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FBI investigates Ozy Media over impersonation of YouTube exec in conference call with Goldman Sachs


The co-founder of Ozy Media is facing an FBI probe after allegedly impersonating a YouTube executive in a conference call with Goldman Sachs to convince the Wall Street giant to close in on a $40million investment in the start-up media company.

Samir Rao, the co-founder and chief operating officer (COO) of the digital media company, is being accused of pretending to be Alex Piper, YouTube’s head of unscripted programming, to vouch for Ozy in a call with Goldman Sachs in February, according to a New York Times report published Sunday.

Ozy arranged a Zoom meeting with Goldman Sachs officials and let them know that Piper would be there to give statistics about Ozy’s success on YouTube. The day of the meeting, however, an email appearing to come from Piper explained that he was late and requested that the meeting be moved to a conference call, according to four sources briefed on the meeting, the Times reported. 

Ozy COO and Co-Founder Samir Rao is facing an FBI probe after allegedly impersonating Alex Piper, YouTube’s head of unscripted programming, in a call with Goldman Sachs

Goldman Sachs was set to close in on a $40million investment in the start-up media company

Goldman Sachs was set to close in on a $40million investment in the start-up media company

Once on the call, Rao – as Piper – boasted that Ozy had a huge subscriber base, garnered significant ad dollars and was run by an incredible leader, CEO Carlos Watson. 

But the voice didn’t sound natural to Goldman Sachs officials on the call, who described it as almost sounding ‘digitally altered,’ the Times reported. 

After the call, a Goldman Sachs official emailed a confused Piper, using a separate email from the one that came before the meeting, and the YouTube executive explained that he was never on the call.  

YouTube launched its own investigation after finding that someone had impersonated one of their executives, which quickly led them to Rao.

Watson reached out to Goldman Sachs and also confirmed that Rao was the one on the call, apologizing profusely for his actions. Watson attributed Rao’s actions to a ‘mental health crisis,’ but did not elaborate further, the Times reported. 

He added that Rao took time off work after the incident and is now back at Ozy. 

‘[Rao] is a valued colleague and a close friend,’ Watson told the Times. ‘I’m proud that we stood by him while he struggled, and we’re all glad to see him now thriving again.’   

Goldman Sachs believed that Alex Piper, pictured above, was speaking with them about Ozy's success on YouTube

Goldman Sachs believed that Alex Piper, pictured above, was speaking with them about Ozy’s success on YouTube

Marc Lasry, chairman of Ozy’s board and co-owner of the Milwaukee Bucks basketball team, defended how the company responded to the event in a statement to the Times, writing, ‘The board was made aware of the incident, and we fully support the way it was handled.’ 

He added, ‘The incident was an unfortunate one-time event, and Carlos and his team showed the kind of compassion we would all want if any of us faced a difficult situation in our own lives.’ 

But Google, YouTube’s parent company, did not view the incident in the same light. The company alerted the FBI about what happened and federal investigators reached out to Goldman Sachs. 

Watson told The Times that Ozy has not been contacted by investigators. The FBI’s field office in San Francisco would not confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation to the Times. 

Ozy is a media and entertainment company founded in 2013 that includes a digital magazine, newsletter and podcast. It also produces a number of non-fiction television shows and, in 2016, launched its own Manhattan-based music and comedy festival, OzyFest – which brought a cease-and-desist letter from Ozzy Osbourne who claimed that the name was too similar to his Ozzfest music festival.

Watson started Ozy with Rao, who both graduated from Harvard University and had early careers at Goldman Sachs. Ozy’s early years seem promising as it continued to grow, but many in the industry began to accuse the company of overinflating its audience size and influence.

Eugene Robinson, who was once Ozy’s editor-at-large before he was fired earlier this year, told the Times that Ozy was a ‘Potemkin village,’ a term for a decorative façade that hides what’s failing just beneath the surface.

Ozy CEO Carlos Watson, pictured above, attributed Rao's actions to a 'mental health crisis,' but did not elaborate further, the Times reported. He was above speaking at a panel discussion Ozy hosted in 2018

Ozy CEO Carlos Watson, pictured above, attributed Rao’s actions to a ‘mental health crisis,’ but did not elaborate further, the Times reported. He was above speaking at a panel discussion Ozy hosted in 2018

Ozy is a media and entertainment company founded in 2013 that includes a digital magazine, newsletter and podcast. In 2016, it launched its own Manhattan-based music and comedy festival, OzyFest

Ozy is a media and entertainment company founded in 2013 that includes a digital magazine, newsletter and podcast. In 2016, it launched its own Manhattan-based music and comedy festival, OzyFest

Many in the industry began to accuse the company of overinflating its audience size and influence, with one source calling it a ¿Potemkin village,¿ a term for a decorative façade that hides what¿s failing just beneath the surface

Many in the industry began to accuse the company of overinflating its audience size and influence, with one source calling it a ‘Potemkin village,’ a term for a decorative façade that hides what’s failing just beneath the surface

Ozy was buying web traffic from ‘low-quality sources,’ meaning it had paid to have its content pop up on a reader’s browser without the reader’s knowledge, according to a 2017 BuzzFeed News report. Ozy responded by saying that it had been buying the traffic to build its email lists and had not billed advertisers for those views.

Despite boasting that its site had 50million monthly viewers in 2019, traffic measurement service Comscore found that Ozy only had 2.5 million people throughout some of 2018, but only 230,000 people in June 2021 and 479,000 in July of this year.

Watson said the Comscore numbers were ‘incomplete’ and didn’t include figures coming from platforms outside of the website.

Jason Urgo, the head of the analytics firm Social Blade, told the Times that Ozy’s YouTube effort ‘doesn’t really stand out as a breakout channel.’ He said that a lot of videos have over a million views, but less than one hundred comments, an unusual ratio that could mean the views may not be from regular YouTube users.

As far as the company’s trouble with Goldman Sachs is concerned, the Times spoke to John C. Coffee Jr., a law professor at Columbia University, who said that tricking potential investors while raising capital could be grounds for criminal charges of wire fraud and securities fraud, in addition to a potential civil suit from the Securities and Exchange Commission. However, a prosecutor might drop the case because no deal was completed.



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