How I conned and international conman.

And why you should always google your clients first.

Julia Chesbrough
23 min readApr 1, 2024

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I felt my mouth open, shocked, as my head fell back into the headrest of my desk chair. The coffee in my mug turned from scalding to drinkable in the time that it took me to regain my chill. I sat there staring at my monitor, reading the same three news articles over and over again. The man in the photos was him, for sure. Definitely the same guy I’d been working with. The same person who was dodging my invoices. It was the same company, the same mission, the same product. It was definitely the same Robert Bates.

Flashback to three months prior. I was walking along the Santa Monica boardwalk when I felt my pocket buzz. Just one buzz, so I knew it was an email. One year ago I’d launched my own digital design studio under my name, Julia Chesbrough, and over time had developed a brand new relationship with my inbox. When I’d been working more corporate jobs, that single buzz felt no different than sitting behind a screaming baby on a fully booked airplane. But not these days. These days, I got an email and I was excited. Running your own business means you’re doing everything from designing, to marketing, to admin, to sales. Every email could be a new opportunity. I took out my phone and read the notification in front of my curious eyes. It was from someone named Robert and he was looking for a mobile app designer to work with. I responded gleefully, grateful that another potential client had come my way.

I let Robert know that I was available and asked what his design needs were. All pretty standard stuff. What surprised me though was his email back to me, asking if I’d sign an NDA. Now, let’s be clear: signing an NDA is nothing out of the ordinary in the tech world, but his pacing was. We hadn’t even set up an introductory Zoom call and I was already swearing myself to secrecy. I told him I would be happy to sign the NDA if he needed, and then offered some suggested times for a virtual meeting. We settled on Thursday, and I attached a pdf with my signature.

Our first virtual meeting was wonderful. In his charming Australian accent, Robert explained the vision to me. He wanted to build an app out of his existing mental health company, Aurum+, which sold natural supplements to help people battling anxiety and depression. Quite quickly, I realized how intelligent he was. Brilliant ideas flowed freely from his lips. The way he spoke was filled with aspiration, dedication, and a pinch of pain. He rustled with his shaggy, surfer-blonde hair as he told the story of his mission. His sky blue eyes carried a hint of intellectual melancholy, though it was difficult to really tell over a video chat. I wondered to myself how he’d created this company. They say the best inventions come from your own need for solutions, so what were the problems that led him here? How deeply did he relate to the mission he’d so clearly devoted himself to? It certainly wasn’t my place to pry, so I stuck to an understanding nod. I, too, have had my own pinches of pain, my own gripes with melancholia. Haven’t we all? It made the idea of creating a mental health app feel intoxicating. Just think of all the good we could be doing for the world; all of the people we could help.

Needless to say, I was sold. The image Robert spun of Aurum+ and all of its successes made me trust him. He seemed to know what he was talking about, and he certainly seemed to care. He had tapped into the secret moral dilemma I harbored about my own app designing career since my time working at Hinge. Having spent nearly 4 years building a product from the ground up, only to have article after article come out about how damaging dating apps are for people’s self esteem, made me very sensitive to the types of projects I took on. Aurum+ was my chance to do right in the world.

We decided that we would begin our work together with 3 brainstorms. This first contract would help us generate all of the ideas and roadmaps that would eventually lead us to a second, more user experience and user interface (ux/ui) design focused contract. I loved this idea because it allowed me to get to know his working style, our collaboration environment, and his approach to design, without locking me into a months-long commitment from the start. I drew up a contract for him to review, priced my time at $175 for each 1-hour long brainstorm, and made it crystal clear that each payment was to be sent before each session. I reiterated this point in my email to him as I sent over the contract, to be sure he didn’t miss it. It took him 10 days to get back to me, and I had to follow up via email twice. Eventually, he explained that he had been out of town for “a big event Aurum+ sponsored in the US,” but he signed the contract with no objections.

