Interview: ‘Fraudsters’ Hosts Seena Ghaznavi and Justin Williams Talk Deception, Greed, and The Perfect Accent [EXCLUSIVE]


For years now, the team over at the Last Podcast Network have been producing funny, must-listen podcasts like the original hit Last Podcast on the Left, Abe Lincoln’s Top Hat, Page Seven, and many more. Having recently struck a deal with Spotify to produce exclusive original content, the network has created several new series. One of those is Fraudsters, a hilarious deep dive into the world of con artists hosted by comedians Seena Ghaznavi and Justin Williams. Nerds and Beyond had the chance to discuss the new podcast with the hosts, covering everything from the process of creating the show to their passion for accent work (fans, take note: they are actively soliciting feedback on accent quality). Check out our interview below!

Nerds and Beyond: So, first of all, I had a chance to listen to the podcast. I thought it was a fascinating and hilarious exploration of con artists. Could we start off by having you both introduce yourselves and tell our audience a little about your backgrounds?

Seena Ghaznavi: So, I started doing stand-up when I was 18 and I’m an Iranian American, so like any good Persian boy, I ended up going to law school and started producing during the day. And so, that parlayed into hosting and hosting on the radio and then doing some TV bits here and there for news and doing some talk radio. And then, eventually I became a fill-in host at Sirius XM, which was really fun. And I got to fill in for John Fugelsang and Karen Hunter and Godfrey the comedian and a bunch of other people. And when I did that, they would … they want to give you too much. They’d say, “Make whatever show you want to make.” And I’d say, “Okay.” Well, I tried to find another comedian to come on and do the show with me because it’s really tough when there’s no audience to laugh (or not laugh) at any of your jokes.

So, I reached out to some friends and one of them was the great Jeffrey Joseph from In Living Color, and he’s a great stand-up comedian and a great actor and a performer in comedy. And he told me to look up this really smart and very funny and very handsome young man, Justin Williams, to come on the show with me. It was weird, we had never met before, we had never even met at stand-up shows or anything because I had been doing stand-up, really, at that time for a little bit. And Justin came on the show and it was crazy, we hit it off, chemistry-wise, immediately.

Justin Williams: Yes, absolutely. Especially the handsome, intelligent part, that was all very correct. Similar thing, I started as a stand-up as well. I’ve been doing stand-up for, let’s say, like 12 years now. So, I was happy to get the message from Seena about doing the radio, it was really good to expand the audience. You know, 3:00 PM radio is real cool because I was usually the nightclub comic, my shows were at night and I didn’t really have a lot of access to long haul truckers [laughs]. So, that was one way that it was a cool thing, it really expanded our audience. Seena and I had great chemistry. We just kept working together and it’s really his connection to the podcasting world that made this happen. He was really good friends with The Last Podcast On The Left crew. So, that’s what facilitated the move from radio into The Last Podcast Network.

Nerds and Beyond: Where did you come up with the idea for this show in particular and how did it come to be a part of The Last Podcast Network?

Seena Ghaznavi: Since their Spotify deal, I know they’ve been trying to get more shows on the network. But when your friends get successful, you don’t want to go knocking on their door with a podcast and be like, “Hey guys, can I please join the club?” And I’ve always actually taken the approach of, good projects among friends will happen when they happen. And Henry [Zebrowski] and Ben [Kissel] and I have worked on projects together. I think Marcus [Parks] and I haven’t intersected but we’ve always been in each other’s orbits for a very long time.

And around last summer, early in the summer, I had stumbled upon a project that I wanted to do about a guy that convinced a company that he was an immunologist. And this company was actually a car dealership company, called Uniprime, that was a company that bought and sold car dealerships and it was a publicly traded company on the stock market. And the CEO was in disrepair, he didn’t know what to do with the company and he went to Las Vegas. And in Vegas, he met this guy that was an immunologist, or told him he was, and he said to him, “I cured AIDS and I’m here to sell my cure.” And this guy, this CEO that was having a real tough time. He’s like, “Why don’t you sell your cure for AIDS in my f**king company?” And the guy’s like, “Hell yeah.” So, they make an actual press release in the late ’90s. And this is … it’s terrible but it’s darkly comedic, that there are 30 million people in the world, there’s a huge epidemic of AIDS in the world, this guy comes out and says they cured AIDS in a press release. And it’s the late ’90s, the internet, you can imagine, still dial-up, with the way it sounds, like AOL and stuff like that. And the stock price jumps 1200%.

So, for me, as a guy that’s always chasing stories, chasing a new project, trying to find a thing that just gets me excited, I was like, “I got to do something with this.” And I wanted to maybe do a series about it like Black Monday. It’s a great show. That kind of tone, an absurd, dark tone of it. Or do a long-form audio project with my friend Shaina Feinberg, who Justin’s worked with as well, she’s an amazing director. So, I started putting these pieces in play. And then, I was just casually talking with Ken, the manager of Last Podcast Network, and I was telling him about the story and I was also telling him, “Now that I’ve done the research for this show, I can’t stop seeing fraud stories. It’s like they’re never-ending, they’re everywhere.” It’s like when you buy a blue car and all you see are blue cars, all I saw were fraud stories.

