Transcript

363:

Enforcers
Transcript

Originally aired 09.12.2008

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/363

Prologue.

Ira Glass

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

Joe Kocur

We went through a long stretch of time with a lot of open wounds on our hands, so-- and I do remember a lot of times after a game we'd have practice the next morning and we would have to figure out a way to get our glove on because our wounds were wide open. The sweat would actually get into our wounds and burn.

Ira Glass

Hockey's changed over the years. Joe Kocur is from the days back when there were enforcers, guys whose job it was to get their hands bloody. Joe played for the Detroit Red Wings and the New York Rangers. If you don't know much about hockey, when fights erupt, it can just seem like thuggery, disorganized mayhem. But Joe says that when he would start a fight, it was anything but random. It wasn't arbitrary. Far from it. He was the law.

Joe Kocur

If a guy runs your goal tender, if a guy runs your best hockey player on your team, he just did a dirty check on a friend of yours, I mean, anything that is not legal in the game and the referee may not see it, and even if the referee sees it, sometimes you have to take it into your own hands to make sure this gentleman doesn't want to do it again.

Ira Glass

Let me ask you to give an example of how this goes down. You tell a story in your book about going after Jim Kyte in one game. What did Jim Kyte do?

Joe Kocur

Well, throughout the whole game, Jim Kyte was running our captain Steve Yzerman and playing, I call it dirty. He was slashing him a lot and hitting him with the stick, so I was on the ice with about three minutes left in the game. I was a young guy and Jim Kyte was on the ice and was ready to face off.

And I went over to one of our veteran defenseman, Mike O'Connell and I said, "Mike, did Coach just put me out here to go after Jim Kyte?" And he said, "Joe," he says, "I don't know your job and I don't know what the coach was thinking but you know what your job is. Do what you think's right." And when the puck dropped, I went after him.

Sports Announcer

Now we've got a fight, Kyte and Kocur. And Kocur [UNINTELLIGIBLE] Jimmy Kyte.

Joe Kocur

I happened to catch him with a couple pretty good ones and that ended the night. I was scared when I hit him, because I'd hit him so hard and his head had hit the ice and I was worried that he may have been hurt permanently or something.

Sports Announcer

Not a pretty sight, but Jimmy Kyte's a tough guy and he's getting up.

Ira Glass

Now, sometimes somebody did something during the game that would deserve retaliation, would deserve enforcing, but other stuff needed to happen during the game. The clock was running down. You didn't have time to get into a fight, and so you would kind of file that away in your head and wait until you saw them on the ice the next time. Would they know they had it coming?

Joe Kocur

I think for the most part. Sometimes you didn't go after him right away, because it changed him as a hockey player. He's looking around. He's looking over his shoulder, worried about getting what's going to happen to him, and you may wait a game or two and let him just be on the ice and be unsure of what's going on.

I think one of the keys to being an enforcer and intimidating other players is the unknown. If somebody did something to one of our players and you didn't get him that night, you knew he was going to have an uneasy sleep before the next game, and probably for the rest of the year for that matter.

Ira Glass

What's interesting is that the game has referees who are there to keep order, but the refs can only do so much. Kocur says that when a player acts up, the penalties that the ref gives-- two minutes in the penalty box, a $500 fine-- players shrug that stuff off. Who cares? It doesn't change their behavior.

Joe Kocur

But if there's an enforcer out there and they know there's going to be some physical pain inflicted upon them for what they did, they're going to have second thoughts about doing it.

Ira Glass

At the two political conventions this summer, some commentators started comparing our nation's two vice presidential candidates to hockey enforcers. A guy in The National Ledger wrote, "Barack Obama evidently believes he needs somebody to protect him like a hockey team star, so he chose Senator Joe Biden." A reporter for the Rocky Mountain News wrote, "She calls herself a hockey mom, but now Alaska Governor Sarah Palin is jumping into a job more akin to a hockey enforcer for Senator John McCain. Almost immediately she came out swinging, going straight for Democratic Senator Barack Obama's ribs and knee caps."

I think what's going on is that our politics are so rough and nobody is really refereeing that somebody's got to be the tough guy, not to bring justice exactly, but to protect their own side. Though, of course, the line between protecting your side and just being a bully can get kind of hazy.

And so, today on our show, Enforcers, people who take the law into their own hands. And also, the people who are supposed to wear the sheriff's badge but sometimes have a hard time putting it on.

Our show in two acts today. Act One, Hanging in Chad. In that act, some freelance self-appointed enforcers who enjoy the hell out of enforcing frontier justice on the internet. Act Two, Now You SEC Me, Now You Don't. Alex Blumberg has the story of an enforcer who refused to enforce even when pleaded with to do more to protect people from the financial turmoil that we see in the news every day. Stay with us.

Act One. Hanging In Chad.

Ira Glass

Act One, Hanging in Chad. Like everybody else who has email, I've gotten those messages where they say that there is $8 million sitting in a bank in Nigeria and the money is just sitting there, doing nothing. And somebody needs help getting that money out of the country.

But until recently when somebody explained it to me, I never really stopped to think about how this scam actually works. If you reply to those emails, after some back and forth, they'll let you know there's a processing fee that you're going to need to pay for the courier, or the insurance, or whatever. And after you pay that, of course, they don't deliver the money. There will be some problem, some bank official who needs to be bribed or some new fee. And they're very sorry. They're sure if you just do this one more thing, you'll get your money. And so you pay that and then on and on it goes. They string you along for as long as they can.

In 2007, Americans reported losing $15 million to this particular email scam. And the real number may be more like a $100 million, according to the federal government's Internet Crime Complaint Center, which says that the average loss to each victim is about $2,000.

Though, and here's the reason why I'm bringing all this up, it is rare for anybody to be arrested for this. The thieves are hard to catch because, it turns out, they really are overseas in places that American law enforcement has a hard time reaching. Lots of them are actually in Nigeria, so many that one nickname for this kind of con is to call it a 4-1-9 scam. 4-1-9 is the part of the Nigerian criminal code that deals with fraud.

