Transcript

278:

Spies Like Us
Transcript

Originally aired 11.19.2004

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/278

Prologue.

Ira Glass

When my friend Jack was 22, he got a job on a small newspaper in Bend, Oregon. Basically he just talked his way into his job through sheer force of personality. He knew nothing about journalism, or what you're supposed to do in writing a newspaper story. One of his first assignments was a local school budget meeting.

Jack Hitt

Everybody else's story was 350 words, 600 words. Mine was 7,000 words. I had just written every word that had occurred at this budget meeting, which was eight hours long.

Ira Glass

Like in chronological order.

Jack Hitt

In chronological order. The meeting began at 9:00 AM. The first issue was how many No. 2 lead pencils to buy from Portland, and could we get a deal from Salem instead?

Ira Glass

Months pass. Jack gets better at this job, has friends in the newsroom. There are people younger and greener getting hired, which might think they're a little better, and he feels like he's getting the hang of things. He gets what seems like a very nice bonus.

Now this paper, the Bend Bulletin, was owned by a guy named Robert Chandler. Jack remembers him wearing a 10-gallon hat to work and smacking young reporters in the head with Strunk & White if they made grammatical errors. Chandler had installed, long before many big city newspapers had them, a computer network in the newsroom. This is 1980. Personal computers, word processing, passwords, all this stuff was all brand new.

Jack Hitt

One late afternoon, it was an afternoon paper, so after closing everybody fled pretty much. I was sitting there by myself, and I was just fooling around with the computer. I typed in Mr. Chandler's name.

Ira Glass

You mean you typed it in as the user name?

Jack Hitt

Yeah, as the user name. I was just guessing. What would be a password that Robert Chandler might use? I had been out to his house I guess the week or two before, and I had met his grandson. I don't remember what his name was, but let's just say it's Sam. So I typed in "Sam" for the password, and bling, all of a sudden his account opened up. I had access to everything in the entire computer system.

The managing editor at the time was a guy named Vic Roddick. I went into his file, and there were all the bonuses. I made, I can't remember, but I think it was like $7,800 a year, and he had given me like a $400 bonus. I saw everybody's bonus, and I saw everybody's annual paycheck, and I was at the bottom of the list. I was doing the worst of everybody in the room. I was flattened.

Ira Glass

Because you looked around the newsroom and you just thought, "These are my peers."

Jack Hitt

Not only my peers, but there were some of them that I thought were worse than I was. I had to come to terms with the fact that I wasn't their equal. I was bad. I was really bad at what I was trying to do. It meant I suddenly had these weird resentments of my colleagues.

Part of what's horrifying about finding out information that you're not supposed to know is that it actually robs you of your own kind of self-deception, your own fiction that you're actually doing OK.

Ira Glass

What's so crazy about this whole painful story is that he didn't go into the computer system hoping to actually find anything out. It just seemed like it would be sort of fun to snoop around. Spying for spying's sake.

Jack Hitt

Oh, I was-- yeah, it just felt thrilling. I just wanted to see if I could get inside. I didn't have any idea. I didn't have any motive for going into his file. There was nothing I was even looking for. I mean, it is the hacker's impulse. I've hung out with hackers, and one of the strangest things about them is that they often, once they get in, they have nothing to do. I was there when they would hack into the very depths of AT&T's telephone computers. And we'd get in, and they'd say, "OK, here we are, we're in." And I'm like, well what do we do now? Well, we're in.

Ira Glass

We can make a phone call for free.

Jack Hitt

You know what we ended up doing? We ended up like giving my phone in New York three-way calling for free. That was what we ended up doing.

Ira Glass

You hear a lot about professional spies. There's an entire genre of fiction and film and TV shows devoted to these people. Plus, the last few years spies are constantly in the news. The ongoing debate over how well the CIA does its job figuring out threats to our country.

But today on this program, we devote an hour to those who have been overlooked. The amateurs, people like you and me spying on coworkers and neighbors and sometimes complete strangers. As in Jack's case, not knowing what the hell they're doing. They are playing with fire.

WBEZ Chicago. It's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass.

Our program today in four acts. Act One, The Lobbyist. A man discovers a secret channel on his cable service, and finds he cannot stop watching. Act Two, Life with the Haters, in which a mom with a new baby succumbs to the temptation to use her baby monitor for purposes it was not intended for. Act Three, Mystery Shoppers. In that act, ordinary people going undercover in coffee shops and chain stores. Act Four, Stop Bugging Me. In that act, counter-espionage in the suburbs. Stay with us.

Act One. The Lobbyist.

Ira Glass

Act One, The Lobbyist. This story comes from one of our contributing editors, Jonathan Goldstein. He's now the host of a program on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation called Wiretap, where the stories are sometimes fully true, sometimes partly true, sometimes entirely untrue. This is from that program.

Burt Covit

I guess it was back in February, and I had just installed a new VCR. When you set up a new VCR you have to put in the new channels, and there's an auto selection. So I press auto, and it's just whipping through channel two, three, four, five, six. And it goes way up the band.

The numbers are going higher, and higher, and higher, and higher, trying to find a station. And it locks in to this station, and I'm looking at it. I'm going, "This is really bizarre. I think I'm looking at a lobby in an apartment building." The image wasn't great. There's no audio track. It's just a silent-- it's a security camera, I guess.

Jonathan Goldstein

But you don't live in a building that has a lobby, right?

Burt Covit

Right. Right.

Jonathan Goldstein

So you're getting reception of a lobby that is not your own?

Burt Covit

Right. Right. I mean, if I was living in a high rise, I wouldn't have been surprised to see my own lobby. It's a lobby in another part of the city, or in my town, or wherever.

Jonathan Goldstein

But you don't know where?

