Recently, BBC News published their incredible investigation into Madbird, an edgy design agency run by social media influencer Ali Ayad. Much of the company’s existence was a façade that Ayad used as a jobfishing scam to lure people into working for him for no pay with the expectation of making money once leads they were to generate were secured.
Ayad created the illusion of an up-and-coming, successful design agency based in London. Fake employees filled Zoom screens, and the company’s website listed senior employees who didn’t even work for Madbird.
In some cases, these individuals simply didn’t exist. They were fabricated from stock photos and random online profiles. Even the company co-founder’s photo was fake. The company’s headquarters, white papers, and pitch documents were also phoney.
What’s alarming about this story is that it demonstrates how it’s possible to exploit the world’s new remote working culture and scam intelligent people, robbing them of their time and money. The scam Ayad almost pulled off is called jobfishing, and it can also impact Business to Business (B2B) relationships.
We decided to present the Madbird news piece as a ’jobfishing’ case study, plus we reveal 11 ways to spot a fake company or individual who may try a similar scam.
The Incredible BBC News Story of Madbird
After investigating for a year, BBC released its report in March 2022. (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-60387324) The investigation centred around a company called Madbird, which purported to be a rising design agency with a charismatic CEO named Ali Ayed.
While the company did employ people in several countries, much of the company’s existence was fabricated and served as bait to lure actual professionals into working for Ayed for months without pay. These people were promised compensation once money came in from upcoming projects.
In 2020, the victims attended elaborately fabricated Zoom calls that appeared to have over 40 participants in attendance, including company executives. In reality, many of those participants weren’t real, neither were their avatars or LinkedIn profiles. These victims were unaware they were being jobfished.
The pandemic forced many professionals to relocate to home offices, making Zoom calls and remote job interviews the new normal. Over 50 people responded to Madbird’s ads calling for sales, design, and supervisory positions, all remote positions.
Employees were hired from the UK and Europe, as well as Uganda, India, South Africa, and even the Philippines. For the international teams, the job also promised a UK visa. If they passed a six-month probation period, Madbird would sponsor a move to the UK.
Ali Ayad spun believable tales. He introduced himself to one individual as a Mormon from Utah; other times, he claimed to be from Lebanon, where his impoverished childhood taught him how to hustle.
One consistent part of his story was that he’d spent time as a designer for Nike at the brand’s headquarters in Oregon in the United States. There, he met Madbird’s co-founder, Dave Stanfield. Overall, any version of his story was believable, primarily due to his charisma and persuasiveness.
His energy was infectious, so much so that some recruits left their current positions to help build this new, dynamic company. His LinkedIn profile corroborated his experience, with detailed endorsements from former colleagues.
In the Beginning
Madbird’s daily business bustled along with Ayed at the helm for months. More designers were hired to tackle the backlog of briefs that the sales teams were negotiating. All this time, however, the employees were not being paid.
They all signed unusual contracts, agreeing to work on commission only for the first six months. Once their six-month probationary period ended, they would receive a salary, which averaged £35,000 ($47,300). They would only earn a percentage of each deal they negotiated until that time.
Remember, these were young adults in need of work during a pandemic. Many of them felt their only option was to accept the contract to secure employment. Sadly, nobody got paid.
By early 2021, no clients signed, and none of the Madbird staff had been paid at all. While some recruits bailed after a few weeks, many stayed on for months, holding out for their promised salary. Many took out credit cards and borrowed money to keep afloat. They had no idea that there was no money coming in.
The BBC Investigation
As the BBC investigated, they discovered that Madbird had not been “shipping products and experiences locally and globally for ten years,” as it claimed. On the contrary, Ali Ayad registered Madbird with Companies House on 23 September 2020.
Furthermore, at least six of the senior employees profiled were fake. Their identities were patched together from stolen photos and made-up names, including Madbird’s co-founder, Dave Stanfield.
The BBC investigators used facial recognition to match Dave Stanfield’s headshot to a Prague-based beehive maker named Michal Kalis, who, of course, had never heard of Madbird.
The BBC also contacted all 42 brands Madbird listed as former clients, including Tate, Nike, and Toni & Guy. None had ever worked with Madbird or had heard of Ali Ayed.
