Desperately faking riches: Inside a businessman’s outlandish efforts to get on the Forbes billionaire list


For years, Calvin Lo has relentlessly pitched himself as a globetrotting billionaire-financier-cum-philanthropist with a world-class collection of champagne, homes on three continents, a fleet of exotic supercars and investments in a five-star hotel and an F1 team. Great story—too bad it’s (mostly) fiction.

By Robert Olsen, John Kang and Zinnia Lee, Forbes Staff

ON a warm September morning last year, Calvin Lo welcomed an editor from Forbes into the Hong Kong office of his family’s life insurance brokerage firm, R.E. Lee International. Dressed immaculately in a three-piece suit with a tie and matching pocket square, Lo sat down with the editor in his conference room, richly decorated with ornate wood paneling, leather-bound books and tastefully arranged vases.

He had summoned the editor to discuss Forbes’ list of the world’s billionaires. Lo, who is CEO of R.E. Lee International, said he was “curious” to know how other billionaires in Asia viewed the rankings. He explained that he was caught in a “dilemma” as to whether he should provide Forbes with additional docu­mentation of his wealth so that he could be included on the list. Older, more traditional tycoons want to maintain their privacy, he explained, whereas the second- and third-generation wealthy are more open, and some he knew had been encouraging him to get on the list. “ ‘You’ve been very fortunate, doing very well,’ ” he said they told him. He also indicated that he thought inclusion could be good for his primary business: selling insurance policies to ultra-high-net-worth individuals. “That is exactly our target market anyway,” he added.

In reality, Lo’s “dilemma” was an act. By the time of this meeting, he had spent more than two years trying to bluff his way onto the Billionaires list. Since 2020 at least seven people have reached out to 11 different Forbes reporters on more than 20 occasions.

They pitched him as the “most under-the-radar billionaire philanthropist” and as the “most private and elusive billionaire investor in the world.” They sent more than a dozen documents, some stamped PRIVATE AND CONFIDENTIAL, that supposedly vouched for his reputation and wealth.

Initially Forbes didn’t take any of this too seriously. A surprising number of people try to fake their way onto our Billionaires list every year, and at first glance Lo just didn’t seem rich enough. R.E. Lee International was not well known in Hong Kong, where Forbes maintains a six-person editorial bureau, and making billions from reselling insurance policies seemed far-fetched.

But the pitching was persistent, and as time went on, a slew of media outlets including the BBC, CNBC, the Daily Express, the Daily Mirror, the Financial Times, the Independent, Nikkei Asia, Reuters and the South China Morning Post ran stories calling Lo a billionaire, showcasing his views on everything from champagne to crypto. Many of these stories cited Forbes as a source, and one of Lo’s publicists sent emails claiming he was on the Forbes Billionaires list. An article had even run on the website of Forbes Middle East, one of our independently run licensed editions, that called him a billionaire; upon investigation, that “article” turned out to be a paid “advertorial” from Lo’s team, and it has since been taken down. He has never been on the Forbes list, and it’s past time to set the record straight.

That first meeting in Hong Kong grew into a nearly year-long investigation during which Forbes spoke with at least 40 people in six countries and dug through hundreds of pages of documents diligently separating Lo facts (few and far between) from Lo fiction (the rest of it).

Lo was presented to us as the CEO and owner of R.E. Lee International, “the world’s largest life insurance broker” with around $1 billion in premiums, and the founder of R.E. Lee Capital, an asset manager with between $8 billion and $10 billion in assets, depending upon the press release. He was described as a Harvard-educated investor who paid $1.2 billion in 2018, through his personal investment vehicle, R.E. Lee Octagon, to buy the five-star Mandarin Oriental hotel in Taipei, Taiwan; a philanthropist who set up a $250 million charitable foundation; and the owner of a half-dozen homes around the world. He was also “said to be Asia’s largest investor and collector of champagnes and one of the first owners of a Gulfstream G650 private jet in Asia.” Oh, yeah—he was also an investor in the legendary Williams Formula 1 racing team.

