This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Robert Kerbeck, former corporate spy and author of RUSE: Lying the American Dream from Hollywood to Wall Street.
I grew up in Philadelphia, where my family is well-known in the automobile business. To this day, the Kerbeck family is one of the largest Lamborghini, Ferrari and Maserati dealers in the country. As the oldest son, I was supposed to take over the Kerbeck car dealerships, but ironically, the trickery involved with car sales didn’t feel right to me.
Instead, I moved to New York to become an actor. Of course, actors need survival jobs. But I didn’t have the patience to be a waiter, and I wasn’t a late-night guy, so bartending was out. Then, one day, a friend mentioned a job he had. But he was very mysterious about it, and as soon as he mentioned it, he shut up as if he’d been told, “Don’t ever tell people about this job.” But I said, “Come on dude, I’m broke. Help me out. I need a job.”
So, very reluctantly, he set up an interview for me. I traveled to the Upper East Side of Manhattan, arrived at a fancy doorman building and took the elevator to the penthouse. This woman opened the door and ushered me into the nicest apartment I’d ever seen, and I knew immediately that her business was very lucrative.
Then, I proceeded to have the strangest interview I’ve ever had. She didn’t tell me one thing about the job, didn’t ask me anything about my skills. She just kept asking me about my relationship with my father and how he felt about my not going into the car business. It was all very strange, so I left pretty sure I didn’t get the job. Obviously, this is in an era before cell phones, but when I got home, there was a message from my buddy saying, “You got the job, but don’t get too excited because nobody is able to do this job.”
Image Credit: Courtesy of Robert Kerbeck
Next thing I know, I’m at this building in a very rough neighborhood in Brooklyn to start training. I walk up to the fourth floor. I hear people yelling and screaming, and when I knock on the door, this young woman opens the door and says, “Come on in; you’ll work in my bedroom.” I had no idea what was going on. But I followed her into the bedroom, where there’s a desk and a futon on the ground, and she says sit down and begins to explain what we do: We call major Wall Street firms and get people inside these Wall Street firms to tell us things that they should never in a million years tell us.
“If I had been selling the information we learned to the Russians or the Chinese, I could have gone to jail for the rest of my life.”
The woman who ran the company said she only hired actors because she needed people who could create characters and do voices and accents. Initially, she only hired women for the job because she felt that women made better spies — one of the ploys they’d use would be to act as a beleaguered secretary or assistant because, back in the day, most assistants were female.
As part of our training, we listened to their calls on speakerphone: They’d say, “My boss is a jerk. My boss is yelling at me because I lost the client proposal; can you read it to me?” Sometimes, they’d cry on the phone. And the assistant on the other end of the line would immediately divulge the information.
My friend and I were the first men the firm hired; we made $8 per hour. Men weren’t typically assistants, so we struggled in the beginning. Although the firm mainly focused on Wall Street, one of the first jobs we got involved spying on the defense industry. If I had been selling the information we learned to the Russians or the Chinese, I could have gone to jail for the rest of my life. Instead, we were selling it to that firm’s top rivals. It’s fascinating how, in America, that kind of capitalism is sort of okay. It’s okay if Apple steals something from Google, but God forbid the Chinese government is stealing it from Google.
Essentially, clients want the playbook for your company. They don’t want to know some of the information; they want to know all of the information. One thing that’s very often undervalued is the organizational chart. Nowadays, there’s a lot of information on LinkedIn about who works at a company, but it can’t tell you who the rock stars are. We’d go in and find those top performers.
For instance, if it was a sales organization, we would get the sales numbers of your sales team so we know who’s number one, who’s number two, who’s number three. Then we’d learn their salaries, so we could show our client, “Look, number one and number two earn big salaries, but number three is a 25-year-old who’s underpaid right now. They’re a future hall-of-famer, but nobody knows it yet.” If you can poach that young, up-and-coming talent — think about how valuable that is.
Of course, we also obtained other secrets. What new products is a company working on, and how are they going to price those products? What client relationships do your rivals have? What are those clients paying them? Can you underbid those clients?
“When I worked as a spy, I relied on several tactics for a successful ruse.”
