The Ghost in the VC Machine
Sienna Ventures is the latest fake VC firm.
What’s happening, and who’s behind it?
Beginning last month, mid-level technology and financial executives began receiving tantalizing emails from a venture capitalist in need of C-suite talent for a company his firm was helping to acquire. The venture capital firm had a working website, active LinkedIn profiles, and had recently distributed press releases about Brexit outlooks and having raised $100 million for a new fund.
Those who replied with positive interest were then contacted by an executive recruiter, who requested (and often received) various pieces of personal information.
Then, both the venture capitalist and the recruiter vanished.
Fortune has spoken or emailed with approximately two dozen professionals who engaged in various stages of a scam that appears to be connected to the Asenqua Ventures hoax we detailed last week. They all asked for their names to be kept confidential in order to avoid both embarrassment and their employers from learning that they had entertained the prospect of a different job.
Chronology of a Con
Each of the initial emails came from someone identifying himself as a managing director of Sienna Ventures. Usually, the sender was Chris Lancey. But sometimes, it was Gary Hawkins. Or John Rooney. Or James Bernard.
No matter the sender, the email content itself was nearly identical:
Those who replied positively to the initial Sienna Ventures outreach were next contacted via email by an executive recruiter from either Prelude Recruiting (usually by Richard Jones) or Renaissance Recruiting (usually by Jim Zak or Eugene Simon). The recruiter first asked for a resume, and then followed up by asking the candidate to digitally sign a nondisclosure agreement via Barracuda Networks (CUDA) affiliate SignNow.
Those who continued to engage with the recruiter often were told next that the “large private equity” firm Sienna was working with was either The Blackstone Group (BX) or The Carlyle Group (CG).
They also were told, apologetically, that their resumes were causing errors when uploaded to the recruiting firm’s candidate management software. Specifically, the resumes needed to be in “ATS” format, and two links were provided with additional information on how to do so. One of the links was this blog post, which was removed late yesterday. It appears that the post at one time included a link to a paid resume conversion service at www.atsoptimizedresumes.com. The post’s original author, an Australian freelance writer, says she got the assignment via an online marketplace called UpWork, was paid only $10 and did not include the link to www.atsoptimizedresumes.com in her original (she adds that the publish date was also altered).
Many sources who spoke with Fortune say that they paid between $99 and $129 for the conversion, which they then sent on to the recruiter.
It was at this point that the job opportunity always disappeared. And always for the same reason:
This was where the communications ended. The candidates often felt that they had missed out on a job opportunity, but they hadn’t expended too much effort or money. Plus, something else might come of it. So most stopped thinking about it.
A few, however, were nagged by what they considered to be red flags in some of the communications. Were these really professional venture capitalists and executive recruiters? If not, who now had their digital signatures, resumes, and, in some cases, cash? But when they began to dig, they kept running into dead ends.
Sienna Ventures was, at one point, a legitimate venture capital firm. In fact, one of its partners was former Apple (AAPL) CEO Gil Amelio. But that incarnation of Sienna Ventures wound down in the years following the dot-com bust, with all of its staffers having moved on more than a decade ago. The “new” Sienna Ventures is neither registered with the SEC nor present at its listed address.
As for “James Bernard” and his colleagues, none of them were ever employees of the old Sienna Ventures. Nor do any of the bios on Sienna’s website (now offline) check out.
Many of the listed names, however, are of real people. Chris Lancey, for example, is a Los Angeles-area television producer. He also once shared an office with a defunct investment firm called Crescent Financial, whose former partners (including one who died in 2012) had their bios plagiarized by the “Asenqua Ventures” website. (Lancey tells Fortune that he has no relation to Sienna Ventures.)
Also phony are both Prelude Recruiting and Renaissance Recruiting. Both list San Diego mailing addresses on their respective websites (both of which were taken offline after Fortune began inquiring), but are not actually at those locations. No one picks up the phone at either “office,” but the two voicemail systems are strikingly similar.
