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Journalist Who Posed as Middle Eastern Tycoon Gets Prison Term

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Filed under: Fraud and Deception, Hoaxes vs. Scams, Legal Issues, Media Literacy, Media Pranks, Prank News, Pranksters, Propaganda and Disinformation, Truth that's Stranger than Fiction

UK journalist Mahzer Mahmood didn’t let ethics or truth get in the way of a hot scoop, and now he’s headed to prison. It’s a story that beggars belief, involving politics, pop star drug scandals, royalty real and fake. We’re left to wonder what’s up with the screen rights.


“British Reporter ‘Fake Sheikh’ Jailed for 15 Months”
by Danica Kirka
AP
October 21, 2016

aotpmazhermahmoodA judge sentenced a British journalist who often posed as a Middle Eastern tycoon in sting operations to 15 months in prison on Friday, after the tabloid reporter was convicted of perverting the course of justice in an effort to get scoops.

Mazher Mahmood, a tabloid reporter nicknamed the “Fake Sheikh,” was found guilty earlier this month of tampering with evidence in the collapsed drug trial of pop star and actress Tulisa Contostavlos. The case against Contostavlos originally was based on interviews Mahmood, 53, conducted for the Sun newspaper.

The Crown Prosecution Service is reviewing another 25 convictions linked to Mahmood’s work and has dropped active criminal cases in which Mahmood was to be a witness.

As he was led away to prison, a man in the crowd shouted, “Your turn now, Mazher.”

One of his most famous scoops involved the wife of Prince Edward, youngest son of Queen Elizabeth II. Edward’s wife. Posing as an aide to a Saudi Arabian prince interested in hiring her public relations company, Mahmood charmed Sophie, the Countess of Wessex, into making indiscreet comments about the British government in 2001.

The countess also was caught on tape describing then-Prime Minister Tony Blair’s wife, Cherie, as “horrid, horrid, horrid.”

For the sting involving Contostavlos, Mahmood posed as a film producer and discussed a movie role with her that would have her share screen time with Leonardo DiCaprio. Prosecutors said Mahmood gave evidence to police that led to Contostavlos being charged with supplying illicit drugs. Continue reading.

Election 2016 Gets the Weird Al Treatment

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Filed under: Parody, Political Pranks, Prank News

Perhaps no comedian can do justice to this year’s election cycle, but America’s most successful parodist takes a crack at it.


Watch the video:

R.I.P. Tom Hayden (1939-2016)

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Filed under: Creative Activism, Culture Jamming and Reality Hacking, Media Pranks, Political Challenges, Political Pranks, Prank News, Pranksters, The History of Pranks

Yippie activist, Chicago 7 defendant, California State Assemblyman, author, publisher, rabble-rouser, and Los Angeles legend Tom Hayden has passed away at the age of 76.


“Prominent Antiwar Activist and Member of the ‘Chicago 7’ Tom Hayden Dead at 76”
by Reuters Staff
The Huffington Post
October 24, 2016

aotptomhaydenVeteran social activist and politician Tom Hayden, a stalwart of America’s New Left who served 18 years in California’s state legislature and gained a dash of Hollywood glamour by marrying actress Jane Fonda, has died at age 76, according to media reports.

Hayden died in Santa Monica, California, after a lengthy illness, The Los Angeles Times reported on its website.

“A political giant and dear friend has passed,” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti wrote on Twitter, adding “Tom Hayden fought harder for what he believed than just about anyone I have known.”

Hayden, who forged his political activism as a founding member of Students for a Democratic Society, which stood at the core of the 1960s anti-war and civil rights movements, was principal author of the group’s revolutionary manifesto, the Port Huron Statement.

The University of Michigan student ventured into the Deep South, where he joined voter registration campaigns and was arrested and beaten while taking part in the “freedom rider” protests against racial segregation.

Hayden, however, became perhaps best known as one of the “Chicago Seven” activists tried on conspiracy and incitement charges following protests at the turbulent 1968 Democratic National Convention. He was ultimately acquitted of all charges. Read more.

James O’Keefe’s October Surprise

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Filed under: Culture Jamming and Reality Hacking, Fraud and Deception, Political Challenges, Political Pranks, Prank News, Pranksters

It wouldn’t feel like an election year without a fresh sting from right-wing culture jammer James O’Keefe.