Up and down the news, every single time I’d see a notification, there was some sort of absurd fraud happening. So he said, why don’t you pitch the show to us and we’ll see a Spotify likes it. And that was a year ago. And then, I think it was in July-ish of this year that they were like, “Let’s do it.”

Justin Williams: Yeah. And I just really like making fun of all this stuff because people will give their wallet to the wallet inspector. I mean, some of these frauds aren’t even good. It’s just like, how could this have possibly been successful? I don’t know. If you have Facebook, people will just repost anything. You know what I mean? It’s all fraud. We’ve got to start shaming people. We’ve got to start shaming fraudsters.

Nerds and Beyond: In the first series you cover Miss Cleo and her psychic deception. And that was preying mostly on people who were looking for these answers to these big questions in their lives. And so, what do you think it is that makes people more vulnerable to believing psychics and fraudsters like this?

Justin Williams: I don’t know, it depends about the individual person. I think a lot of people just want to be a part of something, it doesn’t even matter whether it’s negative or positive. That’s one of my favorite things is when the more you actually expose to people that buy into fraud or conspiracy theories, you expose them to the evidence, the more they actually, usually, entrench in it. You could tell somebody like, “This person is stealing from you right now.” And they’re like, “That’s what they want you to think.” And you’re like, “Here’s your bank statement.” And so, I don’t know, that part of it has always been interesting to me.

Seena Ghaznavi: I think people are lonely, people are wildly lonely. They’re way more lonely than I think we even can imagine. The internet was supposed to be this place of community and finding someone that’s like you. But really, it’s all of these devices and all of the tools that we have that make life more efficient have made us more lonely and isolated. Which means we don’t have someone to check us when some fraud happens to us. Or like, when my dad sends me an email and he’s like, “What is this, is this a scam?” I’m like, “Yes, it’s a scam, delete it immediately. No one wants you to be a secret shopper, Dad.” And it’s just like, “Okay.” And it’s like, that’s a whole thing that we all have to deal with. You know?

And back in the day, I don’t know if you remember this, advertisers would call during dinner time. Right? They would call you during dinner time. That’s f**king amazing that they would do that because you would pick up the phone and my mother would just scream at these people and hang up the phone. But now, if they send an email, all of a sudden, there’s some air of importance to it. Like, “It’s an email. Well, of course it’s serious.” And there’s a whole age gap, a knowledge gap that we haven’t figured out. We’re very illiterate when it comes to the internet and deciphering information around that. So, everyone is very susceptible, us on this call included.

Justin Williams: Yeah. They take advantage of your ignorance. It’s also people’s belief in stereotypes. It’s like, the Miss Cleo scam works because it’s a West Indian accent. Right? And people, I guess, think West Indian people are magical. We joke about all the other ethnic accents where … that scam just doesn’t work if it’s a heavy Russian accent. Right? [laughs]

And then also, outside of the Miss Cleo episode, one of the things I’m intrigued by is greed mixed with stupidity. America … In particular, America has these groups of people to where it’s like, I wonder how they tie their shoes in the morning but they have tremendous sums of money that they give to the most blatant scams in the world because it’s pure greed.

Seena Ghaznavi: We’ve seen this already, where it’s like the victims don’t even know that they’re victims and they don’t even consider themselves victims. We’re going to do a series on Jim Baker and I don’t think we’re going to be able to find a victim to come out and say like, “Oh yeah, I gave him all my money. I’m really upset that he defrauded all of us.” Everyone’s very chill with the fact that they gave their money to this guy and he just bought a bunch of Rolls Royces with it.

Nerds and Beyond: It is interesting when you think about that perspective as well because the perspective of the victim is very often missing in movies or TV shows or podcasts that cover fraud cases or true crime. For example, recently the show Love Fraud has become popular because the focus is on the victims of a con artist and how it impacted their lives. You guys spend a significant amount of time talking about the victims of fraud themselves. Was it important to you both to include that perspective when you were first putting the show together?

Seena Ghaznavi: Absolutely. I mean, I think that’s the crux of all of this. And there’s like … I think we said it in the first episode where I was like, “Justin, do you think this is going to help?” And Justin was like, “Nah.” [laughs] I think it’s cynical but it’s true. But the real goal of the show is to inform and entertain. And we love to make people laugh, that’s what we’ve been doing our whole lives. But if we could just get people to pick out that fraud pattern before it hits them or hits their family, or they can smell it coming before and learn that through the victims and through the people that have been defrauded, then that’s a huge win for us. Right? And that actually means that we’re helping society a little bit more, as opposed to just doing funny voices on a podcast about cheaters and scammers.

