Who duped Slate?

Media criticism.
March 12 2002 7:46 PM

Who Is "Robert Klingler"?

On the trail of the man who duped Slate.

In the famous New Yorker cartoon by Peter Steiner, a dog seated in front of a PC turns to his canine colleague and boasts, "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog."

Although dogs have not logged onto the Internet in the numbers Web visionaries predicted in the early '90s, Steiner's lesson still stands: You can never be too sure that your fascinating e-mail correspondent isn't a barking imposter. Last week, Slate got taken by an Internet dog when it published the diary of "Robert Klingler," an individual who claimed in e-mails and on the telephone to be the CEO of BMW's North American operations.

Slate published two installments of Klingler's projected weeklong diary before discovering his ruse on Tuesday, March 5. When told by BMW that no Robert Klingler worked there, Slate disavowed both diary entries, and I published thismea culpa, "Slate Gets Duped." I explained that Klingler had "spoofed" his e-mail address to make it appear that it had originated from the car manufacturer. (For more on how to detect "e-mail spoofing," see this week's "Webhead" column, by Bill Barnes.)

In "Slate Gets Duped," I promised to investigate the hoax and report back. After interviews with scores of sources and vigorous surfing of the Web and other databases, I can't tell you with absolute certainty who Robert Klingler is. There's an excellent chance he doesn't even exist. It could be that one or two—or who knows how many—people might be behind the scenes, conjuring Klingler into existence, or that the people linked to Klingler in this piece are themselves the victims of a hoax. This is my account, but I will add to it if I learn more.

Slate believes that it first encountered the man doing business as Robert Klingler through "The Fray," the discussion area where Slate readers and writers mix it up. On Oct. 31, 2001, Slate "Fray" editor Moira Redmond received an e-mail signed by "Rob Klingler" in which he responded to the Slate "Diary" Redmond was writing that week. Redmond had made a joke about hoping that Mercedes-Benz might make the gift of a new car to her. Klingler wrote:

From: RDesai3109@aol.com
Sent: Wednesday, October 31, 2001 5:54 AM
To: frayeditor@slate.com
Subject: would a BMW do?

Just kidding. Thanks for an enjoyable diary—and yes, I am the North American head of BMW. The next time I run into Jurgen Schrempp (the actual head of Daimler Chrysler), I'll pass along your request for a Mercedes freebie, although why you would want one is beyond me.

Warm regards,
Rob Klingler

Although the letter was signed "Rob Klingler," the return e-mail address was rdesai3109@aol.com. The "Internet header" info accompanying the e-mail, which tracks the hops that an e-mail makes from sender to recipient, seems consistent with a mail originating from rdesai3109@aol.com. In other words, the address was not spoofed.

Without mentioning Klingler by name, Redmond mentioned his e-mail in her Nov. 1, 2001, Diary entry, remarking that the head of BMW North America had written her about her Mercedes wish. In a message e-mailed from Klingler's Robertgklingler@aol.com address to Redmond, dated Nov. 7, 2001, Klingler said it was OK for Redmond to give Slate Associate Publisher Cyrus Krohn his e-mail address—Krohn wanted BMW to buy ads on Slate"But I hope you gave him this one and not the Rdesai3109 one—else his messages will mystify my brother-in-law." Krohn played a weekslong, fruitless game of e-mail tag trying to get Klingler to place BMW ads in Slate. Redmond also forwarded the e-mail to the editor of the Diary feature, Jodi Kantor, who in December sounded Klingler out about writing a Slate Diary. From the e-mail address of Robertgklingler@aol.com, he wrote to Kantor:

From: Robertgklingler@aol.com
Sent: Tuesday, December 04, 2001 8:08 PM
To: Jodi Kantor
Subject: Re: Slate Diary etc

Good lord, yes. I'd be flattered. Let's talk about weeks that might make sense, both for Slate (controversy and eventfulness and all of that), and for me (finding time to write something coherent every day).

Thanks,
Rob Klingler-Desai

Rob Klingler-Desai? In January, Slate's Eliza Truitt assumed editorship of the Diary feature and commenced a lengthy correspondence with Klingler. His every e-mail came from Robertgklingler@aol.com, with the exception of one, which came from his "corporate address" at BMW, rk@ceo.na.bmw.com.

Klingler made two requests in his Feb. 6 e-mails to Truitt, both of which she honored: He wanted to conduct all correspondence through his AOL address "In the interest of making my legal department happy. … That will enable me to satisfy the nitpickers on the fourth floor and separate this endeavor from my job." He also requested semi-anonymity in the bio note. Truitt suggested this language: "Rob Klingler-Desai is the North American head of a European auto manufacturer." He agreed but later asked that his byline be scaled back to Robert Klingler, offering this explanation: "By the way, I am in the midst of finalizing my divorce, so by the time the diary comes out, my name will be restored to the pristine state of Rob(ert) Klingler."