So into this breach, onto this lawless frontier, where traditional police work has failed, has stepped the vigilantes. Internet vigilantes. The proud. The brave.

Yeawhatever

I live in the Midwest. I'm a 42-year-old software engineer. I've got four children.

Ira Glass

I will identify this man and his friends only with their nom de guerre. His is YeaWhatever and he ran the vigilante action I'm going to tell you about today alongside two of his friends. Jojo, someone below the Mason Dixon line.

Jojo

Yeah, I'm early 20s, single. I am an engineer.

Ira Glass

And there's Professor So And So out in a Western state.

Professor So And So

I'm 31 years old and I have a four-year-old daughter.

Ira Glass

Three of these guys met on the discussion boards of a website called 419eater.com. That 4-1-9 in the name, yes, refers to the Nigerian criminal code. This is the website where internet vigilantes like themselves compare stories, and share victories, and swap trade secrets on how to get the email scammers.

And this spring and summer, these three guys ran an operation against the scammers that not only exceeded all expectations, they became kind of an internet sensation in their community, scoring more page views than anything comparable. But it also raised some interesting questions about whether these internet vigilantes, these self-appointed enforcers, go too far.

Chances are you may have heard of guys who do this. They've been around for a while. They call themselves baiters, or scam baiters, because they bait the con men into doing all kinds of ridiculous things. They convince them to get funny tattoos or build pyramids out of sandbags or pose for embarrassing photos.

On YouTube, you can watch some West African email scammers perform on video an old Monty Python sketch about a dead parrot. They had been told over email that they could get a pile of money, a scholarship grant, if they were any good.

Man 1

I wish to complain about this parrot that I bought not half an hour ago from this very shop.

Man 2

Oh, yes. Oh, yes. What is wrong with it?

Man 1

I will tell you what is wrong with it.

Man 2

He is dead.

Man 1

No. No. No.

Ira Glass

If you're wondering what good this does anybody, the idea, besides amusing yourself and your friends on the discussion boards and administering some karmic justice, is to waste the con men's time so they have fewer hours in the day to scam people. And the bait that I'm going to tell you about today wasted an astonishing amount of the con man's time, maybe more than any bait ever.

It began when somebody on the discussion board got ahold of a scam email from a Nigerian whose name was supposedly Adamu. He wrote to this Adamu, pretending to be an official from a missionary church, which is a time-tested bait.

Yeawhatever

Well, the way it typically worked was one of these scammers would contact the church. We would write back and say, well, unless you're a member of the church, we really can't get involved in any financial transactions with you, so if you want to become a member, great, otherwise good luck with your transaction. Then they decide that they want the money really bad. They join the church and we just plan from there.

Ira Glass

The idea, YeaWhatever says, is to get the scammer off of his script for what's going to happen and onto theirs, which worked with this guy Adamu.

Yeawhatever

Well, we got him totally in a different direction. We offered him grant money to start a church in Nigeria.

Ira Glass

And how much did you offer him?

Yeawhatever

$200,000.

Ira Glass

But if Adamu wanted to get the $200,000, they told him, he would have to take a trip, a long trip, from Lagos, Nigeria to a completely different country, Chad. When baiters send a con man on this kind of trip, they refer to it as a safari. It's a wild goose chase, basically, but, of course, that's not what they told Adamu.

They invented an entire cast of made-up characters who started emailing and occasionally telephoning Adamu. All of them were part of this church that they had invented. There was a Reverend Benjamin who informed Adamu that, if Adamu could somehow make it to Chad, there was a missionary named Hamden there and a translator named Eric who would meet him and drive him to where he would get the $200,000. Here's Jojo.

Jojo

We basically said, what you need to do is you need to get a one-way ticket from Nigeria to N'Djamena, Chad, which is right on the border of Nigeria. It's about 800 or 900 miles away. You don't need to worry about clothes or food, because once you get there, everything's going to be provided for you.

And we're going to send our missionary, Hamden. We're going to send him to pick you up in N'Djamena, and you're going to leave with the $200,000. You know, everything's going to be taken care of once you get to N'Djamena.

Ira Glass

To help the church representatives recognize Adamu in the town square in N'Djamena, they ask Adamu to wear a white robe and a bright pink sash, and hold a sign with a slightly obscene message about Muhammad, this in the middle of a Muslim country.

Now, to give you a sense of what Chad is like, somebody posted on the scam baiter discussion board the official travel advisory for Chad that was issued by the Canadian government. It describes the entire country as unstable. Possible clashes between rebels and government troops, it says. Civil unrest and violent incidents can occur at all times, including in N'Djamena, Adamu's first stop. There are live mine fields. There are roaming armed militias. There are bandits.

Yeawhatever

Yeah, it's very dangerous.

Ira Glass

And then are you trying to get him hurt or are you just trying to scare him?

Professor So And So

No, we're not trying to get him hurt.

Yeawhatever

We're not trying to get him hurt, but it's really just isolating him. What we wanted to do is just isolate him, get him out there, cut off from any ability to communicate with potential real-life victims, and keep him there as long as we could.

Ira Glass

And on April 1st, they start getting emails from Adamu saying that he has arrived in Chad, but there is nobody there to meet him. They email back, explaining that Hamden's car broke down on the road halfway between N'Djamena and a town called Abeche, and that's why Hamden isn't there to pick him up.

And right away, Adamu writes back to them saying his situation is pretty rough. He's traveling, by the way, with a man who he identifies as his brother, who may or may not be his real brother.

Jojo

This is an excerpt from something on April 3rd. "Please, I am not OK here. Since four days now, I am stranded in N'Djamena. The worst is I don't have single money with me here. Please--" [LAUGHS] You know, it's hard to read these without even laughing. "Please, for God's sake, tell Hamden to come today or latest tomorrow. No food for me. No water to drink, because of the language problem. No English, only Arabic language and Hausa. That is why I come with my brother that can speak Hausa but not Arabic. I am very, very hungry."

