Smalltime Crowdfunding Crooks: Tracing a Kickstarter fraudster to other crowdfunding scams
Last week three filmmakers producing a documentary on crowdfunding noticed something fishy. They had come across a project, called Kobe Red, promising to provide a line of flavored beef jerky made from organic, beer-massaged beef from Japan. After receiving complaints from current backers and doing some research themselves, they contacted Kickstarter, which pulled the plug on the page only minutes before it would have reached its financial goal. By then the campaign had raised some $120,000 from 3,250 backers, who narrowly avoided what could have been the biggest fraud in the crowdfunding platform's history. The filmmakers posted their story on Reddit, which led to some news coverage on how these intrepid filmmakers brought this scam to light.
But this was only the beginning. The filmmakers traced it back to a man from Long Beach, California, who had also been responsible for a scam perpetrated a little over a year ago. I contacted Jason Cooper, one of the documentary filmmakers, who gave me the full scoop.
Jason Cooper, and his fellow producers Jay Armitage and Chris Gartin, have been working on a documentary film project for the last four months. Their project, "Kickstarted," will look at the current crowdfunding craze and the way it's revolutionizing how ideas get funded. They were trawling for interesting stories to help shed light on ways platforms like Kickstarter have aided several projects around the world. These stories include the first interview with Zach Braff following his controversial Kickstarter campaign, Amanda Palmer, and others.
About two weeks ago they came across a Kickstarter campaign from a company named Magnus Fun Inc. called "Kobe Red Beef Jerky." The campaign was doing exceptionally well, exceeding its original goal of $2,000 with more than $120,000 in pledges. And it was gaining in popularity, especially after being featured on Kickstarter's home page for almost a month and attracting some outside press.
It seemed the perfect addition to their movie. So they reached out to the people at Magnus Fun, hoping to score an interview and some footage of the Kobe Red jerky tastings in action. Magnus' response was initially positive. Its founders were eager to participate, and said they would film an event, edit the footage, and send it Cooper, Armitage, and Gartin's way.
Despite only very tentative conversations, Magnus updated its Kickstarter claiming it would be featured in a cool independent film talking about successful Kickstarter projects, and had hired student filmmakers to capture their tastings. This seemed odd to Cooper, because no agreement had been made between the two, and things were left that Magnus would give the filmmakers some footage and then the conversation would go on from there. Then, shortly after Magnus updated its Kickstarter page, the filmmakers received numerous messages from Magnus Fun's Kickstarter backers asking for any specifics about the Kobe Red project. The backers were beginning to become suspicious and hoped the filmmakers had at least seen the product firsthand.
Cooper told me they then donated the minimum amount to gain access to the Kobe Red jerky message boards, where all backers were free to comment. Here the backers' suspicions became apparent. To name a few: Magnus had failed in another Kickstarter campaign just days before starting the Kobe Red project. There was very little information provided about the people behind Magnus Fun Inc. Other red flags included the fact that Kobe Red beef jerky didn't seem an appetizing product due to Kobe's oily nature -- and Magnus Fun is not a registered California company, despite the Kickstarter campaign claiming otherwise.
Finally, after posting their findings on the Kickstarted film's website and Reddit, Kickstarter suspended the Kobe Red project, just minutes before Magnus would have received its $120,000 in crowdsourced funds. (With Kickstarter's guidelines, Magnus would have received the money and would only potentially be held accountable once it didn't produce the Kobe jerky.)
Quite a saga.
But who are the people behind Magnus Fun Inc?
Cooper detailed to me the trail they followed. One Kickstarter commenter vehemently defending the Kobe Red project was named Stanley Owens. Suspiciously enough, the name behind the Magnus Fun Inc. website was also named Stanley Owens. They did some further snooping and looked into an Amazon account associated with Magnus Fun. A man named Desjon Levest Allen was tied to the financial accounts, and it just so happened that he shared the same Chicago address as Mr. Stanley Owens.
This was the initial information that Cooper put on Reddit that got Kobe Red suspended. Since then they've learned more.
They also came upon a bizarre 4chan thread talking about someone named Desjon Allen. According to this Google Search-buried page, more than a year ago someone named Desjon Allen started the "George Zimmerman Defense Fund" to raise money for the controversial Florida resident who shot Trayvon Martin in 2012 and who has maintained his innocence under Florida's controversial Stand-Your-Ground law.
The page linked to a news article's comments section about the Martin shooting, in which a commenter named Desjon Allen declares Zimmerman's obvious guilt. So there are two Desjon Allens with opposing beliefs about the Trayvon Martin case, or just one hoping to swindle pro-Zimmerman supporters out of their money. 4chan users decided it was the latter. As they put it: "Whether you agree or disagree with supporting Zimmerman... I hope we can all agree that stealing money is a big no-no." Hoping to gain viral popularity among the swathes of Anonymous-style vigilantes, the 4chan page provided Allen's full name, California address, phone number, and Facebook page.
I was able to find another anti-Zimmerman tirade from Allen on a website called Chicagonow.com -- a blog for Chicagoans. According to 4chan, Allen lived in Long Beach, California, but the Magnus Fun project was tied to a Chicago address. So there's some data suggesting that perhaps Allen has a Chicago address, too. In addition, the filmmakers found that the phone number given by 4chan was associated with Stanley Owens.
After poking around, I found a Desjon Allen residing in Long Beach, CA, who had tried his hand at another campaign called "Cure the Coast" for Pepsi's "Refresh Project." This one, though, never came to fruition, unless you consider a poorly executed video and a vacant Myspace account under the same name fruitful. The man also seems to front a music business called "Desjon Deluxe," and has posted some bizarre music videos under the same moniker. Allen did not respond to request for comments on the allegations.
Undoubtedly, Cooper, Armitage, and Gartin uncovered a large and multilayered story. One obvious lesson is that there is a potential flaw in the Kickstarter campaign methodology, which could be, under the right circumstances, ripe for abuse. How are we to know which projects are legitimate? Is it simply a matter of "funder beware?" How many Allens are out there?
Cooper, however, has a different perspective. He says this story gets at the heart of why Kickstarter is such an important and unique platform. It creates communities behind ideas, and it is these communities who are necessarily invested both financially and personally.
In his words, "this is exactly how crowdfunding should protect itself." Kickstarter as a company receives thousands of applications -- as of today it has funded more than "43,000 creative projects." It tries its best to weed out suspicious ones, but all it can go by is its project guidelines. It is the job of those interested in funding the projects to ask the hard questions before pledging their support. "The crowd" acts as a "filter on what's good, bad, legit, fraudulent." Cooper aims to highlight the role of these communities -- more so the good and unique ones, and less the stories like Allen's.
As for me, it's certainly made me re-think my role as a crowdfunding community member. I've funded projects that sounded interesting without thinking too hard about them. For all I know my hard-earned cash could have gone to another Desjon Allen.
Cooper might say there are probably (hopefully) others with more scrutinizing eyes than mine -- and he's probably (hopefully) right. Perhaps for every Allen out there trying to trick us, there are Coopers and 4channers waiting to bust them.
[Image via Lucies Farm]