Slate made no attempt to reach Klingler at his rk@ceo.na.bmw.com address and made no phone call to BMW headquarters to confirm his employment before it published the diary. It should have done both. And it should not have extended partial anonymity to him. Our hair shirt hangs heavy.

At this point, the mystery of "Who Is Robert Klingler?" swells to include "Who Is Robert Klingler-Desai?" and "Who Is RDesai3109@aol.com?" not to mention, "Are They the Same Person?"

It's true that nobody knows you're a dog on the Internet. But the Internet has a way of collecting everybody's paw prints over time and preserving them for eternity. A flurry of muddy prints connecting Klingler to Desai can be gleaned from the Web.

Every Internet e-mail hops from computer to computer as it makes its way from source to destination. Accompanying the e-mail on its journey is the "Internet header," which contains the e-mail's itinerary. The header for the rk@ceo.na.bmw.com e-mail (click here to read it), provides ample evidence that it did not come from bmw.com but from considianconsulting.com, an Internet domain registered with Register.com.

According to Register.com's Domain Name Registration Services, this is the registration information for considianconsulting.com:

Organization:
   considian llc
   ravi desai
   2101 mills avenue
   menlo park, ca 94025
   US
   Phone: 650 854 7889
   Email: rdesai3109@aol.com

Created on: Wed, Feb 07, 2001
   Expires on..............: Fri, Feb 07, 2003
   Record last updated on: Tue, Feb 05, 2002

 Administrative Contact:
   considian llc
   ravi desai
   2101 mills avenue
   menlo park, ca 94025
   US
   Phone: 650 854 7889
   Email: rdesai3109@aol.com

A Register.com systems engineer delineates the path the rk@ceo.na.bmw.com e-mail traversed: The header shows that a user first logged onto the Web through America Online. His next stop was www.mail.considianconsulting.com, the Web e-mail page that services the Web domain www.considianconsulting.com through Register.com's vendor Critical Path. Before I alerted Register.com to the spoofed e-mail, pointing your browser to www.considianconsulting.com produced a page from which its owner could log in and send Web-based mail. At press time, however, the link no longer worked. Whoever composed the rk@ceo.na.bmw.com e-mail to Slate appears to have used his software's options to "spoof" the rk@ceo.na.bmw.com "from" address, the Register.com engineer says. He rates his certainty that the e-mail traveled this path in the high 90s (on a scale of 0-100).

Ravi Desai
Ravi Desai

According to Ravi Desai's estranged wife, Jennifer Desai, the two resided at 2101 Mills Avenue, Menlo Park, CA 94025, from 1997 until the summer of 1999, when they broke up. That is the same address to which considianconsulting.com is registered. The Desai couple also shared the registered phone number (650) 854-7889, although Jennifer doesn't recognize the rdesai3109@aol.com e-mail address. Jennifer Desai is currently suing Ravi Desai for divorce and is represented by San Jose attorney Gregory MacSwain. MacSwain's office confirms both Jennifer's identity and the fact that she is seeking a divorce from Ravi. Jennifer Desai adds that she learned during divorce proceedings that Desai founded Considian Consulting after the couple split.

Drawing on the IntraNDA National Directory, Slate was unable to locate any Robert G. Klingler in the United States who works for BMW. Given this back story, we can assume that either Ravi Desai sent Robert Klingler's e-mail from rk@ceo.na.bmw.com to Slate, or someone with access to Desai's passwords did the deed. He is either a perpetrator or a victim.

Who is Ravi Gunvant Desai? Jennifer Desai gives a stoic interview. She's become all too familiar with the Ravi stories, such as those reported in Eli Sanders' Ravi Desai feature in the Seattle Times. Almost one year ago today, Sanders detailed the prank that Desai pulled on the University of Washington. In October 1999, Desai told the school via e-mail of his desire to support its poetry program with a $2 million gift. In February 2000, the school celebrated the pledge by throwing a $10,000 party in Desai's honor. But as recently as 2001, Desai had given the university only $6,770, according to Sanders. Desai also told Sanders that he would eventually make good on the pledge. He hasn't.