Ira Glass

And he writes in another email around the same time, "You call me as soon as you reach. Please. No food, no water since four days now." What do you think's really happening? Do you really believe that he has no food and no water?

Professor So And So

No.

Jojo

Nope. I mean, he's got money to check the internet. You know, what kind of priorities are those? These guys are used to telling lies for a living. I don't disagree that it probably is pretty bad there, but he's not as hungry as he claims.

Ira Glass

For the next few weeks, the truth of Adamu's situation, as best as they can figure, is this. He's living at the bus station, sleeping outside, still in the same clothes he arrived in. He has a little money to email them from the internet cafe, but very soon his cellphone dies.

This is pretty much exactly the kind of misery that the baiters had hoped to inflict in the first place. And on the discussion boards with their peers, there's a lot of high-fiving and celebration. "Ha ha ha. I love this," somebody writes. "I almost feel sorry for him, but not really."

And at this point, the baiters move to phase two of their plan. N'Djamena is bad, but now they do everything they can to convince Adamu to come to Abeche, 400 miles further from home, and 400 miles closer to a part of the world you've probably heard of, Darfur, which is just on the other side of the border between Chad and Sudan. Phase two will take him to the town of Abeche, which is still in Chad but less than 100 miles from the border. Conditions there are much more dangerous than in N'Djamena.

If he hits Abeche, Professor So And So writes on the discussion board, he is more screwed than he can even imagine. To lure him there, they send him fake receipts for Western Union money transfers that he can only pick up at the Western Union office in Abeche. They try to convince him to join Hamden, whose car is supposedly still stuck halfway to Abeche.

And YeaWhatever writes an email, pretending to be Eric, the church's translator, talking about how great it is all going to be once he gets to Abeche. If YeaWhatever and his buddies sound surprisingly gleeful as they talk about this, well, we'll get to that.

Yeawhatever

"Brother Adamu, you'll be happy to know that Abeche is a quiet, very small town, just a couple hundred people. Unlike N'Djamena, everything in Abeche is easy to find and everyone there is far more friendly." Really not true, but--

"We live in a building exactly 20 meters to the west of the UN office. It's easy to find that building. It is the only building in the center of town that has satellite dishes all over it." We don't really know if there is such a building, but we thought it sounded nice.

"Anyhow, everyone knows us in Abeche. All you need to do is ask for Hamden or me. Everyone knows us. I look forward to finally meeting you and your brother. This has taken way too long already. I'm sure that both you and your brother are looking forward to the plane ride back home."

Ira Glass

So you're trying to get him to Abeche, and at one point you actually email him saying, OK, the guy's coming today with the car. And then he doesn't answer that email fast enough, and then you email him again saying, where were you? We sent the guy with the car.

Professor So And So

We actually had the driver call him. I asked--

Ira Glass

You had him call him?

Professor So And So

Yeah, another baiter. I asked him if he would make the call. So he had voice modulation software and software that he could add sounds, so he put a sound of, like, a busy street on and called as the driver freaking out on him about not being able to find him and waiting two hours.

Driver

Wait a minute. I've been trying to call this number for two hours. I went there to pick you up, ain't nobody there. And damn it, I'm crotchety. You know what? He gave me some money to give to you. I'm on my way back now. I'm leaving.

Professor So And So

He told him he was keeping the money, and then we had to follow up and let him know exactly what happened. He missed the driver.

Ira Glass

So that's just to make him feel as bad as possible, it seems.

Professor So And So

It was his fault.

Yeawhatever

Oh, right.

Professor So And So

It's to make it his fault, you know, essentially.

Jojo

That's one thing we like to do, is it's never anyone's-- well, it's never any of our fault. It's always their fault. It's not our fault. It's Western Union's fault. It's not our fault that you didn't get the email. The driver was there. You know, so we create this illusion that we are being so very compliant with everything they're asking for.

Ira Glass

This technique is exactly what the scammers do themselves. They tell you that they are doing everything possible to help you get your money. But there's always one more problem that prevents you from getting the big payout, one more hoop to go through. The scam baiters are like cops, taking the same tactics as the criminals.

Ira Glass

Don't they recognize the fact that you're using the same technique on them that they use on the people who they're scamming?

Professor So And So

It baffles us. You would think they would, but they don't. You would think so.

Yeawhatever

Well, the obvious difference with us is we're not asking for money. We're just asking him to travel from one place to another, so maybe that's enough for them not to see it. It seems to work time and time again.

Jojo

And then once you get him isolated, once you get him, you know, somewhere like N'Djamena, well, they really don't have an option but to believe. You know, it's the same mentality that some of these victims have. They've sent so much, they've gone this far, that they can't really turn back at this point.

Ira Glass

In a thread on your discussion board, people talk about this victim mentality. Once you've given up some money or some time to actually believe that it's a scam, it's just too horrible to think about, and it's just easier to think, oh, this is going to work out.

Professor So And So

Right. And I think the same thing holds true with them.

Ira Glass

The guys managed to keep Adamu and his brother waiting in N'Djamena for 21 days, which is an incredibly long time for one of these scam bait safaris. Usually they just last a day or two. And they are nowhere near finished.

They do manage to convince Adamu to go to Abeche, where conditions, as predicted, are much, much worse. Adamu gets there by telling a driver that he will pay the driver $500 when they arrive in Abeche. All they have to do is go to the Western Union office in Abeche, where, supposedly, money is waiting for them, sent by the church.

Though, of course, when they show up, something is wrong with the paperwork at Western Union. They have no money to give the driver, who gets angry. Adamu writes increasingly desperate emails to his friends in the fake church. Each one begins with a pleading reminder that they are at the cyber cafe on Hospital Road, waiting for the church officials to finally arrive and rescue them.

Jojo

"My life is in great danger here because of the driver that has brought us here have not been pay and he is treating our life."

Ira Glass

Threatening, I guess.

