Journal from a federal prison – Day Seven

Wednesday — August 9th


It wasn’t just Malone today. When Malone introduced me to Special Agent Fitzgerald and smiled at me I knew things were about to change. Fitz is the biggest, blackest guy in Arizona. If Malone hated the stories I couldn’t imagine what Fitz would think of baiting African scammers into humiliating themselves. He probably wouldn’t think it is as funny as I think it is. I was more straightforward today.

Malone, Fitz and I went over my computer activity. We talked about the dozen email addresses I had made, the websites I made for fake businesses, and my side hobby of doctoring documents and pictures. A week ago I didn’t want to tell Malone about all of this, but when Fitz brought in my computer and showed me all of the evidence they had pulled off it I changed my mind. I still wasn’t comfortable talking about it but once Fitz showed me the dossier the NSA did on me we got down to business.

“It says here you impersonated the FBI chiefs in Miami and Phoenix, plus a Scotland Yard official in London. Is it true?”

I told him it wasn’t. Technically, I had never impersonated an FBI chief or any government official. Fitz didn’t care for technicalities.

“You told several people you were Alfonso Rivera, did you not?”

He had me there. Alfonso Rivera was the FBI chief in Phoenix. I never said I worked for the FBI though, just that my name was Alfonso Rivera. There are thousands of Alfonso Riveras.

“When you told people you were Alfonso Rivera you also gave them the tip number for the Phoenix FBI office Mr. Rivera is in charge of, did you not?”

I did. This was going downhill quickly. I repeated that I had never said or implied that I was a government agent or had any connection to the FBI but Fitz just gave me the stink eye.

“You said your name was Alfonso Rivera and gave the FBI field office Mr. Rivera is in charge of as your contact number. Remind me how this isn’t impersonating a government official?”

“Enough,” Malone told me as I explained that I actually wanted the scammers to call the FBI field office and ask for the station chief to talk about their money laundering.

“If I pretended to be in the FBI it would have ruined the bait. They couldn’t think that I was in the FBI or Scotland yard or they would have called and told the FBI about their scam. Don’t you see?”

They didn’t see.

Malone and Fitz told me we would talk more after lunch but they never came back.


Previous Entries

Monday — July 31st

There’s no such thing as a “bad” job.

Vacuuming floors and cleaning bathrooms after hours at a law firm wasn’t sexy but was better than the alternative: Not eating. In fact, until last week I was working several jobs to put myself through college– Pastor at Pennsylvania’s Church of the Holy Mackerel, Financial Disbursement Officer at a rehabilitation clinic called Fresh Start Florida, cashier at a taco shop called Picante in Arizona, and Community Outreach Liaison for Dignity First, a homeless advocacy group in London. One of those jobs paid me enough to scrape by in a shared apartment; the others existed only on the internet.

I got the job at Picante after my friend quit. They needed someone willing to work nights and weekends, which nobody else at the University of Arizona wanted to do. I got my others through a series of mistakes, errors, blunders and gaffes. While I still have the fake jobs I invented, Picante fired me after the Department of Homeland Security kicked my door in. Picante’s publicity strategy was more centered on advertising at basketball games than on having employees dragged out of their house by swat teams on CNN. I don’t blame them.

My arrest warrant said Jason Powers, me legal name, but the SWAT team laughed and call me Mike Scott. The gig was up.


Tuesday — August 1st

Nothing but scare tactics for my first day. They said they just wanted to talk but they spent the whole time yelling. Special Agent Malone said he didn’t buy the story. Of course he didn’t. A year ago I wouldn’t have believed it either. Not in my wildest fantasies. But it happened. I thought they’re mostly worried about Muslims and Russians but here I am, wearing orange and being interrogated by some prick from D.C. with the imagination of  potato.

It could be worse though. I think.

That was my first interrogation. I was completely honest and Malone still threw a fit like a kid begging his mom for ice cream. Yes, I’m Jason Powers. I’m also Mike Scott, Dwight “Shrewd” Farmer, and occasionally I’m James Halpert and Pamela B. Easley. I’ve been several other people too but Malone doesn’t need to know about them. If he can’t handle the cast of The Office he certainly shouldn’t open Pandora’s box. He’s not ready.

Hopefully they don’t take away my journal. I’m allowed to have it. I think. Just in case I write at night and keep my papers under my sheet during the day. They psychologists here think I’m more of a flight risk than a suicide risk so they let me keep my sheets. Sometimes it’s the little things in life that make big differences.

I try to think on the positive side. When I get out I’ll have the gnarliest journal ever. How often can the same story work as a capstone project for both Creative Writing and Journalism majors? I might not be the first to try but I’ll certainly be the best. They’ll see.