The carnival of Desai bunkum uncovered by Sanders goes on and on: Desai also pledged $150,000 to North Carolina's Warren Wilson College. The University of Florida expected to get $2 million from him. He told the University of New Hampshire $1 million was on the way. The pledges, needless to say, have not been fulfilled. He formed the Desai Foundation, placing former U.S. poet laureate (and Slate contributor) Robert Pinsky on the board. Pinsky never received the $2,500 quarterly stipend Desai had offered them. (Desai told the Times that he never offered board members money.) Among Sanders' greatest scoops comes this: He reports that Desai married Christine Klingler on April 2000 at Lake Tahoe, even though he was still wedded to Jennifer Desai. Christine Klingler's father, Paul Klingler of Concord, Calif., hung up on me when I called and asked if he would answer some questions about Ravi Desai.

37_mag_redherringhits

In his forthcoming Wall Street memoir, Confessions of a Street Addict, James J. Cramer describes Ravi Desai's unbelievable ascent and descent as TheStreet.com's founding editor in chief and eventual CEO. I urge you to read it when it's published in June. Before their falling out, the dynamic duo of Cramer and Desai were captured on the cover of Hits, the supplement of the new economy magazine Red Herring in the spring of 1997.

Oddly, every falsehood in the Desai résumé can be paired with several demonstrable accomplishments. Harvard testifies that Desai got his bachelor's degree in 1991, and the University of Chicago says it awarded him an MBA in 1994. One Harvard classmate, now a nationally respected writer, remembers the young Desai as a pretty good poet. But no reporter has verified Desai's claim to have climbed Mount Everest. It's a fact that he worked at the high-tech Silicon Valley company Scient, but contrary to the University of Washington party program that listed him as president and CEO of Logical Information Machines, the company says he never worked there, according to the reporting of the Times' Sanders.

In November 1997, Ravi Desai, using his own name, queried Slate editor Judith Shulevitz and got an assignment writing the Diary of a Silicon Valley executive. We struck a check to his Mills Avenue address. The bio note for that Diary lists Desai's occupation as director of "strategic planning for Quantum, a hard-disk-drive manufacturer." As a matter of policy, Quantum will not say whether or not anybody has worked for them. But Desai's estranged wife Jennifer says she once visited the Quantum office, where she saw his name on the door. Whether or not his Diary told the truth about his week at Quantum is anybody's guess. By 1997, Desai had not yet earned his nationwide reputation.

On Tuesday, March 5, after Slate took Klingler's Diary down, he sent an e-mail at 1:07 p.m. PT asking about its removal and promised to file Day 3. At 8:14 p.m. PT, he sent a follow-up e-mail and a one-minute, two-second voice-mail message on Truitt's line from his cell number, (650) 714-4996, saying that he'd filed the third day's Diary but wanted to know where the first two installments had gone. Klingler's number is an SBC wireless line registered in Sunnyvale (Silicon Valley), Calif. [Addendum, March 14, 2002: Maybe not. According to fonefinder.net, the (650) 714 exchange is controled by Nextel out of Palo Alto, Calif.] Repeated efforts to reach the cell phone number have failed. The line appears to be live; the phone appears to be turned off.

On Wednesday, March 6, at 7:43 p.m. PT, Truitt received her last e-mail from Klingler:

I have attached my fourth diary entry to this email so that at least one side of this particular Diary deal is living up to the bargain—namely me. I've just gotten off a 22 hour day including a nine-hour flight back from Europe and have very little energy to wonder why my diaries aren't appearing. I've left you a couple of phone messages and emails and assume that you will explain the mystery of the disappearing diaries to me at some point.

Day 5 of his Diary would be filed the next day, he wrote. "I should be available by phone and email intermittently during the day tomorrow." That's the last Slate heard from Klingler. He hasn't returned e-mail messages sent to either Robertgklingler@aol.com or Rdesai3109@aol.com. The bmw.com account, of course, bounces back as undeliverable. And his cell phone is turned off.

What do Robert G. Klingler and Ravi G. Desai have in common? They share a middle initial. And a first initial. Until last week when his divorce was completed, Klingler's last name hyphenated to include Desai's. Currently, Ravi Desai is married to a woman named Klingler. In that Nov. 7, 2001, e-mail to Slate's Moira Redmond (see above), Klingler claimed that the Rdesai3109@aol.com account belonged to his brother-in-law. Both have AOL e-mail accounts, and as most know, each AOL account comes with up to seven e-mail addresses. Slate asks its Diary writers to submit their signatures for use as space art with their entries. Both Desai's and Klingler's signatures have a doodlesque quality. (Click here for Desai's and Klingler's paw prints.) If they're not the same guy, I'd love to introduce them. I'm sure they'd hit it off.

The two even write alike, both favoring a preening, sneering, pseudo Brit-speak prose style. Not many Slate Diary writers compose their entries in the present tense, but both Klingler and Desai do. Even after Slate stopped publishing Klingler's Diary, he continued to submit them, as noted above, and we took the liberty of comparing them. (To read the entire Desai Diary, click here. For the two published Klingler Diary entries, click here. For the two previously unpublished Klingler entries, click here.)

