An Elaborate Employment Con in the Internet Age

The story is an old one, but the tech gives it a bunch of new twists:

Gemma Brett, a 27-year-old designer from west London, had only been working at Madbird for two weeks when she spotted something strange. Curious about what her commute would be like when the pandemic was over, she searched for the company’s office address. The result looked nothing like the videos on Madbird’s website of a sleek workspace buzzing with creative-types. Instead, Google Street View showed an upmarket block of flats in London’s Kensington.


Using online reverse image searches they dug deeper. They found that almost all the work Madbird claimed as its own had been stolen from elsewhere on the internet—and that some of the colleagues they’d been messaging online didn’t exist.


At least six of the most senior employees profiled by Madbird were fake. Their identities stitched together using photos stolen from random corners of the internet and made-up names. They included Madbird’s co-founder, Dave Stanfield—despite him having a LinkedIn profile and Ali referring to him constantly. Some of the duped staff had even received emails from him.

Read the whole sad story. What’s amazing is how shallow all the fakery was, and how quickly it all unraveled once people started digging. But until there’s suspicion enough to dig, we take all of these things at face value. And in COVID times, there’s no face-to-face anything.

Posted on February 24, 2022 at 6:13 AM18 Comments


Tom February 24, 2022 6:58 AM

Saw this story a few days ago. What I find weird is that there’s no really obvious motivation for it. Was this a “fake it until you make it” effort? Was the hope that work would roll in? From what I could see on the BBC’s story, the company never actually won any contracts or did any work or made any money whatsoever. So what was the scammer getting out of it?

One possibility the article doesn’t mention is COVID support payments. Some of these have frighteningly little oversight. The BBC were reporting on one company a couple of months ago that had claimed around £25 million. When they went looking, the company was registered in the UK but the sole director and shareholder was an Indian national and resident and the company’s registerd address was a service that scanned mail and emailed it on. The company’s sole purpose was claiming COVID support payments. Initially for two employees, but this was slowly bumped up every month or two until it was dozens. The fraudster then decided to go for the jackpot and claimed for 2,000 employees. HMRC payed out but then went investigating what exactly this company with thousands of employees that no-one had heard of and had no other tax records did. The guy just did a runner with the money.

Kenn799 February 24, 2022 10:18 AM

…uhh, so how do we know this alleged ‘Gamma Brett’ story is not fake itself ??

Deception & Misrepresentation in human dealings are as old as the human race — and certainly not a unique risk of online interactions,

Phony employment scams, fraudulent marketing/sales/financial schemes, and elaborate political propaganda have been around forever. We are constantly flooded with fiction and disinformation, much of it from seemingly trustwotrhy sources.

Ted February 24, 2022 10:26 AM

This is so sinister. It looks like a documentary was also released with this reporting. It’s called “Jobfished.”

If you are in the UK, you may be able to watch it via a link in the original story. If not, it appears it’s on YouTube.

I watched just a couple minutes of it and what surprised me was the level of seeming competence from the former workers. They did not seem to have the type of orientation that would lead them to apply to lots of jobs like “work from home, make $5,000 a month.”

‘Jobfished BBC Documentary’

Ted February 24, 2022 10:40 AM

Unfortunately, maybe the commission-based starting arrangement was not out-of-line with what freelance designers or marketing reps expect.

Did this give them fewer points of reference for fraud detection? I’ve always been so grateful to fill out employment forms like a W-4 and I-9.

The article says that the perpetrator of the con, or at least his company, is being held to account by some former workers in an employment tribunal, but this sure seems more criminal than that. Ali Ayad – or Alex Ayd or whoever – went to such great lengths to actively deceive. I hope loved ones of work-seeking designers or others share this story.

Tony H. February 24, 2022 3:31 PM

Best quote from the alleged perpetrator in the BBC doc: “You don’t really have to have computers and stuff, right? It’s a digital company.”

