The flower arrangement was large and gaudy. “Sorry for your loss,” read the note accompanying the blooms. Rob Holmes squinted in surprise at the sender’s name: Ray West. Ray West didn’t exist. He was one of the online personas Rob adopted to hunt counterfeiters. And Rob hadn’t lost anyone. The note was a threat.
It was 2009 and the Russian mob had Rob in their sights. The company he runs with his younger brother Jason was on the trail of a huge counterfeit operation, an investigation that would eventually lead to the downfall of a Russian “spam gang,” a sophisticated group of mobsters responsible for a slew of websites advertising fake watches, handbags and accessories, as well as a third of the world’s spam emails.
The flowers, which Rob later discovered had been bought with his own hacked credit card, were an unmistakable warning. But the investigator was hardly spooked; he appreciated the theater. “It was pretty cool and dramatic,” he recalls, “like something from ‘The Godfather.’”
Rob, his brother, and their team at IPCybercrime spend their days tracking down knockoffs online, feeding the information back to the name-brand companies who employ them – Louis Vuitton, Disney, Tiffany & Co. – to use in their cases against counterfeiters. It’s a 21st-century version of a skill the brothers first learned while working together undercover as children. In the 1980s and ’90s, their father Robert Holmes worked as a private detective and became a legend in the counterfeit business. Growing up, family outings were weekend trips to the Jersey Shore, expeditions that were part shopping, part work.
“Kids make very good undercover distractions,” Rob says. “My father and stepmother would take us to swap meets and boardwalks up and down the Jersey Shore, and instead of having the grown-up make the purchase of the counterfeit Cabbage Patch doll or t-shirt, they would have one of us do it.”
The boys were paid in ice cream and funnel cake. Strolling the boardwalks, they honed the art of profiling: scanning counterfeits and vendors, writing down licence plates, noting a suspect’s age, hair and eye color, checking for glasses, tattoos or scars.
Their father was a larger-than-life figure to the two boys. A “tough guy” who rarely revealed his feelings, Robert Holmes lost his wife to suicide when the boys and their sister, Jennifer, were still young, but the former state trooper always presented a staunch, gruff front.
Robert’s firm was employed by big brands, and he led intelligence forays into New York’s Chinatown, checking the stores for counterfeit goods. Each week, they’d work through stacks of court orders, busting open doors along Canal Street and seizing fake goods, which were later used as evidence in counterfeit cases.
Robert’s work earned him the wrath of the Vietnamese gangs who controlled the sale of counterfeit Rolexes on the city streets, and the family lived in a state of watchfulness.
“The mafia had contracts on my dad’s life,” Rob explains. “We lived in a house in the woods in New Jersey, pulled back from the rest of the block. My father had so many stories, like hitmen waiting in front of the house. We always had to keep the doors locked.”
“It was a dangerous time,” Jason seconds. “Once we found a wanted poster in one of the stores we went into in Chinatown.” The boys’ father “had a price on his head.”
Rob remembers the day his father gave him The Talk. “He said, ‘Listen. There might be a time when I’m going to tell you to move, get out of the way, duck,’” he recounts. “‘And you’d better do it, because it’s going to be important.’”
The teenager shrugged off this father-son chat. Rob says he was a “wise-ass” kid with a cocky swagger. His father might have been a star in the world of counterfeit goods, but at home he was Dad – and Rob was never any good at listening to his paternal lectures.
As soon as he could, Rob rebelled, leaving home to pursue his own path. In his family, rebelling meant passing up the family business and going to Bible school. Inspired by his church youth group, Rob wanted to become a youth pastor, so he went off to a religious college in Philadelphia.
He found the structure stifling and quit. “I loved Jesus but I thought the rules sucked,” he says cheerfully. Next, he headed to Los Angeles to become a stand-up comedian, but cracked when lack of funds forced him into a boring day job at a video store. After just a day’s work, he called his father, who found him a job working for a friend in the business.
“There I was again, walking around swap meets buying junk, on a different coast.” He’d wander street markets and comic conventions, convincing vendors to reveal their fake Gucci bags and bootleg “Star Trek” video cassettes.