“Everything We Know About the Latest James O’Keefe Video Sting”
by Philip Elliot
Time
October 18, 2016

James O'keefe

The latest ‘gotcha’ videos from conservative provocateur James O’Keefe’s Project Veritas Action have some shocking claims that, if they are true, would indicate Democrats are playing dirty to get Hillary Clinton elected.

In one video, a contractor seems to brag about sending homeless and mentally ill people to harass Republicans. Someone identified as a Democratic National Committee staffer appears to claim credit for pushing Republican contender Donald Trump’s rally in Chicago toward violence. In another, consultants look like they are describing a plan to bus voters across state lines and registering immigrants in the country illegally to vote.

But if O’Keefe’s previous efforts to infiltrate and expose his foes such as ACORN and NPR are to offer a hint, there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical. O’Keefe has previously spliced videos together to imply its subjects were saying things they were not.

Even so, the latest video has cost someone identified by the Democratic National Committee chairwoman “a temporary, regional sub-contractor” his job. Another established DNC vendor gave up his contract. Another protester who says she was at the Chicago melee linked herself to Clinton’s campaign, although she was paid for work in Arizona in the weeks before anything happened in Illinois.

The release of the videos made conservatives giddy that O’Keefe had claimed yet more scalps for his long-standing effort to show liberal hypocrisy through hidden-camera footage. And more embarrassing videos are expected to come before Election Day, O’Keefe promised. Donald Trump urged his audiences in Colorado on Tuesday to go online and watch them. Read more.

A Visit to Scarfolk, the UK’s Weirdest Fake Town

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Filed under: Art Pranks, Prank News, Pranksters, Satire, The Prank as Art

Atlas Obscura presents a tourist’s guide to Richard Littler’s eerie, anachronistic, made-up universe. Fans of Welcome to Night Vale may be particularly intrigued.


“Digging Through the Archives of Scarfolk, the Internet’s Creepiest Fake Town”
by Cara Giaimo
Atlas Obscura
October 17, 2016

scarfolkIn 1978, the town of Scarfolk, in northwest England, cut its police budget in half. This drastic measure was followed by a wave of violent crime. To deal with the influx of dead bodies, the remaining police did the obvious thing—they teamed up with the “Keep Britain Tidy” campaign, and encouraged citizens, especially children, to pick up “victim debris” themselves.

If this sounds too grotesque to be true, don’t worry—it is! There were never any smiling, appendage-finding kids in Scarfolk, because Scarfolk never existed. But the town’s online presence is meticulously detailed and impressively creepy. For three years, graphic designer Richard Littler has been using his design skills and bone-dry wit to write a whole history of Scarfolk, a fictional, supernatural-tinged town that finds humor in dystopia, and is closer to today’s world than we might like to think.

Scarfolk is perpetually stuck in the 1970s, and repeats the decade on loop. On his blog, “Scarfolk Council,” Littler presents the town’s story through materials from the council’s “archive”: posters, pamphlets and packaging that reveal aspects of everyday life. Carefully Photoshopped and inspired by real source material, Littler’s creations pack a punch—with their pastel, large fonted bombast, they could easily be mistaken for actual ’70s artifacts. Read more.

Alex Chang Plumbs the Depths of Telemarketing Scammers

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Filed under: Fraud and Deception, Prank News, Pranksters, Sociology and Psychology of Pranks

A scambaiting expedition leads to an unexpected conclusion:


aotp_office
“I trolled my IRS scammers for weeks. I learned something really dark.”
by Alex Chang
Vox
October 18, 2016

These scammers had called me so many times that I knew their script.

They always introduced themselves as IRS officers with inconspicuous American names, like “Paul Thomas.” They called to collect the $6,000 I owed the IRS. And if I didn’t pay, they threatened to send the local police to arrest me.

They were unconvincing. I didn’t understand how this scam could work on anyone. But a quick search led me to a couple in Tennessee, a student in Virginia, and thousands of others who’d fallen for the scam. There was something about this scam that worked — and I had to find out what it was.