Jojo

These are being read as written, so--

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Jojo

"Now there is tension--" [LAUGHS] "there is tension all over my body because of the driver threating me of his money. Save me from the driver hand, because he is increase his money every day. I and my brother have been with him now for five days in Abeche."

Ira Glass

And do you think it's possible at this point that the driver is threatening them? That seems like it could be possible, right?

Yeawhatever

Yes, completely.

Professor So And So

Definitely.

Jojo

Oh, yeah. I mean, I don't doubt that one bit. I mean, it's his phone they're using. He's paying for cafe time.

Ira Glass

Now, you write underneath this on the bulletin board posting, Jojo, "These are some of the funniest emails I've ever seen." And I want to ask you about this, because on the discussion board, as you're posting this day-by-day as it's happening, people all through it are saying, "This is knee-slappingly funny stuff. I am laughing so hard at these emails."

You post on the bulletin board, saying, "If the following email doesn't make you laugh out loud, then we would never have fun hanging out. This is pure poetry to me." And the email is, "I am begging you in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, I and my brother are still waiting for you in Abeche in the only cyber cafe along Hospital Road. We are waiting for you. We are still here since the driver is not happy about us. Please come so that we will be free from his hand. Please. Thank you. I am waiting."

Professor So And So

That's just gold.

Ira Glass

Can I ask you? I think that this is just an area where I am not going to see eye to eye on this. I don't see what's funny about this.

Jojo

Yeah, you've got to realize, again, these guys are overly dramatic. I understand that it is, you know, it's not the safest place in the world, but this is just a bit of drama here.

Yeawhatever

Well, again, these are not nice people, you know? And if you've been dealing with people like this as long as we have, you might find some humor in this. But I guess to people who don't do what we do, this might be a bit shocking and maybe not so funny. But again, we deal with people like this all the time, and they will tell you any lie possible to get money out of you. And they want their money and they'll do whatever it takes to get it.

Ira Glass

In all, Adamu and his brother wait for the church officials to show up at the cyber cafe on Hospital Road for nearly three months, all of May, and all of June, and most of July. Meanwhile, the baiters switch tactics against them over and over. They keep sending Adamu into the Western Union office to pick up money transfers that never go through. Once, they send him in with a note written in Arabic, a language Adamu does not speak, to show the clerk. Here's what the note says.

Jojo

I am a criminal. Please arrest me. I hate Muhammad and Mecca is a hell hole. I love Israel. I love George Bush. I think he should invade Chad and remove this ugly country off the map. Muhammad is a demonic pedophile. I hate Muslims. I hate Chad. I hate this country and its people. I'm about to rob this place.

Ira Glass

Do you know if he actually showed this to the Western Union person?

Jojo

He did not show it to the Western Union person.

Professor So And So

Nothing happened.

Yeawhatever

We were hoping at that point to get him arrested.

Professor So And So

I don't think he really brought it there. No way.

Ira Glass

At some point during this time in Abeche, Adamu starts saying that his brother is injured. His brother's leg was hurt, Adamu says, when they fled a rebel battle. To find out what was true and what was just another lie, I tried to contact Adamu by email and by telephone. I got some help from a Nigerian journalist in Lagos. He talked to Adamu several times, tried to convince him to come on the air, and give his side of this whole story. Adamu refused. He said he knew nothing about this, that we must have the wrong man.

But back when Adamu was still in Abeche, the baiters came up with a way to intercept the emails that Adamu sent to two guys who appear to be his bosses back home in Nigeria, and also to intercept the emails that those two guys sent to him.

This is one of the emails that Adamu sends to those guys back home about all this. Remember, he has no idea that the baiters are reading his private emails, so this is about as close as we ever get to seeing how bad his situation really was. Professor So And So reads.

Professor So And So

Dear CZ, we are in great danger now. Please, can you call [? Annie ?] to go and borrow money for us, because brother is in danger if he die here? All of us are in a big problem.

Ira Glass

And jump down to the next one where he's writing ND.

Professor So And So

Sure. Dear ND, ND, we are not happy with your email you send to us. I told you that we are in danger here in Chad and brother broke his leg because of the attack, the rebel attack us here. We escaped by god help and there's no one to assist us. We are sleeping outside since in the desert. Please, ND, don't let us die here because of transport money to come back home. Please.

Ira Glass

And so, do you think the brother's leg is hurt?

Professor So And So

I don't know.

Jojo

I don't know. I do think there might be something to that, because that is kind of a recurring theme.

Professor So And So

Well, in the last call that I had with Adamu, he was explaining about how his brother got really sick and, you know, they were having a hard time begging for medication money. And there was something in his voice when I was talking with him that I actually did believe that something happened.

Jojo

Yeah. He's there a total of 106 days, he's gone from home. And then when we were talking with him on the phone one day, I think he's just kind of given up hope. You know, he doesn't have money to check his email. I think he's just kind of frustrated at the way things have gone. And we end up telling him that his mother died, which was a pretty big deal. He hasn't really been in contact with home, as far as we know.

Yeawhatever

At that point, we were just kind of getting bored with him. I mean, there wasn't much else we could do with him. We knew he wasn't going to travel anywhere else. I don't know. We had nothing to lose and thought, why not?

Ira Glass

Don't you think that's kind of harsh, telling somebody that their mother's dead?

Yeawhatever

Yeah, that's a little creepy. I don't know. We were talking one morning and I don't remember who came up with the idea, but it didn't sit right for a minute or two, and I thought, well, why not? So we went with it.

Jojo

But think about the irony of this. That's one thing that's kind of funny, was the response on the forum. You know, the same people that were like, oh, this is great, this is hilarious, you sent him to Chad, oh, I can't believe you've fictitiously killed his mom.

Professor So And So

Right. That's going too far.

Jojo

Sending him to Chad and the border of Darfur is fine--

Professor So And So

Which is real.

Jojo

--but fictitiously killing his mom, oh, that's, you know, that's harsh.

Yeawhatever

Kind of struck me odd, too.

