy? But that's what I did.
OK. How in the world do you just stumble into a corporate spy gig?
My college roommate's brother had the job. He was kind of showing me around New York. He was very mysterious about it. He said I got this new job, but he wouldn't tell me what the job was about. I could tell it sounded kind of salesy and I said, “Well, I could do it.” I sold cars. I could sell magazine subscriptions or whatever telemarketing services I assumed it was.
He got me an interview. I went up to this Upper East Side apartment. I was living in a proverbial hellhole in Hell's Kitchen. I went up to the Upper East Side, and it's a doorman building. I get sent up to this woman's apartment and it's a palatial apartment. Right away, I knew whatever she was doing, she was making a lot of money.
She interviewed me. She never asked me a question about my skills. I had a resume, which I forgot to pull out because I was so nervous. She never asked me anything to do with anything. She was just asking a lot of questions about my father, the car business, and sent me on my way. I just figured I didn't get the job.
My buddy called me and he said, “No, you got it because she hires everyone, because no one is able to do this job.” I said, “Well, I'm going to be able to do it.” The next day, I went for training. That was when I began to realize that this was not your ordinary telemarketing job.
I guess the question is, was this a criminal organization or a pseudo-legitimate corporation that was doing this?
That's the great question about this business. At a certain point, when I was doing this early on, my buddy and I were nervous about it. We were just actors looking for a survival job. We were getting $8 an hour. This is not kind of what we sign up for.
We hired an attorney. Of course, it's funny now. We split the cost with a woman whose business it was, which of course, I laugh about now. I'm like, we were making $8 an hour, why didn't she just pay those?
Basically, the attorney came back and said, “This is definitely in the gray zone.” He said, “I can't tell you it's illegal. I can't tell you it's not illegal. It's in the gray zone.” I've always described it as quasi-illegal because I think at the end of the day, if a prosecutor was motivated, they certainly could have come after us.
In the book, Ruse, I had a number of close calls. At one point, my buddy and I were being tracked because they thought we were the most famous hacker in the world, who eventually did go to jail for many, many years. It was scary.
I'm glad I never had to find out whether I would have been convicted in a court of law. It definitely was not ethical. It's definitely not something that I'm proud of per se, though, of course, it is a hell of a story. I'm here to tell you that my spying is in the past, which is why I can write a book about it now. I'm here to tell you that corporate spying is alive and well in America.I'm here to tell you that corporate spying is alive and well in America. -Robert Kerbeck Click To Tweet
I'm sure. Were the first gigs kind of, very low rent, so to speak, just to get employed at the company and learn about what's going on there? That sort of thing?
Yeah. A lot of the stuff we were doing was over the phone. What we would do is we would infiltrate a company pretending we—again, when we started out, our ploys were sort of innocuous. We would have some sort of relationship with the company we were calling. We were trying to get information out of them.
As time went on, we began to realize that those ploys just weren't that effective. Maybe you'd get some of the information, part of the information, but we're being tasked with getting all of the information that these clients wanted from their competitors. Think about the playbook. If you could get the playbook on your rival team the day before the big game, two days before the big game, how valuable would that information be? That's what we were tasked with finding out.
We were doing these telephone ploys, and then as time went on, the ploys got more and more sophisticated. Eventually, we were portraying ourselves as employees of the company, and then eventually, as well-known individuals within the company. Because again, this was over the phone, unless someone really knew someone, really could recognize someone's voice.
Of course, we were actors, so we could actually imitate and mimic major executives that were talking heads on TV. We could mimic and sound like them so that people would go, “Oh my God, I can't believe I have the CEO on the phone.” You don't have the CEO on the phone, and now you've given us all this information because you thought you had the CEO on the phone.
Got you. So it wasn't, “Hi, I'm Robert down in accounting. Can you tell me something? I need this for client work.” You're saying I'm eventually trying to pretend to be the CFO or even the CEO?
Yeah, but it could also be somebody. As these corporations got larger and larger over the last 30 years, starting in the 80s when the M&A craze began and companies started swallowing up smaller and smaller companies. What it meant was, and of course, as firms digitized their records, digitized their organizational charts, and digitized everything, you could be almost anywhere within a firm's organization.
You could be in some satellite office in Dublin, Frankfurt, London, Singapore, Chicago, San Antonio, or wherever, and you could have access to that sort of treasure trove of information.
