Smooth Criminals

Records Point to Credit Card Fraud by Silicon Swindler Shirley Hornstein

She used her friend's credit card to buy a plane ticket in her name. Twice.
 Records Point to Credit Card Fraud by Silicon Swindler Shirley Hornstein

Ms. Hornstein (Photo: Facebook)

This week, the world was introduced to Shirley Hornstein: an ersatz entrepreneur who Photoshopped and name-dropped her way through Silicon Valley. For at least a year and a half, Ms. Hornstein has been trading on flimsily fabricated connections to powerful tech investors, startups, and celebrities–always depending, as TechCrunch first reported, on the optimism of strangers.

“She told people she had the authority to approve up to a $1 million investment from Founders Fund. That was her line,” an investor from Los Angeles who recently moved to San Francisco told Betabeat, recounting the time Ms. Hornstein cajoled a pair of young entrepreneurs into pitching her on a Saturday, convincing them on Sunday that she had already heard back from the board with good news.

The fact that Ms. Hornstein’s roommate was TechCrunch community manager Elin Blesener also helped “legitimize her,” the same investor added.

For more credible (or at least Google-able) proof of her position in the tech world, there was this blog post Ms. Hornstein wrote on Women 2.0, which has since been deleted, touting her connections to Founders Fund and Dropbox. It opened with an anecdote about that time she got angel investing advice from Marissa Mayer.

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Image doctored by Ms. Hornstein (top), Original image (Photo: TechCrunch)

As part of yesterday’s exposé, TechCrunch revealed that Founders Fund filed a legal complaint against Ms. Hornstein in December for her “efforts to improperly trade in on Founders Fund’s good name and reputation,” leveraging, in particular, a made-up friendship with Sean Parker.

The startup world’s collective schadenfreude at Ms. Hornstein’s unstable nest of lies could be chalked up to a guilty conscience. “Seems like everyone is besties with Jack Dorsey and Dennis Crowley,” Warby Parker’s Lane Wood wrote in defense of Ms. Hornstein. “Someone went to the same party, took a photo and regaled their friends about how ‘down to earth’ person X was or how Person Y is just as much of an ass as all the rumors say.”

Betabeat has spoken to multiple sources, however, who say that Ms. Hornstein’s deceptions may have been more egregious than exaggerating her social status or professional network. They allege that Ms. Hornstein is also responsible for repeated credit card theft. The incidents occurred both in her personal life and at at least one startup where she was employed.

We obtained screenshots (posted below) of receipts for two airplane tickets and a monthly BART pass, as well as gChats and emails from former friends of Ms. Hornstein’s, all related to fraudulent charges worth thousands of dollars that she made by allegedly stealing her friend’s credit card numbers.

That alleged theft first occurred during a trip to Vegas, where Ms. Hornstein also accumulated other debts she has yet to repay, including the cost of a hotel room, as well as a last minute ticket to a Cirque du Soleil show for former TechCrunch writer Paul Carr. Ms. Hornstein alleged the two were dating, which is patently false. Unsurprisingly, Mr. Carr never materialized at the show. He would turn out to be the second bold-faced name Ms. Hornstein claimed to be involved with. First, she told acquaintances she was engaged to NHL player Ryane Clowe, with her public tweets to the star confusing even sports fans on niche hockey forums.

Betabeat also spoke to a reputable source within the Silicon Valley tech community, who alleged that Ms. Hornstein committed a similar theft–using a company credit card, this time–to steal thousands of dollars from her employer. That source, who only spoke under condition of anonymity, did not want to name the company, but based on the timing of the theft, we were able to confirm that the incident happened at Giftiki, a small startup that lets you pool your money to buy better gifts, which was acquired by LaunchRock earlier this month.

“[Ms. Hornstein] got access to company credit cards and actually bought things at charity auctions in the thousands of dollars,” said the source. As a marketing consultant, “she was given the credit card to buy some refreshments and so forth because they were doing an event. She retained the credit card information and used it on her own behalf.” The company and its investors threatened to prosecute Ms. Hornstein if they weren’t repaid, but Ms. Hornstein repaid the debt. Her employment was subsequently terminated. “I can corroborate the fact that she was stealing,” the source added.