Ira Glass

Right, but it's like you're playing with his heart when you're talking about his mom.

Professor So And So

Right.

Ira Glass

Somehow that seems like it's out of the game. Like, you're sending him on a goose chase to get $200,000 that he's trying to steal from a church. OK, you know, you're sort of playing his game with him. But to tell him about his mom, that's just like-- it's so personal.

Yeawhatever

I know. And I know it does sound kind of creepy at first. But again, we've been dealing with people like this for years and, I don't know, maybe we've just become jaded over time. But I don't know, it doesn't really bother me when we pull something like this on a guy, because his mom's not really dead.

Ira Glass

Every now and then in the 106 days in the discussion boards, their peers would tentatively raise questions about the ethics of what they were doing, of intentionally sending somebody like Adamu, a petty thief who all these guys see as inexperienced and naive, to the most violent place they could with no money or even a change of clothes.

One poster writes, "At this point I wonder to myself, what would make me feel sorry for a lad," meaning for one of these guys. And somebody responds, "Call me a no fun lad hugger, but I reached that point early on. Yes, he is a scammer and scumwad. On the other hand, he is also, technically speaking, a human being, and I've been wincing whenever anybody gleefully expresses the possibility that he might die. Don't get me wrong. I'm laughing my head off. But I'm also feeling a little bit uneasy as I'm laughing." Somebody else writes, "He could seriously get killed. Am I bad for thinking that's pretty cool?"

Professor So And So

Right, I remember reading that.

Ira Glass

What's your reaction to that?

Yeawhatever

Well, I think people come up with these hypothetical scenarios in their brain. I mean, honestly, Ira, you're in New York City, I assume, and you could get killed there. I mean, people get killed everywhere every day.

Ira Glass

I know, but you're specifically sending him to a place where there's violence and where there's warnings not to go there and you're putting him in a dangerous situation. Like, well, what if he did get killed? I mean, do you fear that? If that happened, would you feel like, oh, we went too far?

Yeawhatever

Well, I understand this is not going to make me the most popular guy in the world, but it wouldn't really bother me all that much to be honest with you. These guys are pure scum as far as I'm concerned. And they don't have to go there. We just kind of put the bait out there and they went for it. These people think they're stealing from a church and stealing from humanitarian workers, so if they got killed, well, it's two less scammers in the world.

Ira Glass

And, Jojo, what do you think?

Jojo

You know, I don't know that I would sleep greatly at night if I knew that, but I wouldn't feel responsible. I would feel like their greed led them there, that they chose to get up and go to Abeche.

Ira Glass

But it wouldn't have-- if one of them were to get really, really hurt or killed, like, it wouldn't have happened except for you.

Yeawhatever

It wouldn't have happened if it hadn't been for them. You seem to be taking that out of the equation. It's their scamming, it's their falling for this and trying to rip us off that got them into it.

Ira Glass

Of course, Adamu could say exactly the same thing about his victims, about the Americans who fall for his email scams, that it's their own greed, trying to snag millions from a Nigerian bank, that gets them into it. If at this point you're wondering why this is the cause that these three guys took as their own, why they feel so strongly about this particular issue versus all the possible injustices they could be fighting, they all say they just kind of fell into it. None of these guys has personally lost money in an email scam, though they all know about people who've lost lots of money. YeaWhatever says he talked to a guy in Florida who just lost his house, was in tears, asking for help, but nothing could be done for him.

Knowing that this radio story about them was going to be on the air in the last couple of days, they started talking, naturally, about the radio story on their discussion board. YeaWhatever wrote, "I'm sure that we'll be painted to look like ass [BLEEP], but I am totally OK with that. We are ass [BLEEP]." Professor So And So agreed. "Big time ass [BLEEP]."

Professor So And So, by the way, is the only one of these three baiters who has ever had any second thoughts about anything they did in this bait, maybe because he's the least experienced. He's been baiting for less than a year. At first, Professor So And So says, he wasn't so sure that they should tell Adamu that his mom was dead.

Professor So And So

Well, it was interesting to really just kind of analyze as I was feeling. It's like, why does that feel like that? I mean, I knew it was something that I wanted to do, and I knew it was because it was really just-- I don't know. It was something that--

Yeawhatever

Sadistic?

Professor So And So

Yeah, I guess so. I mean, it was a piece of psychological torture, that-- I think the feeling that he would have, you know, at that moment being so far and so isolated and so out of touch and, you know, at this point it was purely psychological, what we were doing.

Ira Glass

And then what made you then go ahead and do it if you had the hesitation?

Professor So And So

Well, because the hesitation wasn't stronger than, I guess, the desire to leave him with that feeling for even a short period of time.

Ira Glass

Not long after they told Adamu that his mother had died, he must have called home and learned the truth. After that, the guys say, he seemed to understand that something fishy was going on.

They lost contact with him. Pretty soon he managed to get home to Nigeria, which is where he is now back in business trying to do his email scams, which we know because Jojo is still in contact with him. Jojo's got a different bait going now. Jojo's posing this time as a single dad named Pancho Villa.

Jojo

I just got an email from him today. He's asking for his $10,000 fee. And I told him, I said, my daughter is very sick and she's in the hospital. I said, I either have the choice to pay my daughter's hospital bills and pay for her treatment or I can send the money to you.

Here's his response, "Let me advise you on the best possible things you should do. Right now, I will advise you to go to the bank, withdraw the money in there, and take it to pay for the consignment fees first. As soon as you pay this, you will use the rest of the money to pay the hospital bill."

So there he is. He thinks that there's a little girl dying, and his solution is no, no, send me the $10,000, let the girl die, and everything will be OK.

Ira Glass

Jojo says that when Adamu does stuff like this, it's easy not to feel sorry for him for what they did to him in Chad. In the days since Jojo read me that email in the studio, Adamu started to suspect that Pancho Villa was a fake. He got furious and accused Pancho of being the same guy who'd screwed with him back in Chad.

