JACOB GOLDSTEIN, HOST:
Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Jacob Goldstein. Our friends at the NPR podcast Rough Translation recently put out a request on our show and on their show. They asked listeners to call in with stories of times they were conned, scammed. And they got almost 200 responses. They turned those responses into a great episode. They just published it. You can go listen now.
One of the stories they included in their show was just so delightful and so illuminating that we said, we have got to run this one as a PLANET MONEY. So that's what today's episode is. And now I'm just going to turn the show over to Gregory Warner, the host of Rough Translation.
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GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: In 2010, Felipe Fernandez was laid off from his IT job at Hewlett-Packard in Costa Rica. Felipe is Costa Rican. And the layoff was a huge blow. He didn't know what he was going to do next. Someone from his family - Felipe didn't want me to say who - approached him with a potential job.
FELIPE FERNANDEZ: There was a business that needed an IT person.
WARNER: Which sounded good. He was an IT guy. He needed work.
FERNANDEZ: So I was obviously curious. What he said was, we actually run this scam on senior citizens.
WARNER: The people who needed the IT guy - they were in the business of calling up people to steal their money - senior citizens in the USA.
FERNANDEZ: He elaborated. He said, we have a script. All you have to do is call and call and call until someone bites.
WARNER: You know the script. Ma'am, I have good news for you. You have won a sweepstakes prize of $4 1/2 million. All you have to do to collect that prize is wire a small deposit for our insurance policy. That is $4,500, and you can send that today by Western Union.
FERNANDEZ: I was very doubtful. Like, how can you really make money out of that?
WARNER: But this scam is pulling in hundreds of deals a week.
FERNANDEZ: They call it deals. Each call is a deal.
WARNER: The scammers are called agents. And this operation, like all businesses, needs an IT guy. Felipe is hearing this, and he's horrified - first, that this is a business; second, that his relative is involved. But Felipe keeps a poker face.
FERNANDEZ: I immediately told him that this is not something that I can just decide right there and then but that I would think about it.
WARNER: Felipe goes home, and he Googles the phone number for the FBI. They tell him, that's not our jurisdiction. He should call up the U.S. Embassy in Costa Rica.
FERNANDEZ: I called them, and they asked me to come in for a meeting, which I did.
WARNER: And is it like the movies? Do they meet with you in a room with, you know, the blinds closed?
FERNANDEZ: It was just a conference room in the U.S. Embassy.
WARNER: In this conference room, he explains his plan. He wants to take the job, collect information that the U.S. authorities might use, like the names of these scammers and their location, maybe some license plates.
JOE HEALY: He said, I am about to take this job, and I want to stop this stuff from happening. I want you to know what I'm doing so you don't think I'm one of the bad guys. So that pretty much astounded us to hear that.
WARNER: Joe Healy was a U.S. postal inspector. He's now retired. But in 2010, he was investigating mail fraud - specifically, telemarketing scams in Costa Rica. And weirdly, the hard thing about prosecuting these cases was not finding the bad guys; it was finding the victims.
HEALY: Because they were just so embarrassed and so ashamed.
WARNER: The victims didn't come forward because they felt so ashamed about falling for the con. And so for Joe Healy, it's kind of the reverse of the typical investigator's problem. Instead of having the dead body and trying to figure out who the bad guy is, he knows the bad guy. He has to track down enough victims to make the arrest.
HEALY: We needed a lot of victims - a lot of credible victims - and lots of losses. Without lots of victims and lots of losses, we couldn't bring cases.
WARNER: Joe Healy is sitting in this conference room with Felipe, the IT guy in his buttoned-up shirt.
HEALY: He's a physically little guy...
WARNER: He's 5-foot-4.
HEALY: ...And not overly muscular.
WARNER: He's trying to explain to him, this isn't some quick job where you grab some license plate numbers and addresses. He would need the names of the victims. And Felipe is considering doing it - heading into the criminals' den to get that information himself.
HEALY: We said, OK, you know, we can't guarantee your safety because we can't be there, you know? So as long as you're going into it with open eyes, yes, you know, that would help us.