After Ms. Hornstein left, the startup still declined to prosecute for fear that it would reflect poorly on Giftiki, perhaps assuming that once caught, she would be too scared to try again. “The problem,” said the source, “is that she just raised her head somewhere else and created more problems.”

Ms. Hornstein did not respond to repeated requests for interviews from Betabeat. But the more closely you look at her fragile “house of cards,” as one source put it, the more it seems to evoke the familiar tropes of Startupland, distorted through a funhouse mirror.

Self-described builders, doers, and world-changers make skepticism a dirty word if you’re “one of us.” Safe inside the virtuous bubble, everyone is willing to lend a hand, only latching on to Ms. Hornstein seemed to drag companies down. Rubbing elbows with newly-minted millionaires fosters a sense of possibility and promise, yes, but also pressure to match that overnight success or be left behind. In a rapidly striating sector, no one wants to look like they’re on the bottom rung.

Giftiki was operating out of RocketSpace, a coworking spot in San Francisco that also temporarily housed Zaarly, a peer-to-peer marketplace app based in Kansas City. Prior to working at Giftiki, Ms. Hornstein worked at Zaarly as a marketing consultant. (Although she gave herself a promotion to “head of operations and community,” in that since deleted Women 2.0 post.) The source said someone from Zaarly tried to warn Giftiki about Ms. Hornstein, but Zaarly cofounder Eric Koester said he had not heard anything to that effect.

“She was with us for 51 days,” Mr. Koester said, adding that no fraud occurred during her brief tenure. “It wasn’t a long stint and there was nothing mischievous to report other than it wasn’t a good fit.”

Ms. Hornstein, sources said, invariably brought up her Founders Fund connection within a few minutes of meeting someone. Often, she also mentioned being one of the first employees at Dropbox, the popular cloud storage service. Nearly every source we spoke to mentioned the longstanding rumor in Silicon Valley that Ms. Hornstein also allegedly stole from Dropbox during her time there. In the comments section on TechCrunch’s post, Jose Miguel Castello, owner of Don’t Retail, wrote:

“Hopefully one of Dropbox’s employees in the know will share the story about how Shirley used Dropbox’s paypal account to pay for several thousand dollars of her own expenses?”

However, we were unable to track down any evidence to support that claim and Dropbox has not responded to inquiries from Betabeat.

Ms. Hornstein, her friends said, employed the same tactics she used to dupe startups in her personal life–promising parties at Sean Parker’s house or Founders Fund’s ear for a potential idea. Lily Himmelsbach, director of operations at Let’s Gift It, a gifting startup based in New York, first met Ms. Hornstein at a party in the East Village. The two later overlapped at Zaarly.

During a business trip for Zaarly in Kansas City, Ms. Hornstein went through the elaborate ruse of breaking up with Mr. Clowe–the NHL star, whose giant engagement ring she had been wearing–crying on the phone in her hotel room for hours. As Ms. Himmelsbach later learned, there was no one on the other end. “I think she’s a good and well-intentioned person, but she’s deeply troubled and needs to get help,” Ms. Himmelsbach said.

The investor from Los Angeles, who mentioned Ms. Hornstein’s standard $1 million Founders Fund line, said he first realized “Shirls” wasn’t who she said she was during an elevator ride up to a party at the San Francisco home of a mid-level Google employee. Ms. Hornstein went on and on about Mr. Clowe, not realizing that the NHL player was married engaged to and had a child with the investor’s ex-girlfriend.

Unfortunately for Ms. Himmelsbach, she and a group of friends did not realize the extent of Ms. Hornstein’s dissembling until that trip to Las Vegas. Ms. Hornstein told the group that she would surprise them by dropping in on their vacation. Once Ms. Hornstein arrived, however she claimed the hotel wouldn’t let her book a room with a foreign credit card. (Ms. Hornstein had identified herself as a German national.) The group let her stay in an extra room they had booked, with the promise that she would pay them back.

