From Acting to Rusing—Channeling your Inner Corporate Spy
If you’ve got impeccable charm and a willingness and talent to lie, The Ruse might be the perfect job for you!
In his candid memoir, RU$E: Lying the American Dream From Hollywood to Wall Street (Steerforth Press), actor, author, and corporate spy Robert Kerbeck, takes us into the “shady but lucrative” world of corporate espionage. When you’re an actor needing a steady income to pay the bills, moonlighting as an information operative is the perfect option. At least, if you don’t mind lying as your modus operandi.
Kerbeck was an actor, both in New York City and Hollywood. For many, acting is a career with sporadic income, and it was for Kerbeck. He’d come in a close second to Brad Pitt for a part in Thelma & Louise, but never landed a role which would make him solvent. When a vague advertisement for telephone work in Billboard Magazine caught his eye, he couldn’t pass it up. He didn’t yet know it, but he was one step closer to being a human information hacker.
For eight dollars an hour, Kerbeck learned how to get organizational and employee information from companies over the phone, which was then sold to recruitment firms and head hunters to make offers of employment. He rationalized it didn’t hurt anyone—although he lied to get the information he sought, it resulted in people being recruited for better jobs. And he’d grown up a natural-born liar in a family of car salesmen. His father and brother owned a car dealership for years.
According to Kerbeck, the most important trait for a telephone con artist is the “gift of gab—the talent to improvise and bullshit like a motherfucker.” You also need to be informed about world events, so you can chit-chat about what’s important to the target to make them feel more comfortable. And it helped that he was an actor. How appropriate.
The next thing he did was identify “moles” in the companies he researched. “For a corporate spy, nothing on this earth is better than a reliable mole.” Kerbeck almost hypnotized his moles into submission with his easy banter and personal touches to the conversation. They trusted him.
Kerbeck then tested several “ruses” to strengthen his credibility, refining his methods. He finally developed his preferred “proprietary ploys,” with “One last thing…” being the phrase that kept the information flowing.
The ploy changed according to what he needed and who he needed it from. Kerbeck moved from pretending to be someone at the target company who didn’t exist to implying he was with the company, to outright pretending he was a company executive, using real names. He impersonated CEOs and COOs of some of the world’s largest corporations and could get any information he wanted.
Kerbeck finally started his own corporate research company, RK Research, Inc. “I had been an actor who did research. Now I was the CEO of a research company who hadn’t quite given up acting.”
But as his son, Davis, grew older, it was apparent he understood that his father’s job was lying to get information. Davis told him what he was doing was dishonest, and that’s not who he wanted to be for his son.
As Kerbeck became more disillusioned with rusing, he poured his feelings out in a letter “written in the voice of a man planning to commit suicide,” which turned into a short story. Then he wrote a novel that was terrible and started a group called the Malibu Writers Circle, also attending writing conferences and workshops. One of his short stories was made into an independent film that starred himself and his then teen son Davis, and it won several awards at film festivals. “Writing fiction was akin to channeling the characters and story lines I’d developed on stage and on the phone. A lifetime of lying had led me to the truth.”
That’s how Kerbeck’s writing career began.
Kerbeck still ruses, but he’s now truthful on the phone (just laying on the charm), and he makes calls over the internet instead of the telephone. He now makes most of his money day-trading stocks.
As he acknowledges, “I, for one, will never again give out information over the phone. Who knows when a charming spy is calling?”
The Vibe and The Art of Storytelling:
Kerbeck’s memoir reads almost like a sit-com. His narrative is vivid, funny, and bluntly honest.
Kerbeck was an actor, both in New York City and Hollywood. Although he rubbed elbows with George Clooney, Paul Newman, and O. J. Simpson at various times, the turning point in his acting career came when producers cast Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise instead of him.
As Kerbeck became more adept at rusing, the money started pouring in—at one point he was making millions.
When his corporate spying gig took a turn for the worse, he looked at his life through the lens of a fictional character in a short story and started his writing career. He also decided that honesty beat out lying for a living.
What I Like Best:
Kerbeck’s candor in describing his journey—he makes no excuses for his illegal corporate espionage, but decides that honesty is indeed the best policy.
Fans of memoirs that delve deep into motivations and accountability, and describe an unusual and lucrative career—such as Frank Abagnale’s Catch Me If You Can—will love the witty narrative and scathing truth of Kerbeck’s story.