Being a corporate spy requires a very unusual set of skills. One is the ability to act and improvise. But it also requires a very savvy business sense. You have to understand how businesses work and how to use that to get someone to release sensitive proprietary corporate secrets. That’s why it was unique: Most artists don’t have a great business skill set, and most business people don’t have that flair with language and improvisation.
When I worked as a spy, I relied on several tactics for a successful ruse. First, I did my research so I could pretend to be an executive in another office, perhaps an international office, so that I could adopt an accent. I’d even dig up video clips of the executive speaking on YouTube or LinkedIn to get the accent just right. I always impersonated a real executive so I could assuage the concerns of anyone who might do their due diligence — though, most of the time, the person on the other end of the line accepted what I said at face value.
Next, I added the pressure of a time constraint. For example, maybe I’m impersonating a German executive about to meet with European Union regulators to address a complaint that could impact the business; it could stop the business from operating or result in a fine. People who hear “regulators” or “compliance” don’t want to get in trouble, so they’re willing to provide the information to avoid that.
Often, there’s a third element to the strategy. We call it FOMO, or “fear of missing out.” If someone seems suspicious of me and is asking questions, I’ll start to validate that. I’ll say, “Hey [their name], you’re more on top of it than nine out of 10 employees who give me whatever I want without any difficulty whatsoever. But this is important; we’re in a real time crunch. I’m meeting with the regulators, and trust me, [their name], this will be good for you — because now, if you ever need a favor, you call me, and I’ll help you with whatever you need. Maybe one day we’ll have you come to work as part of compliance because you seem pretty sharp. I’m impressed that you’re asking these questions. Good job verifying that I am who I say I am. Well done. Now, let’s get back to what I need.”
“I think we’re about to learn that some of these ransomware attacks are actually sponsored by rivals of companies.”
Most people would be shocked to know how much money corporations spend every day to spy on each other. They ask me, “Robert, do most firms hire spies?” And I say, “No, most firms don’t hire spies — all firms hire spies.” They’re smart, so they never do it directly. They’re hiring spies through intermediaries, typically consulting or executive recruiting firms. That way, if someone gets caught spying, the firm can say they had no idea the consulting firm they’d hired used spies. That’s how corporations get away with it: On more than one occasion, I presented stolen data directly to people who now are one step away from being CEOs of two of the largest financial institutions in the world.
At the height of my corporate espionage career, I earned $2 million a year. My clients came to me through word-of-mouth, and I’d have people call me up with offers to double my rate. The spying economy was booming then — just as it is now. Consider some of the devastating ransomware attacks we’ve seen, most recently at MGM. It shut down for 10 days. You couldn’t get into your room because your key card didn’t work; the slot machines didn’t work, and neither did the elevators. People are starting to suspect ransomware gangs, and I think we’re about to learn that some of these ransomware attacks are actually sponsored by rivals of companies — because if you can’t beat them by hiring better people or improving processes, you can shut them down for days and damage their reputation.
My career as a corporate spy ended after the economy crashed in 2008. All commerce stopped on a dime, and companies were no longer hiring spies because they were trying to survive. At that point, I had to get a real job in corporate America. I’d never taken a job in corporate America before, and in some ways, the face-to-face lying seemed worse than what I’d done over the phone. I thought we were all working together on the same team, and I had no idea about the politics and the backstabbing — basically, I ended up the dupe. I thought the company was going to pay me a lot of money to buy my business, but it was all a giant ruse to get information so they could land bigger clients and cut me loose.
You have to stay humble because the second you think you’ve got it covered and have all the answers and are the master, you’re ripe for being tricked. Hackers and social engineers constantly refine their techniques, and AI is especially dangerous. Now, you don’t need to be a trained actor to put on a convincing accent.
In the beginning, spying was just a survival job; that’s how I rationalized it. It was only later on, when my acting career kind of faded, that I crossed over to the dark side and went deep into corporate espionage. Morally, there are things I did that I wouldn’t do today, but I took the journey I wanted to take, and that’s what I tell people: “Take the journey you want to take.” Because we only have one life. Don’t take the journey your mom or dad wants you to take. Don’t take the journey your partner wants you to take. Don’t take the journey your boss wants you to take. Take the journey you want to take.