WARNER: When Felipe was a kid, he never imagined himself in IT. He thought he'd be a cop, like his grandfather, a police chief in San Jose. Felipe remembers watching his grandfather on the local news when he solved a big case.
FERNANDEZ: I remember him, you know, in the police headquarters - the way everybody looked at him. And I grew up admiring his sense of duty.
WARNER: Felipe's grandfather used to tell him that seeing something wrong being done and not doing anything about it - it makes you their accomplice. Felipe thought about what he'd done with his life. He'd just turned 30.
FERNANDEZ: I was out of work, and this just fell on my lap. But - and, yeah, I mean, how many people can say that they put a bunch of bad guys in jail?
WARNER: At least, how many IT guys can say that? After the break, Felipe goes for that job interview with a scammer.
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WARNER: Felipe decides he's going to try to get this job, and what happens next is weirdly corporate. His relative sets up a meeting. It happens at a fancy restaurant. Felipe meets five guys in suits. He accepts the job. And then he starts going to work at an office every day. Picture wall-to-wall carpeting, agents at cubicles working the phones. They're reading from a script that is pasted on each desk. Behind the agents are a more senior group. They're called loaders. They'll take over when the victim falls for an agent's line. So the next day, the loader might call and say...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Hello, yes...
WARNER: ...We didn't realize there's this other state tax.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I really need you to give me a call.
WARNER: They could start threatening you. Here's one of the scammers.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We're are going to be sending federal agents down to your home. I don't want to do that. Please, please just give us a call back.
WARNER: And this process of calling and calling and demanding more and more money could go on for months until the victim had nothing left.
FERNANDEZ: There was this time a victim called, and she had already lost about $60,000. And she was crying. She was crying, saying, I have to go to Salvation Army to get food. You took all my money. Like, I have nothing. And they actually put it on speaker, and they started laughing.
WARNER: Felipe is watching them laugh at her, and he's trying to control the expression on his own face.
FERNANDEZ: You hear the voice. You hear her crying, and you immediately started trying to imagine what she looks like. What is she going to do after she hangs up the phone? Is there anyone near her - you know, her children or whoever? Are they going to yell at her because she gave all this money away?
It's - I guess I just put myself in her shoes. And that was sort of a turning point. And I probably shouldn't have, but I really made it personal after that. I wanted those guys in jail. Whenever I felt like not going, whenever I felt like just quitting, I just - I remember.
WARNER: The laughter - it was part of a strategy that scammers often use - dehumanize the victim. Even the word that con artists use for victim - the mark - it's dehumanizing. Another of these strategies was drugs. There was lots of weed, people doing coke in the break room.
But there was one person in the office who seemed to need no substance, who could do this scam totally open-eyed and sober. And that was the owner, Emilio Jose Torres. If this were one of those movies with a good-looking hero and a better-looking villain, Emilio is that villain. He's got long, dark hair - a surfer in a business suit. He works with a guy named Mex (ph) who's wanted for murder in the U.S. And Emilio had been on the radar of U.S. authorities for years.
Joe Healy, the postal inspector, told me this one very surprising thing about him. He was a really good boss.
HEALY: You were expected to show up on time. You were expected to do the workload that he gave you for the day. You were accountable for what you did. And he was fair. I find it funny to use the word fair when you're talking about criminals, but he was fair with his people.
WARNER: Felipe hadn't really known anything about Emilio when he started working there. But he found out that Emilio was all about business.
FERNANDEZ: One of the first things Emilio asked me is, what do you think we need to make this more efficient?
WARNER: To make it more efficient?
FERNANDEZ: Yeah. With him, it was all about productivity.
WARNER: Felipe realizes that he's not just the IT guy. He's also the only one here with actual business experience. He worked at Hewlett-Packard, this giant, multinational corporation. And this is his chance. The IT guy can get the archvillain to trust him.
FERNANDEZ: I told him we have to rewire all the phones. We have a lot of interruption.
WARNER: He'd noticed all these problems. The voice over IP was using this regular interface.
