"Robert Kerbeck has mastered the art of social engineering, or what he calls 'rusing', and taken it to a whole new level." —Frank Abagnale, author of Catch Me If You Can
B-list actor, A-list corporate spy
In the world of high finance, multibillion-dollar Wall Street banks greedily guard their secrets. Enter Robert Kerbeck, a working actor who made his real money lying on the phone, charming people into revealing their employers’ most valuable information. In this exhilarating memoir that will appeal to fans of The Wolf of Wall Street and Catch Me If You Can, unsuspecting receptionists, assistants, and bigshot executives all fall victim to “the Ruse.”
After college, Kerbeck rushed to New York to try to make it as an actor. But to support himself, he’d need a survival job, and before he knew it, while his pals were waiting tables, he began his apprenticeship as a corporate spy.
As his acting career started to take off, he found himself hobnobbing with Hollywood luminaries: drinking with Paul Newman, taking J.Lo to a Dodgers game, touring E.R. sets with George Clooney. He even worked with O.J. Simpson the week before he became America’s most notorious double murderer.
Before long, however, his once promising acting career slowed while the corporate espionage business took off. The ruse job was supposed to have been temporary, but Kerbeck became one of the world’s best practitioners of this deceptive—and illegal—trade. His income jumped from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars a year.
Until the inevitable crash…
Kerbeck shares the lies he told, the celebrities he screwed (and those who screwed him), the cons he ran, and the money he made—and lost—along the way.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
A few years ago, after she got divorced, Zoe tried to initiate a little flirtation. I was game. Among other things, that kind of rapport would help grease the wheels when I needed help with something.
“Are you single?” she’d asked.
“I am at the moment.”
“Do you ever visit Dallas?”
“No,” I said. “Working in Compliance, I only get to travel to state capitals to meet with regulators. Austin is as close as I get.”
“My daughter has a softball tournament in Austin this weekend. Are you going to still be there Friday? You could stay on. It would be fun to finally meet you.”
“I wish. But I’m out of here tonight as soon as we file these docs, then on to the next capital for more of the same.”
“Darn it,” she said. “Maybe next time.”
Zoe didn’t stay single long. Once she remarried, our chats focused on my miserable, lonely days traveling around trying to please uptight state regulators. Zoe often reminded me that my life shouldn’t all be about work, and she does it again now after my reassurance that we’ve got a lot of collaboration ahead of us.
“I hope I’ll be around long enough to see you getting out there more,” Zoe says.
“You and me both,” I say, and my tone cues her that we need to get to the real purpose of my call.
“What do you need, Kev?”
I sigh something along the lines of this-may-be-painful-but-we’re-in-it-together and give her the name of a senior executive. I need to know his entire organization from top to bottom, every name all the way down to the junior analyst level, plus each individual’s location and cell phone number. I need to understand the reporting lines — the company’s organizational chart — so I can highlight who’s in charge of what and who the heavy hitters are. Zoe knows I’m off-site and don’t have access to any of this information at the moment.
“Wow,” she says as she pulls up the name on the bank’s internal database. “He has over two hundred people in his group. This is going to take forever.”
I worry Zoe is going to tell me that she has her own job to do and doesn’t have time for this, that she may be dead by the time she gives me everything I need.
Instead, she says, “You ready?”
I smile to myself and nod, pen in hand. “Go for it.”
Zoe reads me all the names and titles, tells me who each person reports to, who has teams, and who is on each team. She gives me precise descriptions of what each team does and offers each individual’s cell number and physical location. My hand cramps as I scribble everything down. By the time she finishes, more than an hour has passed. I thank her earnestly.
“I’ve gotta take a break after that,” Zoe says. “I’m exhausted.”
“You deserve one,” I say.
She deserves more than that. An expensive dinner on me or, hell, an all-expenses-paid vacation to Hawaii. But I can’t do that. I certainly can’t physically go see her in Dallas. I have to keep things professional. Zoe knows that what I do is critical for our multibillion-dollar company to continue doing what it does, so she provides what I ask of her, over and over, year after year, even though it has absolutely nothing to do with her job. Even though it eats up hours of her time. Even though she is not authorized to give me any of that information.
And, most important, even though every single thing she knows about me, and everything I’ve ever told her, is a lie.
My name is not Kevin, and I don’t work in Compliance.
I am not an employee of Zoe’s company, let alone an executive.
I’ve never met a state regulator, uptight or otherwise.