Burt Covit

Not a clue. Not a clue.

I have this neighbor downstairs, and he's got 155 stations. He's got a satellite dish, and he's always bragging about how clear the reception is, and all these great channels. He can get like David Letterman on LA Times, so his life's great. And so just as a joke, I said, "Yeah, but do you get the lobby channel?" And I start explaining about this lobby that I'm getting on channel seventy-something. He says, "No," but that he would scan through and see if he indeed got it. But of course he didn't.

I think there's a certain point, I think it's in March, where they start running a lot of re-runs. There's basically only about five shows that I watch religiously each week. Just out of habit, after walking the dogs or whatever and coming back at 9:30, I automatically go to those shows. Of course, they are re-runs. And then sort of thought, "Oh, I've always got the lobby to look at." I decided to just program it, keep it programmed on my dial.

Jonathan Goldstein

On the speed dial.

Burt Covit

On the speed dial.

Jonathan Goldstein

So just as you're flipping from NBC to CBS to FOX, you have the lobby right alongside of them.

Burt Covit

Yeah. Yeah, it's in the lineup.

In the winter-- I'm not a jock, but what I like to do when it's really cold on the weekends is a watch golf, because when I watch golf, everybody's in a balmy part of the world, and the sun's shining. But at a certain point it just becomes tedious, and I thought, "Well, I'll see what's going on in the lobby."

So I go back and forth from golf to lobby, and to be honest, after not very much time, the lobby won. It was far more interesting, even though there was nothing going on. Then I thought, "Unfortunately, I have to go to work on Monday. I wonder what happens at key hours in the lobby? For instance, is there a rush hour in the lobby, like from 7 o'clock in the morning, or 6 o'clock in the morning, or at the end of the day? So I thought, "Well, you know what? I'll just start taping it."

Jonathan Goldstein

You started taping it?

Burt Covit

Yeah, I start setting up my VCR to record the lobby at peak hours, and see if there was any traffic. See if anybody was using the lobby.

Jonathan Goldstein

So at this point how many tapes have you amassed?

Burt Covit

I guess only three. I had LP, so I've got like about six, seven hours of footage.

Jonathan Goldstein

On each one.

Burt Covit

Yeah.

Jonathan Goldstein

So that's like 18 hours.

Burt Covit

Yeah, something like that. And then I figured, why not, I can just fast forward through it. The first time I was watching, I was thinking like, is someone going to come walking in? That would have been the highlight. That was my goal. But no one ever walked in.

So I'm fast forwarding through it, and all of a sudden I see something. There's an image of a woman standing right in the center of the lobby, boom. And it looked as though she was wearing a pillbox hat, which caught my attention. I was on to something. I wasn't clearly wasting my time.

So all of a sudden there she is. There's this person standing in the middle of the lobby. And I sort of forget that I'm actually watching someone in the lobby, because I'm just so surprised to see anything at all. Sure enough, she starts going through her purse. She starts fumbling, she bends down, she stands up, and she looked in her hand. I assume she found her keys. She stops, she pauses, and then she just walks out of the frame.

Jonathan Goldstein

And goes in.

Burt Covit

I guess she goes in, yeah.

Every time I fast forward through these tapes to see what else is going on in the lobby, if I do see a person, it's her. And she's always wearing this pillbox hat, or what seems to be a pillbox hat.

It's interesting because she seems to fumble. She doesn't always lose her keys, but like she'll walk. She'll be standing there, and she'll sort of like seem to trip on something and grab for balance.

Jonathan Goldstein

But she's sort of fumbly?

Burt Covit

Yeah, she's a fumbly person. But her hat stays on her head, so that's OK.

I would be home, and I'd start preparing dinner. I'd look up, and I'd see the clock. It would be like 5 o'clock. Instead of like running into the kitchen, I would just like turn on the TV set and see if I could catch a glimpse of her live. Bingo, there she was.

Jonathan Goldstein

Pillbox hat. About what time was this?

Burt Covit

Same time. Same time, like somewhere around the dinner hour. Yeah, and I thought this is like a little weird. Weird that I'm actually stopping what I'm doing to see if a person who I don't know is coming into a building.

Jonathan Goldstein

On a daily basis.

Burt Covit

Yeah.

Jonathan Goldstein

How long have you been doing this?

Burt Covit

I guess about a month. I really didn't think anything of it. I mean, I have a full life. I work. I enjoy what I do. I have things to do. And yet for some reason, when you start watching someone, I don't know if you're fantasizing, or you just imagine what is this person all about? I guess I sort of figured she was like in her late 30s, maybe 40, had some sort of a regular job. It wasn't as though I was attracted to her like physically, but it was just someone else out there that I was getting to know via my TV set.

One night I'm watching, and she comes in with someone, and it really threw me for a loop. I thought, "Who is this person with?"

Jonathan Goldstein

She came in with a man?

Burt Covit

Yeah. And there she is walking with this guy. I don't know if I was hurt. Then I thought, "This is ridiculous." I mean, this person has her own life. I'm just watching part of her life. I don't really know what's going on the rest of her time.

Anyways, it seemed as though there was a guy, and they seemed to be comfortable together.

Jonathan Goldstein

How could you tell?

Burt Covit

She was laughing,

Once I remember them coming in together. As usual she dropped her keys, or something comes out of her hand. She bent down to get them, and I thought, "How come he's not bending down and getting them for her?" I thought, "What kind of relationship is this?"

One night after I watched the two of them come into the lobby, I thought, "Well, I wonder what's going to happen? I wonder if this guy is really going to stay around for a long time?" I kept the tape running just in case I'd miss something, but I went into the kitchen and made dinner. And I sat down in front of the TV and watched it.

Jonathan Goldstein

You watched while eating dinner?

