The crime of the (next) century

- by Thomas Caldwell -

George and Bob meet one night in a Roppongi bar. Both had been living and working in Japan for several years, George in a securities company; Bob at a software house. Over time, the two become fast friends and decide that they should become fabulously wealthy while they are still young enough to enjoy it.

Like many foreign residents of tokyo who like to get together for a cold one at the end of the working day, the two used the relative anonymity of a drinking hole to hold gripe sessions. Their growing disillusionment with their lives fuels a serious criminal plan to rip off the system and get away scot-free... a sting that will make the doings of Redford and Newman in the movie of the same name look needlessly complicated.

Like many of their generation, both know a lot about computers. Among Bob's many responsibilities at his company is running the office e-mail system. Over the years he has learned a lot about Unix and the inner workings of the Internet. Bob has learned some neat tricks - many of which are relatively simple - such as how to send an anonymous e-mail message with a fake return address that nobody can trace. After several nights of brainstorming, the two come up with a plan.

The duo select two large, well-known companies, Company A in America, and Company J in Japan. Company A is one of the world's largest software houses; Company J is a major consumer electronics manufacturer. George calls the Japanese company and asks for the e-mail address of the public relations department. Afterwards, he visits the website of the US company and locates the e-mail address of their public relations department as well. Bob then sends an e-mail message to both organizations requesting that he be put on the press release distribution list. He uses a fake name and an account with one of the many free Web-based e-mail systems. The PR people at both companies, being in the business of publicity, dutifully add the new e-mail address to their list; nobody is the least bit suspicious. After all, many journalists use Web-based e-mail systems, which are very convenient for accessing mail when on the road. Much to their surprise, George and Bob get a free bonus: the PR people at the Japanese company never learned how to send out a message with a suppressed distribution list, and when Company J announces a new stereo DVD player and George and Bob receive the e-mail press release, they are provided with a complete list of names and e-mail addresses of real reporters.

Repeating this tactic with several other companies in the same industries as Companies A and J, the duo are able to compile a massive list of journalists and news organizations all over the world that regularly cover the software and consumer electronic industries.

George knows a lot about the securities business and how to trade in stocks and stock options without appearing suspicious, and next, both of our anti-heroes open brokerage accounts with several securities companies in Japan, the US, and elsewhere, and start trading in stock options. So as not to raise suspicion later, they trade in a wide variety of companies operating in only two industries - consumer electronics and computer software. They both make and lose money on their trades, but that's OK. Losing some money now doesn't matter, in the end, they will win big.

After many weeks of planning, they are ready to act. Using the real e-mail-delivered press releases they have been receiving as a model, they prepare two look-alike releases, one from each company, announcing the takeover of Company J by Company A. In keeping with their regular trading pattern, they buy as many options on Company J as they can afford without raising suspicion.

George sends out the fake announcements to the media distribution list, and pandemonium breaks out as journalists fall over each other to get details on what could be the largest Japanese-American corporate takeover in history. The understaffed PR department at Company J is swamped with phone calls, faxes, and e-mail messages requesting quotes from executives and more information on the deal. Every reporter who manages to get through is told that the story is false, but the denial has little effect. Since lying is a sought-after skill in modern corporations, none of the journalists believe it and think the release is accurate, but was sent out prematurely. Their suspicions are confirmed when they learn that Company A in the US has also issued a press release announcing the takeover.

Just for good measure, Bob anonymously posts the fake press releases in several unmoderated Internet news groups. The electronic rumor mill takes over and the story becomes fact. Indeed, some news organization, having two confirmed sources for the story (a press release from each company) report the take-over as fact. Others wait a little while and, quoting "unnamed sources," start reporting on the rumors of an impending deal. Few people hear the word "rumors" when they hear the news, and take the report of the merger as fact.

As they do with all breaking news stories, stock market players around the world from the institutional investor to the housewife pounce on the action. Traders at the stock exchanges in London and New York, where shares in Company J are traded, are inundated with buy orders. The scam has its desired effect. The value of the stocks and options George and Bob have purchased head for the stratosphere.

The two issue sell orders to their brokers when prices reach a pre-determined target. They could have made more if they held on to their options a bit longer, but they didn't want to attract the attention of the authorities who police the securities industry. Both men can now look forward to lives of wine, women, and song. If anyone investigated, the only thing that can be proven is that they were very smart and very, VERY lucky. Besides, the world's stock markets are now highly interconnected, and many people made money on the false reports.

Over a few very crazy days, the reports are proven to be inaccurate and as stock prices react, lots of people lose lots of money. It takes weeks for everyone on the victim side of the equation to figure out what happened, the investigation being seriously hampered by corporate executives who know more about three martini lunches than they do about the Internet.

George and Bob were very careful and methodical in their plans. They left no trail and no suspicion to single them out. Nobody can figure out where the fake press releases came from. Some think it was a group of hackers in Europe. Others believe it was a disgruntled employee in one of the companies, where witch hunts have commenced. Some people looking into the scam think that there really was a deal but the premature publicity screwed things up. Nobody ever figures out what happened. News organizations turn to other things. People these days have a very short attention span.

Their sting worked. A life of leisure and pleasure awaits George and Bob on the beach of a tropical isle, far from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo. They wait several months, pack up, and leave forever.

Years later, while both well-to-do gentlemen sit on a beach in the South Pacific sipping cocktails, watching yet another gorgeous sunset, George turns to Bob and talks about the one weakness that made it all possible: "It's a good thing those dummies weren't smart enough to use PGP signatures on their e-mail messages," he says. "If they did, we would have never been able to pull it off."

Bob grins as he takes another sip of his martini. "How true," he agrees. "Just think, a software program that was free for individuals and real cheap for corporations, but so few people bothered to take advantage of it, at least until we got lucky."

The both break out in alcohol influenced laughter and head back to the beach-side bar and grill they jointly own and manage. Since they left Tokyo and settled into paradise, the two have become pillars of the community and among the most respected people on the island.

Oh, the name the two came up with for their establishment was both easy and appropriate: The Butch and Sundance Cafe.

Thomas Caldwell tells us this is NOT a true story - it is a work of fiction based on a crime that could happen. What do you think? Contact him at

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