FERNANDEZ: Through a WebGUI.
WARNER: Also, every time an agent got a lead, they have to run upstairs to the one computer in the manager's office to look up the closest Western Union.
FERNANDEZ: They have to start looking where the person lives.
WARNER: Felipe tells Emilio, we can do better than this. Every agent should have their own laptop. That's how we would've done it at Hewlett-Packard. And Emilio hears that, and he is hooked. They buy a bunch of laptops. That will let Felipe actually record the scammers at work, but it also makes the scam more efficient. Felipe rigs it so that the laptop will feed the scripts and what are called rebuttals.
FERNANDEZ: The rebuttals are what to say in case a victim asks a question. And so he was very happy with me. And they used to call me Filthy.
WARNER: Like, filthy good at computers, filthy good at improving the scam.
FERNANDEZ: That was my nickname around the office.
WARNER: Filthy wasn't just a nickname. It was kind of an alter ego that Felipe adopted. Filthy would tell the dirtiest jokes. Filthy was also a satanist. And Filthy was also deferential.
FERNANDEZ: I wouldn't make any eye contact. I wanted them to think that I was very nerdy.
WARNER: Are you nerdy, a little bit?
FERNANDEZ: I am. I mean, I am. I work in IT.
WARNER: And Filthy was always faithful to his new boss Emilio.
FERNANDEZ: I was sort of brown-nosing him all the time. You know, I was like, man, you're so young. You've done, like, all this stuff.
WARNER: So how long did it take you to really gain Emilio's trust?
FERNANDEZ: About a month.
WARNER: That's fast work.
WARNER: He remembers one time Emilio had to run an errand, and he turned to Felipe and said, hey, Filthy, watch the floor for me.
FERNANDEZ: Yeah. Watch the guys, you know? Make sure they don't do anything they're not supposed to. And I remember that day, I knew I had him.
WARNER: But Felipe, or Filthy, still doesn't have the essential thing that he came here to get. After the break, Felipe tries to get the names of the victims.
There is a list that has the names of the victims, but Emilio has that list.
FERNANDEZ: He had it in a flash drive - all the victims and Excel sheets and everything.
WARNER: Then one day, Felipe sees the flash drive unguarded, and he just grabs it. But he knows that they're searching the employees when they leave the office. And Felipe's worried he's going to get caught with this flash drive.
FERNANDEZ: So I took a piece of gum, and I stuck it to Emilio's backpack 'cause I knew that he wouldn't get searched when we all left.
WARNER: They get outside, and he tells Emilio...
FERNANDEZ: Emilio, wait. And he's like, what happened? And I'm like, oh, your backpack's open. And I pretended to close it. I just took this flash drive back.
WARNER: This story, like so many of Felipe's stories, just seemed totally wild. I don't have a way to confirm it or fact-check it. But I can say that Joe Healy, the postal inspector - he confirmed many of Felipe's stories. And he did say that one day, Felipe handed over to U.S. agents a flash drive full of victims' names. Joe Healy starts calling those victims, hearing story after story of people losing all their money. And he realizes this is a huge scam - millions and millions of dollars.
But there's one more problem. Emilio is a Costa Rican citizen. The Americans can't prosecute him as long as he stays in Costa Rica. And so Felipe keeps working, keeps being the office IT guy and starts trying to figure out, how is he going to get Emilio to leave the country? And it is getting harder to go to work each morning.
FERNANDEZ: It was just dread.
WARNER: Other agents start asking him...
FERNANDEZ: How come he doesn't get on the phones? He's not making any deals.
WARNER: Felipe stops being able to sleep. A clump of his hair falls out. He doesn't have anyone he can talk to about this.
FERNANDEZ: I really needed to get out of San Jose.
WARNER: One weekend, just to take a break, he goes to his grandfather's house on the beach. He spends a really nice Saturday swimming and playing checkers with his grandfather. And it was nice until he gets a call from Emilio.
FERNANDEZ: And he called me on Sunday, and he said that this Linux server had crashed. And Linux servers don't just crash. You know, it's very hard for that to happen.
