Anyone who has spent time on social media will have come across the bizarre extent to which the names and faces of celebrities are appropriated to promote scams. We’re told that Chris Packham, when not busy in moral quandaries on whether to break the law, is “afraid that everyone will find out how he got rich”. MoneySaving expert Martin Lewis, who shot to daily prominence during the height of the energy crisis, supposedly has a get rich quick scheme that anyone devoted to the grindset shouldn’t miss out on. Looking at some of these scams, it can be hard to see how someone would fall for it — but they do, in disturbingly high numbers.
If the BBC trusts them, why shouldn’t I?
It is clear by the adoption of celebrities by online scammers that they are trading on the public profile of those figures to dupe viewers into parting with their cash. In these scams, legitimate individuals or institutions appear to lend credence to otherwise pie-in-the-sky schemes, telling viewers that financial liberation is easily at hand. Both Martin Lewis and Chris Packham appear regularly on national television, be it the BBC or ITV. By that virtue, they are given legitimacy and authority. If the BBC trusts them, why shouldn’t I? That was an attitude many of us have always subscribed to, misgivings about certain presenters’ quirks aside.
This left me surprised that the BBC’s recent documentary on online scams and financial catfishing appears to be hosted by a man who himself is tied up in dodgy companies and distortions. He has left a trail of angry customers who feel defrauded in his wake.
“Hunting the Catfish Crime Gang” tells the story of James Blake, a 30-year-old entrepreneur from Northern Ireland who was living the “Insta-dream” until he found out that online scammers were using his photos to con others out of thousands of pounds.
This was indeed unfortunate. As a rule of thumb, though, anyone describing themselves as living the Insta-dream should set off alarm bells, maybe especially loudly amongst the documentary making classes. With what is an almost-taunting level of self-confidence, Blake waltzes right out of the too-good-to-be-true playbook, describing his life as the “image of success”, stressing the importance of posting his lamborghini, his watches, helicopter rides and glamorous apartments to lure in more business. A more eagle-eyed viewer might notice that the Lamborghini is an outdated model, and the helicopter appears to be from HeliPower, Northern Ireland’s cheapest 10 minute helicopter experience at £99.
Within minutes I found that Blake isn’t quite the straightforward victim of scammers whom the BBC presented. The Advertising Standards Agency upheld a complaint against his company Vindicta in 2018, for breaching the CAP code by asking those who wanted to win a competition to leave 5 star reviews. Checking the Vindicta Facebook page, one can see that another such competition from 2017 led to a rash of glowing plaudits. Elsewhere, the wider internet is full of complaints against Blake and his companies.
Vindicta claims to sit in London, Manchester, Liverpool and Belfast. I visited its London office alongside Green Park. No one had heard of Vindicta there, and it seems that the real office is in Northern Ireland. When pitching for business the company claims to have between 10–49 employees, yet when dealing with Companies House, its holding company reports just three.
Companies House led me to E ProGlide scooters, a company Blake used to run to sell electric scooters. On TrustPilot all but 2 of the 21 reviews are 1 star, complaining that either their order (running into the hundreds of pounds) was never received or broke instantly. There are dozens of negative comments on the company’s YouTube channel, alleging lies and poor service.
The hustle culture image Blake projects has all the hallmarks of Andrew Tate’s tasteless displays of wealth. It wasn’t surprising to stumble across another of Blake’s previous ventures, “The Dominate Academy”. Access to the “Dominate Hub” (a Telegram chat) was available for £35 per month. Dominators™ are taught how to “dominate” the online marketing space with dropshipping and e-commerce. In the absence of genuine profit to be made, many dropshippers like Blake have turned to flogging courses to those sold a false dream. You would think it would have been a better use of his time to engage with his unhappy customers.
As Symeon Brown argues in his book on ambition and deceit in the influencer economy, delusion is at the heart of so many modern day pyramid schemes. There is, of course, a quantitative and qualitative difference between Blake and the organised criminal gangs that his documentary investigates. For the consumer, though, the former is merely downstream of the latter. A society built on false promises, promoting an image of success that is not justified by substance, is what deludes so many. It is perhaps not that surprising, to anyone other than a credulous BBC documentary maker, that criminal gangs have used a man whose portrayal of himself contains so much make-believe to escalate their scams to another level.
Far more galling than the mirage of success that surrounds Blake (as opposed to the image of him that scammers have taken advantage of) is how the BBC failed to spot any of this. Nor did the multiple tabloids who echoed Blake’s soft-soap BBC story. These gullible media marks all fell into the same trap they claim to be exposing.
When Blake’s next disgruntled customer stumbles across his Dominate Academy, or his non-existent London offices, he can direct them towards this documentary. Whereas Martin Lewis became a trusted figure through years of genuine consumer advocacy, the BBC has elevated James Blake based on an idea he sold them.
It’s all very well securing additional legislation on online scams in the new Online Safety Bill, and clamping down on social media companies that allow scams to flourish on their sites. As with much of the commentary on dis- or misinformation, however, it is establishment and legacy media that is letting us down whilst simultaneously and self-interestedly warning us about their competitors.
What does it say about the BBC, with its renewed focus on fact-checking with BBC Verify, that even the most basic and rudimentary due diligence is beyond its grasp?
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