Do You Know If The Company You Work For Actually Exists
February 22, 2022 3:10 PM   Subscribe

After reading Toddles' Do You Know Who That Worker You Just Hired Really Is and the wide variety of opinions from Mefites, it was fascinating to read this article on the BBC website "The elaborate con that tricked dozens into working for a fake design agency".

More than 50 people were tricked into months of unpaid work for a fictitious design agency, Madbird. Eventually, a curious new employee realised the office location was faked. This led to further revelations that the company products were stolen, the clients they were working for had never heard of them, and many of the colleagues they'd been on Zoom calls with were fictitious. The two women who discovered the scam sent a bombshell All Staff email and the house of cards collapsed.

Other victims had their hopes of obtaining employment related visas dashed, racked up debt, joined after leaving genuine jobs, and the Dubai based staff could have faced deportation or imprisonment.

I find it difficult to understand precisely what motivated the founder and how he thought it would play out. The part where he faked a photo of himself into a glossy magazine advert, as part of his 'I was a successful model' story is particularly ridiculous.
posted by ElasticParrot (22 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
THere's a Michael Lewis podcast series on the end of trust in authorities, and I guess the end of trust in society, and I have trouble listening to it because I don't think it will end well even by our current despairing standards of the possible, and here's more.
posted by clew at 3:19 PM on February 22, 2022 [3 favorites]

That is well fucking specious, yeah?
posted by acb at 3:31 PM on February 22, 2022 [1 favorite]

That faked advertisement has so much "m'lady" vibes. I admit I find it hard to believe anyone thought that was real, but I guess it was in the context of a long-term scam on Instagram.

I worry so much about my students being taken in by scams like this. I work really hard to help them find jobs using their careers, but Instagram money is much more attractive to some.
posted by hydropsyche at 3:41 PM on February 22, 2022 [3 favorites]

And the most shocking part of Ali Ayad's gamble?

The fact that we live in an age where it nearly worked.

I'm kind of curious what is meant by this. If this story is as it's told, none if it "nearly worked". He never came close to transitioning into a viable design agency. Nothing he said seemed to be real or true. The guy seems like a total whack job. That he was tracked down without too much trouble makes me almost think he's more a person with mental health issues than a run-of-the-mill degenerate scammer, as it doesn't occur to him that there may be someone eager to get him acquainted with a baseball bat.
posted by 2N2222 at 4:21 PM on February 22, 2022

Props to the two women who pulled back the curtain on this crapweasel.

Props also to everyone else who agreed to tell their stories for this article.

The single biggest thing scammers are counting on is the likelihood that their marks will be too ashamed to come forward. People who actually speak up, on the record, are damn brave.
posted by armeowda at 4:23 PM on February 22, 2022 [24 favorites]

none if it "nearly worked"

The employees that were tricked to work without pay for almost six months would disagree.

There is a complete lack of proper compensation for those employees, as well as no punishment for the people behind the con.
posted by meowzilla at 5:04 PM on February 22, 2022 [14 favorites]

This reminds me of the guy who turned himself into a fake rock star and tried to go on tour. As with that, I suspect the motivation was to fake it until he somehow made it. It doesn't sound like he was taking money from any of these "employees" - just wasting their time. He doesn't seem to have gotten anything out of it beyond some ego gratification. That's more than Elizabeth Holmes can say.
posted by Naberius at 5:35 PM on February 22, 2022 [1 favorite]

The employees that were tricked to work without pay for almost six months would disagree.

There is a complete lack of proper compensation for those employees, as well as no punishment for the people behind the con.

If that is what counts for "nearly worked", then it's still wrong. Because in this case, it absolutely did work. These people got screwed out of a salary. No nearly about it.

And Ayad has yet to face serious consequences, presumably in his future, unless those contracts he got people to work under somehow carry weight. He sure doesn't seem to be scared of fallout. In the US, he'd be in legal trouble, along with facing civil suits. Maybe in the UK this isn't a big deal, because so far, seems the worst he's getting amounts to a hard finger wagging by the press.
posted by 2N2222 at 7:08 PM on February 22, 2022 [4 favorites]

This is just an example on the spectrum of the way employers treat employees. I have seen otherwise legitimate businesses "employ" staff on commission-only jobs only for the occasional employee to give up, unpaid, three months later after not closing a single deal. This is the same industry which seems to commonly require new staff to provide their own computer equipment (and I assume, mobile phone and car).
posted by krisjohn at 7:51 PM on February 22, 2022 [6 favorites]

I was wondering if Ayad was selling people's work, and not telling them and not paying them, but this doesn't seem to have happened. Or has anyone checked for that?
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 5:01 AM on February 23, 2022

This isn't exactly new. When I was first entering the job market, I would regularly receive calls and emails about "my application" for a role with some random company or another. Since I knew who I'd applied to, and it wasn't them, I would call them out on their bullshit, and end the call. (Or just delete the email.) A cursory google of the company name and address would pull up pages and pages of how they would cold call people about a job application, how the office was a small room, and the job was to go and sell crap on pure commission.
posted by SansPoint at 7:10 AM on February 23, 2022 [1 favorite]

A few years ago a friend called me kind of angry because his cousin had interviewed at my company, got an offer, was told to order a laptop and monitor and was given a website to expense them and get reimbursed. He never got the hardware or the money and the company ghosted him.