He wrote an email saying, "Don't ever in your life email me again because you are a fraudster, old thief. You will die a shameful death. You're a criminal from the poorest country in Africa, Chad." In other words, he thinks Jojo lives in Chad. He thinks he's an African.

And although he's got that detail wrong, when it comes to Adamu's bigger point, that everything that happened to him in Chad was at the hands of somebody exactly like himself, a fellow email scammer, somebody who tricks people and strings them along, on that point he's exactly right.

Coming up, the dirtiest-sounding financial thing you can do on Wall Street, and I am not talking about asset strippers. That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Two. Now You Sec Me, Now You Don't.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our show, of course, we choose a theme and bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show, Enforcers.

You know, enforcers come in two broad categories. There are vigilantes and there are cops of one kind or another. And we're about to make a leap from one group to the other. We've arrived at act two of our show. Act Two, Now You SEC Me, Now You Don't.

For a long time now in America, whenever there's been a financial upheaval, a big financial crisis, the three different federal agencies that deal with the financial system have to figure out which of them, who is going to be the enforcer, who is going to step in and fix things.

But in the recent financial turmoil we've been going through in this country, including the news this week about Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Alex Blumberg reports that one of the three guys supposedly in charge of policing our economy has been notably absent.

Alex Blumberg

The chairman of the SEC, the Securities and Exchange Commission, is often referred to as Wall Street's top cop. And this past year, a year in which the global financial system seemed perpetually on the verge of collapse, a collapse due in large part to complex, unprecedented, and, as we now know, extremely risky financial products created and sold on Wall Street, you might expect to be hearing a lot from Wall Street's main enforcer.

But Christopher Cox, the current chairman of the SEC, has been noticeably absent from any public house cleaning. Instead, it's been two other government officials who've done the heavy lifting, the Chairman of the Fed, Ben Bernanke, and of course, the Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Paulson, who's been all over television this past week talking about the most recent crisis, the bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

These three men have made regular and frequent appearances before various House and Senate banking and finance committees, the three horsemen of the financial apocalypse. But Christopher Cox can sometimes seem like less a third horseman and more a third wheel.

Witness a June 23rd article on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, titled "SEC Chief Under Fire As Fed Seeks Bigger Wall Street Role." The article starts off by describing a 5:00 AM conference call that took place in March between the country's top financial regulators. The topic of the phone call was what to do about the investment bank, Bear Stearns, which was about to collapse and possibly set in motion a global financial meltdown.

The article describes the events after the phone call this way, quote, "When they were done, the Treasury Secretary informed the President. The head of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York called Bear Stearns. Christopher Cox, Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, didn't call anyone." Though the SEC was Bear Stearns regulator, he didn't take part in the meeting. In an interview, Mr. Cox said, the time of the call changed overnight and no one told him.

The article goes on to describe how the next night Cox missed the negotiations over what to do with Bear Stearns because he was at a birthday party. And how the day after that, he missed another conference call announcing the sale of Bear Stearns. The following weekend, he left town on a family vacation.

So this was the backdrop in July, when the various crises gripping Wall Street and the nation's financial system suddenly took yet another turn for the worse. And Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac entered the stage for the first time.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, despite having names that a child might give to a puppy, are-- well, were-- two of the most important financial institutions in the American economy. They are involved in roughly 70% of the mortgages issued in the US today. If they collapsed, the housing market would come to an effective standstill, which is why, rather than let that happen, the government took them over last weekend.

But back in July, when this story takes place, the failure of Fannie and Freddie had just started to seem like a possibility. Their stock price was tanking, had lost over 60% of its value in just one week. And so the government was trying to figure out what to do.

Mr. Chairman

Chairman Cox.

Christopher Cox

Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman, Senator Shelby and members of the committee for this opportunity to describe the SEC's actions to deal with the recent developments in our financial markets.

Alex Blumberg

This is Chairman Cox testifying before the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs. Now, at this meeting, he's announcing his very first emergency action of this entire economic crisis. In fact, it's the only emergency action he's taken as SEC chairman. It's his first and boldest step onto the national stage as an enforcer. On this day, he's announcing an order aimed at stopping a particular Wall Street practice, a practice with a provocative name.

Christopher Cox

Today the commission will issue an order designed to enhance protections against naked short selling in the securities of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Alex Blumberg

You probably don't know what naked short selling is. I certainly didn't. And to understand it, you have to understand its upstanding cousin, regular short selling. Now, regular short selling is perfectly legal and incredibly common. It's just a way of making money if you think a stock price is about to go down in value.

Here's how it works. Say I think IBM is headed for a fall. I find someone who owns a whole bunch of IBM stock, and I say to that person, can I borrow 1,000 shares. The person says, fine, and lends me the shares, which I immediately sell on the market. Later, maybe a couple of hours or days or weeks, I go back on the market, buy back the 1,000 shares of IBM and return them to my lender.

If I'm right and the stock has gone down, then I've made money. I sold for, say, $10 a share, but bought back at $5 a share. I pay the lender a small fee and I get to keep the difference. It's pretty straightforward, and happens millions of times a day on Wall Street.

It gets confusing, as things so often do, when you get to the naked part. Everyone I talked to initially about this story explained it to me this way. Naked short selling, they said, is the same as regular short selling, except that you don't actually borrow the stock first. But that doesn't make any sense. How can I sell something that I haven't borrowed?

Jim Coffman

My name is Jim Coffman. I'm retired from the Securities and Exchange Commission. I used to run investigations in the enforcement division there.

Alex Blumberg

And how long did you work there?

Jim Coffman

26, almost 27 years.

Alex Blumberg

OK. This is the thing that I think that's hard for civilians to understand, is when you short sell, you borrow the stock from somebody, you sell it at the current price, you wait for the price to go down, you buy it back, and then you give the stock back to who you borrowed it from. When you naked short sell, you haven't borrowed the stock yet.

Jim Coffman

That's right.

Alex Blumberg

What are you selling?

Jim Coffman

You're selling the stock.

