‘Malibu Burning’ author Robert Kerbeck releases new book ‘RU$E’

Robert Kerbeck. Photo courtesy.

Local resident Robert Kerbeck’s second non-fiction book, “RU$E: Lying the American Dream from Hollywood to Wall Street,” was just released on Feb. 22. 

His wildly successful first non-fiction book “Malibu Burning (2019),” an investigative and behind-the-scenes look at the Woolsey Fire, is already well-known here in Malibu.

RU$E details Kerbeck’s real-life experience of nearly 20 years as one of the country’s pre-eminent corporate spies, working for clients that included Fortune 500, Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and executive search firms to get specific information about competitors. The long list of clients he rattled off in a personal interview are household names, although the names were disguised and changed for the book.

“Major American corporations spend tens to hundreds of millions of dollars to spy on each other,” Kerbeck noted. The right kind of information in the right circumstances could yield a billion-dollar profit, so the price of spying is viewed as a great investment, he explained. 

What kinds of secret information are these companies after? Mergers, acquisitions, expansions, business strategies, key players, and organization, just to name a few categories.

Kerbeck carried out his corporate espionage by phone, calling around to a corporation’s various offices and pretending to be someone he wasn’t — sometimes in a made-up crisis situation. This might take the form of posing as an executive in that same company who’s out-of-town, about to go into an important meeting to fix a huge screw-up, perhaps with government, and unable to access an international database.

The easiest marks within a corporation, surprisingly, were “big shot executives, especially after hours,” Kerbeck said. “Assistants and receptionists were the gatekeepers, trained not to release private company information, but they usually left work right at 5 or 5:30, and then the executive would often pick up his/her own phone.”

It all started around 1990 when Kerbeck left his hometown of Philadelphia and the family car business to try his hand at acting in the Big Apple. He needed a side hustle in order to pay the rent and stumbled into the job as a corporate spy through a fellow actor. 

“They only hired actors,” he said, “because you were playing a part, impersonating other people, doing different accents, and had to be able to improvise quickly.”

“I interviewed for the job with a ‘Mrs. Robinson’ type woman in a fancy apartment,” Kerbeck said. “And that was the beginning of my apprenticeship as a corporate spy: learning about organizations, their clients, who worked there, and the internal rankings.” 

The intelligence Kerbeck gathered was faxed in.

“This was in the days before the internet and LinkedIn, and a lot of the information that clients wanted could only be obtained by hiring a spy” from a third party, he continued. 

As technology improved, he also learned to use techniques like call spoofing, where a false number and name show up on caller ID.

One of Kerbeck’s biggest successes was identifying every member of an eight-person team at a Wall Street firm responsible for making that company billions of dollars. “Those people were very locked down and protected,” he commented. And his client wanted to poach them.

Kerbeck jokes that any crimes he might be accused of in this line of work are long past the statute of limitations because he quit the corporate spy business around 2008, but still has contacts.

The publisher describes RU$E as “An exhilarating memoir that will appeal to fans of ‘Catch Me If You Can’ and ‘The Wolf of Wall Street,’ where unsuspecting receptionists, assistants, and bigshot executives all fall victim to the Ruse… [Kerbeck’s] income jumped from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars a year. Until the inevitable crash…”

Before Kerbeck transitioned into spying full-time, he garnered a couple dozen acting credits as well as good stories about drinking with Paul Newman, taking J.Lo to a Dodgers game, touring ER sets with George Clooney, and working with O.J. Simpson right before the double murders.

There will be a free book signing event with Kerbeck on Saturday, Mar. 5, at 3 p.m. at DIESEL, A Bookstore at 225 26th St., Suite 33, Santa Monica in Brentwood Country Mart in the courtyard. Masks are required.

And remember Valerie Plame, the former CIA officer whose identity was purposely leaked by the Bush administration in 2003? She and Kerbeck attended the same school growing up, and he even took her to the eighth-grade dance. She’s now a spy novelist, and the two are doing a joint online event on Mar. 1 — two kinds of spies together.