I sent him the first invoice a week before the first brainstorm. A few days later, I still hadn’t received payment. I oscillated between nervous and frustrated, unsure if I should cancel our session or give him the benefit of the doubt. The night before the first brainstorm I sat in my living room, fingers cradling my iPhone, as I painstakingly typed out a professional yet stern explanation that our first session would have to be canceled since the down payment had not come through. As my thumbs thudded against my cell phone screen, I felt that single buzz again. I had a new email. Something internal told me not to hit send, so I saved my unfinished thought as a draft and checked my inbox. It was a PayPal payment for $175. The first payment had been sent, and I felt my entire body relax.

The next morning I opened up Zoom and thanked the powers above that I had not hit send the night before. As a small business owner, you never want to let your emotions get the best of you. You’re constantly playing a dangerous game of balance; one in which you’re simultaneously trusting strangers to pay on time and also structuring strict contracts because there’s the possibility that they won’t. Giving someone the benefit of the doubt only works if they pull through in the end. But when your rent relies on trust, it can be very difficult to tame the stress. I allowed myself to indulge in my evolved mind, congratulating myself on not losing my cool. This guy had sent payment, and I had no reason to freak out.

Our first brainstorm together was nothing short of magical. Our ideas glided off of each other like figure skaters, effortlessly floating in the air and landing in beautifully intricate resolutions. Throughout my entire career, I’ve only felt that type of creative harmony a handful of times. Every time I do, it’s a feeling I don’t want to walk away from. To find another creative mind that you can spitball insane ideas off of, that is a gift. I walked away from our first brainstorm amped up to the highest degree, every part of my soul on fire with the idea that we could truly help people. The next morning I woke up with the same invigorated feeling of purpose. I checked my email. The $175 payment had been canceled.

A screenshot of Robert Bates’ canceled PayPal payment for Invoice #1.

You can imagine the panic that filled my body, the rage that heated up my veins. But if I’d learned anything from not hitting send on that email a few days prior, it was that keeping my cool led to better results. I emailed him with a screenshot of the PayPal email that clearly stated the payment had been canceled. He claimed that nothing had changed on his end, and sent the payment again. It came through almost immediately. Once again, my cortisol levels lowered.

After that brief rollercoaster ride, the week continued on as planned. I went back to focusing on my other client work and kept the excitement about Aurum+ in the back of my mind. It was just a little misunderstanding, the whole payment cancellation thing. Robert was a good man, and PayPal had just messed up. There was nothing to worry about.

Brainstorm #2 approached, and I sent over my invoice. The payment didn’t come until that morning, though I’d already spent the whole night worrying about it. I kept a professional manner heading into that second brainstorm, allowing myself the space to collaborate without judgment. The second one went just as wonderfully as the first. Visions swirled around us as the conversation took its fluid shape. Ideas about what the app could be, what it could mean, what it could do for people all sparkling like glittery diamonds in our eyes. But it was never for the money, Robert would remind me. Any talk about monetization, a very normal and routine part of startup discourse and product planning, was avoided at all cost. Robert’s altruism spoke to me in a way that the tech giants I’d worked for in the past hadn’t. He’s right, I thought, why would we be thinking about money when our goal is to improve the collective mental wellness of the entire world? Monetization should be the last thing we think about. All of that will follow, I thought, we must first focus on the mission.

The next day I woke up to see that the second payment had been canceled.

A screenshot of Robert Bates’ canceled PayPal payment for Invoice #2.

Here is when I tell you that I sent him an angry email about how he’s a liar, a crook, a conman. That I canceled the third and final brainstorm because he can’t be trusted. That I cut my losses and moved on with my life, hopeful that he’d resend the payment but refusing to spend any more brain power on this man. Yeah, I wish.

At this point I was so enthralled with Robert’s vision, so captivated by the problem we were trying to solve, so trusting of his humanitarianism, that I genuinely thought it was just a bug in PayPal’s processing system. Obviously he just needed to try sending the payment again, like last time. I emailed him to let him know. This time, there was no immediate response.

A week went by as I tried my best to maintain optimism. Our final brainstorm was fast-approaching, and I didn’t want to ruin the potential for a long-term contract with him after this third brainstorm came to an end. After much delay, he finally responded the day before our session explaining that he had taken his son to the hospital. He apologized for the lack of communication, and then told me that an ACH transfer would be much better since Paypal was having issues. This type of payment would allow him to transfer money directly into my bank account, and would set us up well for our next contract. It all made sense to me, as I let the pangs of guilt hit me right in the gut. This poor guy’s son was in the hospital, and here I was worrying about a couple bucks. I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt, once again. I sent him my bank details and instructed him to send the money for both our second and third brainstorm in one payment. The next morning, we hopped on our video chat where he agreed to those terms right to my face.