Meanwhile, on the East Coast, Jason had graduated to high-octane enforcement raids with his dad. Along with a vanguard of off-duty law enforcement officers, the skinny, Converse-footed teen spent his formative years jumping out of vans and busting open locks in Chinatown.
“The ’80s and ’90s was the wild wild west,” Jason says. Shopkeepers would employ “thugs” to protect their stores from street gangs, adding to the tension of the raids.
“We had people coming at us with shanks from behind the register, homemade weapons like you’d see in prison. We had the street erupt during one raid; they were coming at us from all directions, throwing quarter sticks of dynamite under police cars, running at us with chairs. It was a crazy time.”
Despite the chaos, Jason never felt in real danger. Robert was always looking out, even when they weren’t on assignment. Jason remembers a walk the two of them took through housing projects one night as they headed from his father’s office near the West Side Highway to the apartment he stayed in when he worked in the city.
“[Dad] thought somebody was following us,” Jason recalls. “He pulled me behind a barrier and he had his pistol in his pocket pointing out, and we just waited for the guy to pass us. As a teenager you don’t think about that stuff; it’s just your dad.”
Like his older brother, Jason eventually veered from the family way of life in search of regimen and order. Instead of Bible college, he enlisted in the Navy where he spent more than a decade serving in the U.S. and Europe. But on weekends and vacations he always drifted home, joining his dad for enforcement raids during his downtime.
Jason says this line of work is “in his blood.” When he came to the end of his military career in 2006 and Rob suggested he join the burgeoning company he’d started five years earlier in his tiny Los Angeles apartment, working together again felt right.
Today, Rob, 47, works out of the company’s L.A. office. He’s funny, high-energy, and talks nonstop, like an undercover-world version of Michael Scott from “The Office.”
“I’m a crazy genius,” he says. “When I’m in the office sometimes I take off my pants and I’m carrying a sword. I play country music and I get my creative juices flowing. I get everyone talking and joking.”
Jason, whom Rob calls the “disciplinarian” to his class-clown CEO, runs the firm’s operational side from Dallas, helping oversee the company’s 10 employees and more than 50 operatives worldwide. The company’s been headquartered in North Dallas since 2008 when the economic downturn sent them in search of an up-and-coming city with a strong local economy. A few years later, Rob and his wife moved back to Los Angeles, and Jason stayed on in Dallas.
Six years Rob’s junior, Jason is more even-keeled, weighing each word. “I’m definitely more grounded,” Jason says. “He’s the one that rushes into somewhere and I’m the one who pulls his collar back and says, ‘Let’s look and make sure there’s nothing dangerous there.’”
When Rob married his wife, Nastassia, he’d use a trick from his parents’ playbook, taking her with him to stores where he suspected counterfeit goods were stashed behind the counter. “Having a guy walk in and ask for a Chanel purse isn’t the right profile,” Rob observes. “My wife would come in wearing her fancy clothes, designer this and designer that. She fit the part, and she’d ask if he had anything nicer.”
These days, the sting operations have gone from the streets to the web. Much of Rob’s work is done online and on the phone. His secret weapon is his knack for engaging with people. There’s an art to finding out what people are hiding, he says. “You have to trick them into showing you what’s under the table. For that you need charm.”
He’ll adopt an alter-ego and call up suspected counterfeiters – say, someone hawking designer watches or handbags – tricking them into giving out information about their location, merchandise or other details to help build a case against them. All you need to do is ask the right questions, and keep them talking, he says.
“You come up with a reason to call someone that’s different than the purpose you have; you just chit-chat until the right time comes and bam, you hit them with that question. I’ll bury it in the conversation, and afterwards they’re probably not even going to remember they mentioned it to me.”
Once, hunting down information on an unreleased tech product for a patent infringement case, he turned to Craigslist, where one of the company’s employees was selling his bike. Rob picked up the phone. “Half an hour into the conversation we’re chatting about everything else and I got him to talk about work. He was able to give me enough information to take me to the next level. He had no idea, he just wanted to sell me his bike.”
Once in a while, he gets caught. “When someone gets hinky you can feel the conversation getting away from you,” Rob says. “Bad guys have instincts, too. But that’s O.K., because, being one of the good guys, you can make a mistake here and there. A bad guy can’t make any mistakes.”