So I got further and further into the scam. At first, I played along for a few minutes and then hung up. After a few days, I trolled them with the vast amount I learned about their operation. Then, on a hot mid-September day, I decided enough was enough.

I was going to get to the end of this scam.

That’s how I ended up talking to “Steve Smith” for 30 minutes. He was a senior investigations officer — the actual person who walks you through how to send them money. I learned that his secret is maintaining an aura of authority. That’s how he optimizes fear. That’s how he gets people to suspend logic, drive to Walgreens, and buy iTunes gift cards to pay the IRS. The scam takes advantage of the most vulnerable people. Read more.


A Peek Inside the Process of Faux-Documentarian Christopher Guest

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Filed under: Parody, Prank News, Pranksters, Satire, The Prank as Art

Christopher Guest has built a career on the quirks of his passionate and unusual characters, from rock stars to dog-show emcees, while faithfully mimicking the documentary format. As he returns to explore the inner lives of sports mascots, Time looks at what makes his humanistic comedy machine run.


Mascots and the Very Serious Business of Making a Christopher Guest Movie”
by Eliza Berman
Time
October 14, 2016

poseyWhen Parker Posey got a call from Christopher Guest offering her a part in his next movie, she already knew the drill. Having appeared in all four of the faux-documentaries Guest had written and directed since 1997, she knew he’d give her the basic character sketch—in this case, Cindi Babineaux, a mascot for a Mississippi women’s college basketball team who’s aging out of her tenure as Alvin the Armadillo—and it would be her job to fill in the details. “The nine-banded armadillo is limited,” she says, recalling her attempts to crack the character. “They’re mainly roadkill.” She pauses. “That’s an interesting angle.”

Finding the interesting angle on idiosyncratic subcultures and the Cindi Babineauxs that comprise them has driven Guest’s work over the past two decades. Movies like Best in Show, about competitive dog breeders and trainers, and A Mighty Wind, about a folk-music reunion concert, have won the onetime Saturday Night Live cast member legions of devoted fans. His particular brand of comedy, which originated with the cult classic This Is Spinal Tap in 1984, directed by Rob Reiner and co-written by Reiner, Guest, Harry Shearer and Michael McKean, applies the conventions of self-serious documentary filmmaking to unexpected, if not undeserving, fictional subjects.

In Mascots, Guest’s first film in a decade, premiering on Netflix Oct. 13, he and co-writer Jim Piddock turn their gaze—with the help of a flock of returning cast members including Posey, Jane Lynch, Fred Willard and Ed Begley Jr.—toward the men and women who dance in poorly ventilated animal suits to bring smiles to the faces of amateur sports fans. Read more.


Renowned Journalist Faced Harrowing Legal Scare

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Filed under: First Amendment Issues, Legal Issues, Political Challenges

As part of a wave of arrests surrounding a Dakota Access Pipeline protest in September, esteemed and controversial journalist Amy Goodman was charged with major felonies for, uh, reporting on the protest. On Monday, her case was dismissed. Nevertheless, this sort of mock execution should put First Amendment defenders on high alert and draw attention to what is obviously a sore spot for the North Dakota government authorities.


“Amy Goodman Is Facing Jail Time for Reporting on the Dakota Access Pipeline. That Should Scare Us All.”
by Lizzy Ratner
The Nation
October 14, 2016 (Updated: October 17, 2016)

Update: Case dismissed! On Monday, October 17, District Judge John Grinsteiner rejected the “riot” charge that had been leveled against Amy Goodman for her coverage of a September 3rd Dakota Access Pipeline protest. Standing before the Morton County courthouse, surrounded by supporters, Goodman said: “It is a great honor to be here today. The judge’s decision to reject the State’s Attorney Ladd Erickson’s attempt to prosecute a journalist–in this case, me–is a great vindication of the First Amendment.” And she added: “[W]e encourage all of the media to come here. We certainly will continue to cover this struggle.”

amygoodman

This Monday morning, shortly after the sun rises over the small city of Mandan, North Dakota, the award-winning journalist, and host of Democracy Now!, Amy Goodman will walk into the Morton County–Mandan Combined Law Enforcement and Corrections Center and turn herself in to the local authorities. Her crime: good, unflinching journalism.