Wednesday — August 2nd

Finally. My side of the story. Malone figured out that what I said yesterday is all he’s getting out of me without a lawyer present so he relaxed a bit today. Yesterday he couldn’t stop yelling. Today he couldn’t stop laughing. I don’t know if he was laughing at the story or laughing at me for trying to convince him that Mike Scott was all a joke. I guess it doesn’t matter. Laughing was better than yelling. I wouldn’t say Malone was more relaxed, but I certainly was.

He didn’t want to start from the beginning. He just wanted to know about Mike Scott. No context. I gave him some backstory anyways. The details wouldn’t make sense without it, and I would hide behind a lawyer if he demanded I skip the beginning and middle of the story.

“Let’s go on a safari,” I told him.

From there, his eyes told me everything I needed to know about if he was buying the story. On the one hand, I don’t really expect anyone to believe the story. A white guy from Arizona caught up in everything they’re accusing me of? It would sell papers but be remembered only as a punchline. Unfortunately the Department of Homeland Security thinks otherwise and they’re the ones who control my life now.

Let’s go on a safari.


Thursday — August 3rd

I know that nobody enjoys the DHS interviews, but today wasn’t too bad. Having a captive audience is actually pretty cool. Today Malone got to hear about the birth of Mike Scott, and I got to learn what happens when you address a federal law enforcement official without using “sir” or “mister” for his first name. Malone had more fun today than I did.

Since the cat is out of the bag I can write my safari here without being afraid of guards finding my notebook. This is how it all began. This is how I ended up in prison without parole. This is how I got three bounties on my head in two countries. The bounties weren’t technically on my head though, only the warrant was in my legal name. The bounties were for Mike Scott, Zachary Morris, and Jonathan Lennon. I know these people well. They’re me.

The guards are coming. I’ll write more tomorrow.


Friday — August 4th

Oh boy.

Today was my first full day of telling my story. It was more fun telling it to my friends. Malone doesn’t have much of a sense of a humor.

“Here’s how it started,” I told him.

He just stared.

I hadn’t remembered all the hard work it had taken me to get to where I was. Telling it to Malone was humbling. Everyone gets angry at scams; not everybody is on international news for it.

I a year ago I made it a goal of mine to waste their time when they called. Telemarketers, people pretending to be Microsoft Support technicians—I own a Mac—who needed my credit card information to fix my computer. I almost felt bad for the telemarketers. I had considered a telemarketing job before I got hired as a janitor at the law firm. Then they started calling me. Mondays were when they called about time shares. On Wednesdays they sold organic supplements. On Thursdays they wanted to know my opinions on political issues. On Fridays they wanted to sell me different organic supplements. Sometimes they mixed it up and talked about time shares on Wednesdays and political surveys on Tuesdays, but they always called. I lost my patience. Day by day, week by week. Then I started messing with them. If they wasted my time I would waste theirs.

After I agreed with the Sarah’s opinions on why Rep. King was the ideal senator for Arizona, I told her that I usually voted for the American National Socialist Party but would vote for Rep. King this year instead. Could I campaign for them at the local Nazi rallies? Could I post Rep. King’s advertisements on Twitter? Sarah said no and Arizonans for Change stopped calling me. Success!

Next came the Microsoft support scammers. I talked to them for thirty minutes, explaining that my email doesn’t automatically update when I turn my computer off, that my battery charger only works when plugged into the wall even though it has the big battery on the cord, and that my spellcheck needs me to capitalize letters instead of doing it automatically at the beginning of sentences. After they sat through all of that I told them that I could only pay them with gift cards. They weren’t happy. I had to change it up sometimes so I wouldn’t get bored. Sometimes my credit card number would be five. Other times I decided at the last minute that I wanted a broken computer to fit in with other students

The point was to waste their time. Every minute they were on the phone with me, they weren’t scamming anyone else. I’m not a masochist. I wasn’t then at least.

“Enough,” Malone told me. “I need a beer.”


Monday – August 7th

Big changes in life are rarely sudden. Mine were. From my 3:00 a.m. prison booking to my decision to scam the scammers, the changes were instant and shocking.

Malone knew everything about my arrest. He was staring at me when they threw me off the bed and my face broke my fall. There was no point in revisiting that change with him.

The other change started at a party Picante catered. Some of the employees had questionable immigration statuses so my boss Maria asked me to go to the local VFW to set up tables and serve food at their Memorial Day gettogether we were catering.

Most were Vietnam Veterans. A few served in Korea. They were all fascinating to talk to though their stories were often depressing. They returned from hell to be heckled and spit on by their peers, and forgotten and forsaken by the politicians sent them there. Lots of them fought homelessness and substance abuse over the years but were greeted with jeers when they sought help.

My blood was already boiling when I met Sergeant Soriano.