Burt Covit

I watched TV, the lobby. I was wondering if I would see this guy leave. He didn't leave.

Jonathan Goldstein

And how late did you end up watching until?

Burt Covit

I watched until around midnight.

Jonathan Goldstein

And he didn't leave?

Burt Covit

No. I watched it for about six hours. Put in another VHS tape, and I put it SLP, long speed. He never left.

Jonathan Goldstein

He never came out?

Burt Covit

No. Hours and hours of tape, and I just sort of fast forwarded through it, but no, he never left. And I thought, "Good for her."

Jonathan Goldstein

And that's it? Just "good for her?"

Burt Covit

Yeah.

Jonathan Goldstein

Nothing else?

Burt Covit

No.

Jonathan Goldstein

Not a little something else?

Burt Covit

Mmm. I was like now growing-- I was becoming concerned for her happiness. But it's over. Whatever it is, it's over. And so I thought, "OK." As the grand finale, I went over and I actually deleted that channel. So the lobby channel--

Jonathan Goldstein

So now when you go from say PBS to FOX it just goes straight.

Burt Covit

Yeah, straight through.

Jonathan Goldstein

Straight through. No shots of the lobby-- nothing.

Burt Covit

No more lobby. No.

Jonathan Goldstein

It's gone.

Burt Covit

It's over. Yeah. I wasn't disappointed, but it was just like, I don't know. It sort of signified the end of winter. Spring was coming, and it's time to move on.

Ira Glass

Jonathan Goldstein talking with Burt Covit on the CBC program Wiretap. That story, just to be completely clear, was a work of fiction based on true events, rendered as radio interview.

[MUSIC - "TELEVISION" BY ROBYN HITCHCOCK]

Act Two. Life With The Haters.

Ira Glass

Act Two, Life with the Haters. Beth Lisick has this story of spying that starts out innocently enough with a baby and a mom.

Beth Lisick

My baby is a terrible sleeper. Sometimes he wakes up 10 or 12 times a night. So I heard about this book called The No-Cry Sleep Solution, a title that my friend is now using for his Morrissey cover band.

The book says to get a baby monitor, and at the first sign of any disruption, you're supposed to rush in and start petting the baby back to sleep. There's also an elaborate system of charts and graphs they want you to fill out to keep track of everything he ate that day, how long he napped, at what intervals he's waking up at night. So at this point almost a year after he was born, we're clearly feeling crazy enough from sleep deprivation to actually try this.

Night one: after an hour of rocking him in the rocking chair, he finally passes out. I flip on the baby monitor and sit at my desk. The next thing I know, his crying is coming through the speaker. I've fallen asleep sitting up. I check the time and write it down in my binder. 8:06, 24 minutes after I put him down.

Night three. I nearly jump off the couch when I hear it. At first static, and then the voice coming in like a walkie-talkie broadcasting in my living room. "Yeah, so if you want to come around and fire one up, you know where I'll be. I got two or three for you, a'ight?" It's a phone conversation. It only takes me a second to figure out that it's got to be my neighbor, who everybody calls Lil' Mo.

So I dim the lights and peek through the curtains, and there he is pacing back and forth in front of my house. "Yeah, I'm outside the haters'," his voice on the baby monitor says. Man, I really wish he wouldn't call us that. He hangs up the phone, leans against my fence, and a few minutes later a car pulls up, and he gets in.

Four years ago I bought a house in a rundown East Bay neighborhood on the Oakland border. My block is always full of trash, empty forties and blunt wrappers littering the sidewalk. The border of the city is ideal for drug dealing, so there's a lot of that going on. Some low-key prostitution too, but that didn't bother me. I'd lived in rough areas before.

What really freaked me out was moving somewhere residential, and having real neighbors. Mostly I was afraid of chit-chatting. After years in the city, I didn't know the etiquette. I didn't want to embark on a long-term relationship of waving and smiling and chit-chatting about clogged gutters and car break-ins. And it didn't help that I was a complete specter of gentrification on my block, the first lower-income white lady to move into a working class black neighborhood.

My first strategy was to be really, really nice to everyone. I actually convinced myself that this was a good plan. The first couple months in the house, I sort of went overboard with the niceness. Later I found out that my neighbors were making fun of me for engaging in animated conversations with crackheads and psychotic people, people they themselves never talked to. "Why is she letting Jimmy hustle her with that stolen Tivo?" they wondered. "How come she's talking so long to Crazy Delfine?"

I quickly changed strategies and decided it would be easier to ignore everyone. I kept it friendly with George, an older man who lived on one side of me, and with JoJo, the neighborhood gossip, who would come over while I was getting my groceries out of the car and give me the crime blotter, who got shot and why. But basically I started minding my own business again. I stop waving.

An old lady on the other side of me? Never spoke to her. Her name was Eunice. One time I got her mail by accident. Instead of running the letter over, I put it in my mail slot for the postman to deliver.

The reason for this was that Eunice's grandson, Lil' Mo, hated us. He dealt weed, and was always sitting in his driveway or on his front steps, which would have been fine except that he was such a jerk. He'd harass women walking down the street, even if they were with their kids, calling them whores. He'd actually get up off his porch and follow them down the street, yelling at them as they ran away, tugging on their kids' arms to hurry up.

The first time I walked by and said "Hi," he looked right at me and said, "Hater." He'd yell it at me in the middle of the day when I went to my car. He bragged about his Glock and his Uzis to everyone in the corner store, and I could tell a lot of people in the neighborhood were intimidated by him. I definitely was. So that's his voice that's showing up on my baby monitor.

Night four, I finally get the baby to fall asleep, and come out and turn on the monitor. I read for a while, and then peek out the curtains and see Lil' Mo sitting in his car in the driveway. Maybe he's on the phone. I get up and switch channels on the receiver to check in with him. Nothing.

