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Viral story on teenage Wall Street savant a hoax, magazine says

Mohammad Islam, in a photo published on the social resume website LinkedIn. [Photo: Mohammad Islam]
Mohammed Islam, in a photo published on the social resume website LinkedIn. [Photo: Mohammed Islam]
“We were duped.”

The admission came from the editors of New York Magazine on Tuesday after intense skepticism reached a boiling point over the profile of a teenager who claimed to have made tens of millions of dollars trading penny stocks.

Outgoing writer Jessica Pressler penned the curtain-call piece for the magazine’s annual “Reasons to Love New York” feature. In it, Pressler spotlighted Mohammed Islam, a 17-year-old financial savant rumored to have a net worth of $72 million.

“An unbelievable amount of money for anyone, not least a high-school student, but as far as rumors go, this one seemed legit,” Pressler wrote.

But it wasn’t legit.

After the piece was published online last weekend — promoted in a cover story by the New York Post after the tabloid newspaper reportedly received an advanced copy of the article — news organizations scrambled to get a piece of the multi-millionaire teenager.

CNBC came calling. So, too, did CNN, the Washington Post and Business Insider (the latter featured Islam on a “20 Under 20” watchlist in 2013). Everyone wanted their own article, their own TV segment, on the hottest thing to come out of Wall Street since Jordan Belfort.

That’s where things fell apart.

On Monday, Islam and an associate confessed to New York Observer that the magazine piece had been entirely made up. No, Islam had not made $72 million on the stock market — he had no idea where that number came from. In fact, Islam has made no money from trades — he’s only ever made simulated trades at his high school investment club.

He admitted he led Pressler and at least one fact checker from New York Magazine to believe his worth was higher than the rumor. New York said Islam produced a Chase bank statement that “showed he is worth eight figures.” Islam admitted Monday that was entirely made up.

Islam said the hysteria in response to the New York piece provoked him to come clean. The actual catalyst, he admitted, was the reaction from his parents: “Their morals are that if I lie about it and don’t own up to it, then they can no longer trust me,” he said. “They knew it was false and they basically wanted to kill me, and I haven’t spoken to them since.”

Pressler, on the other hand, feels she has nothing to own up to.

“I feel comfortable about what’s in the actual piece,” she told CNN on Monday, adding that she thought the piece came across “skeptical enough” and that the underlying tone of the article was, “this is a rumor and draw your own conclusions.”

The journalist offered no apologies on social media either, where she responded to a barrage of criticism from readers and media pundits with a single tweet: “Taking an Uber, because fuck all of you.” (Her Twitter account was made private Tuesday morning).

Pressler’s piece was intended to be the last for New York before the start of a new chapter at Bloomberg News for a position with the company’s financial investigative unit. The career move was announced earlier this month.

The Desk asked Bloomberg if the employment offer still stood. Bloomberg spokesperson Ty Trippett said the company had no comment.

Update: Capital New York reports Pressler will remain at New York Magazine. A source told the Huffington Post that Bloomberg News rescinded its offer to Pressler last week.

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About the Author:

Matthew Keys

Matthew Keys is the publisher of The Desk and reports on the business and policy matters involving the broadcast television, streaming video and radio industries. He previously worked for Thomson Reuters, Disney-ABC, Tribune Broadcasting and McNaughton Newspapers. Matthew is based in Northern California, has won numerous awards in the field of journalism, and is a member of IRE (Investigative Reporters and Editors).