He had come back from Korea and built a comfortable life for himself as the owner of a construction company in nearby Oro Valley. Things were going well for him until he got a frantic email from his granddaughter. She was robbed during a semester in England. Sgt. Soriano sent her $8,000 to cover a new computer, new school supplies, rent, food, spending money, and a ticket home at the end of the semester. Three days later she called to wish him a happy birthday. She didn’t understand his panic. She had never been robbed. She still had her phone, books, wallet. Everything. Sgt. Soriano called his bank, Western Union, and the FBI to try to stop the payment but it was too late. The only thing they could tell him was that his daughter’s email had been hacked and his payment had gone to a Western Union branch in Moscow. Half his retirement account was gone. The money he had set away for his mortgage, food, and health expenses. Gone.

Someone who called himself Mac had a similar experience. He wired money to a charity providing housing for Ghanian orphans, only to find out later that the charity had existed only on paper. His money was gone.

Others spoke up. Their money had been scattered across the world through a variety of scams. The locations varied, from Atlanta to Antalya and everywhere in between. The payments varied too, but Western Union was the most common. There were two constants though. They were all email scams, and none of the scammers were ready for me.

“I spent eight years in the Marine Corps,” Malone told me. Then he stopped. He looked like he had just left a funeral.


Tuesday – August 8th

Malone has the personality of a rock.

“Should we get back to where we started?” I asked him.

He covered his face with his hands.

I think that means yes.

After hearing all of the stories about retirees getting scammed out of their money I decided to do something about it. I had wasted the telephone scammers time already. The telemarketers stopped calling me. How hard could the internet scammers be?

I spent the morning reading about scam baiting. These people found internet scammers and baited them into wasting their time. Sometimes that meant dealing with endless delays, while sometimes it meant writing books by hand.

The simple schemes were easy enough. Baiters would reply to scam emails promising money. But there was a catch. There always was. That’s where the fun came in. Basic ideas had scammers sending photos of themselves pledging loyalty to imaginary churches.

“This is where you came in?” an exasperated Malone asked me.

“No Malone, I—“

“Try that again.” What a prick.

I started over, making sure to call him Special Agent Malone instead of talking to him like a normal person.

“I didn’t come in here. I came in months later. This was what brought me in.”

I went over individual cases with him. One baiter had scammers send in photos of themselves and their “congregations” with fish on their heads, promising them that if the scammers in Liberia pledged loyalty to his church then his church would offer money for the Liberian branch to recruit new members. Death threats often came in when the scammers figured out they were being jerked around. I found this amusing. Malone didn’t.

The baiters moved on once they saw how easy the fish photos were. The baiters stuck with the religious theme and had scammers paint their chests with church logos, then paint billboards with the logos and some even got tattoos. The tattoos that scammers got to pledge their loyalty made Malone uneasy.

“Did they need a permanent reminder?”

“A permanent reminder of the costs of their greed? The same greed that robs gullible grandparents daily? Yes, yes they do need the reminder.”

Malone wasn’t impressed by my answer. I ignored his glare and got back to the story. I told him that the story was vital to understand everything that happened. His eyes told me he felt otherwise.

The church jokes had got stale the baiters moved on to more elaborate jokes. They pretended to work for software firms and asked the scammers for help in exchange for money. The scammers were all too willing to help. The baiters explained the situation: A programming firm is working on a project where it needs handwritten text to test a computer program for its ability to read handwriting. The firm pays $100 for every page written, but needs a minimum of one hundred pages and the pages must come from a source the software is already familiar with.

The scammers were more than willing to help.

Once they agreed, the baiter explained the projects details. The scammers were to write one hundred pages of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, with headings, chapter titles, page numbers, indentations, and paragraph breaks identical to those in the book. The firm would pay $100 for each page, plus a $2,000 bonus if the entire book was completed.

A week later, they had a handwritten copy Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, all 249 pages of it.

Malone didn’t want to hear the cases. I wanted to talk about them, but his stare told me we were done for the day.

I opened up to the other prisoners that night instead. A lot of people were curious about the “cocky, quiet” prisoner at the end of the row. My cellmate said he thought I was there for meth until word of my arrest was passed around. I got a lot more respect after everyone found out it took a swat team to arrest me. A traffic officer could have arrested me just as easily but I didn’t want anyone knowing that. My reputation was way better with the swat team arrest than it would have been if they knew I was just a computer geek.

The other prisoners were much more entertained than Malone. They laughed just as hard as I had when I first read the stories. Everybody enjoyed them. Except for one dude. There was a black guy with a thick accent who speaks proper English and rarely leaves his cell. He always looked nervous before but now he just stared at me. If it were someone else I might worry more, but he’s not and I’m not.

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