Bringing down bad guys means a lot of people loathe Rob. “When you’re in this world your nemeses are everywhere,” he says with relish. While Rob’s online sleuthing takes him on virtual journeys all over the world, sometimes fate takes a hand and information lands right in his lap, which is what happened with the Russian spam gang.
Rob’s investigation into the gang’s counterfeit ring led him to a key player, a Russian living in Massachusetts. In a twist of fate, he and his target had mailboxes at the same UPS store in Boston. Rob has mailboxes all over the country under different names, undercover identities he uses to buy counterfeit goods. In this case, the fake identity paid off in an unexpected way. “I got his mail once, that’s how I found out” the Russian man’s identity, Rob explains. “It was pure coincidence.” He fed this evidence back to the FBI and the Federal Trade Commission, who tracked down other key players, leading to the downfall of the biggest spamming operation in history.
While Rob admits the funeral flowers spooked him a little, he says most of his enemies are only virtual, and all talk. “The nice thing about financial crimes,” he says, “is that there aren’t a lot of violent crimes as a direct result” of getting caught.
However, his father’s cautious approach has stuck. His condo, in a gated community in the upscale seaside community of Marina del Rey, is stocked with plenty of weapons. “I have nine or ten guns. You don’t need that many, but it’s nice to have a loaded gun in each room. We always have a loaded gun in a drawer here, a drawer there.”
Despite mobster threats and the sense – imprinted in childhood – that danger’s always right around the corner, Rob insists there isn’t much that scares him. “You just don’t have the time to be scared, you’re so busy doing the work, you just keep on doing it,” he says. “Sometimes I think it’s stupidity, but sometimes you’re so obsessed with the case you don’t think of things like that.”
For someone as au fait as Rob about internet security, it seems a little strange that he puts so much of himself out there. His Facebook profile is public, and you can see the articles he’s posted about his work alongside his thoughts like “Why aren’t ghosts in movies naked?” On Instagram, you can scroll through a slew of selfies, pictures of his lunch, and snaps of his dog, Chauncey, on the beach. You can find him on Snapchat, and on LinkedIn, where he blogs about cyber security.
But Rob points out that, while it looks as though he’s an open book, most of the information is superficial. He lives by something he calls the haystack principle, which basically means the more you share, the bigger your virtual haystack, and the harder it is to find the “needles” of critical information. “There are a few things, work and personal, that I don’t want anybody to know. Everything else I let the world see.”
While Rob courts the limelight, Jason is happy to lead a quiet life in his suburban Dallas home, with his wife and three children. “I’m pretty under wraps,” Jason says. “I’m fine with people not knowing who I am. I follow my dad’s play with that one.”
The brothers’ single-minded dedication to busting counterfeiters has helped win some landmark cases, including Chloé v. TradeKey and Louis Vuitton v. Akanoc: two victories that marked a move to prosecute the marketplaces where counterfeiters sell their goods.
Robert Holmes would’ve been proud, but their father isn’t around to see history repeating. Just over two decades after his wife’s suicide, Robert killed himself in 2004. He had lived with a heavy burden, Rob says. “For 23 years, my father had that in the back of his mind, the guilt from that.”
Rob sighs. He doesn’t want to talk about it. “I don’t want to bring out a whole can of worms,” he says, adding that he believes “anybody on the worst day of their life could” go ahead and end it. “If you’re on the ledge and there’s not someone there that one time, that might be the day.”
Thirty-five years after those first undercover stings when their father paid them in ice cream, Robert Holmes is still a larger-than-life figure. “He wasn’t very vocal, but he had that look; he was proud of us,” Jason says. “I know he would be proud of us now.”
“We keep him alive through our work,” Rob says. “My father’s legacy was always important to my brother and I, so we carry that on.”
Rob doesn’t have children, but he hopes Jason’s kids wil pick up the torch. Jason chuckles at this idea. “We’ll see,” he says. His 18-year-old son thinks his dad’s job is “neat,” and he helps out sometimes, doing online research. If he does follow them into the family business, there’ll always be counterfeiters to hunt.
“If you can make it, they’ll fake it,” says Rob. “There will always be new technologies, new techniques. I’m never going to stop catching counterfeiters.”