And, again, the bios do not check out. For example, both Jim Zak and Eugene Simon of Renaissance Recruiting claim in website bios to have previously worked at search firm Heidrick & Struggles, but H&S says it has no record of either man. The LinkedIn (MSFT) profile for Richard Jones of Prelude Recruiting claims that he used to work at London-based venture capital firm 3i Group, but 3i says he didn’t. Moreover, the LinkedIn photo for Jones is actually that of an Italian philosophy professor named Nuccio Ordine.
Then there is the resume conversion website, ATS Resumes. The website does not list either an address nor does it identify any staffers, but one “job candidate” says that his credit card was charged to an office building in Austin, Texas. The listed suite number does not actually exist in that building, nor does the Texas Secretary of State have any record of an ATS Resume based anywhere in the state.
Fortune did, however, use a general contact form on the ATS website to inquire about its legitimacy. Several hours later, we received a response:
We did not send over any questions, but did set up a call time. The call that came, however, was from someone who only would identify himself as a lawyer representing ATS Resume. He used a blocked number, and refused to identify himself or provide a callback number.
The man said that his client assumed my inquiry was about an apparent fraud it had just discovered on its system, related to an “offshore affiliate.” He said his client only would authorize him to say that ATS Resume had stopped all payments to that affiliate, that it would offer refunds where appropriate. The self-described lawyer then asked if I had any information that could aid in the investigation.
My response was that I could not share information without getting more from him, such as where ATS Resume is based and the name of someone who actually works there. He said they were fair questions and that he’d get back to me, but would not provide his phone number or email address (instead, he told me to keep interacting with the ATS support email account).
The lawyer never did call back, but we eventually received a follow-up email, claiming that ATS is “committed to doing right by our customers and finding out what the extent of the damages are” by contacting clients. Two of the clients known to Fortune, however, have not yet been contacted by ATS. The company added that it is based in Pakistan, uses a virtual office in the U.S., and is led by a CEO named Atta Ahmed. It also included a Pakistan-based mobile phone number for Ahmed, which I rang repeatedly before getting a call back from a man who said he was unable to discuss the situation. He also declined to provide me with a name or number of the “attorney” who had called the prior day, saying he had been advised not to do so (the “attorney,” for what it’s worth, said it was his client who had demanded the anonymity).
Subsequent emails and phone calls to the ATS email and Pakistani mobile number were not returned.
Who and Why
Both the Sienna Ventures and Asenqua Ventures hoaxes have superficial similarities, like the Crescent Financial bios, or the fact that both Prelude Recruiting and Asenqua Ventures were based in “Suite 720” of office buildings that have no such suite number. Moreover, one of the commenters on the now-removed resume blog post was “Raj Patel,” who we at one point were told was an analyst at Asenqua Ventures (another comment was from “Cindy,” which is the same name of the person who claimed to review resumes for ATS).
But the real link is in the press releases issued by both firms, which ultimately made their way to PRNewswire via third parties. Fortune has learned that at least one of the Sienna Ventures press releases and one of the Asenqua Ventures press releases were purchased by the same person, via a PayPal account. He goes by the name Muneeb Ashraf, and the email address firstname.lastname@example.org.
This also is the same name and email address listed on the WHOIS directory for the Prelude Recruiting website. In this listing, Ashraf listed an Abu Dhabi mailing address and a non-working phone number.
The motive, however, is murkier.
One possibility is that Sienna Ventures was designed to obtain digital signatures and uniform resumes of U.S. professionals in order to sell them as part of some type of identity fraud scam. One individual’s information has little value, but a package of identities is another story.
If ATS Resume was indeed involved, then the perpetrator(s) also obtained some money and at least partial digits of user credit cards (ATS Resume utilized e-commerce software provider Shopify, which does not provide merchants with full credit card information).
And none of that still explains the Asenqua situation, which we hypothesized could have been intended to create the illusion of U.S. legitimacy to an overseas investment scheme.
What we do know, however, is that “Muneeb Ashraf” spent a lot of time—and even some of his own money—to put this thing together. Emails to his Gmail account were not returned.