RealFakeNews February 24, 2022 10:22 PM

How about this: designer thinks they’re working for a flashy outfit and find it’s really operating from the CEO’s parent’s back-bedroom.

In a hissy fit, try and claim the operation was fake.

I have worked for people with no company base, done real work, and received real pay. What’s the problem? That describes at least half the online world does it not?

Pope Crock Meat February 25, 2022 9:24 AM

I’m blame religion for this one. People are more than willing to accept the bullspit you feed them, and your rules forbid them to question anything. Better not look that gift horse in the mouth…

Frankly February 25, 2022 9:47 AM

One possibility is that there was no financial motivation. This scam may be the result of mental illness, a man wishing to live out his fantasy of being a successful corporate leader.

Spankley February 25, 2022 1:04 PM


Another possible motivation is that you didn’t read the article.

“But even before the truth about Madbird was revealed, its workers had a problem. Because of the unusual way their contracts had been written, they were yet to be paid. ”

found it in the article…

wumpus February 25, 2022 3:05 PM


It wasn’t clear if there was ever any real money ever made. You’d think that anyone who closed a deal would be mentioned in the article as demanding a specific amount of money to be paid for specific work done, but everything mentioned is “waiting for that magic moment when we turn stolen underpants into profit”.

I’d like to assume that people who put that much time into the job were able to close deals and do the work in the contract, but the Beeb either didn’t find any or assumed that since it wasn’t relevant to the crime it didn’t matter.


The biggest problem is the no pay. The next issue is whether or not any real work was done (there were mentions of fake work, but nothing specific tying any real work to real clients). Somewhat less important was the fakeness of the rest of the company. Granted, the whole idea of not needing impressive glass buildings might annoy architects and construction companies (let alone downtown service workers), but nothing near as bad as not paying the workers.

@Pope Crock Meat

While “Ali Ayad” (whatever his real name might be) might have tried to make a cult out of his “company”, the real reason that people took those “jobs” was lack of choice. They were likely quite skeptical (and plenty of people quickly quit. No way to tell if they were more or less religious) but may have figured that the odds of getting paid by madbird was better than zero and the odds of getting paid to sit on the couch was zero.

dumpus February 26, 2022 10:27 AM

@ wumpus,

the point of saying I blame religion is, at what point in time do you question something? If your religion conditions you to never question, or rock the boat, or dig deeper, then you are going to fall victim to this over and over, regardless of your current needs and situation. In fact it’s a double negative because your wasting time in a phantom job when you could be spending time on legitimate sources. And considering how many jobs are currently available in the USA, your point of saying it was a lack of choice is moot. The article even mentions how just a little bit of research would have dug up many red flags, flags that should have been seen. Considering most religious people have reading and comprehension problems, I’m not surprised, the lord works in mysterious ways…

And peoples ability to evaluate odds? Well, you went and proved that you and others don’t understand it. The odds of getting paid by a fake company cannot be more than zero, unless you “believe” it or “wish” it to be true. Because the odds really are zero…

Tom February 28, 2022 7:16 AM

@dumpus – it’s a bit rich to chew people out for reading and comprehension problems and then get the wrong country the story is set in. But it kind of chimes with your blind prejudice.

C U Anon February 28, 2022 9:42 AM


Or should that be dumbass?

The odds of getting paid by a fake company cannot be more than zero, unless you “believe” it or “wish” it to be true.

Actually far from true, you obviously do not know the difference between a “short con” and a “long con”.

Long cons pay in the short term it’s how they sucker in the marks. Even Bernie Madoff knew that.

As to the rest of what comes from your blow hole, “May the lord protect us” from religious loonies… Just stick to smyting your flock, or whatever else you call it.

JFC Really February 28, 2022 1:32 PM

@ C U Anon, Tom

I can see both of you have a hard time with the reading and the comprehension. Jello pudding?

