The Montauk Grifter: How One Con Man Used OkCupid for Fun, Fraud, and Profit

He is Dan Kaufman, Dan Kay, Dan Katze. He is a celebrity chef, an internet entrepreneur, a television producer. He has worked for Apple, Google, AOL, the Rainbow Room. He hangs out with Steve Case, Gordon Ramsey, Tim Armstrong. He's a world-class surfer, a AAA baseball legend, the founder of a seminal punk band. He's one of the more persistent and obsessive grifters to ply the streets of New York City—not to mention online dating sites—in recent decades.

And he'd like you to invest in his scheme to restore trust and credibility to the internet.

***

Daniel Kaufman is 37 years old. He is from Wayland, Mass., a suburb of Boston. He filed for bankruptcy in Vermont in 1995, when he was 21. He currently resides at the Manhattan Detention Complex in downtown Manhattan, awaiting arraignment on grand larceny charges. That pretty much sums up the definitively true information I could gather on him, but the lies abound.

Kaufman was arrested by NYPD detectives late last month in Montauk, N.Y. He's accused of defrauding a New York mobile advertising startup called CloudMob Media, which he had conned into hiring him as its chief technology officer, out of $20,000. He allegedly used the money to rent a beach house in Montauk, where he spent much of last summer and fall regaling a sophisticated social circle of New Yorkers—including the editor of this very website—with a never-ending cascade of extravagant lies. He relentlessly trawled the free dating site OkCupid, duping untold numbers of women (I spoke to three; their experiences suggest dozens more) into dating him. And he did it all while busily working to launch a new social network that would bring credibility and trust back the internet.

"This guy is some fucking piece of work," says someone I'll call Andrew (many of the people I spoke to for this story declined to be identified for fear of being publicly revealed as Kaufman's dupes). "He said he had been tapped by the board of AOL to resurrect Netscape as a mobile brand—he was working on it with Steve Case. He had a LinkedIn profile saying he was a programmer at Google. He said he had this luxury apartment in the Financial District."

The Montauk Grifter: How One Con Man Used OkCupid for Fun, Fraud, and Profit
Kaufman in an undated photo

Kaufman's Montauk crowd knew him as Dan Kay. He called himself that because if you Google "Dan Kaufman," you will find a page running over with stories from the last grift he got caught for—the 2008 "Busted Chef" imbroglio. In 2008, using his real name, Kaufman managed (and posed as a co-owner of) a foursome of related restaurants in Brooklyn Heights—The Busy Chef, the Blue Pig, Wine Bar, and Oven. He became an internet villain after he was caught skimming customers' credit cards to the tune of $30,000. The Brooklyn Heights Blog, the Brooklyn Paper, and others assiduously covered the dissolution of Kaufman's invented persona—the voluble and cheerful local restaurateur—after a suspicious Busy Chef employee went to the police with evidence of the fraudulent purchases. It all tumbled out: He had fled Boston more than $40,000 in debt; he was "capable of lying to your face while robbing you blind"; he was a deadbeat dad with a child in New England. Each post on Kaufman's mendacity attracted a bevy of commenters accusing him of having ripped them off before. After the news broke, his apartment was ransacked by unknown persons.

Kaufman was such an accomplished fraud at that point that the person who posted the $50,000 bond after his July 2008 arrest was one of his regulars at the very restaurant he used to run his con.

"I thought he was an innocent kid getting screwed," Lucille Goldsmith told me last week. "He was a very friendly and gregarious guy. My husband and I knew him from going to dinner there. He called from jail and asked for help."

The "Busted Chef" episode ended in February 2010, when Kaufman pleading guilty to grand larceny. He was ordered to pay $34,000 restitution to Citigroup and American Express, and placed on five years probation.

So Dan Kay was born. After the media attention had started in 2008—including coverage of a 2009 incident in which Kaufman was accused of stealing a friend's credit card and buying a meal at McDonald's—Kaufman began calling himself Dan Kay and cruising OkCupid for women. Selena Leong (that's her real name), a 36-year-old writer and foodie who splits her time between New York and Los Angeles, was one of many who responded to him. His profile, Leong recalls—it has since been deleted—described him as restaurant owner and chef, and said he was 6 feet tall (he is not). It featured photos of Dan hanging out with food-industry types, and listed his hobbies as surfing, skiing, and snowboarding.

