Stephen Cohen

The Thief

Stephen Michael Cohen, born 23 February 1948, is, quite simply, the perfect conman. Tough, smart, streetwise, charming and utterly ruthless, he was born with a gift for communication.

His mind is a constant whirl of ideas and plans, yet he always appears fascinated by what you have to tell him. People pour out details and he listens in rapt attention yet before you know it you are always listening to him talking about his plans.

In short, he has charisma. Even those who have most reason to hate him find themselves with a grudging respect for his relentless pursuit of life. "He’s a real character," is always the response when people are first asked about him, always with a hint of admiration. One of his lawyers throughout the Sex.com case, Bob Dorband, remarked that Cohen possesses the most incredible, unstoppable optimism he has ever seen, even at the worst of times.

But Cohen had a troubled childhood. Born and raised in a well-off district of Los Angeles, he attended the same high school as inventors of the Internet, Vint Cerf, Jon Postel and Steve Crocker. But it all turned upside down when his father - an accountant - left the family and moved to Las Vegas with his secretary. Living with his mother and two older sisters, Cohen was in dire need of a father figure. He didn't work hard, dropped out, and left with a poor education, something that would haunt him for the rest of his life.

Then the 1960s sexual revolution washed ashore. Easy and uncomplicated sex became a lightning rod for Cohen's passions and created a way of life that was never to leave him. Cohen had difficulty forming emotional attachments, driven instead by lust. It ended up in four broken marriages and a lifelong swinging lifestyle.

To finance the successful life Cohen felt he was due, but without the education to get a good job, he used his confidence and intelligence to con people. At first, he cashed worthless cheques but having been caught several times, despite some imaginative variations, he started looking at other scams. The brush with the courts awakened an interest in law, and he took a law course and worked as a paralegal, but Cohen's taste for scams was greater. "He’d do it for free," confided someone who has observed Cohen at close quarters for years. "The money is just a bonus."

Cohen used his legal knowledge and a recently acquired understanding of company law to devise elaborate scams without getting caught, and was very successful.

He also found a third passion in life (adding to sex and fraud) - computers, and was soon running his own earlier version of the Internet - a private computer network called a Bulletin Board System (BBS) - which he used as an extension of his swinging lifestyle. That would quickly tie in with a real-world business that Cohen established and ran - a swingers’ club in the plush Cowan Heights area of Los Angeles.

The Club, as it was known, saw Cohen in court but he beat the prosecution. At the time, he was also being sued by, among others, Microsoft for offering pirated software on his BBS. But it was his pretence as a bankruptcy lawyer that finally saw him jailed for four years for fraud.

In prison, he met Marshall Zolp who had run some of the most infamous stock scams of the 1980s. Zolp taught Cohen all about stock scams and shell companies - companies in nothing but name, with no employees or products - while Cohen returned the favour with information on law and bankruptcy. The two would work together for years afterwards in a series of scams, including getting millions of dollars in income from the Sex.com domain, which Cohen stole in September 1995, offshore.

Cohen called his favourite company (he incorporated dozens) Ynata, which he proudly announced stood for "You’ll Never Amount To Anything". It was a taunt straight from his childhood.

Nevertheless, for all Cohen’s bravado, cheek and enjoyment at pulling off scams, he remains a lonely man. Despite everyone admiring his front, one thing becomes clear the more you speak to those who come across Stephen Cohen in life: it is always he that calls them and never the other way around.

I found this out at 3am one morning. Cohen called me out of the blue after I'd left requests to talk to him. He said he wasn't interested in being interviewed and refused a face-to-face meeting, but that he would like to put his side of the story. And he’s utterly believable. Engaging, witty, and with a dozen excellent stories to tell. At the time he claimed to be living in a $14 million mansion "somewhere between St. Tropez and Monaco", which turned out to be Monte Carlo, although he continued to spend most of his time in Tijuana, just a few miles from the US border.

In was in Tijuana on 27 October 2005 that Stephen Cohen was finally arrested and transported back to the US, having been officially classed as a fugitive since May 2001. He currently sits in jail in San Jose where he is due to stay until he discloses sufficient of his assets for Gary Kremen to pick up the $65 million owed to him for five years.