The other day I got up the nerve to ask JoJo about him. She said that Lil' Mo doesn't even live in that house. He just comes over to deal out of his grandmother's yard. So my next door neighbor who hates me is not even my next door neighbor. That's when I start becoming slightly obsessed with him.

Day five, yes, I'm trying to listen during the day now. When my husband takes the baby out, I say that I'm going to take a nap, but then I see Lil' Mo and his friends in the driveway next door. Two of them are talking on their cell phone, so I run and switch on the monitor to see if I can get anything. Nothing. I switch channels. Nothing. I go back and forth trying to jar it into place.

What's wrong with this thing? Why isn't it working? Maybe I should just get one of those police scanners that pick up everything, something reliable. Having heard him mention me that one time, I'm convinced that he's constantly talking crap about me.

Night six, I'm watching a movie with the volume turned down so low that I have the subtitles playing on the DVD. The volume on the baby monitor, on the other hand, is turned all the way up. I hear static, and then I hear Lil' Mo start yelling at somebody, I think his girlfriend. His voice gets so loud that I turn off the monitor and just listen to it coming from outside the house.

Night eight, all the lights in the house are out, and the baby's been asleep for a record three hours in a row. I'm laying on the couch dozing when his voice comes in. This time it's super clear. "I told you Antoine is going to drive her. You know I can't drive no more." As usual, I can only hear his side of the conversation. He's saying, "Teresa's picking her up," and, "She be doing it every day or some [BLEEP]," and then, "It's a liver, the liver and the bones."

Somebody's sick. I figure he's talking about his grandmother Eunice, and I think, "Poor lady." She hardly ever comes out of her house. Whenever she does, there's always a big commotion. "Miss Eunice," people yell and wave. Even the teenage boys who are usually jerks are really nice.

The first time I spoke to her, she came out on her back porch while I was in my back yard. She was wearing a flowered housecoat, and called out to me. When I said "hi" back, she laid into me for not pruning a huge fir tree whose branches were hanging into her yard. "It's blocking all the light in my house," she said, shaking her head. Then she got a little nicer and told me that the people who lived in my house in the '60s planted their Christmas tree one year, and it turned into that monster. I apologize about the overhanging branches, but the tree is over 25 feet tall, and I couldn't do it myself. I couldn't afford to pay someone, so I never did anything about it.

Day 10, there's a car idling in the driveway next door. One of Lil' Mo's friends, or maybe a relative, is in a green late '70s Cutlass that I've never seen before. There are six or seven people standing on the lawn looking up at the front door. Something's going on. I get myself outside and stand there, quite possibly for the third time ever watering my yard with a hose. I'm watering a pile of weeds.

Then Eunice comes out of the house. She's extremely frail, and is wearing a purple jogging suit. It takes her forever to get down the stairs. She finally reaches a car, and I hear her say to this total gangster guy over the booty bass thumping on the stereo, "Is this my chariot?" I look up, and she's smiling. She waves to me, and I smile and say "hi."

After she drives away, I walk up to the fence and ask Lil' Mo, even though I know the answer, "Is that your grandmother?" He's nice to me, and tells me that she has cancer, and is going in for chemo. "She'll be all right," he says. And then, "We own this house, you know."

I go back inside and feel crappy about what a terrible neighbor I've been to this old lady. She's dying of cancer while I'm really busy training the jasmine plant to wind around the arbor. I could have trimmed that tree for her. I can't remember why I was so convinced that I couldn't deal with my neighbors in the first place.

I keep the monitor on all day. I'm hoping he'll say more about Eunice, but I just pick up two more drug deals. He gets a person to drive by, then they get in the car and go around the block. I've seen it a hundred times before, but I'm still compelled to go to the window and watch.

Day 12, I hear a car pull up next door, and look out the curtains. A young woman is helping Eunice up the stairs to her house. I make a batch of chicken soup, put it in a Tupperware, and spend most of the day trying to find the perfect time to bring it over, ideally when Lil' Mo is not out front, which is hardly ever. I have to admit, part of me hopes that if I bring her soup, maybe he'll stop calling me "hater." I try switching on the monitor to see if he's planning on going anywhere, but all I get is a bit of political poetry from the pirate radio station.

I wait until he leaves his yard to go to the apartment building across the street before I walk over. Way too obvious. He sees me going up the stairs to their front door, and he runs back across the street, saying, "What do you want?" I tell him I'm just bringing soup to his grandma, and he lets me in. The house smells pretty terrible, like burned Twinkies and rotting vegetables.

He leads me back to her bedroom, and pauses for a second and says, "What's your name?" I tell him, and he goes inside the room and says, "The lady from next door is here for you." He walks out, and I go in and find her sitting up in bed, watching a movie. Her bedroom door has a shoe rack hanging from it that is filled with videotapes, mostly comedies and musicals. I tell her I heard she was sick and brought her some soup. She's really sweet. She gets out of bed and tickles my son's chin, asking me questions about how old he is, what he's doing.

I follow her into the kitchen, where there's a big swarm of fruit flies and piles of dirty dishes. I think of all the time her grandson spends hanging out front when he could at least make sure her kitchen is clean. She takes the soup from me, and we chat a bit about the weather.

A couple days later, I'm out walking my kid in the stroller, and my neighbor Maynard from a couple doors down says "hi." We usually say "hi" to each other when he's out washing his car, but this time he turns down his stereo and throws his chamois over his shoulder. "Touch the cooler," he says, and points to a Styrofoam cooler on the ground. At least I think that's what he says. I'm not really sure what he wants me to do. Did he just say, "Touch the cooler?" I stand there for a second, and then he tells me that's what they say in New Orleans, where he's from. It means, "grab a beer." I really want to accept his offer, but its 10:00 in the morning.