For Leong, who loved dining and hardcore punk in equal measure, Dan Kay was an ideal date.

"He seemed to care so much about food," she said. "He told me he was a two-time James Beard Award nominee, a former chef at French Laundry, and was the guitarist in [seminal Boston hardcore band] Slapshot. He said he grew up on Martha's Vineyard." He also said he was a producer on Fox's Hell's Kitchen and the Food Network's Chopped—he claimed to have created the latter—and a friend of Gordon Ramsay.

Needless to say, he was none of those things. Not long after their first date in July 2010, in which Dan invited Leong to the roof deck of his downtown apartment and they (chastely) spent the evening drinking beer and talking, Leong discovered that he wasn't who he said he was. She Googled "chef dan kay" and came up with an April 2010 Brooklyn Heights Blog post about Kaufman, featuring his photo. An anonymous comment said that he was now going by Dan Kay.

"I said, 'Are you Dan Kaufman?'" Leong says. "He said, 'Yes, I am.' He said cocaine had done a number on him, and that he was a reformed person. He said, 'I'm gonna change, I swear.'" Astonishingly, Leong kept dating him. Dan had convinced her that, despite his initial lie and the Busy Chef crimes, he was still a world-class restaurateur, friend of Gordon Ramsay, and so on. In fact, it appears that there is a real Dan Kay whose credentials line up with the lies Kaufman told about himself, though it's hard to separate out the real Kay's digital trail from Kaufman's many online smokescreens. This Chefolio profile for Dan Kay, for instance, which cites experience at Boston's Legal Seafood, the Rainbow Room, and collaborations with Todd English, appears to be fake; it cites a non-existent interview with the New York Daily News. There are myriad other entries like these on various food sites, likely created by Kaufman to bolster his fantasies.

But Kay the Hell's Kitchen producer is a real person. IMDB credits his role on that show and Chopped, the New York Times reported that he was a chef at Chelsea's Elmo, and in this story from the Colombian, he is described as a chef and restaurant consultant. I was unable to reach the real Daniel Kay, who no longer works at Elmo. UPDATE: Actually, it appears that Dan Kay the producer and Elmo executive chef and Dan Kaufman were the same person, after all. More on that here.

Leong continued dating Dan "because [she] was bored," she says. "I'm a masochist. He was a total dork. He wore the same clothes every day—madras shorts and flip-flops—and always talked about himself." He regaled her with his exploits as an expert surfer, skier, and snowboarder. He told her that he had attended school in Vermont on a scholarship, and showed her a picture of the sizable beachfront property on Martha's Vineyard he claimed to have been raised in.

Though she still believed he was a chef, Leong quickly started to suspect that Dan was embellishing on the details of his life. She knew some members of Slapshot, for instance, and found it hard to believe she hadn't heard his name in connection with the band. ("He didn't even own a guitar," she said.) He told her that he had landed a job as executive chef at Bluefin, a seafood and sushi restaurant in the Times Square W hotel.

But he also had constant financial problems. "He called me freaking out once because some girl he'd gone on vacation with was harassing him on Facebook, saying he'd promised to pay off all these charges on her American Express card. He said, 'I can't pay my rent, what am I going to do?'" Leong didn't help him out.

On Labor Day weekend 2010, Dan told Leong he couldn't be with her because he had plans to go surfing in Montauk with Johnny Iuzzini, the judge of Top Chef: Just Desserts and executive pastry chef at Jean-Georges. When she spoke to him the next day, though, Dan wasn't in Montauk. Iuzzini was sick, he said, and had cancelled. Then she checked in on Eater.com, and read that Iuzzini was spending the holiday in Spain. He'd been posting travel photos to his blog.