If I could convince you that I had a legitimate reason for this information, oftentimes, you could look up anything that I wanted. What I often explain to people is a lot of the information we were getting was employment-related. Nowadays, with LinkedIn, we don't think of that information as being as valuable. I described myself as I was on LinkedIn before LinkedIn was invented.
Back in the day, there was no way for a competitor to know who was at a firm, what the organizational structure was, what each and every team did, and the most important thing: who were the best people on each team in every group.One thing that your listeners might not know is almost every corporation ranks its employees. -Robert Kerbeck Click To Tweet
One thing that your listeners might not know is almost every corporation ranks its employees. They have metrics that they use to rank those people. We would determine what those internal metrics were because if you're going to go for a job interview, are you going to say on a team of 15 that you were number 13? No. You're going to say you're number two, three, or one. Well, there were only three people that were one, two, or three.
We would enable our clients to know who the top people were so that they could then try to poach those people. They could recruit them away. You think about how valuable that information is.We would enable our clients to know who the top people were so that they could then try to poach those people. -Robert Kerbeck Click To Tweet
Just one example: Steve Jobs would not list his designers in the corporate directory at Apple because he did not want them poached, because you could imagine, if you poached the designer of the iPad in the early development days of the iPad, imagine how valuable that could be for your corporation. You're talking billions of dollars. Sometimes, people don't understand how valuable that information about, not only who's at a firm, but who the rock stars are.Steve Jobs would not list his designers in the corporate directory at Apple because he did not want them poached. -Robert Kerbeck Click To Tweet
Did you find it crazy now that that information is just so publicly available through platforms like LinkedIn and you're like, “Oh my gosh, this is a poacher's dream platform?”
Yes. It was amazing to me. Again, for a lot of your listeners, it's amazing how much of our data that formerly was private is now public. Where we went to school, when we graduated, how old we are, where we live, how much money we make. You can pretty much find all of that online.
I will say that there's still a tremendous amount of information in the corporate world that remains private, which is why corporations are hiring spies nearly every day. For example, a lot of the people that are rock stars, they're not even on LinkedIn. If they are on LinkedIn, they don't update their profile, it has an old job, it has an old position, and they don't care. They don't want to be inundated with executive recruiting firms or corporations calling them because they're killing it where they are, and they're making tens of millions of dollars. They don't have time for it.
Of course, there's the next level of information—what I call corporate intelligence on steroids—which is, what are the firm's plans? What are their acquisition plans, their expansion plans? What's their headcount? A lot of times, corporations want to know how firms are staffed because then it can determine whether they have enough people.
A corporation will hire me to find out the size of groups at a competitor organization because they want to know, are they understaffed or are they bloated at their firm? That kind of information is very important in a corporation. There's still a lot of information that's private that corporations want. But back in the day, it was almost all private. There was no way for anybody to find this stuff out unless they were hiring a corporate spy.
I assume product timelines are a massive gold mine of intelligence. We have good ideas of what many companies are going to be doing in the next year, but what are they planning five, six, or seven years down the line with emerging technology that's a goldmine for a competitor?
Yeah. In the book, Ruse, I talk about every project I did and that I described in the book. It was bespoke. It was custom. Every client would say, “This is what we want to know. This is what we think is going on. Can you find this out?” We heard this.
In the course of doing that—and I talk about this again in the book—a lot of salacious information would come out. Because remember, we're pretending that we're somebody within the corporation. You'd have somebody on the other end of the line and now you kind of become telephone buddies.
Once you've sold somebody on your story and they've bought it, then you're friends. Then they start going, “Oh boy, did you hear about the head of sales? He got a DUI the other night. Oh my God, yeah. Well, he left his wife, he's been doing…and I think he's doing….” All of a sudden, you're like, “Whoa.” You would find out a tremendous amount of information just in the typical gossiping, just in corporate gossip.
Do you know if any of that information was used to blackmail those people?
No, I don't think any of it was ever used to blackmail people because for the most part, my clients, they were just interested in increasing their market share and revenue. They would just know their sales organization is in trouble, so this is a good time for us to go in and get some talent out of there because there's chaos.
If people see something crazy going on with management, they get nervous. Someone comes along and says, “Hey, we got a solid reputation. There’s no drama over here.” The day that you find out that there's drama, you don't have to then, on that day, try to figure out, “Well, who even works in that department?” You've already figured that all out and are ready to dial them on speed dial.