We talk for a bit, and I realize that he knows all of our names, when we go to work, the fact that we were gone for a few days last month. He knows we have feral cats living in our garage. He says Lydia from across the street told JoJo, and then JoJo told him that I brought Miss Eunice soup the other day. He wants to know what kind. I'm almost surprised he doesn't know already. So the neighbors are watching me as closely as I'm watching Lil' Mo.

Day 16, I bring Lil' Mo's grandmother food about four or five more times, but now I'm bolder, and will do it when he's sitting out front. I don't even bother to check the baby monitor before I walk outside. One time I brought a whole lasagna, because there seemed to be a lot more people hanging around the house lately. Mo followed me in, but then he stayed outside the door lurking for a bit. Eunice looked a lot sicker, really skinny. She joked that maybe my food would fatten her up. Mo leaned his head in and nodded to the lasagna on top of the dresser and said, "So what is that?" "Lasagna," I say. "Meat lasagna?" "Yeah, meat lasagna."

He stopped calling me "hater" after that. It's not like we talk that much, but at least it's not uncomfortable anymore. Sometimes he just nods or gives me a "what's up" and then lets me in the house, and I've totally stopped trying to listen to his conversations.

About a month after I first brought Eunice soup, she dies after getting two more blood transfusions. That day the whole street is crowded with people drinking and kids running around, and I go out and touch the cooler with Maynard and JoJo. He tells me if I don't want the gang kids sitting on my fence, I should just go up and tell them to please get off of it. So I do, and they're really cool about it, and they haven't sat on it since.

One day I hear the screeching of tires and a bunch of people yelling, and go to the front window. There are three unmarked cop cars and a van outside. Lil' Mo is there on the phone, and I run to switch on the baby monitor. Where is it? I can't find it. I call my husband's cell phone and ask where the monitor is. He says he put it in the storage closet because the baby's sleeping fine. He didn't think we really needed it anymore. I grab it, plug it in, and get a bunch of static from the police radios. Of course we need it.

Ira Glass

Beth Lisick is a writer in the Bay Area. Coming up, spies working for a monarch named Burger King and for a clown named Ronald. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Three. Mystery Shoppers.

Ira Glass

This American Life, I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, Spies Like Us. stories of amateur spies and the consequences of their spying. We've arrived at act three of our program. Act three.

There are companies that want amateurs to go into chain stores and fast food places, pretend to be regular customers, and then report in on how things are going there. The job title, mystery shoppers. A trade association says that there are now tens of thousands of people doing this job. Mostly it's freelance work. It's secretive, and they're not supposed to talk about it.

When our producer, Lisa Pollak, went on to a mystery shoppers discussion board on the internet looking for interviewees, it kicked off this debate there about whether chain store employees might be listening right now to the radio to get tips about how they're being surveilled. Lisa was able to get a few mystery shoppers to talk with her, and to let her tag along as they spied.

Lisa Pollak

Pat's assignment tonight is pretty routine, a stake-out at a coffee shop. She won't let me follow her. She's afraid I'll blow her cover. But she's agreed to wear a wireless mic so I can listen in while she checks out the store.

Pat

We have walked in, and I'm looking. The first thing I see are three employees behind the counter. I see a merchandise display. Everything looks really well-stocked here. I'm looking at the floor, which does have a few pieces of paper on it. Took a quick look at the condiment table, which looks very clean and well-tended. And I'm kind of walking away because the customers in the store are looking at me talking to myself here.

Lisa Pollak

I can't tell you the name of the coffee shop, or where it is, or the kind of drink that Pat's pretending to be interested in. I can only tell you that she's about to walk up to the counter to administer a test, to see if the woman behind the cash register is familiar enough with a drink to tell a customer what's in it.

Pat

Hi.

Clerk

Can I help you?

Pat

Well a friend of mine at work the other day had something called a [BLEEP]. What is that?

Lisa Pollak

The clerk nails it. She knows all four ingredients. "It's really good," she tells Pat. "You should try it."

Pat

It does sound good, but I think I'll just have the latte.

Lisa Pollak

Two minutes later, I know because she timed it, Pat carries the drink out to her van. She takes the lid off the cup and weighs it on a cooking scale. She gets out what looks like a small meat thermometer and drops in the coffee.

Pat

While I'm waiting for the thermometer to register the temperature, I'm writing down the notes about the shop. I'm writing down the name of the employee who served me. She was wearing the correct uniform, but the jacket was over the uniform, and I will check later to find out whether that's regulation, because at this point I don't remember. But I'll check and make sure.

Lisa Pollak

This assignment will take Pat about an hour. That includes the report she'll write when she gets home. For this she'll get about $5, plus reimbursement for the coffee. It's the freebies that attract a lot of mystery shoppers. Movie tickets, meals, a free night in a hotel, undercover of course.

She won't get rich this way, but Pat likes the work. She's a full-time mom who needs a little part-time income, something with flexible hours, close to home. She prefers the simpler assignments, convenience stores, casual restaurants, where she doesn't have to be too sneaky, or pretend she's someone she's not. One assignment she won't do, she says, requires the mystery shopper to go to a fast food restaurant and order two meals, inside and at a drive through, in one visit. Pat says it's a dead giveaway.

Pat

You know, they've seen you in the store looking around. They've watched you go into the bathroom, perhaps staring at the floor, which the average customer doesn't necessarily do. If they're overly friendly at the drive through window when you do that part of the shop, you know you've been made.

Lisa Pollak

Pat says if she gets made, if they figure out who she is and confront her, she won't get her money for the job. Mystery shoppers worry about this stuff. It's the kind of thing they discuss on their online message boards. In fact, there's an official mystery shoppers protocol for what to do if you get caught.