Most of these claims could not be confirmed. Others are flat-out lies. He doesn’t have a stake in the F1 racing team. He doesn’t own the Mandarin Oriental, Taipei. His homes, based on addresses he supplied, belong either to his parents or to other people. Harvard Business School has no record of anyone named Calvin Lo graduating. Neither his charitable foundation nor R.E. Lee Octagon appears to exist, and R.E. Lee Capital clarified that, while Lo is in fact the son of a nonexecutive equity investor in the firm, his mother Regina Lee’s involvement in the business (she is its chairwoman) “should not be misconstrued as an association between Mr. Lo and our company.” R.E. Lee Capi­tal also confirmed it does not have anywhere close to the supposed $8 billion to $10 billion in assets under management.

Williams_Racing by Andrej Isakovic-AFP-Getty Images

Calvin Lo claims to be an investor in the legendary Williams Formula 1 racing team apparently through the team’s owner, Dorilton Capital, but sources tell Forbes that Dorilton and Williams don’t even know who he is.

Andrej Isakovic AFP for the Getty Images

As for Lo’s insurance business, R.E. Lee International, a highly placed former employee estimates that it couldn’t have brokered more than $800 million (face value) in poli­cies last year. Forbes estimates that the company is worth around $60 million. Trickier is figuring out who actually owns it. Lo’s mother bought out the firm, which she helped build, in 2015. She may have given it to her son. Regina Lee and Francis Lo, Calvin’s father, own at least two apartments on the Peak, one of Hong Kong’s most exclusive residential areas, as well as R.E. Lee International’s 4,045-square-foot office in Hong Kong’s central business district and a condo in Vancouver. There’s no doubt his family is wealthy, but they’re nowhere near as rich as he suggests. Altogether, Forbes estimates that Lo and his parents are worth less than $200 million—combined.

Forbes sent a long list of questions to Lo and his mother, asking for comment. In response, a law firm sent a letter saying that “all insinuations that our client has been dishonest, untruthful or otherwise unethical are hereby categorically denied by him.”

He is hardly the first person to lie to Forbes about the size of his fortune. Prominent financial fabulists include Donald Trump, former U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross and reality TV star and cosmetics entrepreneur Kylie Jenner. Others work hard to make a positive impression: A decade ago, Saudi Arabia’s Prince Alwaleed bin Talal sent Forbes editors green leather satchels weighing at least 10 pounds, stuffed with phony “reprints” of magazine covers, including a jet-set pose purportedly for Vanity Fair and two faux Time 100 covers. There was even a Forbes “reprint” in which he stares out powerfully from the “cover,” clad in a black Steve Jobs–style turtleneck, above the words THE WORLD’S SHREWDEST BUSINESSMAN. None of the magazines were real.


Despite Calvin Lo’s claims that he owns the Mandarin Oriental, Taipei (above), the luxury hotel in the city’s Songshan District has been owned by Taipei-based hotel operator Kai Tai Fung International since its 2014 opening.

Shanshan Kao for Forbes

Even among this crew, Lo stands out for the audacity of his claims and the lengths to which he was willing to go. That includes not only hiring the PR firms and a string of lawyers to perpetuate his falsehoods, but also likely forging financial documents and manipulating a photograph. And while many powerful people have told us they’re worth more than they are, they typically know better than to pretend to own other people’s assets.

As to why he’d go through all this effort to exaggerate his fortune, Lo gave a hint last September: “If I was looking for someone to provide these [financial] services, I would want that person to be a successful person.”

The roots of this Hong Kong story reach all the way across the Pacific Ocean to Seattle. That’s where an American businessman named Robert Earl Lee originally founded what later became R.E. Lee International. Lee had started working in the insurance industry in 1954; eventually he began opening and acquiring insurance agencies throughout the western U.S. and Asia. At some point, Lee hired Regina Lee (no relation), Lo’s mother, who was the brokerage’s first salesperson in the region. Over the next few decades, Regina would play a key role in expanding the firm, which was one of the first in Asia to sell life insurance to the superrich.

Lo, Regina and Francis’ only child, was born in Vancouver but spent his first nine years in Hong Kong before returning to Canada, where he later attended Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. He went back to Hong Kong in 1999 and began working with his mom at R.E. Lee International, rising to managing director in 2003 and eventually becoming CEO.

At some point, Regina started funding Lo’s lavish lifestyle. According to the judge overseeing his 2014 divorce from his wife, Emily, whom Lo married in 2006, the couple spent well beyond their means, and Lo had to borrow money from Regina. “He was being groomed by his mother into a high-flying investment broker with a lifestyle which he clearly could not afford with his salary,” the judge conclu­ded. According to the proceedings, Regina gave him roughly $308,000 that he used to buy a Lamborghini in 2004 and an estimated $1.2 million, which he used to decorate his Singapore apartment in 2005. Mom even paid for his expensive wardrobe. The judge concluded that Lo’s net worth at the time was about $3.6 million—that’s million with an m.