Shortly thereafter, Leong decided to call Dan at work. There was no Dan Kay who worked at Bluefin, she was told. On their next scheduled date, she proposed a test: Why don't you go shopping and cook me dinner? Dan bought porterhouse steaks, Brussels sprouts, mushrooms. Leong paid for the groceries. They went back to his apartment. "It was like a frat boy cooking dinner," she said. The former Rainbow Room chef and two-time James Beard nominee served her an oven-baked porterhouse steaks that he hadn't bothered to sear and raw Brussels sprouts, thrown haphazardly on a plate. "He didn't have any professional cooking gear, and his pantry was all canned food," she says.

Leong never saw him again. When she looked in her wallet the next day, she discovered that Dan had stolen $40 from her the night before. She later learned that Kay had been dating at least two other women he found on OkCupid at the same time, including one who she happened to know. Dan told that particular woman that he was "working at a tech job that provided database support for substance abuse outreach." He also went by the name Dan Katze, Leong learned. When Leong Googled some of the quotes that Dan had posted about himself on his OkCupid profile, she realized he had lifted them directly from Anthony Bourdain.

The Montauk Grifter: How One Con Man Used OkCupid for Fun, Fraud, and Profit
The Montauk rental Kaufman was holed up in before his arrest

Without OkCupid serving up a steady stream of eager, algorithmically selected marks, of course, Dan would have had a much less exciting dating life. Since the site permitted him to establish a profile under a false name, OkCupid was the ideal venue for him to market himself without a criminal background check or a Google search getting in the way. (Though Leong quickly found Dan's true identity and stuck around anyway, I spoke to other women who had fallen hard and long for the "Dan Kay" line.)

Men being what they are, cases of frauds using online dating sites to find vulnerable women are perennial enough to have ignited a debate about whether or not the sites should be forced to perform criminal background checks on users. A New Jersey law passed in 2008 requires such sites to at least disclose whether or not they do (True.com is the only prominent site that currently performs them). Such a requirement might have prevented convicted murderer Abraham Fortune of using Match.com to find women in San Antonio, Texas. It probably wouldn't have put a damper on the exploits of Jeffrey Marsalis, the Philadelphia man who was accused of serially drugging and raping more than 10 women he found through Match.com. Marsalis, a nursing student, told his alleged victims he was a trauma surgeon, CIA agent, veteran, and astronaut trainee. But he didn't have a criminal record when he began scouting victims on Match.

"No, we don't take any specific steps to prevent it," said OkCupid co-founder and CEO Sam Yagan when I asked what he did to keep people like Dan from using his site as a victim referral service. "I think of us as a local bar, with a cross-section of all sorts of people. I'd rather everyone have a 'buyer beware' attitude. Every site has good and bad people." OkCupid doesn't have a policy requiring users to use real names, let alone background checks, Yagan says, because any steps they may take to verify users' identity could be misinterpreted as a signal that they are vouching for people—which they most certainly are not.

The 40 bucks Dan took Leong for was nothing compared to the $50,000 he ripped off from a restaurant consultant I'll call Anthony. Anthony was just starting up a business revamping restaurants in July 2010 when he met Dan. "He was the most amazing guy in the world," Anthony says. "He was captivating. He can look you dead in the eye and just take you over." And he was a chef with a with a flawless pedigree. Anthony asked Dan to join the business as a partner. He called Dan's references first, and they all vouched for him. Anthony later learned that the references Dan listed were people who had worked with the real Dan Kay.

The first red flag came up when Dan proposed a new menu for a client in Hoboken, New Jersey. "The restaurant was impressed with him because he worked on Chopped and Hell's Kitchen," Anthony says. "But I Googled some of recipes he proposed, and they were all over the internet. One was from Emeril Lagasse." When Anthony asked about it, Dan explained that he had sold the recipes to various web sites, and that he'd helped Emeril develop one of them. But it wasn't long before Anthony realized he was in serious trouble.

"He had no knife skills, no kitchen skills," Anthony says. "My stomach was dropping."

Anthony started noticing mysterious withdrawals from the business checking account. "I'd ask him, 'Why did you spend this money?' He'd say, 'Oh I bought some groceries and went out to Hoboken to work on recipes.' I'd ask the restaurant, and they'd say he wasn't there." At one point Dan made a wire transfer from the account to a woman that, Anthony later learned, he owed money to. The bottom fell out when the owners of the Hoboken restaurant approached Anthony with a sheaf of printed Google searches for Dan Kaufman.