Right. It's definitely a crazy world. There's a lot of stuff that I would, in my career, obtain that I just could not believe I got this information. In the early days, usually, the spies were hired to research the hottest industries. When we first got into this, and we forget this now, it was defense.
This is back in the late '80s coming out of Reagan, the boom, and the defense spending. We were being tasked with finding out organizations of the major defense contractors—Lockheed Martin Marietta, and all these firms who now have merged into all these different other firms.
It was just amazing to me that these were people that have top-secret security clearance. They're told never to release information. They're told never to do this. They’re told never to do that. I would—over the phone—be getting people to tell me who was designing top-secret projects, and again, what the timeline on the project was, how much money they had spent on the project, were they over budget, or were they under budget.I would—over the phone—be getting people to tell me who was designing top-secret projects. -Robert Kerbeck Click To Tweet
All of this crazy information that, theoretically, if I had been selling that information to the Chinese or the Russians, I could have gone to jail for the rest of my life, and instead, I was getting $8 an hour for that information. Clearly, I was not very smart in terms of the spying I was doing. But again, we were actors.
Again, in the book, I talk about I was working as an actor. I was getting jobs. I was doing hit shows with James Gandolfini and Calista Flockhart. Then later, I went to Los Angeles and I was doing major roles in TV shows, opposite Sela Ward, George Clooney, and a lot of really famous actors.
I kept this job. It was always in the background, but that's just not what I was going to do. It was only when I was pretty far down the road and my acting career started to wane that then I got deeper and deeper in the world of corporate espionage.
Was that some of your motivation for doing what you were doing? Is that like, “Well, this is practical experience to hone my acting skills”?
Yeah. For sure, it was great for working on accents. “This is Gerhardt calling from the office in Frankfurt, Germany. We have the European Union regulators here this week and we need some information.” Who's going to believe that someone is putting on a fake accent?
That was one of the things about these ruses—and a lot of your listeners probably know this from phishing scams—sometimes the more outlandish something is, the more believable in a strange way it becomes. That was something that we counted on is that, “Oh my gosh. This executive in Germany in our Frankfurt office is in trouble. He's over in Brussels, he's meeting with the regulators, and everybody's there. Oh my God, what do you need, Gerhardt? Sure, happy to help you, buddy.”
People want to be good corporate teammates. That's something I've been doing—some cybercrime podcasts. I talked about maybe don't be such a good corporate teammate, you know what I mean? Maybe you've got to do your due diligence before you're giving information away without really being sure who you're talking to.You've got to do your due diligence before you're giving information away without really being sure who you're talking to. -Robert Kerbeck Click To Tweet
Let's take that side road here for a minute. What were some of the techniques that you used to kind of gain confidence? Obviously, you're pretending to be someone and leveraging. “I heard you're in a meeting. I’ve got to get this information.” The leveraging urgency, leveraging the teamwork. What were some of the ways that you leveraged people?
I did an event recently with former CIA spy Valerie Plame. I was describing my process. She was saying that's the same thing that we do in the CIA. One of the things is a lot of research. It's not just me picking up the phone, because if I were doing that, you would be getting what we used to call busted. Somebody would go, “No, no, no. I don't buy this. You’re not who you say you are.”
They would spread the word in the corporation and the word would get out. They'd send an email or whatever they would do, so then it would get exponentially harder to get information. It was really important that we spent a lot of time doing research on the firm so that we could really target the absolute best approach and ploy on that particular day at that particular company.
So much of that depended on what was going on in the world that day, what was going on with the company that day, what was going on with their stock price that day, what was going on with the sports teams in that city where the company was headquartered that day. “Oh my God, did you see LeBron last night?” If you call in Cleveland and he was playing for the Cavaliers. “LeBron, 52. Is that on?” “Oh my gosh. It was so great.” “Wow, that was crazy. Did you see that shot? Oh my God.” And now, you've developed a relationship with somebody.
I think a lot of it was about that research that we would do that would enable us to develop a relationship. Of course, there are certain areas within a firm that are just more likely to give up information. People in sales and marketing usually are talkers. People in human resources, HR, human roadblock. I would never in a billion years call human resources to try to get information.Of course, there are certain areas within a firm that are just more likely to give up information. -Robert Kerbeck Click To Tweet
I would try to get people. Once I made friends with someone. Sometimes I would get them to call human resources for the information for me. I knew directly, the human resources, they're trained to not give this information out. But there are certain areas within a firm where people aren't following what is usually the company protocol. They're not doing it, so they're easier to take advantage of.