Lynn

It's been very much emphasized that if you're ever approached and asked if you are a mystery shopper, it's drilled down, deny, deny, deny, deny.

Lisa Pollak

This is Lynn, or at least that's what she asked me to call her.

Lynn

You're supposed to ask the person, "What's that? What's a mystery shopper?" And other mystery shoppers that I've read about on the internet have said things like, "Mystery shopper? Is that something special? Did I win a prize?" I don't think I could pull off that kind of ignorant effectively.

Lisa Pollak

Lynn considers mystery shopping less of a job than a hobby where she gets paid. Unlike Pat, she takes the jobs that require some performance skills. Once, while fake shopping for a mortgage, she invented a husband named Steve, a biologist with a terrible credit history. Another time she pretended to be a member of a fringe religious groups to see if a leasing agent would still rent to her.

Lynn

I've gone into complete acting mode. I have pretended to be a graphic artist that is looking for a real estate space to rent. And I went in, and I had the appointment. When I got to the leasing office, they had one of those reader board signs that was welcoming my company. They had my company name, my fake company name. It was bizarre.

And then I got really into character, and the woman at one point was talking about what kind of design work I do. I didn't have anything prepared for discussing what my visual style is, so I rolled up my shirt sleeve and showed her my tattoo, and told her it was an original design, and that that was representative of my work.

Lisa Pollak

Aren't you sitting there feeling like, oh, this person must know I'm faking it. She must know I'm a mystery shopper. Are you worried about that?

Lynn

I don't worry about that. I worry that people think I'm an idiot. I had a shop where I had touch 1,250 pieces of clothing and not buy any of them, and not get noticed by any of the staff.

Lisa Pollak

What?

Lynn

1,250 pieces of clothing in a clothing store. I was checking to see if you've got something on a hanger, and the hangar says size eight, is that blouse really a size eight?

Lisa Pollak

It wasn't just literally that you had to touch them, you had to look to see if the size matched the hanger?

Lynn

I had to pull out the tags on all of those clothes. If they knew that I was a mystery shopper, they didn't say anything about it, but it's really hard to do that and not feel like they're not noticing that you're out there touching everything.

Lisa Pollak

Did you have a little story for yourself? Like oh, I have OCD or something if they asked you what exactly your problem was?

Lynn

Well I've used that in the past, but--

Lisa Pollak

You have?

Lynn

Well, yeah. But that explains like why I need to talk to everybody in the grocery store, or why I have to go to produce, and then why I have to go back to produce. I have to go to produce three times, and I'm not going to be satisfied until I talk to the produce guy. If people look at me a little askew, like your behavior seems odd, I'll just say to people, look, I have OCD, and just get really hostile.

Lisa Pollak

I asked Lynn if she thinks people get fired because of the reports she writes. She says she doesn't know, but she'd like to think they don't.

Later I call a mystery shoppers trade group, the Mystery Shopping Providers Association, which represents the companies who hire the shoppers. They say their Association discourages the use of mystery shopping for punishing or firing workers. It's a tool meant for training, they say, to help employees improve. Either way, Lynn has no qualms about doing it. She seems honestly surprised when I suggest there's something deceitful or unfair about watching strangers without their knowledge and then evaluating their work.

Lynn

I don't feel like it's a lie or a deception. I feel like it's more akin to acting.

Lisa Pollak

But it is a deception.

Lynn

Well, yeah, OK, fair enough. Yeah, it is a deception. But it's in the service of something. I'm not doing this just to screw with you, because I think it is legitimate to evaluate people who work in the service industry on an objective basis.

Lisa Pollak

Other people get evaluated in their job, she says. Why not service workers? Why not salespeople at Target or McDonald's? And it's not like those workers don't know what's happening.

Jack Elam works at a Starbucks in Chicago. He's the only person interviewed for this story who was willing to give his actual full name. He talked to This American Life's intern, Amy O'Leary. The minute she brought up mystery shoppers, he immediately launched into a list of everything they're looking for at Starbucks.

Jack Elam

You're graded on your speed of time. You're also graded on quality of service, temperature, dress codes, store appearance, and things like that. And then they grade you on it.

Amy O'leary

Don't you ever feel like you're being spied on though?

Jack Elam

Not really, no. I think that's good in a sense that it makes a lot of stores stay up to code, follow all the rules and regulations. Yeah, I don't see a problem with them. They can come visit anytime they want.

Lisa Pollak

Jack's had other jobs like this, and he says it just comes with the territory. And sometimes he wonders about the mystery shopper when it gets really busy, or when there's an especially tough customer. What if it's them?

Jack Elam

It could be a 99-year-old lady come up and order something, and it could take her 45 minutes to pay for it because she's counting one penny at a time. That could be your mystery shopper. You never know.

Amy O'leary

So you have to be nice to everybody?

Jack Elam

Yes. Yes. Like I said, you never can tell.

Lisa Pollak

Ever since I started work on this story, when I'm at any chain store, I'm acutely aware that all of the things being said to me come from a script. I mean, everybody already knows that, but seeing it from the mystery shopper's point of view was like going backstage and really seeing how things work. Here on a piece of paper were the questions the clerks were supposed to ask me, the number of minutes before I'm supposed to be greeted, the products they're supposed to promote.

At this one electronics store, the mystery shopper I was with asked the sales girl about vacuum cleaners. On cue, she walked over to the exact model she was supposed to be pushing that day, and looking right at us in a completely sincere tone of voice, told us that she thought this vacuum was the one we really needed.

There's nothing evil or wrong about any of that. It just makes you feel weird. Lynn told me she'd had a similar feeling, but working as a mystery shopper made her realize what most jobs in most stores are really about.

