Update, Dec. 16, 2014: New York has apologized for the piece in a note to readers. "We were duped," the note says, linking to the Observer article described below as well as a Washington Post report suggesting that the bank statement Islam showed to New York's factchecker was a forgery.
Rumors, on Wall Street, can be powerful. A whisper can turn into a current that moves markets, driving a stock price up or sending it tumbling. There may be only one other place where gossip holds such sway, and that is high school. Late last year, a rumor began circulating at Stuyvesant that a junior named Mohammed Islam had made a fortune in the stock market. Not a small fortune, either. Seventy-two million. An unbelievable amount of money for anyone, not least a high-school student, but as far as rumors go, this one seemed legit.
The only problem is: It wasn’t legit. By late Monday evening, as the too-good-to-be-true story ricocheted around the Internet, the New York Observer sat down with Islam and his teenage buddy Damir Tulemaganbetov, to get to the bottom of the story and found: “Swept up in a tide of media adulation, they made the whole thing up.” “Mr. Islam told a story that will be familiar to just about any 12th grader—a fib turns into a lie turns into a rumor turns into a bunch of mainstream media stories and invitations to appear on CNBC,” according to the Observer.
The fantastic story Islam and two friends spun would make Ferris Bueller proud. Here’s more on the momentum of a myth from the New York magazine profile:
As the news spread, Mo’s stock went up. The school paper profiled him, Business Insider included him on a list of “20 Under 20,” and Mo became “a celebrity,” as his friend Damir Tulemaganbetov put it on a recent Friday night at Mari Vanna near Union Square. “A VIP!”
Mo, a cherubic senior with a goatee and slight faux-hawk, smiled shyly. “He’s quiet today,” said Patrick Trablusi, who was seated with Mo and Damir at a table littered with empty glasses. “Humble.” And tired: “This is our third meeting of the day,” Damir said, signaling to the waitress for another round. “We saw a real-estate agent, a lawyer, you …” “Next we’re going to see a hedge-fund guy,” Patrick said. The friends locked eyes and started to giggle. “He basically wants to give us $150 million,” Mo explained, a blush like a sunset creeping over his cheeks. The waitress arrived with a tray of green drinks. “Freshly squeezed apple juice,” Damir said, passing them around. “It’s very good. Do you like caviar?”
… Mo started with penny stocks. A cousin showed him how to trade. He loved the feeling of risk—the way his hand shook making the trade—but he swore it off after losing a chunk of the money he’d made tutoring. “I didn’t have the balls for it,” he said. He was 9… Mo got into trading oil and gold, and his bank account grew. Though he is shy about the $72 million number, he confirmed his net worth is in the “high eight figures.” More than enough to rent an apartment in Manhattan—though his parents won’t let him live in it until he turns 18—and acquire a BMW, which he can’t drive because he doesn’t yet have a license. Thus, it falls to his father to drive him past Tudor Jones’s Greenwich house for inspiration. “It’s because he is who he is that made me who I am today,” Mo said.
The check arrives, totaling $400, and the absurdist scene comes to a close. With the benefit of hindsight, the whole meeting sounds a lot like a teenage yarn that—against all odds—grownups actually believed. That’s what Islam told the Observer in an interview on Monday after the New York mag story hit newsstands:
You seem to be quoted saying “eight figures.” That’s not true, is it?
No, it is not true.
Is there ANY figure? Have you invested and made returns at all?
So it’s total fiction?
Are you interested in investing? How did you get this reputation?
I run an investment club at Stuy High which does only simulated trades.”
So what did your parents think when they’re reading that you’ve got $72 million?
Mohammed Islam: Honestly, my dad wanted to disown me. My mom basically said she’d never talk to me. Their morals are that if I lie about it and don’t own up to it then they can no longer trust me. … They knew it was false and they basically wanted to kill me and I haven’t spoken to them since.
New York magazine posted this “we just reported the rumor!” editor’s note as the story unraveled.
Editor’s note: Mohammed Islam has denied that he made $72 million on the stock market. Our story portrays the $72 million figure as a rumor; the initial headline has been changed to more clearly reflect the fact that we did not know the exact figure he has made in trades. However, Mohammed provided bank statements that showed he is worth eight figures, and he confirmed on the record that he’s worth eight figures.