How an industry of 'Amazon entrepreneurs' pulled off the Internet's craftiest catfishing scheme
Dagny Taggart spends her time traveling the globe, meeting new people and learning new things. She speaks more than 15 languages, including Latin, Russian and Chinese. In the past year, she has written a new book at the rate of about one every five days: 84 books in total. All of them have gotten glowing reviews from her hordes of Amazon groupies, who leave 5-star reviews on everything she does.
There's only one problem with Dagny Taggart -- she doesn't exist. Evidence collected and examined by The Washington Post suggests that Taggart (who is named for a character in Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged") is a made-up identity used by an Argentine man named Alexis Pablo Marrocco. Marrocco, meanwhile -- and other self-described "Kindle entrepreneurs" like him -- form part of a growing industry of "Amazon catfish."
The catfishing process varies according to the specific "entrepreneur" using it, but it typically follows the same general steps: After hiring a remote worker to write an e-book for the Kindle marketplace, Amazon's e-book store, publishers put it up for sale under the name and bio of a fictional expert. Frequently, Kindle entrepreneurs will then buy or trade for good book reviews. (Jeff Bezos, the owner of Amazon, also owns The Washington Post.)
At the end of this process, they hope to have a Kindle store best-seller: something with a catchy title about a hot topic, such as gambling addiction or weight loss.
"Making money with Kindle is by far the easiest and fastest way to get started making money on the Internet today," enthuses one video that promises to guide viewers to riches. "You don't even need to write the books yourself!"
This is by no means a new method: As even a casual jaunt through the Kindle marketplace will show you, Internet marketers and other entrepreneurs have been advancing it for years. Critics in that industry call it a "scam" that has misled consumers and given all self-published authors a bad name. When questioned about Taggart, Marrocco staunchly defends himself from any accusations of wrongdoing.
"I act and have always acted according to Amazon's policies and rules, rules which prohibit the acquisition of biased or dishonest reviews," he said. "There is absolutely nothing wrong with using a pen name for a book, or a book series. There is absolutely nothing wrong and unlawful about using a pen name ... The key is always to provide value to the marketplace."
---My search for the real "Dagny Taggart" began in late September, when a Redditor using the name goans314 posted a rant about Taggart in the forum /r/books. (The Post has agreed to keep goans314's real name anonymous.) Goans is the author of two self-published language e-books, both of them pretty well reviewed. But nothing he wrote has ever competed with those by Dagny Taggart, whose author bio describes herself as a polyglot and professional language teacher.
Goans, however, had some suspicions about Taggart and her language acumen. When he read one of Taggart's books, he was surprised by how primitive some of the material was and by the number of language and grammar mistakes.
A Post review of Taggart's best-selling "Learn Spanish in Seven Days!" revealed that it sometimes uses grave or left-pointing accents, which don't exist in Spanish. Its example conversations frequently contain grade-school-level grammatical errors, switching between formal and informal forms of the verb or mismatching verbs and subjects. And while the book has Spain's flag on the cover, it's concerned only with Latin American Spanish: It completely omits conjugations for "vosotros," a very common verb form in the Castilian dialect. ("I'm absolutely determined to provide value to my company's readers," Marrocco said, "and thus we're constantly fixing and uploading what needs to be fixed.")
Despite the errors, "Learn Spanish" had 40 user reviews -- almost all of them awarding the maximum five stars. Goans wondered whether Taggart was buying reviews and faking her credentials to sell thousands of e-books.
The theory doesn't shock Mick Rooney, a self-publishing expert and the editor of the industry site Independent Publishing: "These scams have been in existence since (Amazon) took a significant hold in the book marketplace," he explained.
Recently, dozens of self-described "entrepreneurs" have begun selling e-books and online courses that teach catfishing techniques. One online course, called "K Money Machine" -- easily found by Google search -- preaches the art of building a "successful Kindle Publishing empire (without ever writing a single book yourself)." Another, called K Money Mastery, promises to teach adherents the techniques that its creator, Stefan Pylarinos, says helped him buy a high-end sports car and a $1.7-million apartment. Its small print forbids "members of the media" from taking the class, unless they agree that it's not a part of any investigation. (Neither Pylarinos nor Kevin Brandt, the man behind K Money Machine, responded to The Post's inquiries.)