"I said, 'Dan, they know,'" Anthony says. "'I know. You need to tell me the truth.' He turned almost see-through white, and started stuttering and fidgeting, and said, 'I'm a bad person, I'm crazy, I'm sick in the head.'" Despite being caught, Dan still insisted to Anthony that he was a chef, and that they could still make their partnership work. Anthony spent the next month trying, and failing, to get his money back. Between the wire transfers, bounced checks, and the three Culinary Institute of America students who Dan, unbeknownst to Anthony, had hired as interns at $20 per hour, Anthony was out roughly $50,000. That doesn't even include the clients he lost. Though he knew that Dan was on probation, he initially tried to settle it without getting him thrown in jail.

Anthony tracked down Dan's parents to try to recoup. He quickly learned that Dan wasn't raised in Martha's Vineyard. Diane and Howard Kaufman live on shady street in the nondescript Boston suburb of Wayland, Mass. When Anthony called, Diane started shrieking at him through the phone: "Who the fuck are you? Why are you calling? Daniel is not our responsibility! We already bailed him out once. Do not call me again." When I called while reporting this story, his father answered: "I can't help you. I'm sorry." (I also reached out to Dan's sister, who lives in San Francisco. She refused to comment.)

As Anthony tried to rescue his business, and Dan promised limply to repay him—at one point he deposited $79 into Anthony's account—he began hearing from other people Dan had ripped off. The woman in Michigan who'd flown Dan out to consult for her restaurant; he stole $5,000 from her. The Los Angeles restaurateur who shipped out half her menu on dry ice to his apartment after he posed as a potential investor requesting "samples." The brokerage firm that had given him $50,000 to invest and never heard from him again.

"I don't know how to cook. I've spent all this time trying to convince myself that I do. I'm a crazy person, and I need help. I've been like this since I was a kid."

Eventually, he called Dan's parole officer, but was told that nothing could be done unless criminal charges were filed. When Anthony tried to do that, he says, both the NYPD and the Manhattan District Attorney's office told him that, since Dan was a partner in the business, it was a civil matter. He eventually gave up trying to recoup, but not before Dan finally broke down and admitted to him that he was never a chef: "I don't know how to cook. I've spent all this time trying to convince myself that I do. I'm a crazy person, and I need help. I've been like this since I was a kid."

He wasn't that way in high school. One of Dan's classmates at Wayland High School told me that he was "a normal, run-of-the-mill kid." Dan played no sports, he said. "He was more of an artsy, drama kid than a jock. But it was a small high school, and he was a normal kid." After graduating high school, Dan spent some time in Vermont. He filed for bankruptcy there in 1995. Among the unpaid creditors was Massachusetts Bay Community College. It's unclear what he did with the 12 years between the bankruptcy and his arrival in Brooklyn Heights, but public records show that he lived in Boston and accumulated more than $80,000 in civil judgements and tax liens.

***

Daniel Kay the chef obviously wasn't working out for Kaufman. So last summer, he became Dan Kay the Web 2.0 entrepreneur. His OkCupid profile, according to people who saw it, was cleansed of any references to food. He replaced the pictures of him in kitchens with nondescript snowboarding photos. His face was always obscured.

It's unclear when CloudMob Media, the mobile advertising company he's accused of defrauding, hired him as its chief technology officer. The company did not return repeated phone calls. According to the criminal complaint filed against him last month, Dan was working at CloudMob in November 2011 when he began fraudulently billing it on behalf of a fake contractor:

[D]efendant was employed at Cloud Mob Media, Inc. in November, 2011. [O]n two occasions defendant told informant that defendant would have another individual do work for the company, and that said company then issued checks in the amount of $16,467.00 and $3,024.61 to other individuals. [S]aid individuals cashed said checks and never did any work for said company.

[S]aid checks were issued to defendant's girlfriend and defendant's landlord and...defendant stated in substance I TOOK THE MONEY BECAUSE I OWED RENT ON A HOUSE IN MONTAUK. I WAS TRYING TO IMPRESS MY GIRLFRIEND.