Alex Blumberg

But you don't have the stock.

Jim Coffman

It doesn't matter. It would be no different, in many respects, than selling a car that you don't own. You get the money, you put it in your pocket, and you don't deliver the car. In some circumstances that would be considered-- that is, selling an item you don't own would be considered a criminal activity. That's not true in the stock market.

Alex Blumberg

And why is that not true in the stock market?

Jim Coffman

Uh. To paraphrase a presidential candidate, that's not in my pay grade.

Alex Blumberg

It turns out that naked short selling is one of those crazy corners of the financial system that when you come upon it for the first time, you can't believe it actually works that way.

The whole thing started back when stocks were actual paper slips that stock boys ran back and forth across Wall Street in wheelbarrows. In those days, if I called my broker and I said I wanted to short a stock, my broker would pour himself a scotch and say, I see, old man, have you borrowed it yet? And I'd say, no, not yet, but when I do, I'll have my boy run it over in a wheelbarrow. And then my broker would say, well, fine then, old chap. I'll go ahead and sell it.

Despite the fact that everything is done on computer today, that old system is still more or less in place, meaning it's still possible to call my broker and have him sell shares that I don't own and haven't borrowed and have the money still show up in my account. And whoever bought the phantom shares I sold has those shares credited to their account. Then something called the clearing and settlement system gets stuck with the headache of following up on it all.

If the shares that I sold continue not to show up for three days, the settlement and clearing system declares what's called a fail to deliver. The buyer still owns the stock that never really existed, and I still keep the money from the sale of the stock that never really existed. The only one who's harangued is my broker.

Jim Coffman

The clearing agent contacts the seller's broker and says, you have a fail here, and tells them that, you know, they need to settle that up in x number of days. I think it's 13 days or something like that. The broker may or may not do that.

If the broker doesn't do that, they'll continue to get nasty calls and nasty letters, but that's about the size of it. And some brokers, depending on the nature of the broker and depending on the importance of the customer who has sold the shares short to that broker, may or may not bother to obtain shares and deliver them out.

Alex Blumberg

Here's the thing, though. Most fails, the vast majority, eventually do clear, and the ones that don't are just a tiny fraction of the total market, where over a billion shares can trade every day. In the 20-plus years that Jim Coffman worked at the SEC, he did investigate and even bring enforcement actions against naked short sellers. But it was for the most part, he says, a fringe activity that took place in the markets murkier corners. To Jim Coffman, the notion that naked short selling by itself could bring down multi-billion dollar companies, like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, just doesn't make sense.

Jim Coffman

Was there naked short selling in those entities? I have little doubt that there probably was, but it was far, far, far from being the primary cause for the decline in the prices of those securities.

Alex Blumberg

And so it was mystifying to Jim Coffman and all sorts of people who follow the SEC that several days after testifying on Capitol Hill, Chairman Cox made good on the promise to go after naked short selling, and came out with his promised emergency order preventing it.

The emergency order was unusual, because instead of banning naked short selling across the board, Cox outlawed the practice only when it came to the stock of 19 specific companies, which he listed in the order. There's Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and 17 banks and brokerages, like Merrill Lynch and Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley and a bunch of other big names on Wall Street. And it was only a temporary ban lasting less than a month.

Lynn Turner was a chief accountant at the SEC for over 25 years. He's retired now, but he recalls how mystified he was when he heard about the order for the first time.

Lynn Turner

I recall it because I was actually over in Utah fly fishing with a bunch of other people who had been at the SEC, and I think we were all somewhat amazed by the whole situation. But certainly, it was talked a lot around the dinner table.

It seemed to be strange that the SEC would be taking this particular path to trying to deal with the subprime crisis, when obviously there were other bigger issues out there. The SEC was just dealing with what seemed to be almost a sideshow of naked short selling.

Alex Blumberg

First of all, says Lynn, naked short selling was already basically illegal. A regulation passed in 2004 by the SEC required brokers to have a commitment to borrow shares before they sold them on the market.

In addition, the SEC had the power to investigate all those fails to deliver. They could track down the people who didn't deliver the stock and prosecute them under existing law. And if you really wanted to further tighten regulations, there were much better ways of going about it.

Lynn Turner

You could simply adopt a rule here that said, on the date you sell these shares short, you've got to deliver the shares, just like when you buy shares, someone has to deliver to you on that day when you go long. It is a very simple, common sense fix. And I see no reason that the SEC couldn't do it, and I think it's a lot better than all of a sudden trying to come out with exemptive orders that apply to just 19 companies.

Alex Blumberg

And this was the strangest thing of all. If naked short selling is bad, then presumably it's bad for everyone. Why protect just 19 companies while leaving the rest of the corporate world exposed to this alleged danger?

The SEC wouldn't talk to me for this story. They directed me to an op-ed that Chairman Cox had written, trying to explain his actions to a confused and skeptical public. In it he writes this, quote "The emergency order is not a response to unbridled naked short selling, which so far has not occurred. Rather, it is intended as a preventative step to help restore market confidence at a time when that is sorely needed."

In other words, he singled out 19 companies for protection from an already illegal practice that hadn't actually happened. How that's supposed to protect market confidence, he doesn't explain. Here's Lynn Turner.

Lynn Turner

You've just got to wonder whether-- you know, what was the real motive here? And I think the real motive was not so much to protect the markets, and not so much to protect the average investor, but to protect particular companies. And when you've got the regulator trying to protect particular companies and deciding who can or who cannot trade, that's no longer a free market.

Alex Blumberg

There's another way of looking at all of this, the way, presumably, Christopher Cox is looking at it, that this is, in fact, just the help the free market needs. This is an extraordinary time, this argument goes, and it calls for extraordinary measures. These 19 companies are so central to the operation of the global financial system that they deserve special treatment. The stakes are too high to let them fail, and we can't trust the market to ensure that they won't.