Lynn

You look at companies that pay these minimum wage jobs, and then they'll have a 16-page questionnaire asking, did this employee do this, this, this, and this, and it's an astonishing amount of behaviors to have to evaluate. They want to know if you smiled, if you presented this, did you offer the new veggie dog, did you do this, did you do that? I mean, if somebody goes up and says this is what I want, and you get it for them and give them their change, that's all they really need. And it's these people who make hardly any money, and the things that they have to do are ridiculous.

Lisa Pollak

Well, ridiculous if you're the person who has to smile and suggest veggie dogs 80 times a day. Not so ridiculous if you're the manager who needs to move veggie dogs. In the end, Lynn has a lot in common with the kid behind the counter. They're both working for big companies, trying to help those companies turn out a consistent product everywhere all the time. They're both making near minimum wage. One of them just happens to be watching the other.

Ira Glass

Lisa Pollak is one of the producers of our program.

[MUSIC - "TOWN WITH NO SECRETS" BY MARK MALLMAN]

Act Four. Stop Bugging Me.

Ira Glass

Act Four, Stop Bugging Me. It's almost a law of nature that wherever there's a spy, there's a counter-spy, somebody using counter-espionage techniques to catch somebody doing espionage. And so if you think that someone is spying on you in your home, you can actually hire somebody to help you with domestic counter-espionage. Jane Feltes visited one of their suburban outposts.

Jane Feltes

A couple times a week someone calls the hotline at Special Solutions Inc., a counter-surveillance company in Des Plaines, Illinois, thinking that their place has been bugged. That's when Mark Amerazian springs into action and readies his equipment.

Mark Amerazian

Let's see, we have sweep units here, which will pick up any type of microphones. Night vision, parabolic microphones--

Jane Feltes

Mark Amerazian is a counter-spy, and he dresses the part. Black T-shirt, boots, and a bomber jacket. His hair is slicked back, and he has a goatee. He talks and acts like someone playing a cop on TV, everything's just a little too polished. Mark has promised to take me with him on a sweep to debug someone's house.

He works out of a retail store called Spy Source, which is next door to a dry cleaners in the suburbs. There's a mannequin at the door wearing a trench coat, hat, and sunglasses, James Bond posters everywhere, a half-dozen glass display cases packed with electronics, and novelty items like X-ray specs and disappearing ink. One of the first things I notice is that what they sell at a counter-surveillance store looks a lot like the stuff they sell at a surveillance store. He points out a display case full of what seem to be everyday objects.

Mark Amerazian

Covert cameras are usually-- like this one's a clock. Here's a dictionary that has a camera in it. Teddy bear.

Jane Feltes

Where's the camera?

Mark Amerazian

You're not going to be able to see it.

Jane Feltes

Mark says these kinds of cameras, with lenses literally the size of a pinhole, hidden in everyday objects are exactly what we'll be looking for on our sweep. So he shows me a tool that his company has designed to detect them, the SpyFinder. Mark pulls the consumer model out of his pocket, the SpyFinder Personal. It's made of black plastic like a remote control and contoured to fit in your hand, with a red plastic lens that you look through surrounded by flashing infrared light.

Mark Amerazian

What it's going to do is it's going to flash out, and if there's a camera there, it's going to detect that pinhole lens, the chip inside, and bounce back a red light at you. So if you want, I'll hold this microphone for you, and then just take this, press that button, look through it. So right now let's look at the clock.

Jane Feltes

I turn to the store clock hanging on the wall.

Mark Amerazian

Scan the clock up and down. Where do you see the camera in there? Do you see it?

Jane Feltes

Oh, I see it. There it is in the six.

Mark Amerazian

It's in the six.

Jane Feltes

I flash the SpyFinder around the rest of the room. The whole place lights up. Everything's a camera. The smoke alarm, the plant, a pair of sunglasses, a radio. They're all watching. It can make a person paranoid, a paranoia that Mark is only too happy to indulge. He tells me a story of a hidden camera that was found in a Hooters changing room. He says they can be anywhere. Locker rooms, tanning salons.

Mark Amerazian

A lot of people fake and bake. If you're faking and baking, why not have a SpyFinder with you before you're actually taking off your clothes and getting into a tanning booth? Do a quick sweep. See if there's a camera watching.

Woman

I just came-- come on in, I'm sorry about the leaves.

Mark Amerazian

No--

Jane Feltes

Today we're doing a sweep for a woman who feels that someone's bugged her house. She greets us at the door in a velour jogging suit. I had expected anybody needing counter-surveillance would be somebody with money, and Mark had described his clients as corporate execs and semi-celebrities, or people in the middle of a high-stakes divorce or lawsuit. But we're at a squat brick bungalow behind a bowling alley and a fast food chicken joint. Her house is sparsely furnished. It's just her and her 6-year-old granddaughter.

She immediately asks me if I'm recording her. She won't tell me her name or why we're here. Mark starts putting his gear on, headphones, a hand-held meter, and a few antennas he points around the living room. If there were an audio transmitter in the room, a listening device, it'd have to give off a signal.

Mark Amerazian

Right now we're not getting any type of signals showing me RF radio frequency being transmitted. So so far so good.

Jane Feltes

Then he plugs a voltage meter into the phone line.

Mark Amerazian

It's reading a 44.7. This is a normal voltage reading. If there was something on your telephone line like a recorder, or if there was a tap on your outside line, it would be reading something low, like maybe a 20. So this is fine.

Jane Feltes

The woman follows Mark around while he does the sweep. He looks in vents for cameras, and climbs under a desk to check the wiring on the computer.

Mark Amerazian

There's a unit that you can attach to the back of these computer keyboards, and whatever gets typed, it's going to record it.