Dan told the crowd he ran with in Montauk last summer that he was the CTO of Netscape, which he said he had purchased with AOL founder Steve Case. He claimed they were in the process of rebranding it as a mobile browser. Before that, he said, he had been a programmer at Google. When Tim Armstrong left for AOL, he brought Dan over with him as a direct report. He explained his affiliation with CloudMob by saying he had hired the company to do some contract work for Netscape.

"All summer long, he kept saying he was going to buy a place out there," says Andrew. "Or rent a place for a year. Every time a property went on the market, he'd call the realtor." Kay told his Montauk friends that he went to the University of Oklahoma, where he played baseball. The university's registrar has no record of a Daniel Kaufman attending. Afterward, he spent a year playing AAA baseball on a team "on Martha's Vineyard or Nantucket," one friend recalls. There are no AAA baseball teams on Martha's Vineyard or Nantucket. He claimed to be the only pitcher in AAA-ball history to pitch a no-hitter and still lose through walks. He went on, he told his friends, to earn graduate degrees at both Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley. Neither school responded to repeated inquiries seeking confirmation.

Dan would plan elaborate international trips and invite associates, friends say, only to cancel inexplicably at the last minute—even after they had gone as far as packing and getting inoculations. He talked incessantly of his prowess as a surfer, but no one ever actually saw him in the water. "He'd always say he has a bruised rib, or that he'd already been out really early that morning," Andrew says. "One time we were tossing around a frisbee, and he had no idea how to throw it. Which is odd for a AAA-ball pitcher. I should have known."

The (since deleted) Facebook profile for Dan Kay—the Montauk version, not the chef iteration—was heavy with images of surfing and beaches, but still offered no direct evidence that he had ever surfed. His feed betrayed no interest in cuisine, but was well-stocked with links to items at Techmeme and other sites that a chief technology officer might read.

The Montauk Grifter: How One Con Man Used OkCupid for Fun, Fraud, and Profit

Perhaps the most bizarre aspect of Dan Kaufman's many lies is the one thing he was actually doing. He told friends in Montauk that he was founding, as a side project, a new social network called Voutliers. The idea behind Voutliers, perversely enough, was to create an online community that would rank people by their trustworthiness. It's slogan is "VOW to Trust," and according to this marketing presentation (for "Voutliers Coroporation"), it would allow internet users to "trust in people again by sharing unique qualities of yourself to reliable packs of individuals."

Voutliers would work by charging users a fee to "vouch" for new members, which would ostensibly incentivize them to invite only trustworthy people to the network. It's a way, the site's marketing materials say, "to create credibility."

Daniel Kaufman had literally founded a company with the aim of protecting the internet from people like himself.

And it was not—at least entirely—a con. Voutliers was incorporated in the state of New York in March 2011. Its original registered agent was Joseph Toombs, a high school coach in Mamaroneck, N.Y. Its current registered agent is Marcus Siotkas, a guidance counselor at a New Rochelle high school; his listed address is Kaufman's apartment in the financial district. Neither man returned repeated phone calls. The company seems to have put some effort into raising funding. According to its website, Voutliers is scheduled to launch next month.

It's not clear how CloudMob found out who Dan Kay actually was, or that he was stealing from the company. He was fired in November and moved out to the Montauk house permanently, explaining to some of his friends that he was going through some "personal issues." After much cajoling, the NYPD's warrant unit took the long drive out to the eastern end of Long Island to arrest him on Jan. 26, 2012.

His attorney, Sharyn Henry of the New York County Defender Services, says Dan is awaiting indictment by a grand jury—he was arrested on the strength of a criminal complaint—and may face more charges. Asked if he intends to fight them, she said, "Everyone is entitled to plead not guilty, and we'll work from there." His next hearing, an arraignment, is scheduled for Feb. 28. Dan will likely be staying in jail until then, and probably longer, she says: "I don't expect him to make bail."

At the request of some of the people I spoke to for this story, who agreed to provide information only on the condition that they not be identified as having been associated with Kaufman, we have turned off commenting for this post. If you have had run-ins with Dan Kay, Dan Katze, or any other version of Dan Kaufman, please let me know and I'll follow up.


Top image by Jim Cooke.