Our third brainstorm was less magic, and much more strategic. We mapped out the exact product roadmap for our approach to development. We got into the nitty gritty details of when to wireframe, when to usertest, when to bring in engineers, when to start marketing, and all of the mundane details in between. We aimed for the entire process to take at least three months, which meant I would have steady work for that amount of time. This kind of stability is a godsend to freelancers like me. Instead of having to do outreach on top of the actual design work I’m hired to do, I could just focus for a bit on a really exciting project. I allowed that relief to engulf me as I drew up a timeline in Figma, Robert’s voice filling in the silence as I concentrated on my craft.

After that final brainstorm, I waited for the bank transfer to come through. I was still riding the adrenaline high from our big plans to change the world, and I was pumped about our next phase of work together. Aside from the weird money issues, Robert was a dream client. He was driven, intelligent, creative, and empathetic. I believed in him as a leader, as someone who would be successful no matter what. I had no idea he was a bullshit artist.

As you’ve probably noticed by now, Robert has a pattern. Again, one week went by with no word. The seeds of fury that I’d been watering with a cool, calm, and collected mindset started to sprout. I began to wonder if I had sent all the correct bank info, so I decided to email him again. I figured I could double check that he had everything he needed to make the transfer, while also getting an update on where my freakin’ money was.

A screenshot of Robert Bates’ email claiming that the bank transfer had been initiated, and should hit my bank account the next day.

His response satisfied both of my questions. He had everything he needed, and I would be receiving the money tomorrow. Only, I didn’t believe him. The reality that this guy wasn’t who he said he was started to take shape in my mind. That little sprouting seed was now starting to bud. I tried my best to keep on watering it with cooling patience, but cracks of angry, retaliating sunlight were starting to shine through. I took the opportunity to ask him what retainer package he wanted for our next contract, and he informed me that he wanted my time for three months, 20 hours a week. This dangling carrot of a response allowed me to craft a carefully worded email explaining exactly how important it was that he pay his outstanding invoice.

A screenshot of me emailing Robert Bates explaining how important it is to stick to our payment schedule.

You guessed it, days went by. I sent him an email asking if everything was okay. Days continued by. Nothing. Before I knew it, two weeks since our final brainstorm had passed. I ran out of that calming water.

The seeds of doubt started to show signs of flowering. I couldn’t keep my cool for much longer. In a heat of tense curiosity, I decided to Google ‘Robert Bates’. And what do you know, he just so happened to be an international conman.

Multiple screenshots of articles about Robert Bates evading many different payments and lawsuits.

It turns out Robert Bates was pretty popular, and not for the right reasons. In a suite of lawsuits against him and his entrepreneurial endeavors, I discovered that Mr. Bates owes a lot of people a lot of money, all over the world. There’s nothing quite like finding out you aren’t that special. There I was thinking $350 bucks had been stolen from me, unaware that he owed the marketing company Media.Monks nearly $1 million. In addition, one of his former employees was seeking payment from him after he failed to pay her superannuation or months worth of salary. And of course, there were the private investigators trying to track him down.

He was a man on the run, but just so happened to be the same man on the other side of my screen a few weeks ago. The same man I felt so inspired by, so eager to work with. My memory of his disheveled hair was superimposed with this new image of him, one of a rich guy in a fancy button down shirt. Some douchebag with plenty of investor money, and who knows how many unpaid invoices. None of it made sense to me while simultaneously, it all clicked. I was confused. And in my confusion, I stepped towards the rabbit hole I found myself on the edge of. I looked down into its depth and its darkness, completely aware that my perception of events was about to drastically change, should I move even an inch closer. Fully accepting that I may, in fact, be an absolute idiot for not seeing this shit coming. And then I lifted one foot, stepped forward, and let myself fall in.