To be clear, it's not a violation of Amazon's terms of service to write a book under a pen name or to contract a book by a freelancer. Amazon specifically allows e-book sellers to use up to three pseudonyms. And the service Epic Write, formally known as Fweez -- the site that Pylarinos says he uses to find his freelancers -- openly advertises the fact that its international workforce will churn out white-label content for as little as a penny per 100 words.
But it's hard to charge $5 or $10 for a "book" that is simply the result of rudimentary Google research by a nonexpert author -- so some marketers have openly turned to other techniques.
The documents that Pylarinos uses in his course recommend inventing an authorial persona that the reader "can relate to." For a book on gambling addiction, he suggests a recovering addict who overcame the disease -- and can tell the reader how to do it, too. (Catfish often pretend to be doctors, therapists or other health care providers, because those professions confer authority.) Pylarinos has himself published one book about gambling addiction and another about binge eating.
Meanwhile, in Lesson 18 of his course, Pylarinos suggests reporting bad reviews en masse for "abuse," the better to hide them from future customers. Because the vast majority of buyers are unlikely to take the time to review their Amazon purchases -- particularly when the purchase was so inexpensive -- this can effectively stifle complaints.
Brandt tells students outright how to partake in a practice called "astroturfing": buying or trading for reviews. On Facebook, dozens of groups exist solely to connect independent authors who want to swap glowing write-ups. On the website Fiverr, hundreds of paid reviewers offer to pen them for as little as $5 per batch.
Many entrepreneurs see these purchases as investments: Repeat studies have shown that there is a causal relationship between a product's Amazon reviews and the strength of its sales. By inflating reviews, Kindle publishers can sell more books -- which, in turn, makes their book more visible in Amazon's lists of best-sellers. (If their forums and Facebook threads are any indication, even legitimate self-published authors fear that failing to buy reviews will put them at a competitive disadvantage.)
Professional reviewers typically aren't difficult to spot: Most of them have left gushing four- or five-star reviews about hundreds of books, frequently in a very short amount of time. Sometimes they will review every book an author has ever written in the same hyperbolic terms. Other times they will review a book the day it comes out.
Researchers at Cornell University have found that this sort of behavior isn't necessarily unusual among Amazon's super-reviewers, and, generally speaking, even anonymous users tend to leave positive reviews. But compensated reviewers leave other clues, as well: Sometimes, they will slip in biographical details that, when put together, don't make sense. A reviewer says one book helped "him" plan for his wedding, for instance, then says another book helped "her" cope with osteoporosis.
The very first review for Taggart's "Learn Spanish in 7 Days!" comes from a native Spanish speaker who would, presumably, have no reason to ever buy it; this reviewer, when contacted by The Post, confirmed that he had been contracted by a third party to write paid reviews for books associated with both "Taggart" and Pylarinos. He has stopped writing paid reviews since learning that Amazon explicitly prohibits reviews written "on behalf of a person or company with a financial interest in the product."
"Amazon has a zero-tolerance policy for content that is designed to manipulate or mislead customers," Amazon spokeswoman Julie Law said in a statement to The Post. "We have built mechanisms, both manual and automated over the years that detect, remove or prevent reviews which violate guidelines. And we continue to take action against those who violate our policies prohibiting review manipulation."
It must be noted, though, that Amazon technically also profits off its catfish: For every dollar someone like Pylarinos or Marrocco makes off the Kindle store, Amazon makes $1.86.
The system pays small dividends to other stakeholders, as well: Epic Write and Fiverr take a cut of the sales made on their platforms. Freelancers who research and write quickly can earn hundreds of dollars a week. Some books also include affiliate marketing links, which means they funnel readers toward other online products and companies.