The acrimonious divorce hearings were revelatory for other reasons. In the filings, Emily, who died of cancer in 2020 at age 40, attacked Lo’s credibility. She accused him of lying about his education, his work experience, even his age. (Forbes reached out to Emily’s family, but they declined to comment.) The judge criticized her for bringing up “peripheral evidence” and pointed out that regarding his age, Lo had shown his original identity card and passport, which confirmed he was born in 1977. But it’s not so simple. A court document listed his birthday in October 1977, which would make him 45. But a recent PR pitch said he was 46, and a 2013 annual report from the Jane Goodall Institute, on whose board he briefly sat, listed his birthdate in 1971, which would make him 52.

Lo’s champagne collection was reportedly worth an absurdly high $250 million. “I don’t think over $100 million would be feasible,” says a Christie’s director.

Forbes found plenty of inconsistencies as well. We confirmed that Lo did, in fact, graduate from Queen’s University in 1999, as he says, but could not verify his Harvard Business School claim. Searches of both the National Student Clearinghouse, which verifies degrees, and the Harvard alumni database turned up empty. Harvard also confirmed it had no record of an HBS degree holder with that name. HBS’ Executive Education program said it couldn’t check its data­base without Lo’s authorization. His late ex-wife and a former employee both claimed he faked his diploma.

In a meeting with Forbes this February, Lo said he had worked at Sun Life Financial in Boston and JPMorgan in New York. JPMorgan confirmed he did a brief stint in its investment banking division in 2001-02, but Sun Life, which sells insurance policies through Lo’s firm, has no record of him working there.

In 2015, Robert Lee died, and Regina bought the portion of the insurance business she didn’t already own from his fam­ily. She moved R.E. Lee International’s headquarters from Seattle to Hong Kong, and it is possible she eventually gave the entire business to Lo.

But many of his other assets are fantasies. A spokesperson for Kai Tai Fung International, owner of the Mandarin Oriental, Taipei, told Forbes it held discussions with Lo in 2019 but the sale did not go through: “There are no acquisitions from any parties of Mandarin Oriental, Taipei as of today.”

At the same February meeting, Lo also reiterated that he was a part-owner of Williams Racing, the F1 team, through a $100 million investment in the team’s owner, Dorilton Capital. “Just between ourselves, I mean, there’s massive amounts of NDAs [nondisclosure agreements], but I definitely have interest in it,” Lo told us. “But I can’t say too much.” A source inside the Williams team says no one even knew who Lo is, and a person familiar with Dorilton tells us that he has never been an investor in the firm, or in Williams.

Initially, Lo told Forbes that he had homes in six cities—Hong Kong, Singapore, Tokyo, London, Vancouver and Los Angeles—but when pressed, he revised the number to five. He eventually provided the addresses of four properties in Hong Kong and one in Singapore—but real estate records and additional reporting revealed that two of those properties are owned by his parents, and the others belong to other people.

Oddly, for a Canadian national who is a resident of Hong Kong, Lo hired four Thai law firms to vouch for his fortune.(When asked why he had hired Thai law firms, Lo told us these lawyers already had access to his financials because of an undisclosed deal he was negotiating in Thailand.) Two of the firms sent letters to Forbes in March 2020 and March 2021 attesting to his billion-dollar fortune. The other two firms followed up this spring, claiming he was worth even more.

calvin lo_Double Take

A big Formula 1 fan, Calvin Lo boasts about having a multimillion-dollar collection of “supercars” including Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Rolls-Royces and Paganis. In trying to confirm his claims, Forbes instead came across what’s likely a manipulated photo of Lo with a Pagani. The photo at top is from a Sotheby’s auction; the other has appeared in several online articles about Lo.

(Left) 2014 Pagani Huayra Tempesta credit Robin Adams ©2017 Courtesy of RM Sotheby’s (Right) Calvin Lo with car-no credit

We sent two reporters to visit these firms. They were not the sort of operations you’d expect to have billionaire clients. One, for instance, was headquartered on the ground floor of a low-rise apartment block in an unimpressive residential area far from Bangkok’s central business district. Its storefront advertised help with visas, work permits and notari­zing documents. The lawyer who signed the letter to Forbes couldn’t recall any details about Lo’s financial documents.