There was no water when I hit the ground, and the rabbit hole wasn’t as dark as I thought it would be. In fact, it was brightly lit with the same raging sunshine I’d been shielding my thoughts from. All of those slightly budding flowers bursted open into full bloom the minute I crossed the threshold. Finally, after weeks of taming my emotions, I let my anger blossom freely. I was pissed. I was pissed at myself for falling for his scheme, I was pissed at Robert for being an awful person, and I was pissed for all of the people he screwed over. That feeling of long-awaited fury sparked something in me, something that motivated me to take action. It was at that moment I decided that I wasn’t going to let him get away with this.

I emailed each reporter of each article I found, as well as the former employee. My subject line? “Thank you. I was also burned by Robert Bates.” I wanted these reporters to know that without their articles, I wouldn’t have known for certain that I was being manipulated. There’s a possibility that if I hadn’t suspiciously Googled him and found something, I could have very easily slid into another contract working alongside this maniac. And instead of being owed 2 hours worth of work, I would have been owed 3 months worth of work. His manipulation skills are so advanced, a perfect excuse for everything, that he’d been able to con multiple well-known businesses out of thousands and thousands of dollars. Without the work of those reporters, how could my little design studio have stood a chance against a madman like that?

It was one thing to read those articles as confirmation and another to actually speak with the journalists behind them. Two of the three reporters got back to me with their sympathy, one even giving me the name of another reporter still working on the case. Even the former employee responded with her side of the story, detailing how she’d had a mortgage to pay for and no salary to pay it with at the time. Her bravery to come forward and share her story became my new inspiration. I wanted to be as strong as her, and as helpful as those reporters. I wanted to do something about this guy. I wanted to take him down.

At this point, Mr. Bates had no idea that I knew about these articles or had any contact with those involved in writing them. As far as he was concerned, I was just a 20-something girl in Los Angeles freelancing as an app designer. I’m sure he thought I’d be easy to take from, and easy to blow off. He was wrong. I had studied psychology in college, even gotten my Bachelor’s degree on the subject, and I was ready to use the bits of knowledge I’d kept in the back of my memory since then. I knew that if I was going to get my money from this guy, I had to stay calm. My approach would need to be delicate, softly stepping along to his little game. I would have to summon all of the fiery feminism in my bones and toss it aside for just a moment. I was going to have to play dumb.

You see, it became quite apparent that mister Robby Bates has a bit of a fetish. He gets off on thinking he has one over you. He likes the idea of stringing you along, making you trust him, making you see him from his good side only. I had to tap into that. What I was not going to do was email him with a list of all the articles I’d found, threatening him with my new gang of journalists. Instead, I pretended like I was still interested in working together. I was as sweet as pie in my email, telling him how excited I was to continue the project and asking if he still wanted to, as I hadn’t heard back from him. And you know what? After over two weeks of dodging my emails, the guy got back to me in under an hour.

A screenshot of Robert Bates’ email claiming he had to go back to the hospital.

Robert chose the “sorry, I had to go to the hospital” excuse again. I scoffed at his lack of cleverness. After all, the delinquent had private investigators chasing after him all over the world and he managed to evade every single one of them. He really couldn’t think of anything better?

At this point in time, Robert owed me two invoices for two brainstorms, both of which were due before each meeting. His signature on our contract held him responsible for this commitment. Only, Robert doesn’t like to keep his promises. Seeing as I no longer believed a word he said, I asked him to Venmo me as the transfer had (obviously) not come through. I then followed up with another email, asking him when I would be getting paid.

A screenshot of Robert Bates email saying that the transfer is being stalled by my bank, so he is going to Venmo me in the meantime.

He claimed a transfer had been initiated, and asked me to call my bank to see what was going wrong. I had no interest in contacting my bank, because I had no faith that he was telling the truth. There was nothing in the entire internet of articles about Robert Bates The Conman that would have convinced me otherwise. He had completely disintegrated every ounce of trust I’d had in him, every milligram of respect, which made his email reference to “a sign of good faith” even more ironic. I was done with the excuses, done with being lied to, absolutely over it. And so, I lost my temper.