Again, that's something I talk about in Ruse. I also have been doing a lot of cybercrime podcasts. Information security officers and compliance officers, they’re very interested because we talk about all this money that is spent on technology and preventing hacking. But the weakest part of the security system is almost always the human being.But the weakest part of the security system is almost always the human being. -Robert Kerbeck Click To Tweet
Yeah. It's the most manipulative, most malleable.
What do you recommend in terms of employees getting a phone call and it's Dieter from Germany calling in? What should be the things in place for an employee to verify that information?
I think you give details of whatever he wants. He needs information. It's very important. It’s an emergency. It's interesting. It’s fascinating. It's really one of the things that I found most fascinating about writing the book because now I'm looking back on this career, which obviously I haven't been spying on for a long time. But looking back on it, it's the power in corporations of not wanting to kind of stick out in a bad way.
There's a follow-the-crowd, do as you're told, be a good corporate teammate, all of these things that enable toxic cultures. I've been watching the program and I think it's Showtime, Super Pumped about Uber, and you see how this toxic culture was created where there was sexual harassment, discrimination, illegal activities, and all of this stuff, and it started at the top. Then everybody else kind of went along because nobody wants to get in trouble.
We were aware of that, that in corporate America, people are often afraid to take a stand. If I called up and said, “Hey, I'm Bill, and I'm in compliance, and I'm off-site meeting with the US regulators in Washington, DC.” People did not want to take a stand against the head of compliance. They were like, “Whoa, what do you need, Bill? Happy to help.”
What I would train people to do when I do I talk about now on these podcasts is be polite, be respectful, but verify. “Hey, Bill, with all due respect, I've got to be sure. I'm sure you, as a compliance person, are going to understand this. I've got to make sure you are who you say you are, because you're asking me for sensitive, private information. I'm happy to help, but I need to be positive, so here's what I need from you. I need you to send me an email from your company email address.” That's, I think, the best way to do it.
There are a lot of simple steps that people can take, but again, in the desire not to make a corporate enemy, people skip those steps many, many times, especially young people or junior people that don't understand how valuable this information still is. They've grown up in an era where there's not a lot of private information, so sometimes they don't think it's as big a deal as it is, but it is.
It's almost that there needs to be a policy at the corporate level kind of reinforced. If someone calls you and you don't know them personally claiming to be within the organization, you need to do X, Y, or Z before you give them what they're asking for.
Correct. I feel pretty confident. You could put me in a boardroom at any corporation and say, “Hey, Robert. We want you to penetrate our firm.” I'd say, “OK, give me 45 minutes to do a little research and then come back in.” Then they'd come back in, I'd start making phone calls, and I'd be getting people to be telling me pretty much anything I wanted to know.
Yeah. I could say that with a certitude of 98%. There are a few firms that are extremely difficult to extract information out of. I can count them on one hand the number of firms in a pretty long career as a corporate spy that I had great difficulty extracting information from. Very few.
Were there particular industries that were notoriously more difficult or easier?
That's a great question. Not really, no. I think there were just a couple of firms here and there that were very difficult. I think it's because from the top down, they just must have been drumming that into their people. I'm sure they were sending out regular information and reminders about that. I would imagine that they probably had some seminars where they discussed that. Like you said, it really became part of the corporate culture.
If it's not part of the corporate culture—that’s the whole corporation, even the far-flung little offices because they still have access to the database. Once you get into that database, you can get so much information from that that then it really gets difficult to stop people.
For example, if I get the organizational chart on a team and let's say in that team there are 50 people. I get that whole org chart on those 50 people. You go, “OK, well, big deal. You probably could get 30 of those names from LinkedIn.” But I didn't just get the 50 names. I got all their cell phone numbers too. Now I'm calling people on their cell phones.
I know cell phones are easier to get today than maybe they were five years ago or 10 years ago. But still, if I'm calling you on your cell phone, it's much more likely you're going to believe that I'm an internal person, you know what I mean?
By the way, if I know the cell phone number of your boss and if I know the cell phone number of your boss's boss, and I read those off, “Hey, I wouldn't be telling you who I am if I wasn't. Let me prove it to you. Your boss's number is this.” “Oh my God. Wow. You really have a lot of information. OK, sure. What do you need?”
You see how all of that information you got from these far-flung satellite offices now contributes to me being able to get a pretty high-level up executive to believe that, “Well, how could this person know all this if they didn't work for the company?”