All four firms admitted that they relied entirely on the financial statements Lo had provided. None contacted the auditors or took any steps to independently verify their client’s claims. Two of the firms—Pisut & Partners and Chun & Chun Law—allowed Forbes glimpses of financial statements that provided details on the breakdown of his net worth and his charitable foundation, the CFL Initiative, Global. Neither would allow us to make copies of the docu­ments. When Forbes followed up, Pisut & Partners said it stood by its findings and prioritizes its clients’ privacy and confidentiality.

Forbes then tried to confirm the information with the auditors, to no avail. A director of Longmeade Consult, which is based in the U.K. and supposedly signed off on the financials for Lo’s foundation, says his firm has no connection whatsoever with Lo and that he has never heard of a charity called the CFL Initiative, Global. Weirder still, when we contac­ted the person listed as the foundation’s general manager, they had never heard of the foundation either. The statement the lawyers showed Forbes had a registered charity number and a registered company number. The charity number belongs to a religious organization not affiliated with Lo. The company number is invalid. PwC Hong Kong, the accounting firm that had supposedly issued an independent auditor’s report on Lo’s overall financial position, said that Lo is not one of its clients.

Then there is R.E. Lee Octagon, Lo’s purported private investment firm, through which he supposedly owns some of his more high-profile stakes. It’s hard to find solid evidence that this outfit exists at all. It is not registered in the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, Hong Kong or Singa­pore. The firm had a one-page website with a single email address on it as late as July, but the site now appears defunct.

Even the fun stuff is likely fishy. One of Lo’s representatives said he had a champagne collection worth roughly a quarter-billion dollars, a number that seems absurdly high. “I don’t think over $100 million would be feasible. I find that unlikely,” says Tim Triptree, Christie’s International Director of Wine & Spirits in London, adding that he has never come across any collection of wine even remotely that valuable in his 18 years at the auction house.

Lo has also boasted about owning a Pagani Huayra BC and other rare supercars. Forbes did find a photo of him standing next to a Pagani Huayra Tempesta. The photo was reportedly snapped by an unnamed reader of Hong Kong–based Ming Pao Weekly magazine, and it ran in 2018 in Ming Pao, Entrepreneur and Money Digest. But we also found the exact same photo without Lo, which was taken by Robin Adams for a Sotheby’s auction in 2017. The photographer told Forbes that the picture had “obviously” been altered and used without permission. (That car sold to an anonymous bidder for $2.4 million.)

It might have been our questions about the car that finally, once and for all, put a halt to Lo’s obsessive quest to be listed as a Forbes billionaire. After we informed Lo he hadn’t made the 2023 Billionaires List and sent inquiries about the Pagani photo, one of Lo’s representatives sent an email in April from Lo’s advisor saying that he was “deeply troubled by Forbes’ disregard for Mr. Lo’s financial achievements” and that our questions about “the picture of Mr. Lo’s car serves no purpose other than satisfying their own curiosity.” The email went on to accuse Forbes of being on a “fishing expedition” and said our “frivolous questions have cast doubt on the validity of [Forbes’] list and publication.” The note ended by saying that, coincidentally, Lo would be having dinner with “the chairman of Integra­ted Whale, the fund that owns Forbes”—and he’d make sure Lo brought up the issues regar­ding “Forbes magazine’s valuation.” There was no dinner in April with Forbes’ owners, but Lo did, in fact, speak with Integrated Whale—months later.

But Lo seems to have a hard time staying out of the limelight. Just three weeks after that exchange, one of his publicists offered to set up an interview with Forbes to discuss his F1 ambitions. A few weeks after that, she reached out again with an offer to discuss the “expansion of his insurance businesses across Europe.”

Once we shared our findings with Lo, including the fact that he is not a billionaire, he claimed to have lost interest. “Mr. Lo expresses his preference to be excluded from the wealth rankings published by Forbes,” wrote his PR representative, “Furthermore, he would like to make it clear that he does not wish to be written about in Forbes.

But we finally have told his story—even if it isn’t the one he pitched.

Additional reporting by Jonathan Burgos, Shanshan Kao, Catherine Wang, Grace Chung, Devin Martin and Kyle Mullins.

This article was first published on and all figures are in USD.

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