A screenshot of an email thread where I demand that Robert Bates pays me immediately. Him responding that Venmo doesn’t exist in Australia.

After I outright demanded payment, I received an email back explaining that Venmo wasn’t available in Australia. He even sent along a screenshot of his Google search results, confirming this as fact. But hadn’t he just said he was going to Venmo me in his previous email? This man was driving me absolutely nuts.

For weeks, this experience was all I talked about with my friends and family, all I could think about while I was trying to concentrate on other work. I wanted to make right what felt so wrong. I didn’t like the feeling of being swindled, and I wanted so badly to get rid of that bellyaching reality. His passive aggressive Google screenshot boiled my blood into thick, hot broth that I wanted to spew all over my computer screen.

I had reached my breaking point.

After far too many days that had turned into weeks, hours of wasted time, energy given freely to try and collect on a completely lost cause, I gave up. As bad as I wanted to be a warrior for all that is just and right in the world, this didn’t seem worth it anymore. The maniac was fighting me every step of the way, one footprint after another. I just didn’t have the energy to continue with his mindf*cks any longer. I’d annoyed my loved ones enough, droning on and on about how close I was to finally winning. Only, the finish line didn’t exist. There was no end in sight. I needed to get back to work.

But a few days later, in one last twist of fate, I received the most unexpected news. Robert Bates had sent a PayPal payment through, for both invoices. I immediately transferred the payment to my bank, making sure it couldn’t be canceled again this time. And a couple days after that, the outstanding ACH transfer finally cleared. I sat staring at my bank account, completely dumbfounded. Not only had he finally paid me, but he’d accidentally paid me twice.

A screenshot of Robert Bates finally paying me on PayPal.

I could feel my belly starting to digest the powerless feeling that had taken host in my gut. The stomach acid churned on all that rage, self-doubt, and helplessness. What took its place was far more uplifting. A sense of confidence, a glimmer of power.

Had I actually won this fight?

Unsteady and unsure of reality, I waited for days to make sure the payments didn’t disappear somehow. I ignored Robert Bates instructions to let him know if the payment had cleared. I honestly wasn’t positive that it had, even though my bank account had grown by $700. I had been traumatized by the two canceled payments, the bank transfer issues, and all of the fact-checked published articles online about the conman I was dealing with. I allowed myself some time to get comfortable with the idea that maybe, just maybe, it was all over. Eventually, I accepted that the money was there to stay.

A better person would have returned the extra $350. A smarter person wouldn’t want to mess with such an immoral individual. Someone with a much quieter ego would have sent the Paypal payment back, accepted the bank transfer, and walked away as equals. Not me. I wanted Robert to get a taste of his own medicine. More than anything, I wanted him to know how it feels to put your trust in someone, to believe that they’ll do the right thing, only to have them rip your fidelity out from the inside with their bare, bloody hands. It wasn’t just the 2 hours of my time that I wanted to defend, it was all of the other people he had screwed over. A couple hundred dollars was nothing compared to the millions he owed to other hard-working, trusting, innocent victims.

I allowed the weeks to go by. I ghosted the follow-up emails from Robert desperately pleading for that surplus $350 back. I looked down on his pathetic attempts to collect the money from me; his lack of shame or acknowledgment on how long I’d had to spend chasing that money down. I marked “read” on each email and placed them into a special little folder just for him. Robert thought it was perfectly fine to email me for 3 days straight, demanding the money be returned. Was he not the same man that had continuously ghosted me for weeks, refusing to respond to any of my money-demanding emails? I guess his own medicine must have tasted pretty bitter. And I won’t act all high and mighty; it made me happy to think of him squirming.

Then came Thanksgiving morning. An American ritual that essentially celebrates taking what isn’t yours, Robert’s last hail mary on that day was truly metaphorical. Now, I understand that Mr. Bates is Australian, so our holiday means nothing to him. But his dying wish to recoup on the overpayment was tinted with a threatening hue, and it scared me. I didn’t know what he was capable of beyond mega-swindling. Did he actually have a network of lawyers and mobsters ready to go at the snap of a finger? Could he take me and my business down, leaving nothing but the sad indent of pennies in my pockets? Or worse…could he hurt me?