But the problem is that's totally inconsistent with Cox's philosophy up until this point. If Chairman Cox had wanted to step in with the power of government, the last couple of years have presented ample opportunities that arguably would have been much less intrusive and that would have had the added benefit of fixing some of the problems that got us here in the first place.

For example, says Jim Coffman, the former SEC investigator, it's a basic principle of economics that the market works best when buyers and sellers have good information about what's being bought and sold. But because of accounting loopholes, companies can keep potentially damaging information off their balance sheets, hidden from investors.

Jim Coffman

And the fact is there wasn't accurate and complete information in the marketplace, because the SEC didn't require them to disclose that information. So instead of requiring the disclosure of information that would remove the uncertainty from the marketplace and make it much easier for people to price securities fairly, the commission banned naked short selling.

Alex Blumberg

Another issue, says former SEC Chief Accountant Lynn Turner, is the credit rating agencies. OK, again, a little explanation. Credit rating agencies, as their name suggests, rate things, bonds and securities and specifically for our story, a type of security called a CDO, which is the thing that set in motion this entire financial crisis.

Now, Wall Street created these CDOs, and it wanted the credit rating agencies to give them high ratings, in essence, to declare them safe for investors. The problem is, A, they weren't safe, and, B, the rating agencies were paid by the same Wall Street firms whose securities they were rating, a clear conflict of interest. So if a Wall Street firm doesn't like the rating one agency gives it, it can just switch to another agency.

And during the housing bubble, when lots and lots of these securities were being created, there was a ton of money to be made, a huge incentive for the rating agencies to give high ratings. And the rating agencies were pulling in record amounts of money.

Lynn Turner

In a hearing-- I believe it was the spring time-- Chairman Cox from the SEC was questioned about that by Senator Shelby from Alabama and Senator Jack Reed from Rhode Island. And they asked the Chairman during the testimony, wouldn't he like to have legislation that would fix that and would give him the additional powers to be able to change those policies and procedures or demand changes in them when appropriate? And to that Chairman Cox responded, no.

Mr. Chairman

I think the point that you do not feel the statute gives you the authority to examine the substance of the credit ratings or the procedures and methodologies, would you want that authority given the situation we've seen in the marketplace?

Christopher Cox

No, Mr. Chairman, at this juncture it's my judgment that you and the Congress have struck a sound balance.

Lynn Turner

And I think it just basically astounded the two senators, and I think most people, if they were aware of that, would be astounded by it as well.

Alex Blumberg

They were basically saying, we will write you whatever legislation you need to go after this problem.

Lynn Turner

Yes, that's exactly right.

Mr. Chairman

It seems to me, too, you have to have an interest that these agencies are consistently producing credit ratings with integrity. And how do you accomplish that unless you're able to go in and look at the substance of their procedures and methodologies?

Christopher Cox

Well, as I say, I think that you and the Congress have struck the proper balance here, because--

Mr. Chairman

Well, at least in terms of discussion, that's on the table.

Christopher Cox

Yes, of course.

Alex Blumberg

At another point during this hearing, Senator Reed asks Chairman Cox whether he needs more money for enforcement. Again, the chairman declines.

Senator Reed

Do you feel, Mr. Chairman, that the amount that you're going to be given here is enough resources to effectively oversee the securities markets? And if not, would you share with the committee what you believe you're going to need?

Christopher Cox

I think overall the nearly billion dollars that Congress has provided us in the latest budget is ample.

Alex Blumberg

The ranking Republican on this committee, Richard Shelby, is a recipient of the Spirit of Enterprise Award from the US Chamber of Commerce, a man very easily described as a pro-business, anti-regulation conservative. But the current financial turmoil has made those old labels a little unreliable, which in turn has made things like Senate banking subcommittee hearings very odd affairs, where you can be treated to the strange spectacle of one pro-business Republican, Richard Shelby, arguing with another pro-business Republican, Christopher Cox, about the need for stronger regulation and enforcement of the markets. It's especially strange, because the one arguing against this regulation is the chief regulator. Here's Senator Shelby laying down the law.

Senator Shelby

I hope that you, in your leadership with the other commissioners, will do the job that needs to be done. We're at a crisis here. If the SEC's not going to do the job, somebody else will have to do the job.

Alex Blumberg

Christopher Cox, like a lot of people in government these days, has an ideological opposition to government regulation. The market, in his view, will correct itself. Credit rating agencies with bad ratings, for example, will eventually go out of business. Essentially, he trusts the market to get things right more than he trusts the government.

He holds that view almost across the board, except when it comes to 19 banks and brokerages on Wall Street. But in this case, he should have trusted his instincts, because the government intervention did indeed botch the job. When Cox's emergency order expired in mid-August, the stock prices for most of the companies he was trying to protect were actually lower than when the order first went into effect. And we all know what happened to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Alex Blumberg. He's one of the producers of our program. His story is going to be on NPR'S new Planet Money podcast, which came about after our Global Pool of Money show, the show that Alex did on the mortgage crisis with NPR's Adam Davidson. They're doing a couple new stories a week in the spirit of that show, the Planet Money podcast. To find that, go to npr.org/money.

This song, by the way, is called "I Go Chop Your Dollar," very popular, apparently, among some of the email scammers in Nigeria, which is where the song comes from.

Well, our show is produced today by Robyn Semien and Nancy Updike with Alex Blumberg, Jane Feltes, Sarah Koenig, Lisa Pollak, and Alissa Shipp. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Adrianne Mathiowetz runs our website. Production help from Seth Lind and PJ Vogt. Music help from Jessica Hopper.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Joe Kocur's book about life as a hockey enforcer is called The Bruise Brothers, available only at immortalinvestments.com.

To read the full, incredible day-by-day account of baiting Adamu with maps and photos and audio recordings, you can go to 419eater.com, or just follow the link from our website, www.thisamericanlife.org.

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

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WBEZ management over sight by our boss Mr. Torey Malatia. When we forgot to pick him up to go to the Emmy awards ceremony, where we are up for five, yes, five Emmys, he called to say,

Driver

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Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

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