Taggart's Amazon author page also lists a book by the "serial entrepreneur" William Wyatt, as if they had written it together. Wyatt's Amazon page shows a smiling man with years of corporate experience and a working Gmail address. The photo is a stock image, however, which The Post was able to locate for sale in an online database. When I email the account, no one answers.
Taggart's e-books also mention a New Zealand firm called Rocket Languages: She writes in the Spanish edition that she has "partnered" with the company, which makes "the very best Spanish online course I've ever seen."
---@News:This, it turns out, is the key to the mystery of Dagny Taggart.
Rocket Languages has never heard of a Dagny Taggart. They have certainly never "partnered" with her.
But when CEO Jason Oxenham digs into the company's records, he does find the name once in a 2014 email chain: That's when ClickBank, the sales and affiliate marketing firm that helps advertise Rocket Languages' software, first heard from an Argentine man named Alexis Pablo Marrocco.
"I'm a book author," Marrocco writes in an email provided to The Post by Oxenham. "I own +14 foreign language books (French, Spanish, German, Italian, etc.), several of which are best sellers ... I plan to promote your courses to my list of readers, so we both will benefit big time."
Taggart was his pen name, Marrocco explained. So ClickBank approved Marrocco as a Rocket Languages marketer -- and soon after that, in November 2014, references to the big "partnership" began to show up in Taggart's books. (In a statement, ClickBank said its fraud prevention team was looking into the incident; Marrocco has, on Oxenham's request, also been terminated from the Rocket Languages program.)
Taggart wasn't actually Marrocco's pen name, Marrocco confirmed to The Post by email. Instead, he said, "all books listed under Dagny Taggart's name have been written and edited by professional translators, language teachers and language experts." He declined to name these experts, explain how they were certified or clarify why they needed to use not only a pseudonym, but also a fictional persona. He also refused to reveal any of his other pseudonyms, though William Wyatt's profile disappeared from Amazon shortly after our conversation.
According to his Facebook profile, Marrocco began law school in Buenos Aires several years ago. Records show that he owns a Delaware-registered company called Marrocco Enterprises LLC. Only one person has liked that company's Facebook page: a Kindle author who openly advertises for five-star rating trades.
Marrocco insists he's never violated Amazon's policies by buying or trading reviews.
"The victim here its (sic) me and my company," Marrocco he says, "and if you insist on publishing these infamies you will become the aggressor, as 'Goans314' already is."
---Goans314 doesn't see things in quite the same light; since he wrote his Reddit post complaining about Taggart on Sept. 15, it has attracted thousands of upvotes and appeared briefly on the site's front page. He has published three private messages from a Redditor who claims to be an American lawyer representing "Taggart." The messages threaten jail time and financial ruin. At one point, the lawyer uses the Spanish word for "indemnities." At another, he refers to Taggart as a "him."
Meanwhile, Goans has other worries: His books aren't selling terribly well. He recently made them free to attract more downloads; more downloads equal more reviews, more reviews equal more sales. Now he wonders whether people will hear about catfish and stop trusting all self-publishers.
"I feel like exposing this scam might even hurt my own sales," he said.
Experts are more optimistic: Jane Friedman, a professor of digital publishing at the University of Virginia, describes catfish as an ongoing but "not that significant" threat. ("It increases the noise for everyone, sure," she wrote by email, "but for any author building a long-term career, it's not hard to distinguish yourself from low-quality opportunists.") Amazon, meanwhile, promises that it is weeding out deceptive accounts and their products.
If that doesn't reassure the real self-published authors of the world, there are plenty of e-books vying for the privilege: A search of "how to write an e-book" in the Kindle store turns up more than 4,000 options.
Even Marrocco has published one book under his own name. It's called "Success is Yours: TAKE IT!" Before it disappeared from Amazon this month, it had 21 reviews and a 4.7-star rating.
"This is the book you should read if you are looking to be a better you," writes one reviewer, who also has bestowed five-star reviews on Taggart, Wyatt and Pylarinos' e-books. "A great read and super-informative."
• Dewey writes The Post's The Intersect web channel covering digital and Internet culture.