An email screenshot of Robert Bates threatening to “escalate this” if I don’t refund him.

I read his email over and over again, trying to plan my next course of action. Should I return the money, or should I prove a point? I gave myself an hour to think it through. The pressure he’d put on my shoulders weighed heavy with his demand that I respond that day. Even though I doubted the extent of his “escalating”, I didn’t want to wait and see.

And then a spark of genius flickered in the corner of my brain. I sent oxygen to that little fire, growing it with focused intent. I didn’t have to return the money, but I didn’t have to keep it either. There was a way to walk out of this battle equally scarred, having gained and lost the same. I logged into my PayPal account and canceled his return request, and then I finally sent him a solution that even he couldn’t argue.

Hi Robert,

It took three and a half weeks for me to collect payment from you on an invoice that was supposed to be received the night before our 2nd brainstorm. This was written in our contract, which you agreed and signed your name to. I sent you multiple emails over the course of those weeks trying to get in contact with you. I will be collecting that extra $350 as payment towards the time it took me to work through your unresponsiveness, your payment failure issues, and the final resolution.

However, I am not greedy. I feel it is only fair that this extra payment should go towards the charity of my choosing. I will be donating this extra $350 to Planned Parenthood, a wonderful organization that offers lifesaving and affordable healthcare, education, and advocacy for women around the world.

Thank you for understanding,
Julia

My receipt of donation to Planned Parenthood.

I haven’t heard from Robert since. Last I checked, he’s still at large. He’s got a new billionaire-heiress girlfriend and an ever-growing popularity with the Australian media. It turns out, investors are raising alarms that Robert never transferred their funds into Aurum+. And to top it all off, some of the doctors he credited with helping him develop the wellness startup have come forward saying that they were never involved at all. One scientist is even quoted in an article, saying “I have never received any remuneration of any kind. I suppose that is reasonable since I was never consulted!”

Various news headlines outting Robert Bates’s scams and cons.

Try and find the Aurum+ website, and you’ll find a web domain available for purchase. Search the Aurum+ Facebook, or really any consumer review platform, and you’ll read post after post from angry customers furious over their unreceived packages, demanding their money back, warning others not to place an order. It would appear that Robert’s schemes are being uncovered, little by little.

Since my experience, I’ve had a lot of time to reflect. A lot of time to question. Is Robert Bates a bad man? That depends on how you look at it. If we’re judging purely on intent, then creating an app focused on bettering peoples’ mental health would certainly score highly. But when we shake the sparkles out of our eyes and stare reality in the face, the truth is clear: Robert Bates manipulates people. He claims to care about mental health, yet has no trouble failing to pay his own staff and contract workers. The same staff that have mortgages, families, and medical bills. How can you set out to change the status of our collective mental wellness and not even be able to take care of your own people? Not even make good on the contracts you’ve signed? If Robert Bates won’t hold himself accountable, then I will.

I’m not writing this article to ruin him. Robert Bates has already ruined himself. I found out all of this information in one quick Google search. No, I’m writing this article because I’m a young woman in tech who has recently launched her own business. If I were a master manipulator looking for an easy target, my fresh face would be top of the list. I believe there was something about me that Robert perceived as vulnerable. Perhaps he believed in my talents, perhaps he genuinely thought we would make a good team. Perhaps he thought I’d fall for his attempts to trick me into working for him for free. The payment that is perpetually on its way over, the mission that’s too good to pass up. But Robert underestimated me, and I outsmarted him.

I’m writing this article because I don’t want anyone else to deal with this chaos, to worry about their mortgage or their small business. I’m writing this article because without the courageous employee that came forward, and without the journalists that wrote their pieces, I may have continued working with him. I didn’t just lose 2 hours of my life, I also lost the other contracts I could have taken. I lost out on a huge amount of potential revenue for my company because I had kept room open in my schedule for him. Shame on me, right? Like I said, I’m new to running my own business. And I know that there are plenty of young, talented designers who are also entering freelance life for the first time. I hope this story reaches them. Let it be a lesson learned by me, so they don’t have to: always google your clients first.

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Julia Chesbrough

Product designer | Formerly @Hinge @Spotify @Glossier