Goodman had the audacity to commit this journalism on September 3, when she was in North Dakota covering what she calls “the standoff at Standing Rock”: the months-long protests by thousands of Native Americans against the Dakota Access Pipeline. The $3.8 billion oil pipeline is slated to carry barrel after barrel of Bakken crude through sacred sites and burial grounds of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, and tribe members fear it could pollute the Missouri River, the source not only of their water but of millions of others’, should the pipe ever rupture. Their protests, which began in April and ballooned through the summer months, represent the largest mobilization of Native American activists in more than 40 years—and one of the most vital campaigns for environmental justice in perhaps as long. Read more.


The Best Trick Wins the War

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Filed under: Fraud and Deception, Illusion and Magic, Political Pranks, Prank News, Propaganda and Disinformation, Sociology and Psychology of Pranks

Infaltable decoys come of age with military sleight of hand. [Thanks Peter M.]


“A New Weapon In Russia’s Arsenal – And It’s Inflatable”
by Andrew E. Kramer
October 12, 2016
The New York Times

russianmilitarydecoysDeep in the Russian countryside, the grass sways in a late-summer breeze. In the distance, the sun glistens off the golden spires of a village church. It is, to all appearances, a typically Russian scene of imperturbable rural tranquillity.

Until a sleek MIG-31 fighter jet suddenly appears in a field, its muscular, stubby wings spreading to reveal their trademark red star insignia. A few moments later, a missile launcher pops up beside it.

Cars on a nearby road pull over, the drivers gaping in amazement at what appear to be fearsome weapons, encountered so unexpectedly in this serene spot. And then, as quickly as they appeared, the jet and missile launcher vanish.

“If you study the major battles of history, you see that trickery wins every time,” Aleksei A. Komarov, the military engineer in charge of this sleight of hand, said with a sly smile. “Nobody ever wins honestly.” Read more.


Documentarian Faces Decades in Prison

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Filed under: First Amendment Issues, Legal Issues, Political Challenges

The Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker Deia Schlosberg was arrested while shooting anti-Keystone Pipeline activists in North Dakota. Schlosberg wasn’t protesting anything – she was reporting on the events, which is what journalists do for a living. She is being charged with three conspiracy counts, and her case has some unusually horrifying First Amendment implications.


“Filmmaker Arrested at Pipeline Protest Facing 45 Years in Felony Charges”
by Nick Visser
The Huffington Post
October 14, 2016

aotp_schlosbergA documentarian arrested while filming an oil pipeline protest on Tuesday has been charged with three felony conspiracy charges ― and could face decades in prison if convicted.

Deia Schlosberg, the producer of the upcoming documentary “How to Let Go of the World and Love All Things Climate Can’t Change,” was detained while filming a protest against TransCanada’s Keystone Pipeline in Walhalla, North Dakota. Activists at the event, associated with the group Climate Direct Action, shut down the pipeline, which carries oil from Canadian tar sands to the U.S, for about seven hours.

Two of the protestors, Michael Foster and Samuel Jessup, were also charged and Schlosberg’s equipment and footage from the event was confiscated. Schlosberg said shortly after being released on bond that she couldn’t comment on her arrest until she spoke to a lawyer.

She has been charged with three felonies: conspiracy to theft of property, conspiracy to theft of services and conspiracy to tampering with or damaging a public service. Together, the charges carry 45 years in maximum prison sentences.

Josh Fox, the director of the film and two others related to fossil fuels, including the Academy Award-nominated “Gasland,” said Schlosberg wasn’t participating in the protest herself but acting as filmmaker to document the event. Her arrest appears to reflect a “deliberate” targeting of reporters, he said.

“They have in my view violated the First Amendment,” Fox said, referring to the state’s Pembina County Sheriff’s Department. “It’s fucking scary, it knocks the wind of your sails, it throws you for a loop. They threw the book at Deia for being a journalist.” Read more.

R.I.P. Dario Fo (1926-2016)

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Filed under: Creative Activism, Parody, Political Challenges, Prank News, Pranksters, Satire, The History of Pranks

Revered playwright, comedian, Nobel laureate, and prankster patron saint Dario Fo has passed away at the age of 90.


