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Dial ''F'' for ''Fraud'' 

Getting hooked on wire fraud

Wednesday, Mar 17 1999
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Art by Gustavo Vargas
It’s just past sunrise, 26 floors above Olympic Boulevard in Century City, and if the panoramic vista doesn’t take your breath away, check your pulse — from the view eastward to the glass behemoths of downtown; southward to where the first slew of morning flights take off over Inglewood; westward to the shimmering Pacific; and northward to golden hills laid out like magic carpet as the morning fog burns off.

Of course, it may as well be ground-zero Hiroshima for the sweating, chattering, psyched-out squadron that makes up the "New York Life Oil and Gas" boiler room temporarily occupying this prime real estate. They’ve assembled to wring major cash out of elderly suckers in all points USA.

Here’s the deal: a "once in a lifetime, amazing opportunity" of shares in leases for natural-gas and petroleum fields and wells all over the planet. Where these untapped mineral wonders actually lie is never-never land. These gents and a handful of ladies are selling crapola.

Fiddling nervously with his headset in the middle of the room is Bruce C., the "new meat" just recruited for this "smilin’ and dialin’." Bruce isn’t a total babe in the woods; a real rookie would be daunted at the horrible odds for a score, maybe one in 200. Still, in this operation he’s merely the "pitchman." When the payoff approaches, he’ll signal the floor boss, the guy who "trained" him; Brooklyn Moe will close the deal.

Bruce’s list comprises mostly the names and numbers of seniors from a well-known Southern California retirement community. Upon hearing the creaking "hello" of an octogenarian on the line, he goes directly into his spiel.

"How are you today, sir?" he says, dripping unctuous charm like oil off a pizza slice. "My name is Bruce Carter, and I’m with New York Life Oil and Gas. I’m sure you’ve heard of us. We’re a new branch of the insurance company that’s been in business 126 years." No hang-up yet. Good. The 126-year-old-company bit always holds them for at least 10 seconds.

Phase two: "We’ve branched out into the field of oil-and-gas futures, and we’re bringing out an initial public offering of 10,000 shares priced at $15,000 apiece." At this point, nine out of 10 respondents will say either "No thank you" or "Who is this?" or "Fuck you." But the fish is hooked, at least partway. Bruce is almost ready to beckon for Moe.

We’ll call him "Boiler Room Bruce," this 40-year-old law-school dropout who earned a dishonorable discharge from the Navy. He’s been doing phone scams, or "wire fraud" in legal parlance, since his mid-20s. Name a hustle and he’s indulged, from the nitwit low-level tomfoolery of selling bogus cruises, through the fake commemorative-coin rackets of the late ’80s, into ersatz gold, silver and platinum certificates of ownership, all the way to the mountaintop: stock fraud.

As we talk, Bruce is shaking his head over lo mein in a Los Feliz eatery, recounting the futures scam. "New York Life Oil and Gas," he mutters. "How the hell did they ever pull that one off?"

A stocky man, about 6-foot-2, with a neatly trimmed beard and sad, Huckleberry Hound–like expression, Bruce looks, on this particular early afternoon, like the proverbial dog that’s been kicked one time too many. Problem is, he’s done most of the ass-booting to himself.

His condition, as well as his professional amorality, has been fueled by twin passions — cocaine and gambling — not to mention an impatience with getting ahead in life one slow step at a time.

He got into fraudulent futures shortly after a coke-and-Valium binge nearly killed him and landed him in St. Joseph’s, out in the Valley, for a 30-day detox. After he graduated to a halfway house, he started going to outside AA and NA meetings, and that’s where he met the legendary Brian Marks, the undisputed king of phone scammery, a "Gypsy in an Armani suit," as Boiler Room Bruce puts it. Marks had found that 12-step programs were great recruiting grounds when he needed co-conspirators who were down-and-out, slightly desperate and not entirely reformed.

After Bruce "shared" his addiction story, Marks sauntered right over. "Hey, you’ve a way with words," Marks told him. "How’d you like to sell stocks and bonds?"

As Bruce notes in our chat, "I thought this was kind of strange at an AA meeting, but I was broke and stuck with eight smelly assholes in a recovery house — I wanted some money fast."

Bruce will never forget his departure from Recovery World. "We take off from the meeting, and Brian is hauling ass down Sepulveda at 85 mph in a brand-new slant-nose Porsche with Metallica’s ‘Master of Puppets’ blaring." The employment offer is tempting: seven bucks an hour plus 1 percent commission to start, and, in time, the potential to earn two grand a call. "Then," recalls Bruce, "we got to the Century City Twin Towers, and I saw that beautiful marbled lobby and that view — I was in like Flynn!" He adds, "I thought at first that we might actually be legit until I heard some of the other salespeople guaranteeing 60 to 75 percent returns. Then I knew it was a total scam. You can never legally guarantee anything or you lose your license." Needless to say, nobody was licensed.

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