Justin Williams: [pauses] We also like the funny voices though.

Seena Ghaznavi: Yeah. I mean, who doesn’t like funny voices?

Justin Williams: That’s our go-to bit.

Seena Ghaznavi: Exactly. I don’t want to besmirch our go-tos, that’s our bread and butter.

Justin Williams: It’s all bad accents but with a ton of research. Maybe that should be our tagline, “bad accents with a ton of research.”

Seena Ghaznavi: We are well-researched bad accents. [laughs]

Nerds and Beyond: Are there any upcoming cases or episodes that you have coming up, I know you mentioned Jim Baker, that you’re really excited for viewers to hear? Or even, just excited to get into the research bit of it?

Seena Ghaznavi: Oh man, there’s a few.

Justin Williams: Yeah, the Freedman’s Bank.

Seena Ghaznavi: Freedman’s Bank is going to be amazing. I think people don’t realize how … this was a bank during Reconstruction that was called Freedman’s Bank, for the freed men, the newly freed slaves. And somehow, slaves had managed to cobble together savings. And the government … Lincoln basically started this organization to help create a savings institution for these slaves to put their money in so they could grow their wealth. Now, it wasn’t like it was like a regular bank where they give loans out, it was just there for savings. And I won’t give too much away but you can imagine what happens when these two white guys came in. And they pillage the whole bank, spent it on a bunch of stuff that they shouldn’t have spent it on, lost all the money. You know what they said? That’s the market. And so, there’s a lot of details in there and a lot of stuff about how it was enabled, how it happened. And this is a big theme of the show, how stuff that happened a long time ago still happens today.

It’s not like anyone figured out a new move. The Ponzi scheme started in 1880 or something crazy like that, Bernie Madoff happened 10 years ago. You know what I mean? We’re not that evolved. Another one we’re going to do, we’re going to do Enron, I’m excited about that. We’re also going to do some stuff on these guys that were hocking painkillers and stuff like that, doing that. That should be really exciting.

And I also am just thankful to all the listeners because they are just sending us ideas for fraudsters. And every time I talk to another person about the show, they’re like, “Have you heard of this fraudster?” And I’m like, “Is there anyone that’s honest in this world anymore?” And it’s just amazing.

Justin Williams: Yeah, they are sending me emails. Somebody sent me an email today about for-profit colleges. They’re like, “You should do that.”

Seena Ghaznavi: Oh, right. We’ve got to add that to the list.

Nerds and Beyond: You guys have no shortage of options, that’s for sure.

Justin Williams: Oh, yeah. It’s all fake.

Seena Ghaznavi: If Spotify wants us to, we will be doing this show until 2050, maybe even longer. Our children’s children could continue to do this show.

Nerds and Beyond: The reception to the show, like you said, has so far been really positive. What has it been like, finally releasing it to the world? And what do you hope that audiences take away after they listen to your show?

Justin Williams: I hope our audience, they’re entertained. And that they can see a fraud coming a mile away. Fraud has gone big-time now, this is … we’re in the golden age of fraud. The con-man/con-woman, this is their time. The internet has given them access to everyone, so we want people to see that coming.

We also want more detailed feedback on the accents. [both laugh] I’m a nightclub comic. So, people just maybe heckle or walk out of the room but it turns out in podcasts, the fans write detailed essays and post them to Reddit. So, I want to let the fans know that, please keep submitting your essays to Reddit, I’m reading all of them and learning more about myself. Oh, we learned that Seena was white in one essay too, so that was real fun–

Seena Ghaznavi: [laughs] Yeah, they all think I’m white. Which is … You know, what are we going to do? My parents had to come through a revolution to get to America from Iran just to have me be a white guy. But I guess what I would say is, I’ve been at this for almost 20 years and I’ve had little gigs here, little gigs there. This is the first time I’ve been able to produce and write and co-host a show with people that I really care about, that I am excited to work with. And I’m just looking forward … Every time I’m sitting down to work on the show, I’m excited. And that, for me, is what the big takeaway is. And the fact that we’re, I think, a net positive on society for the show, I think is a cherry on top.

Nerds and Beyond: Well, congratulations again on the show! I look forward to listening to your next series.

Justin Williams: Oh, thank you so much, we appreciate it. We love nerds.

Seena Ghaznavi: We love nerds, we are nerds.

Our thanks to Seena and Justin for speaking with us! You can check out the trailer for Fraudsters below, and be sure to listen on Spotify!

I am a nurse and dedicated nerd from Boston, MA. When I'm not at work, I'm rewatching old favorites like Supernatural or discovering my new obsessions (too many to count!). When not fangirling, I can be found reading, writing, or listening to a true crime podcast. You can find me on Twitter @juleswritesblog for more nerdy nonsense.

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