Nobel laureate Dario Fo, who mocked politics, religion, dies
by Frances D’Emilio and Nicole Winfield
AP
October 13, 2016

Dario Fo

Dario Fo

Italian playwright Dario Fo, whose energetic mocking of Italian political life, social mores and religion won him praise, scorn and the Nobel Prize for Literature, died Thursday. He was 90.

Fo died Thursday morning in Milan’s Luigi Sacco hospital after suffering respiratory complications from a progressive pulmonary disease, said the chief of pulmonology, Dr. Delfino Luigi Legnani. Fo had been working on a new stage production with collaborators in his hospital room up until his final days, Legnani said.

The author of “Accidental Death of an Anarchist” and more than 70 other plays saw himself as playing the role of the jester, combining raunchy humor and scathing satire that continued into his final years. He was admired and reviled in equal measure.

His political activities saw him banned from the United States and censored on Italian television, and his flamboyant artistic antics resulted in repeated arrests. Read more.


Ghostwatch Remembered

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Filed under: Fact or Fiction?, Media Literacy, Media Pranks, Prank News, Pranksters, The History of Pranks

Looking back on a controversial BBC show called Ghostwatch and its creator Stephen Volk, a hoaxer who out-Orsoned War of the Worlds.


“The BBC Halloween Hoax That Traumatized Viewers”
by Jake Rossen
Mental Floss
October 6, 2016

aotp_ghostwatchAfter more than 20,000 phone calls, one induced labor, and thousands of angry letters, the UK’s Broadcasting Standards Council convened for a hearing. On June 27, 1995, they ruled that the producers of Ghostwatch, a BBC program that aired on Halloween night less than three years earlier, had deliberately set out to “cultivate a sense of menace.”

Put another way, the BBC had been found to be complicit in scaring 11 million people senseless.

Airing from Northolt, North London, Ghostwatch alleged to report on the paranormal experiences of the Early family, which had been besieged by the actions of a ghostly apparition they called “Pipes.” Four recognized BBC presenters appeared on the show, which took on the appearance of a straightforward documentary and offered only subtle clues that it was an elaborate hoax. For a significant portion of viewers, it appeared as though they were witnessing documented evidence of a malevolent spirit.

Viewers grew so disturbed by the content that the network became embroiled in a controversy over what audiences felt was a ruse perpetrated by a trustworthy news source; cases of post-traumatic stress disorder in children were even reported in the British Medical Journal. What the BBC had intended to be nothing more alarming than an effective horror movie had petrified a country—and would eventually lead to accusations that it was responsible for someone’s death. Read more.


An Internet Writer Breaks Up With Her Boyfriend Over Trump… You Won’t Believe What Happens Next!

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Filed under: Fact or Fiction?, Fraud and Deception, Literary Hoaxes, Media Literacy, Propaganda and Disinformation

The ferocious and funny Anna Merlan takes an impressively deep dive into the made-up career of Rachel Brewson, the JT LeRoy of womens-interest clickbait.


“The Team of Men Behind Rachel Brewston, the Fake Woman Whose Trump-Fueled Breakup Went Viral”
by Anna Merlan
Jezebel
October 4, 2016

aotp_brewsonIn December 2015, readers at women’s site xoJane were enthralled and filled with all-caps rage by Rachel Brewson, a self-described “giant liberal” who boldly declared her love for a Republican named Todd. She described, in rapturous terms, how the couple’s political disagreements fueled an ecstatic third-date bipartisan fuck-fest that soon flowered into a real relationship.

Mid-date, they got into a “heated debate” about politics, Brewson wrote. They fought from wherever the date took place (she didn’t say), into the street, and into a cab. The discussion ended when Todd—who, as it turned out, was a gun-loving, Iraq-war-supporting libertarian—manfully invited himself up to her apartment.

“What followed was the best sex of my life up to that point,” Brewson wrote, whose author bio said she was a “dating editor” at a site called Review Weekly. “Somehow the political tension between us had transformed into sexual tension. I was hooked.”