Jane Feltes

You what?

Woman

I never thought of that.

Jane Feltes

Something being on the computer?

Woman

Yeah, I never thought of that.

Jane Feltes

You looked startled when he said that.

Woman

I was. I was. I should have thought of that, and I never did.

Jane Feltes

I can't get much out of her, and what she does tell me doesn't really add up. She tells me her suspicions started a few months ago. She said a guy came to the house claiming to be from the water company. She thinks he may have planted some sort of eavesdropping device. When I ask her who she thinks he really was, and why he wanted to spy on her, she won't tell me. All she says is some things were done that made her uncomfortable, and she wants to put her fears to rest. In all, the sweep takes Mark about 20 minutes. He doesn't find anything, which is how it goes for him nine times out of ten.

Mark Amerazian

Everything gave us a negative reading. There's nothing here.

Woman

Thank you very much. I feel much better.

Jane Feltes

So you feel a lot better?

Woman

I do. I do. Don't have to whisper anymore.

Kevin Murray

If you go into somebody's home or office, and they say, gee, I think my phone's tapped, and you check the phone, and there's no tap, that doesn't mean there wasn't a problem.

Jane Feltes

Kevin Murray has run Murray Associates, an eavesdropping detection and counter-espionage firm, for over 30 years. If Mark is a suburban beat cop, Kevin is the director of the FBI. He deals with Fortune 100 companies, and he thinks what Mark and I did was kind of half-assed.

Kevin Murray

It's not what they show on TV. It's not the guy with the box and an antenna that comes in and wanders around the room wearing headphones and magically finds things, because most of the time it isn't electronic. There are much easier ways to get information.

Jane Feltes

For instance, Kevin says most spies just dig through your trash, or make friends with your sister-in-law or your hairdresser. Bugging can be really expensive and difficult. Plus, here's something you never think about, you constantly have to go back and change the battery. Which is why most large-scale bugging operations only happen in the corporate world.

Kevin once caught an international corporate spy in the act. He was transmitting secrets at a big company. On another job, Kevin found a hidden camera above an employee's desk. Turns out the guy's coworker, who was competing with him for a promotion, was watching him make personal calls to his girlfriend and reporting each and every one of them-- date, time, and length-- to the boss. Occasionally Kevin himself becomes a player in the corporate schemes he's uncovering.

Kevin Murray

We were brought into a company, and the president of the company says, "I want you to check these offices." He points us over there. He didn't say he suspected anything. We were just doing this just proactively, just to make sure. It's good policy. It's good security practice.

So we get in there, and we start working. The next thing you know, we're up above the ceiling in the conference room, and we find this wire. Can't quite identify it right away, so we follow it out, and lo and behold it goes across the hallway in one direction over to the president's office, and is laying on top of his ceiling with a microphone. I say, great, what a great find. Well we get on the wire again and follow it backwards across the hall, through the conference room, across another hall, and into another executive's office. And we look at it, think uh-huh, OK.

On the surface it looks like one of the executives is bugging the president's office. But on close inspection, it's not hooked up the right way. It can't work. This is a setup. It posed a real ethical dilemma to us, because it appears that the president is looking for a rubber stamp way of firing an executive, and it's not true.

Jane Feltes

So what'd you do?

Kevin Murray

We reported it to him, and we also reported the fact that we didn't think it was a viable eavesdropping attempt. This thing couldn't work.

Jane Feltes

But he probably fired him anyway.

Kevin Murray

And from our point of view, it's put there to look like an eavesdropping attempt.

Jane Feltes

By you.

Kevin Murray

No, I didn't say "by you," because I don't know who put it there. I didn't have enough proof. But I could tell he had kind of a long face, and said, "OK, thank you, boys."

Jane Feltes

I asked Kevin if stories of hidden cameras everywhere, like the ones Mark kept telling me when we are on the sweep, if those are just paranoia, or maybe a guy is just trying to drum up a little counter-surveillance business. I mean really, with everything we're supposed to be afraid of when we go to the tanner, bacteria, blindness, cancer, should we really worry about peeping toms?

Kevin Murray

Absolutely.

Jane Feltes

Really?

Kevin Murray

Absolutely.

Jane Feltes

No.

Kevin Murray

All I can say is I don't make it up. Just go to SpyBusters.com, and every week or so I throw in all the news stories of peeping tom cameras and everything else. I think I have about six or seven years' worth of news stories there. And these are only, remember now, these are the failed attempts. These are the ones that got caught. It's the tip of the iceberg.

Jane Feltes

Kevin says only one out of five calls he gets is from someone who's just being irrational and paranoid. In his experience, if you think you're being spied on, you probably are, or at least something's amiss. Maybe your boyfriend's going through your purse. Maybe your best friend's a gossip, and that's why other people know your business. But you don't need to hire a spy to figure that out.

Ira Glass

Jane Feltes is a producer on our program.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well our program was produced today by Diane Cook and myself with Alex Blumberg, Wendy Dorr, Jane Feltes, Sarah Koenig, and Lisa Pollak. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Elizabeth Meister runs our website. Production help from Todd Bachmann and Ms. Amy O'Leary. Special thanks today to Patrick Keefe, Shane DuBow, Carrie Miller.

Our website: www.ThisAmericanLife.org, where you can listen to our programs for free or buy CDs of them. Or you know you can download audio of our program at Audible.com/ThisAmericanLife, where they have public radio programs, bestselling books, even the New York Times, all at Audible.com.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight for our program by Mr. Torey Malatia, or as he likes to be called by the many, many guests to our program, "The Cooler."

Beth Lisick

I'm not really sure what he wants me to do. Did he just say, "Touch the cooler?"

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of this American life.

Announcer

PRI: Public Radio International.