|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.
Asking even the most naive codger for 15 grand is no breeze, and Bruce’s octogenarian starts to wriggle loosely on the hook. The senior wants details, like where are the oil fields, why hasn’t he read about this in The Wall Street Journal, and what’s the SEC business number of New York Life Oil and Gas.
Actually, the last request is easy, because Bruce is prepared. “Sir, sir, we’re a brand-new wing of a 126-year-old company. Surely you’ve heard of New York Life? The oil-and-gas division is brand-new. We’re hung up in SEC red tape. You know how the government is. [Nice touch, he says to himself.] I’ll send you all the information with the prospectus.”
The poor sucker’s will to battle is being worn down as his greed level rises, but still he wants to know where these undiscovered deposits are actually located.
Again Bruce is ready: “I can’t give any exact locations, because another company might try to make a claim on the territory and we’d be hung up in litigation over rights. Let me just say that they’re all over the globe, sir: Bahrain, Kuwait, Sri Lanka, Abba Dabba.”
An impressive verbal greasing, and too close to payoff to blow now, so Bruce concedes to the maestro.
“Please hold the line for my supervisor,” he says, waving over Brooklyn Moe, who plunks his massive girth into Bruce’s seat, grabs the headset and winks.
Then, doing a 180-degree change in attitude, as if he’d just entered via stage left, the old pro shows the tyro how it’s done.
“Sir, I’m Mark Smoller, and I understand that you’re a bit apprehensive about this. I’ll send you a full prospectus with a copy of the lease. Do we have a deal?” At this point, the booming voice of Brooklyn Moe is usually enough.
The challenge is over; the deal is sealed. Check’s in the mail, or even better, the geezer gives up his credit-card number — bonanza time!
For $15,000, the customer receives some beautiful pamphlets, with embossed, golden seals and flowery language drafted by a shyster attorney.
Such attention to detail matters because it soothes thoughts of “stop payment” orders. Good paperwork can keep an investor happy long enough for both his money and the boiler room to evaporate like the light morning fog in Century City.
“Nice work, kid,” says Moe.
Bruce takes a slug out of his Starbucks mug and hits the phone again.
Bruce regarded Brooklyn Moe as something of a mentor. He’d done a scam with Moe before, and he fondly remembers Moe screaming, like a crazy cheerleader, “Fuck those old farts down in ‘Seizure World.’ Get ’em, get ’em, they can’t take it with them. Fuck ’em. Fuck their spoiled brats waiting for them to croak. They don’t need it.”
Pretty hardcore. But Bruce grins and asks, “How much different is that from some hard sell at a Chevrolet dealership, hmmm?” Plenty in fact. In one instance, at least you have a slab of Detroit to go home in. The low overhead of wire fraud, i.e., no product, underlies Bruce’s devotion to it. “The money is astounding. In one month, you can make in the five figures easy. How many cars does even the hottest closer move in a month? You tell me.”
Not that Bruce didn’t consider going legit — kind of. For a while, he sold real stocks and bonds in Philly, till his boss found out he didn’t have a broker’s license after all.
Working for Brooklyn Moe and Marks seemed like just about the perfect setup for Bruce, who graduated to closer in 10 days — and was soon making three grand a week. But the entire operation ran just six weeks before the FBI and SEC closed in.
One day, Bruce showed up at 8 a.m. to begin work when two feds stopped him at the padlocked doors. “They asked me if I worked there, and I said, ‘No.’ I told them that I was a friend of Brian’s. Miraculously, they let me go after a few questions.”
Bruce never saw Moe or Marks in the flesh again, although he did catch Marks on America’s Most Wanted not too long ago, he says, laughing as he forks in the lo mein. Marks was apparently sought in connection with extortion, racketeering and the murder of a partner.
Bruce pushes back his empty plate and sighs. A close call can get to you, like an aging boxer who gets knocked out once and starts to hear footsteps.
But a guy has to have lo mein money. And there are always new frontiers, like the Valley: “I swear the Valley ain’t just the home of porn; it’s also the capital of boiler rooms, too. Who knows? Tomorrow I might just get hooked up again, because that high from closing beats the crap outta the best Peruvian marching powder.”