The post was a modest success—it was shared just under 3,000 times on social media, and racked up 1,000 comments on xoJane itself (whose editor-in-chief is Jane Pratt of Sassy fame. The site was purchased by Time. Inc last fall). Many of those comments complained about Rachel’s privileged white-woman version of liberalism, which allowed her to ignore “petty differences”—her term—between her and Todd on issues like immigration.

“He flashed some money your way and you’re ready to label things like rape culture and systematic racism as ‘petty differences,’” one commenter fumed. “You aren’t as liberal as you want to believe you are.”

Three months later, the fairytale was over. (more…)

Fake Newspaper Endorses Reality TV Politician

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Filed under: Fraud and Deception, Media Literacy, Political Pranks, Propaganda and Disinformation

Republican Presidential nominee Donald J. Trump may have his “personal Pravda,” but everyone from The New York Times to the Arizona Republic has endorsed his opponent, and the media at large have taken the gloves off with him. The real estate developer hasn’t gotten any extra love from the fourth estate in the wake of his rough debate performance on Monday. He’ll be happy to know that the Baltimore Gazette has his back.


“Trump Gets Big Boost From Fake Newspaper”
by Jason Linkins
Huffington Post
September 27, 2016

aotp_baltimoregazetteBig media news for Hillary Clinton Tuesday night as the Arizona Republic ― which had never in its history endorsed a Democrat for president ― has thrown its endorsement to the former secretary of state, citing her lifetime of never coming across like an impulsive man-baby: “The president commands our nuclear arsenal. Trump can’t command his own rhetoric.”

But not so fast! Donald Trump has a media coup of his own to brag about. Seems that some eagle-eyed investigative reporters at the Baltimore Gazette have brought home a dilly of a scoop: “Multiple reports and leaked information from inside the Clinton camp claim that the Clinton campaign was given the entire set of debate questions an entire week before the actual debate.”

Trumpet sting!

Earlier last week an NBC intern was seen hand delivering a package to Clinton’s campaign headquarters, according to sources. The package was not given to secretarial staff, as would normally happen, but the intern was instead ushered into the personal office of Clinton campaign manager Robert Mook. Members of the Clinton press corps from several media organizations were in attendance at the time, and a reporter from Fox News recognized the intern, but said he was initially confused because the NBC intern was dressed like a Fed Ex employee.

That’s some serious shoe-leather! Unfortunately there was un problema. Read more.

Inside the Amazon Million Dollar e-Book Scam

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Filed under: Fact or Fiction?, Fraud and Deception, Hoaxes vs. Scams, Literary Hoaxes

In a complex whirlwind of a story, ZDNet digs into a bizarre tech scam involving bots, bad e-books, Amazon Kindle, Tor, and one unscrupulous engineer.


“Revealed: How one Amazon Kindle scam made millions of dollars”
by Zach Whittaker
ZDNet
September 27, 2016

Emma Moore could have been the health and weight loss guru you spent your life looking for.

aotp_kindlecatfishYou might be forgiven for not knowing her work — after all, she has a common name, one that she shares with other similarly successful authors on Amazon. Until this week, she had dozens of health, dieting, cooking, and weight loss ebooks to her name. She published over a dozen ebooks on Amazon this year — five ebooks alone this month. And Moore would even work with other authors — like Nina Kelly, Andrew Walker, and Julia Jackson — who have all published about a dozen ebooks each this year as well.

Here’s the snag: to our knowledge, Moore doesn’t exist. None of them do.

Moore was just one of hundreds of pseudonyms employed in a sophisticated “catfishing” scheme run by Valeriy Shershnyov, whose Vancouver-based business hoodwinked Amazon customers into buying low-quality ebooks, which were boosted on the online marketplace by an unscrupulous system of bots, scripts, and virtual servers.

Catfishing isn’t new — it’s been well documented. Some scammers buy fake reviews, while others will try other ways to game the system.

Until now, nobody has been able to look inside at how one of these scams work — especially one that’s been so prolific, generating millions of dollars in royalties by cashing in on unwitting buyers who are tricked into thinking these ebooks have some substance.

Shershnyov was able to stay in Amazon’s shadows for two years by using his scam server conservatively so as to not raise any red flags.

What eventually gave him away weren’t customer complaints or even getting caught by the bookseller. It was good old-fashioned carelessness. He forgot to put a password on his server. Read more.