The glamour of Hollywood provides no protection from charlatans who continue to swindle everyone from pop stars, famous actors and even charities
From its earliest days, Hollywood’s pop stars and famous actors have been an irresistible target for thieves, hustlers, swindlers and scam artists hoping to siphon off some of Tinsel Town’s vast wealth.
Recent headlines show how even the biggest stars can fall for these illicit operators. Just last month, Dustin Hoffman and his son Jacob filed a fraud lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court after they lost a reported $3 million investment from a real estate deal now being characterized in court papers as a Ponzi scheme. The alleged operator of the con, Jeffrey Yohai, a childhood friend of Jacob Hoffman, had solicited the investments to acquire and renovate four upscale residential properties in Los Angeles. All the properties are now in foreclosure and the money is gone. Yohai has denied any intent to defraud his investors.
Just months prior to this episode, Sapient Investigations received a call from an international charity concerned that it had been defrauded by an allegedly wealthy music producer from Europe. This saga, some details of which have been altered to protect the organization’s privacy, demonstrate how insidious con men can be.
The case turns on a glitzy holiday charity gala at a Beverly Hills hotel ballroom to raise money for an international hunger campaign. When the emcee called for pledges, the music producer stunned the crowd by announcing he would contribute one million dollars to the cause. The generous gesture by an individual virtually unknown to those in attendance, rippled through the ballroom packed with A-list celebrities and well-heeled benefactors. ‘Oohs’ and ‘Ahs’ were followed by prolonged applause that the producer acknowledged with a grinning bow.
The million-dollar pledge, it turned out, was only the beginning. Aggressively bidding in the charity’s silent auction, the producer won several big-ticket items and by the end of the night had committed to another $400,000 to the organization.
Yet, months after the fundraiser, the producer’s silent auction prizes sat in the charity’s offices uncollected and his $1.4 million in pledges missing from its coffers. For the charity director and the board, a sinking feeling had finally landed in their collective stomachs.
Just who was that producer who had commanded much of the evening’s spotlight?
The producer replied to the charity’s polite queries via email and text messages with assurances the money was on its way. But there were growing signs that the charming bon vivant might not be what he seemed. One thing was his elaborate excuses such as the U.S. government had delayed his delivery of the money from an off shore bank due to his right-of-center political stances. The producer went so far as to email them a copy of a bank document purporting to the show the $1.4 million wire transfer to the charity’s financial institution. Still, the money never arrived.
The Board retained outside legal counsel to evaluate whether it should sue the producer. It wasn’t just a matter of an inconvenience, the producer’s phony bids had cost the charity money it otherwise would have realized from the next-highest bids, and the startling bravado of his million-dollar pledge from the ballroom floor that night in December may well have prompted other real high-dollar donors in the audience that night to sit on their wallets and purses—after all, the charity had already landed a windfall.
As investigators dug into the background of the producer – originally from France but who had lived in Italy before coming to the U.S. – they uncovered the trail left by a man who lived a high-profile life of lies and fantasies.
The late 30’s producer, a talented musician, had some legitimate music credentials back in Europe, but in the U.S. it appeared that he had used these bonafides as a foundation for fraud. After landing an expensive rental in Beverly Hills, the producer played the role of a rich playboy who claimed deep connections to law enforcement and international intelligence circles. He even attended The World Series and paid five-figures to secure premium seats as a means of ingratiating himself with wealthy businessmen including a software executive who later invited him to the charity’s gala.
It is unknown whether the producer fleeced any of these unsuspecting professionals or just used them to gain entrance to other potential wealthy marks but the investigation determined that the producer had a dark side and had left a trial of victims across the U.S.
Most disturbingly, the previous year he had been arrested for stalking, harassing and making violent threats against a former girlfriend, including sending her photos of him posing with guns and warning her he was “a good shot.”
Investigators tracked down another woman who claimed the producer married her for a Green Card but who then proceeded to drain her bank account of nearly six-figures and then disappeared. When she reported to him to police and filed for divorce, the producer threatened that the woman would “regret” that, claiming he had deep connections with law enforcement.
Yet his bizarre delusions were more than a simple bid to intimidate people he’d shaken down. Investigators also discovered that the producer had been arrested for impersonating a police officer. He made bail, was released before an immigration hold was placed on him, and was able to skip town once again. A bench warrant has since been issued for his arrest.
Meanwhile, no information was identified that suggested the producer was independently wealthy or had any discernible assets at all either in Europe or the U.S. Working with officials from the Caribbean-based bank, it was in fact determined that the $1.4 million wire transfer confirmation he sent to the charity was a fraud, the document was apparently doctored from an actual wire transfer receipt.
In the end, the charity’s Board decided not to file a lawsuit against the producer and generate any media attention about the incident. They simply wanted to move on with their mission to help those who cannot help themselves.
They, however, learned a hard lesson in the process. That even the well-meaning or good-hearted need to be wary of mysterious benefactors who are too good to be true. More often than not they are just that – too good to be true.