Was there any particular story or company that you were able to get way more information from much easier than you ever expected?
That always happens. We have a firm that was just kicking our butts, a major corporation, and we were just getting hammered there. They weren't giving information. Right when we were about to give up, we were just like, “You know what? I'm going to just call the client and say, ‘Look, it doesn't happen very often. Once a year. But we just can't break it. We just can't get it.’” It was almost invariably, right about then, that we would make one or two more phone calls and somebody would crack. All of a sudden, we go, “Oh, my God. I cannot believe we were about to throw in the towel on this firm.”
Most times, we got even more information than we have ever anticipated or even been asked for. Because again, the more time you're spending in a company, around the company, you're learning more and more about it. You're learning they're transitioning to a new software. You can use it. The information security officer is retiring next week and they don't know who they're bringing in yet. They're interviewing their final candidates today at 3:30 PM—you can use it.
All of these things, the more time you spend trying to break a company, you're getting all of this information. Even if people aren't giving you what you want, there are little bits and pieces of information. That's why individuals shouldn't be giving any information at all until they have verified who they're speaking with.
There was one company that I worked for a number of years ago. I was doing IT for them. Somehow the receptionist was out that day and somehow, I'm like, fine. We didn't get very many phone calls to the receptionist. It was, “Ah, don't worry, I'll answer the phone.”
Anytime someone would call like, “Yeah, can you transfer me over to marketing?” I'm like, “Well, who are you looking for?” “The head of marketing.” “What do you want to talk to him about?” “No, just transfer me over to them.” I'm like, “No, I'm not going to do that.”
They were just like, “What's wrong with you? Why won't you transfer me?” “Well, I don't know who you are. I know the head of marketing doesn't want to talk to anybody, so he definitely doesn't want to talk to you if you won't tell me who you are and why you want to talk to him.”
Correct, exactly. Nice work, Chris. Good job. I remember that call. You stopped me in my tracks.
Yeah, probably not. Were there any times when you're like, “Oh my gosh. I just blew it. I've been caught. The police are going to be showing up at my door.”
Yeah. What was funny is sometimes we turned those being-caught moments. You have somebody on the phone and they'd be busting you. They'd say, “Oh, I don't believe you're so and so. I don't believe blah, blah, blah. I don't believe blah, blah, blah. OK.”
Because there were a couple of us back in the day that were working for that woman who started, so then we have the other person call up to the same person. But I said, “Hey, look. There are some phishing calls going around and we wanted to warn you. We're calling everybody. We wanted to warn you.” And then the person would go, “I just had one.”
“Oh my God. You’re kidding. OK, what was the information they were seeking? They wanted to know. OK. You know what? I want you to give me that list now, because I need to call all of those people and warn them.” And then we get that same person that said no to give us that information.
The unfortunate thing that I see is once someone has become the victim of a scam, then there's the, “We're here from the Victim Relief Services. We want to help you out, and oh, we'll scam you for this.”
Right. Again, as I said from the beginning, I'm not proud of this career. The thing that at least I always drew my proverbial line in the sand was that I never took the rusing into my personal life to use it for whatever I could there because you could imagine the applications could be pretty significant.
Also, in terms of the rusing that I did, we were never taking anybody's money, getting somebody's credit card, or anything like that. The way we rationalize it, and that's what we were doing, is we were going, “Well, look. What we're really doing is helping people, oftentimes, get better jobs. We're part of the capitalist system, like it or not, for better or for worse.
When I was watching the Uber show last night and I saw at the end of the program it was talking about how many billions of dollars all of those people made. It definitely made me go, “You know what? What I did was not so bad after all. Here are people working at this toxic company and they're all doing all these illegal shenanigans. Nobody went to jail. Forget about jail. They all made billions of dollars.
What made you decide to leave the “industry?”
Again, I talk about this in the book that when the crash of 2008 came, all business kind of stopped on a dime. Corporate America was devastated. People weren't hiring. People were being laid off en masse. People were scared they weren’t going to have jobs. There was no corporate spying anymore. There was no money.
All of a sudden, I was like, “Oh my God. I need a job.” I took a job in corporate America. I went to work for a major executive recruiting firm going in and meeting with the CEOs of some of the largest firms in the world, presenting my extracted a.k.a. stolen data. I'm here to tell you that the CEOs of the largest corporations in America are well-aware of corporate spying. Of course, they would all deny it because usually what they're getting this information from is some sort of intermediary or third party, so they have plausible deniability.