The same applied to Ayed’s profile and credentials. He had no experience with Nike, as he claimed, nor attended the University of Southern California nor Concordia University. Even his extensive Instagram account, which had accumulated over 90,000 followers, was fake.
Once exposed, Ayed vanished, and Madbird’s former workers were left jobless and financially devastated.
How Can Jobfishing Affect Businesses?
Madbird’s victims were individuals and independent contractors who were sadly duped into providing services upfront with no pay. But businesses can also fall victim to this scam, whereby a fake company begins ordering products or services from your business with no intention of paying.
Whether you are a freelancer looking for a long-term customer, or a business hoping to land a new client B2B, there are ways to ensure that the company requesting your services or offering employment is legitimate.
11 Ways To Spot A Scam Company
Individuals looking for a new job and businesses landing a new client must learn to spot jobfishing, especially now that scams like Madbird are spreading globally. Here are nine tips for spotting a fake company before it’s too late:
1. Check The Company Address
Perform a quick search of the company’s physical address online. Be sure the address is valid and the building is occupied. You may even want to call the nearby business to verify the location and if it’s still in use.
2. Check For A Landline Number
A company website should have up to date contact information that includes a headquarters phone number. Give that number a call and check if someone answers. Do you only get an automated voicemail system? Does the person answering know of the company?
3. Confirm The Company Registration Number
For example, every limited company in the UK has a registered company number, usually displayed on their website. If the number is there, you can easily verify that it’s valid using the online Companies House Checker.
In addition, check the dates to ensure the company’s claimed history is accurate and look who the company directors are. Have they been registered for as many years as they claim to be operating?
4. Check The WHOIS Database
The WHOIS database allows you to check the domain name registrant information. Often, you confirm a business address and contact name here as well.
You can also review information such as when the domain name was registered, so you will know long the website has been running. Be wary if the website was registered recently or the registrant’s information is protected. The company may not be genuine.
5. Check The Website’s Spelling & Grammar
If you notice poor English or poor grammar on a website, the company may be based overseas. That’s fine as long as the company isn’t claiming to be a local business. This is a red flag if it purports to be local but has poor website language. Be sure to investigate further.
6. Check The Company’s Social Media Links
If the company lists its social media accounts, see how active they are on the respective platforms. Note if any followers have posted recent reviews or complaints.
Also, make sure the profile links actually work. For example, some scam websites link to LinkedIn’s homepage rather than the company profile page.
7. Check Client References
If the company lists clients, contact them to ensure they are real and actual former or current clients. Don’t rely on published reviews or social media posts. As we have learned from Madbird, those can be fabricated all too easily and should be checked.
8. Check Employee Profiles Images
Scrutinise the employee profile photos, especially the executives and senior management. Cross search their names on other platforms to see if they exist and if the images are of the same person.
If it’s a scam, stock photos are often used, and those have a too-polished look to them. If you’re savvy with image searches, you can also search that way to see if the face belongs to the name given on the company website.
9. Check Reviews & Endorsements
One of the lessons learned from Madbird was that reviews and endorsements are as easily faked as phony profiles. Search the names that appear in the endorsements to ensure they are real. If possible, contact the individual or company to see if they, in fact, did business with the company.
10. Check The Background Of Company Directors
Most company websites list bios of the company CEO and directors. Check to see if their experience and education are valid. While you can’t check the finer details such as job performance, you can verify that the individuals worked at the companies and attended the universities listed.
11. Check Your Contract
Importantly, check your contract. What are the terms of payment? Does the contract give the company the option to withhold payment for services? Does it require that you provide your service or product first and without payment? If the payment terms are unbalanced, be wary.
The reliance on social media and online collaboration tools has created a window of opportunity for scam artists to steal time and talent through jobfishing. This new scam means that we must all carefully vet a company before entering into a binding contract.
From anti-malware, anti-phishing, SEO poisoning, and 2FA to SASE and cloud-based air-gap immutable backup storage, Securus has a security solution to suit your requirement and budget. If you would like to discuss your network security requirements in more detail with one of our cyber security professionals, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.