Lying the American Dream from Hollywood to Wall Street’ – Orange County Register

Years ago, Robert Kerbeck read an early chapter of what would become his new memoir “Ruse: Lying the American Dream from Hollywood to Wall Street” at a writer’s conference. It got a reaction.

“People were just fascinated by the world of corporate spying,” the author says by phone from the tool shed-turned-surfer shack at his Malibu home. “We all know the Russians spy on the Chinese and the Chinese spy on us, but most people have no idea that major American corporations and international corporations are spending tens of millions of dollars a year to spy on each other.”

That’s when Kerbeck dove into writing his memoir. The process was interrupted by the Woolsey Fire in 2018, which burned through over 95,000 acres of land in Los Angeles and Ventura County. Two-thirds of Kerbeck’s own neighborhood was destroyed by the fire, which prompted him to write the award-winning nonfiction book “Malibu Burning: The Real Story Behind LA’s Most Devastating Wildfire.” After that, Kerbeck returned to “Ruse,” which is out now.

For years, Kerbeck was someone corporations relied upon to provide intel on their rivals. The ruse, or “rusing” as Kerbeck calls it, began with a phone call, where he and his colleagues would try to earn the trust of the person on the other end of the line. If they could do that, they might gain the names and numbers of top employees, people who other corporations might want to poach.

Pre-internet, this was information that was difficult, if not nearly impossible, to glean. “The easiest way to describe it is to say that I was LinkedIn before LinkedIn was invented,” says Kerbeck. But even after the advent of Google and social media, these covert operatives provided valuable information.

“These individuals were not only hidden but protected because the firm knew how valuable they were,” says Kerbeck of top company employees. “And they did not want that information being found out by a spy.”

The work is tricky, requiring people as skilled at talking as they are at listening. “That’s a very unique kind of skill set to be able to talk and listen really well,” says Kerbeck. “I think you’ve got to have a little bit of that acting ability to improv, and, finally, I think you do need to have a certain sense of the business world.”

It was a job at which Kerbeck excelled. He was raised in an entrepreneurial family in Philadelphia. His great-grandfather of him, an Armenian immigrant, sold horse carriages before turning to automobiles. Both his grandfather and his father were car dealers. That might have been Kerbeck’s business for him, too, he had not landed a role in a music video for The Hooters, prompting him to move to New York and pursue his acting dreams for him. Rusing became Kerbeck’s survival job and remained his side gig even after moving to Los Angeles, where he picked up guest roles on shows like “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” “Sisters” and “Melrose Place.”

In “Ruse,” Kerbeck weaves together his Hollywood life and his corporate spy life in a way that’s fun and insightful. It’s a story that might make you question right and wrong in corporate America. The spies were working in “the gray and even the dark gray of legality,” but, rusing seems mild in contrast to Wall Street antics, particularly those leading to the 2008 crash that he writes about in the book.

“Initially, the ploys we were using to get this kind of information were fairly innocuous. We would say we were students working on a paper, and of course, most people would kind of laugh us off or hang up the phone,” says Kerbeck. “And every once in a while, we’d get a kind soul that would give us a few names or whatever.”

With time, Kerbeck and his colleagues leveled up their rushing game. “We quickly began to realize that if we really wanted to get the kind of information that our clients were seeking and willing to pay a lot of money to get, we had to develop more and more complex ploys and that’s what we did,” he says Kerbeck. “And, of course, those ploys took us deeper and deeper into the world of corporate espionage.”

Kerbeck was even able to gain information straight from the executives. “The receptionists and assistants were trained not to release this information and they follow their training, the executives ignored it,” he says.

“If you got into a bromance with a senior executive that thought you were another senior executive off-site from a different office – because, remember, these firms are massive and they have offices all around the world – you would have this bonding thing, ” Kerbeck explains, “and then these guys would tell you anything you wanted to know.”

He adds, “I didn’t feel as bad about rusing these executives because I knew that they were making millions of dollars.”

In the process of doing the work, Kerbeck learned a few things about Corporate America. “There is a lot of fear,” he says. “People don’t want to get on the wrong side of somebody and they don’t want to not help out and they don’t want to seem like they’re not a team player. There’s a lot of fear and pressure to conform.”

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