“We just hired a recruiting firm to find people for us. We didn't authorize that.”
We had no idea. By the way, that's what the recruiting firm specializes in is getting that kind of information or hiring a spy like me or someone else to get that information for them, which then they put their name on a PowerPoint document—“proprietary intelligence obtained by”—and then they present it to the CEO of these huge, oftentimes, major financial institutions. Wall Street firms.
Anyway, I'm working for this major executive recruiting firm—and this is all in Ruse—and what I found, much to my chagrin, was that the lying done on Wall Street face to face was seemingly far worse than the lying that I was doing over the phone. It was really shocking to me. Someone would lie to me, I would know they were lying to me. They knew that I knew that they were lying to me, and nobody cared. It was almost like, the best liar wins. That was amazing to me.
Your listeners will be glad to know that while in the book, I was rusing people. When I went to work in corporate America, eventually, I was the one that got rused. I was the one that was duped. I was the one that was taken advantage of. There's a nice comeuppance that I get in Ruse.
Were you taken advantage by someone who was a corporate spy or just within the organization?
Just within the organization and the politics that went on. If somebody told me something, I would believe them. If they said that they thought I did a good job on this, I believe them. If they said that they wanted me to work on this thing, whatever it was, I went, “OK, great. It's going great.” Meanwhile, it was all of this back-channel politics. Everybody stabbing everybody in the back. It was so cutthroat I just couldn't believe it. It just didn't make any sense to me that this kind of behavior would go on.
Of course, again, watching the Uber show the other night, that's the kind of world. That's the world that I was part of—the Wall Street version, as opposed to Uber in the Silicon Valley. But it's the same thing where people are stabbing each other in the back, people are saying terrible things about each other, and then your desk is right next to them and you're smiling away. It was a real eye-opener.
I imagine. Did any of your rusing take place in person or was it all over the phone, email, and things like that?
For the most part, we kept it—I kept it over the phone because I knew if I crossed that line, I went somewhere, and now was creating a fictitious person, man, that was going to be hard to keep all those balls in the air. I'm not going to say I never did it, but I will say that it's going to be in the Ruse TV series. Some of those stories are going to be in the Ruse TV series.
I imagine it's one thing to do this over the phone. It's a lot more complicated in person.
And nerve-racking. It was intense. It was definitely intense going out to major corporations, major corporate events, as someone else that did not exist for a purpose to get information, to see who was out of place, or who they were sitting with.
We need to know because if there's a merger going on and they're sitting with this person, that means there's something going on, and things like that. Keep an eye out for the Ruse TV series.
When you're on the phone, you could be sweating and shaking and no one will notice.
That's exactly right. At the end of the day, if you get really nervous, you can hang up and move on to another call. I never did that because I would just hang in because it would be amazing. Somebody would be, “No way. Never going to give it to you.” And you would hang on, and hang on. All of a sudden, they might not give you everything that you wanted, but they'd give you some clue that would enable you to get around that roadblock.
That's the whole trick of social engineering, it's just getting little bits and pieces that you can parlay into more.
That's right. Exactly.
Where can people find out more about the book? What's the complete title so they can get it on Amazon?
The complete title is Ruse: Lying the American Dream from Hollywood to Wall Street. I think the best way to learn more is to go to my website, www.robertkerbeck.com. There's a lot of information on there, some of the reviews. The New York Post just wrote a wonderful piece. Shondaland, the creator of Inventing Anna, just did a great piece, which is how the TV series came about.
Frank Abagnale, who wrote Catch Me If You Can, gave me a wonderful blurb. Former CIA spy Valerie Plame gave me a wonderful blurb. You can see all that stuff on there. Then, of course, you can order the book from wherever you want to order it from, your local bookstore, which is what I always recommend, because if we don't support our local bookstores, they're not going to be there anymore, or the proverbial or the big places too. Robertkerbeck.com is the best place.
Can people find you on social media?
Yeah. They can find me on Instagram @robertkerbeck, Twitter @robertkerbeck, Facebook, and LinkedIn. I always like to talk to people. For your listeners, reach out. Especially if you have questions or comments after the book. I always enjoy hearing what people think and have to say.
Awesome. Robert, thank you so much for coming on The Easy Prey Podcast today.
Thanks for having me, Chris. It was really fun.