Hargobin P. Tahilramani (Courtesy of Campside Media/-)
You may not know him by name but he may well be the most notorious scammer from Indonesia. It’s simply mind-boggling how 41-year old Hargobind P. Tahilramani, known as Gobind, could pull off a scam spanning three countries in the past five years while steering clear of Scotland Yard and the FBI.
Gobind impersonated powerful female figures, including notable people like Star Wars film producer Kathleen Kennedy and former Sony chair Amy Pascal, to convince people to fly to Indonesia with the promise of work. The targets were mostly freelance workers in the Hollywood film industry ranging from makeup artists and screenplay writers to fitness trainers.
In the years he ran his scam, many of his victims thought the scammer was a woman until one American media company unraveled his true identity. Campside Media, an American podcast company, took on the challenge to unravel the identity of the so-called Hollywood Con Queen. The con artist is believed to have impersonated at least two dozen Hollywood names both men and women.
According to K2 Integrity (formerly K2 Intelligence), a firm hired by impersonated Hollywood executives to investigate the scam, Gobind was able to amass US$2 million from his victims. The victims were lured to Indonesia and had to pay the driver hundreds of dollars for “photo and film shoot permits” to “car rental and driving fees” that Gobind said would be reimbursed but never were.
Gobind grew up in Indonesia, attending a private school located in Kemayoran, Central Jakarta. The son of Lal C. Tahilramani, a film producer in the 1980s, Gobind developed a love for the film industry. His father wrote scripts and produced three films starring famous Indonesian actress Lydia Kandou, Ade Irawan and Rano Karno.
His father often worked for a production house located right across the street from their home on Jl. Bungur Besar Raya, Central Jakarta. A neighbor described Gobind’s family as reclusive and protective of their privacy. While he took after his father’s looks and passion for film, it was Gobind’s mother who took care of all his needs. After his mother died, he seemed to lack affection, said Yuli, the neighborhood chief.
After his father passed away in 2003, Gobind’s sister sold the house. A dispute with his siblings over inheritance caused tension and further worsened family ties.
Yuli said at that time neighbors heard that Gobind racked up phone bills. “No one knows why. The sister had to pay for his high phone bills because she was the one who was working at the time.”
But it was a fallout with one of his siblings, Yuli claims, that led Gobind to be convicted of fraud and imprisoned in Cipinang.
Gobind’s penchant for impersonations became evident when he served time in jail. A former Cipinang Prison rehabilitation head, Samsul Hidayat, described him as versatile but with a temper.
“When he meets with prison officials, he can be very feminine, much like a transgender. He joked around and was often seeking affection from prison staff. However, I heard from other staff that he could be quite stern with other inmates. He would often bark at the inmates in an angry tone,” Samsul said.
Another former Cipinang Prison staffer, Catur Fatayani, added that Gobind loved to boast about his ability to impersonate women’s voices and speak in various accents, including Russian, British and Chinese.
Con artists in Cipinang Prison fall into a certain category of inmates that Catur says staff were wary of.
“Prison officials would keep their distance from con artists. We need to limit our interaction with them, because con artists will always remain con artists. They cannot be fully reformed. They’ll always try to take advantage of us if we let our guard down. We can be friends with these scammers, but we will never allow ourselves to be lulled by what they say. Con artists are some of the worst,” Catur said.
In 2008, Gobind was able to get his hands on illegal cell phones and make two bomb threats to the US Embassy in Jakarta. Catur added that he did it out of frustration over a former boyfriend who allegedly worked at the embassy and to spite his family for landing him in prison. Gobind was nonchalant regarding the incident, prompting an extension of his prison sentence.
“He once joked about it and said to me that he didn’t mean to call the US Embassy. He didn’t really think that his baseless bomb threats would pose a problem and lead to him being interrogated,” said Samsul Hidayat.
However, it was in prison where Gobind’s connections with high profile inmates grew, including with fellow conman and corruption convict Rudy Sutopo, who lived in the same cellblock. Sutopo took him under his wings and offered him protection during their time in Cipinang prison.
“I saw Gobind and Rudy together quite often. I once met them when they were on their way to meet the doctor. There was also a Quran study group at the cell block at nights. They would meet up at the venue afterwards and also the canteen,” Samsul went on.
In order to pull off this grand scam, Gobind, who coordinated everything from the UK, needed an accomplice to pick up and drive around the victims in Jakarta. He is believed to have worked with at least two male drivers, FS and RP, who are currently being investigated by the FBI. One of Gobind’s victims took a photo with one of the alleged accomplices in Jakarta. This man, identified as RP, collected “production and travel fees” from the victim before allegedly wiring them to Gobind.
A police detective, Comr. Dedy Anung of the Criminal Investigations Unit at the National Police, said he had been asked by the FBI to verify the address of the alleged accomplices but had yet to find them.
“We’ve sent a summons for them to come to the police station for questioning, but we can’t arrest them, since this is solely to gather information. Since the FBI only asked us to verify addresses, we do not handle it as a real case where there is a police report that could lead to an arrest.”
As the FBI and K2 Integrity investigate Gobind’s accomplices, police in the UK homed in on him and discovered he was living in Manchester. According to an article in the Hollywood Reporter, Manchester police arrested Gobind during an early morning raid at his home.
Last week, Gobind appeared before a magistrate in Manchester and is being held pending a decision to extradite him to the US, where officials hope to charge him under eight federal charges, including wire fraud, conspiracy to commit wire fraud and aggravated identity theft.
The arrest ends a years-long hunt for the so-called Hollywood Con Queen, whose scams were so elaborate that it not only ruffled feathers of some of the most influential figures in America’s entertainment industry but also traumatized hundreds of vulnerable gig economy workers simply looking for their next big break in the film industry.
The writer is a freelance journalist who investigated the scam for Campside Media Podcast.
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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.