The “VICTIM”, or victims of whom this article is about, are the people being conned. And your mansplanation of it being either short or long has no bearing. A person being conned can expect ZERO compensation, weather they know it or not. But I see you identify more as the perpetrator than the victim…

Sure I said US, and your pat on the back snark looked fitting, until you realize that, all across the globe places are hiring. Pretty blind for you not to see it… but again congrats on inserting your zinger!

C U Anon February 28, 2022 3:54 PM


And your mansplanation

Oh deary deary me one of those psychobable witless comments that use “mansplaning”, “gasslighting” and much other “feminest woke” touchy feely nonsense instead of rationality and logic. It probably sounds good to you after a glass of alcohol or three. But as gets observed seemingly endlessly by those a little wiser ‘Whilst many things can be preserved in alcohol dignity is not one of them’.

And yet again you are wrong and demonstrate your lack of understanding,

A person being conned can expect ZERO compensation, weather they know it or not.

Nearly everybody gets conned in someway almost everyday of their life. Likewise most also commit one or more crimes because they have been conned. As has been mentioned on this blog befor ‘It’s part of being human’ and ‘exhibiting the trust that makes society functional’. Overall everybody gains from a functioning society, so not ZERO not even close.

But based on what you’ve said, and the highly blinkered view point you exhibit, you are probably talking direct compensation for what you see as time spent or effort made.

Well guess again, neither time or effort count for anything. To see why stand on a street corner for a week espousing your life ethos 12hours a day and see how many nickles get dropped in your hat for your time and effort. I doubt you would make minimum wage.

As an overly general rule at the bottom of the heap when you get paid ‘commission’ or a small fraction of the money your work brings in. If it brings in nothing then you get nothing, in marketing less than 10% of bids or products ever bring in money. If you had actually read the article and comprehended it you would know they had signed up on a “Commission only basis” nobody forced them to do so, they did it of their own accord.

But then we already know you did not either read or comprehend the artical and you sure as heck don’t seem to know much about other countries or for that matter life in general.

But ironically you insist on demonstrating it over and over as your totally wrong,

But I see you identify more as the perpetrator than the victim…

Demonstrates for all to see (oh and it should be ‘with’ not ‘as’).

@Bruce Schneier is amongst other things, an author of technological and socio-technological books, papers, journal articles, and viewpoints and talking pieces for newspapers.

One of his books takes the game theoretical ‘Hawks and Doves’ model and applies it to various technical considerations under a first order time delay model.

I doubt very much that you either understand that or have read the book concerned.

Being ‘rational and logical’ about game theoretical subjects, needs a dispassionate view point. Importantly one that does not ‘identify’ with any of the ‘players’.

That is the purpose of the observer is to (i)gather data, (i) observe what the data shows, (iii) make hypotheses, and then (iv) test on new data sets. From this iterative process (v) information can be generated.

A biased view or a biased data set is going to lead to failure.

But don’t let me stop you failing spectacularly, everyone needs some form of hobby and you never know some might pay for the entertainment.

C U Anon March 1, 2022 12:43 PM

@ all,

I want to apologize for my stupid ramblings.

I reread what was posted and feel that the anonymous author I had been berating, was in fact correct. People who are conned, are given no remuneration for the time spent working. People who are working on commission are less likely to see the con for what it is, because they have to be evaluated by fake superiors, and however it washes out, will not be paid for the work they performed. Especially if they sold work, because the con-artists are not into paying up.

I also failed to realize that the article though written in the UK, and the company being located in the UK, managed to con people outside of the UK. When the previous opponent, brought up the US as an example of places were they are hiring, I committed logical fallacies to strong man his argument. I realize simple grammatical mistakes are made, and chose to attack those as being superior to the point at hand, which they were not. I spent a lot of time deflecting and beating around the bush, and I am sorry.

I also realize that I need to spend more time reading and comprehending the total scope of information before I go off on people.

Again, sorry to all.

- March 1, 2022 4:52 PM


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Is a troll badly pretending to be another user to create issues. As such it is against the posting policy.

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