I talked to the cousin and he had definitely had an on-site interview at our offices, and his paperwork had our logos and all, but the email addresses were from the wrong domain.

This triggered an investigation and we found out this was a well organized scam that had taken place in other companies here and in other countries.

The scammer would present themselves as a vendor to get access to the company and familiarize themselves with security and other procedures. They would send recruitment emails, do phone screens, and schedule multiple on-sites interviews on the same day. That day they would access the building, take over a meeting room, and do the whole offer and contract and laptop and monitor scam.

I don’t know the details, I don’t know if they had inside help, but even at places like google and Facebook I managed to tailgate and get inside, and no one questions you when you sit in a meeting room and look like you belong.

In my case the angle is obvious, someone was keeping the laptop money, but in this case here I am confused.
posted by Dr. Curare at 9:18 AM on February 23, 2022 [15 favorites]

clew, what's the name of the Michael Lewis podcast? Might it be Against the Rules or Other People's Money?
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 10:12 AM on February 23, 2022

Against the Rules.
posted by clew at 10:34 AM on February 23, 2022 [1 favorite]

That's kind of impressive, Dr. Curare. Unpleasant, but impressive. I wonder how much effort they put into the interviews?
posted by tavella at 10:48 AM on February 23, 2022 [1 favorite]

It doesn't sound like he was taking money from any of these "employees" - just wasting their time.

I can kind of see your point here based on the bizarre "you'll eventually get a commission if things work out" contracts, but otherwise this really looks like wage theft to me. Much more than just wasting people's time.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 11:06 AM on February 23, 2022 [1 favorite]

Why do I get the feeling that he's going to get into cryptocurrency next?
posted by clawsoon at 12:47 PM on February 23, 2022 [3 favorites]

For me this isn't too far from the scam of how a regular job works.

A business owner doesn't pay you entirely what you're worth. That's what "profit" is.

If Ali Ayad had been telling the truth, all the people who fell for his con would be just as screwed. And it's unlikely it would even be noteworthy.

Alternatively, if he'd been able to score some decent projects, the whole thing could have been quite profitable. At which point this would just be "a business" and not "a scam".
posted by plasmatron7 at 1:03 PM on February 23, 2022

none of it "nearly worked"

The employees that were tricked to work without pay for almost six months would disagree.

There seems to be kind of a semantic disagreement on what is meant by "working" here. The scam was far from "working" in that it was very far from doing anything that would have helped the principal engineer of the con realize any benefit. Yes, it had a material effect on the real world, and specifically a negative effect—but it didn't even come close to doing anything which one might reasonably expect Ayad wanted it to do; presumably he didn't regard the suffering of his erstwhile employees as being its own reward.

To put it another way, if someone, intent on burglarizing my home, smashes my window in broad daylight and then runs away before they can get into the house and steal my stuff because there are a bunch of onlookers, their burglary has not succeeded at all. The fact that my window is smashed is not a testament that any part of the burglary actually "worked".
posted by jackbishop at 1:48 PM on February 23, 2022 [4 favorites]

"It is obvious now why no-one was paid. Madbird had no money coming in. But that wasn't obvious to new staff. They mistakenly assumed their pay contracts were unique - and that their line managers must have been on salaries."

Phew. As if it wasn't bad enough that lack pf wage transparency hobbles workers and leaves us powerless in comparison to employers... Commission-based unpaid worker scams like Madbird exploit the lack of wage transparency as a means of perpetrating their scam!

And then we even have MLM companies who take this to a whole new level: not only do most MLM workers assume on their own that their upline is making a ton of money (natural enough, just like in the case of Madbird), but the only way MLM workers make any money is if they LIE to their downline that they're getting paid a lot right now. Blowing right past exploiting lack of wage transparency, to make lying about one's own wages the core task of the job itself, upon which all profitability depends, essentially turning each MLM recruiter into a franchise of the Madbird CEO, each applying his business model.
posted by MiraK at 2:59 PM on February 23, 2022 [1 favorite]

Tavella, they claimed that the resumes were impressive, so they only did a code signal challenge and a 30 minute culture fit interview.
posted by Dr. Curare at 5:52 PM on February 23, 2022 [2 favorites]

I guess they're using the article to push the TV version of the report. This is the radio version
posted by looeee at 8:54 PM on February 23, 2022

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