WARNER: So you knew it was a setup because he said the Linux server had crashed, and that was something only a non-IT person would say.
FERNANDEZ: Yeah. I asked him, what's going on? And he's like, no, it just crashed. It just crashed. It's not working. Like, you know, we're off the phones. And he insisted, you know, no, I need you to come back today 'cause, you know, I need the phones working on Monday.
WARNER: Oh, wow.
FERNANDEZ: You know, first of all, what is he doing there on a Sunday? And I was really scared. And I was at my grandfather's house, the one that had been a police chief. And that was the first time I told someone. I told him, like, listen; I'm doing this. He was very proud. He was very, very proud, and I guess because he knew that it was because of him. And I told him, like, I had been doing this for a while. I think they found out about it, and they want to kill me.
So we went through everything. And then he says, well, you know, as your grandfather, I don't want you to go, but you have to make your own decisions. So I went. And I had this big knife (laughter) tucked into the back of my pants. And it was a four-hour drive. And I remember the whole time, I was just so nervous. What's going to happen, you know? And two hours into it, I kind of came to terms with it. I said, all right, if I - if this is the way I go, I go. If this is the way I go, this is the way I go, you know? And I got to the office, and the server had crashed
WARNER: (Laughter) The server had crashed.
The only thing left to do - be an IT guy. Felipe bends over to see what's wrong with the server, and Emilio spots the knife.
FERNANDEZ: And Emilio's like, Filthy, why you have that big-ass knife? And I'm like, you call me on a Sunday telling me that the server crashed, and this never crashes. Like, I thought that maybe somebody was holding you up or something. And you brought a big knife. I'm like, well, you know, you got to do what you got to do. And, you know, I fixed the server, and I left. And, yeah, that's the one time I've seen a Linux server crash.
WARNER: That day, Felipe conned the con man, which is what he was trying to do the whole time. And con artists - they get into the minds of their victims. They understand the stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves, and they give a version back to us. You think you're generous? The con man will help you help others. You think you're thrifty? The con man has a deal for you. In this way, Felipe played into Emilio's fantasies themselves. And for his last con, he told him, you know what a successful businessman like you needs - a condo in Miami.
FERNANDEZ: You should get an apartment in Brickell Avenue. That place is gorgeous. Like, why would you have all this money if you can't really spend it?
WARNER: Emilio never had a chance. Of course he bought the condo. He flew to Miami and, of course, got arrested the minute he stepped off the plane. Emilio was prosecuted, convicted and served seven years in federal prison. After Emilio's arrest, people started suspecting that Felipe had helped the U.S. authorities. He started getting death threats. So his friends at the U.S. Embassy got him a visa and got him to the States, where he works in IT.
I'm curious - playing the role of the con man, even though you were doing it for good - you weren't trying to make money; you were trying to catch the bad guys. Did playing that role make it harder to be in society and trust people and do normal, trusting things in life?
FERNANDEZ: Well, I guess I read people more now. I immediately dissect everything they say and how they say it and their body language. And it changes you also in the way you don't see the world the same way. I literally feel bad when I see a senior citizen pushing carts in a supermarket or a senior citizen working. You know, I think they could've been a victim.
WARNER: Now when Felipe just lives his life or goes out in the world, he can't help but think everything can be a con, and everybody can be a mark.
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GOLDSTEIN: Gregory Warner is the host of the podcast Rough Translation. They have lots of great stories from around the world, including a two-parter from our own Karen Duffin. It's about these two brothers. One of them gets kidnapped by ISIS; the other one sets out to get his brother back. The show is Rough Translation. You can get it wherever, as they say, you get your podcasts.
Today's show was produced for Rough Translation by Autumn Barnes and Jess Jiang, with music by John Ellis. Katie Daugert helped with research. This PLANET MONEY version of the show was produced by Liza Yeager. I edited the show. Our supervising producer is Alex Goldmark. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram - @planetmoney. PLANET MONEY is a production of NPR. I'm Jacob Goldstein. Thanks for listening.
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