I am not sitting in an antiseptic office in a blocky municipal building in Austin. I’ve got my feet up on my desk in the converted toolshed that is my home office in Malibu. The sign on the door says, big daddy’s surf shop, though I’ve always just called it the shack. Shirtless, in board shorts and flip-flops, I gaze out at the Pacific and breathe in its familiar salty musk while I casually manipulate her.
Table of Contents
Prologue The CEO of Big Daddy's Surf Shack 1
1 The Biggest Lie 7
2 But I Don't Wanna Be a Car Salesman 12
3 Luck of the Irish 24
4 Preying on the Kindness of Strangers 30
5 Born to Ruse 43
6 The Color of Money 55
7 Inside the Actors Studio 65
8 Killing Clooney 75
9 In Which I Spend Two Days Dancing with the Man About to Commit America's Most Infamous Double Murder 82
10 The Darth Vader of Hacking 89
11 Queen of the Hags 99
12 Partying with the Yakuza 107
13 The Inside Ploy 113
14 Y2K 120
15 Hard Bark 127
16 The Compliance Ploy 134
17 Out of the Lying Pan, Into the Fire 142
18 The Brad Pitt of the Search World 155
19 Locked In 160
20 Coffee's for Closers 172
21 Flirting for Dollars 180
22 The Whore of Wall Street 189
23 The Dropping-the-Grapefruit Ploy 199
24 Spy vs. Spy 212
25 The Traitor's Reveal 223
26 A Good Ol' Christmas Fucking 230
27 Surviving the Long, Cold Malibu Winter 244
Epilogue Last Call 253
What People are Saying About This
"Social engineering, or scamming, is something I did at an early age. Robert Kerbeck has mastered the art of social engineering, or what he calls 'rusing', and taken it to a whole new level. In a world of too much information, Kerbeck has used that to his great success."
— Frank Abagnale, author of Catch Me If You Can and Scam Me If You Can
“An irresistible portrait of actors and grifters in the work-a-day world of corporate espionage.”
— Jess Walter, author of the New York Times #1 bestseller Beautiful Ruins
"Ruse is a Tale of Two Lives: Kerbeck's acting career and his fascinating life as a corporate con man/spy. If you like celeb gossip, you’ll go for the first, but I prefer the second since it exposes the very dark, greedy, narcissistic side of Wall Street and Big Business in general. Kerbeck out-cons the top con-artists -- sophisticated CEOs. And he does it over the phone. Wow! In my day I had to fly around the world!"
— John Perkins, New York Times bestselling author of Confessions of an Economic Hit Man
"Kerbeck has a very compelling writing style and can pull off humor, too, which isn’t easy. I really enjoyed Ruse.”
— Bradley Hope, New York Times bestselling author of Billion Dollar Whale
"Ruse lives at a truly unique intersection of Hollywood meets Wall Street, and I found myself laughing with and rooting for Robert throughout this book. His personality leaps off the page — he’s a great storyteller and Ruse is a can’t miss best seller."
— Rob Golenberg, Executive Producer of the critically acclaimed Showtime series Your Honor
"In Ruse, Robert Kerbeck reveals himself to be a scoundrel, a raconteur, and a masterful storyteller. In the course of becoming an unlikely corporate intelligence spy, his various masks are so seamless that readers are swept along in his mythic transformation. Sometimes, memoirs become self-involved and forget to give readers a good story. Not here. What other book features a narrator attending a soiree at Paul Newman’s Manhattan apartment, and appearing in an O.J. Simpson exercise video? And that’s just for starters. This compelling page-turner is both insightful and an absolute hoot.”
— Sue William Silverman, author of How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences
"Robert Kerbeck’s memoir, Ruse, is a riveting tale of desire and deception in a world where lies are necessary currency and where con artists can end up convincing everyone, even themselves. Ruse offers a fascinating portrait of a life negotiated through a web of fabrications."
— Lee Martin, Pulitzer Prize Finalist and author of Gone the Hard Road
“I loved Ruse! What a crazy story, and believe me, I know crazy. Successful spies are great storytellers, and Robert Kerbeck ranks up there with the best of them."
— Valerie Plame, author of Fair Game: My Life as a Spy, My Betrayal by the White House
"A deliciously outrageous, you-can’t-make-this-shit-up caper. Kerbeck takes us on his unlikely transformation from almost-a-star actor to multi-millionaire corporate sleuth. As it turns out, you don’t need to climb the greasy rungs of the ladder to make a killing; all you need is a telephone and your wits.”
— Erik Edstrom, author of Un-American: A Soldier’s Reckoning of Our Longest War