The day after that Cirque du Soleil show, Ms. Himmelsbach returned to her room to a missing credit card and a note from Ms. Hornstein saying she had to rush back to San Francisco for an emergency board meeting. When Ms. Himmelsbach checked the charges on her card from Las Vegas, there was a purchase for a monthly BART card in San Francisco made near the airport. Michael Herzog, who was also on the Las Vegas trip, found an even more troubling charge on his corporate card, which he still possessed: a ticket back to San Francisco, purchased in Ms. Hornstein’s name. Her landing time coincided with the purchase of the metro card.

When Ms. Hornstein was asked about the missing credit card via gChat (a portion of that conversation is screencapped below), she responded, “shit I hope it wasn’t in my stuff somehow,” later adding, “but I did somehow have michael’s id that next day so i dunno haha.”

Last October, Ms. Hornstein announced a trip to New York City via Facebook. Sure enough, there was another flight charge on Mr. Herzog’s card, this time to New York, booked in Ms. Hornstein’s name. (He did not cancel the card because of the number of other services it was already synched up with.) After being confronted, Ms. Hornstein confessed to the theft, but still has not paid back the debt or responded to the email (below).

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gChat conversation between Ms. Hornstein and Ms. Himmelsbach

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BART receipt via Ms. Himmelsbach

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mikeemailtoshirley Records Point to Credit Card Fraud by Silicon Swindler Shirley Hornstein

Email from Mr. Herzog to Ms. Hornstein

Despite these alleged thefts, Ms. Hornstein’s record is relatively clean, although not spotless. Running Ms. Hornstein’s name through the civil records of the California Superior Court in San Francisco turns up three results: the Founder’s Fund suit, which TechCrunch has covered in detail, as well as two other cases.

One is a collections suit, filed in March 2011. It’s fairly straightforward, alleging that Ms. Hornstein failed to pay off an $1,869.43 debt on a Bank of America credit card. In October, the court ruled that Ms. Hornstein must pay up, but the trail goes cold in December 2011 after the collections agency is serve her with a summons.

The small claims complaint is similarly penny-ante in scale, but perhaps more indicative of what was to come. On October 28, 2009, a Lisa Di Santo filed suit against Ms. Hornstein, accusing her of breaking a contract to sublease her apartment to Ms. Di Santo–then refusing to return $1,400 in pre-paid rent. In the complaint, she alleges:

“Shirley broke our contract and has refused to refund the rent money that i paid to her, up front, in the amount of $1,400.00. Cornelia is her mother, who is the cosigner on her lease , with whom i have had numerous conversations with. My first communication with Shirley was 8/26/09 and the last time I heard from her was 9/26/09.”

In February 2010, the court ultimately ruled in Ms. Di Santo’s favor. A source who asked for anonymity told Betabeat Ms. Hornstein once said, “My parents are really worried and my mom wants me to come home.”

Why, we asked Ms. Himmelsbach, did she think Ms. Hornstein targeted the tech sector? “Maybe because it’s not that hard to get into and once you’re in, it’s pretty easy to climb the social ladder,” she responded. “Unfortunately she wasn’t building anything except a fake product, which was her life.”

Ms. Himmelsbach pointed out that the startup sector is also remarkably collaborative. “I’ve worked in a couple different industries and I’ve never met people who are so willing to lend a hand, saying, ‘Grab a cup of coffee, let’s go talk.’ It can be a total stranger. I think everyone is open and maybe that’s to our disadvantage. I mean it’s just kind of a wake up call to go, hmm, who else is as full of shit as this @Shirls character.”

Kelly Faircloth contributed reporting to this article.

We will continue to pursue this story as it develops, so please reach us by email with any information: tips@betabeat.com.

Follow Nitasha Tiku on Twitter or via RSS. ntiku@observer.com