Both open with Sunday paper descriptions:

Part of my Sunday—beyond the paper and church—usually consists of a test drive of a new model, or an old model with a new feature, or a retrofit, or a competitor's vehicle. (Klingler)

Sundays tend to be fairly quiet days in my house. The Sunday Times, a large brunch, Brinkley (yeah, yeah, I know, but find me someone other than Sam Donaldson who calls it "our This Week program"), 49ers football on TV—that sort of thing. (Desai)

… and worship the New York Times:

Yet, I can't find a routine anywhere in the world that beats waking up to The New York Times on my doorstep. … As a result, I subsidize the NYT to the tune of $2,500 a year, for the national edition at the various places I stay. (Klingler, previously unpublished)

This makes me willing to read a newspaper named after a city I have no desire to live in. Of course, I mean the New York Times. It provides an absolutely delicious morning read. For 20 minutes between 6 and 7, I get all the news of Africa—a central obsession—I need, as well as every other piece of information I could care about. Whatever I don't learn from the Times, I get from NPR on the car radio. (Desai)

Both bitch about the advertising/marketing people missing their target audience:

Our ad agency, normally thoughtful and intelligent, has completely disregarded my comments from our last meeting and moved forward with a campaign based on celebrity endorsements. … All well and good, except that their approach has zero appeal to the people we're trying to sell these cars to and has tested horribly with our buyer groups. (Klingler)

Although I suspect the advertisers are catering to engineers' baser instincts, I question what those instincts are. The marketing department at my firm decided that our gift at Comdex this year would be a discreet maroon polo shirt. I now have a dozen of these. I have a dozen only because no one wanted them. They were insufficiently loud, and insufficiently pleasing to the people to whom they were handed out. (Desai)

Both boast of job offers:

Irrelevant anecdote No. 1: Jeff Skilling offered me my first job out of business school, when he worked at McKinsey. I didn't take it, not out of any bizarre prescience, but because I didn't want to live in Houston. (Klingler, previously unpublished)

At breakfast I meet the chairman of fairly large company that tried to recruit me a year earlier. We banter about how good a choice I made (his company's stock has dropped by 40 percent over the past year; Quantum's has quadrupled). He still tries to recruit me, for reasons which are still unclear. (Desai)

Both take back-to-back meetings:

I had back-to-back 30-minute interviews with four candidates. (Klingler, previously unpublished)

I'll spend the next two days in a series of back-to-back meetings with our customers, potential partners, and people from whom I simply want to learn. (Desai)

And compose their thoughts in the shower:

On the other hand, as I speculate in the shower, the big guns will meet with them today—and perhaps adrenaline will carry them through. (Klingler, previously unpublished)

In the hour I have before a series of parties, I amuse myself in the shower by trying to predict what tomorrow's Comdex stories in the papers will include. (Desai)

Both make jokes about Slate:

Savvy advertising professionals, please send your résumés to me care of Slate. Just kidding! JUST KIDDING! (Klingler)

Rumor has it that Microsoft is handing out free subscriptions to Slate. (Desai)

And so on.

AOL isn't likely to tell us whether Robert Klingler is really Ravi Desai. Like most ISPs, it doesn't generally release the identities of its e-mail customers without a court order, and Slate isn't currently seeking one.

As I speculated before, it could be that Ravi Desai is the victim of an elaborate hoax. Someone may have nicked his Internet passwords and conspired to implicate him in this tangled Web. If so, I'd be pleased to exonerate him. At the very least, I'd like to know whether or not he's starting a nonprofit company in San Carlos, Calif. If you search Google Groups for the e-mail address RDesai3109@aol.com, you find this Nov. 11, 2001, posting from the ba.jobs.misc newsgroup for a "Development Assistant." Development assistants assist nonprofits in fund raising.

If Desai is the victim of a hoax, the hoaxer may even have stolen his voice. At Slate's request, a gaggle of Desai associates, friends, college classmates, and colleagues listened to the phone message Klingler left on Truitt's phone. Only one listener didn't think it was Ravi. One who knows Ravi extremely well put it at 90 percent to 100 percent certainty, another at 95 percent certainty, two at 90 percent, one at 80, one at 75, and one at 55. Do you know Ravi Desai? Or Robert G. Klingler? If you do, listen to the voice mail he left for Truitt and drop me an e-mail at pressbox@hotmail.com and give me your assessment.

Peter Steiner was right: On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog. You can collect invitations you don't deserve, crash parties, and even pretend to be Brad Pitt. But here's a message for Internet dogs: Beware. The technology that gives you such seemingly perfect anonymity can turn around and bite you.

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.