Archive for May, 2008


Friday, May 9th, 2008

[Listening just now to the Tiger Lillies song Bankrobber Blues I decided to post another little fictional story I wrote some years ago. The first in the series was Lucky Streak. As a kid I had a head full of criminal schemes and at times was convinced I’d inevitably grow up to be a cat burglar. Mathematician by day, cat burglar by night. It didn’t pan out that way.]


I recently became a photographer. Before high-quality digital cameras became available, I had never had an interest. Sure, I liked photos as much as the next person, but it was all so messy. So imprecise. So… analog. I mean why bother? I’m into digital music in a way I could never have been with tapes or vinyl. Why do anything else? Nostalgia? Tradition? Gimme a break. Analog devices with linear access? Puhlease. I keep an eye on things, I have a feel for this stuff. When technology crosses some line, it’s time to buy in. Before that it’s just too messy.

I recently became a criminal. Historically, crime at a distance was always a challenge. Physical events took place, objects were exchanged, people met or talked on the phone. Messy, way too messy. There was always a chain, a trail: someone had met the guy, someone had given someone else a brown paper bag stuffed with cash and a pistol. With time and money, the feds were eventually going to catch you. You couldn’t find good help, couldn’t recruit and train them, had to trust them, were betrayed or sold out, either to the cops or a rival. Whatever. It made no sense, unless you were the mob and you paid everyone off. Or bumped them off. Messy.

The internet changed all that. No government wants to allow anonymous action, but the net was too big. For nearly twenty years I have watched and been amazed that they didn’t do something to stop it. Now it’s too late, far too late. Anonymous action is possible. It’s not straightforward, one must be careful, but it can be done. Tools like mixmaster (anonymous remailer), spamgourmet (similar), the anonymizer (anonymous browsing), ssh tunnels, cheap and disposable machines for rent on the network running simple forwarding servers, paypal for anonymous transfers of cash, public auction sites for posting messages to those who know what to look for, steganography, instant messaging, strong crypto, wide open windows boxes (with broadband connections and fixed IP addresses) just waiting to be commandeered, etc. The tools are all out there and in most cases they’re freely available. With some knowledge, one can carefully build an action network that no-one’s ever going to trace. The whole point of some of these tools is to preserve anonymity. No logs are kept. Subpoenas are useless when there simply are no records.

Just to warm up, I robbed a bank. Not a white-collar electronic robbery. I’m talking blue-collar physical bank robbery. It’s hardly a well-paying profession, but it’s a good lark. In fact, it pays rather badly. It’s also increasingly common and easier, as tellers and other bank staff are instructed to do exactly as told, not to make a fuss, etc. So why rob a bank? Well, why take a dumbass picture of a tree or your pet dog with your new digital camera? Why? Because you have the technology and you want to try it out. Because you can. Because you’ve gone digital and you can take a no-cost snap of whatever you damned well please.

I, physically, robbed a bank. That’s messy, true. But at some point I wanted skin in the game, wanted the whole thing to be real, to prove that it all worked. Plus, I can’t solve everything at once: I didn’t want someone else actually robbing the bank. That way, I’d either never see the money or I’d leave a trail that could be followed. So I planned carefully and I did it myself.

I recruited a dozen people online. That was actually the easy part. There’s any number of bored and broke college kids out there on the net. I made two roles: watchers and actors. I had actors do various silly extroverted tasks and each time had a watcher turn up to verify that the actor showed up. Everyone got different instructions and everyone was told enough and reported enough back to me so that a) actors knew they were being watched and b) I knew the test tasks were in fact getting done. I paid on task completion and verification. An actor would be instructed to do something oddball and very specific, like walk into a 7-eleven at a certain time in the middle of summer, buy six dozen hotdogs and a case of Bud Lite and comment to the cashier that it sure did look like it might snow. I’d schedule a watcher, and tell them to look out for the person who bought six dozen hotdogs and said how it looked like snowing. The watcher would be told to pay special attention to the other purchases and to the shoes of the purchaser. Afterwards, when I heard back from both, I’d ask the watcher what the other purchase was and tell the actor what sort of shoes they were wearing. So the actor knew that I was in the loop and I could verify that the watcher had been there to verify. Everyone had to do their part or I’d know. In this way, I built up the confidence of my players: they knew that the game was for real and that, for whatever reason, if they just did some seemingly random and simple acts from time to time, they’d be paid. I let the actors and watchers take turns at both roles. If they ever asked what the deal was I just told them I was a university psych professor experimenting on social norms.

I admit this took some time. Two months. I had a few dropouts: people who found it too weird, people who tried to cheat by not turning up while claiming they did, people who just dropped out of contact.

When I was ready, I gave all my little helpers an identical task, each at a different bank. Each was to walk into their appointed bank, get in line for a teller, hand the teller a note that said they had a gun and to hand over all the cash from the drawer. Having done that, the actor was to turn and walk straight out of the bank. No watchers, just twelve people playing actors. Everyone dressed the same. I figured several would drop out at this stage, but on the other hand I’d had them doing some pretty silly stuff, pushing the edge, and I knew at least half of them would be up for it. I also know a thing or two about banks. When the note gets to the teller, the first thing they’ll do is trigger the silent alarm. The security guard in the bank will still be clueless, but the bank manager will see it and so will the cops, who are directly connected.

The banks are dotted around midtown Manhattan. The area’s thick with banks and crazy with traffic. Between 11:00 and 11:05 on July 2, the day before the holiday weekend break, the direct-connect police alarm systems of the 5th and 6th precincts go nuts. Cops cars are scrambled and routed to what turns out to be nine simultaneous false-alarm bank robberies. And one real robbery.

I walk into my bank at ten minutes after eleven. I’m dressed in a red shirt, just like my actors who are busy triggering the alarms in a dozen other midtown banks. After a few minutes I reach the teller and hand her a note: “I have a gun. Keep your mouth shut. Pass me all your cash.” After a pause, she does this without a word. That’s the training, the banks learned that one a long time ago. A hero teller or guard taking a bullet winds up costing more than dozens of unsophisticated heists. Plus the banks are fully insured. So teller training is explicit: trigger the silent alarm and do anything the nasty bank robber tells you to.

I sweep the cash into my bag, there couldn’t have been more than $10,000 probably closer to $5,000. I hand her two more notes: “The client at my window has a gun. Keep your mouth shut. Pass all the cash from your drawer to your right.” The other is identical, for the other direction. I indicate that she should pass them the notes, which she does. Handfuls of cash are passed from one to another between five tellers, under the glass to me, where I drop them into my bag. Other customers look on, and I guess they figure something odd is happening, but of course no-one says anything.

Start to finish, I’m there putting money into my bag for less than two minutes. Up until the point the first cash hit my bag, I had a pretty good story: some random person on the internet put me up to it, got me to do all this weird shit, watch others do weird random stuff, paid me through paypal. With the money in my bag though, the game has changed. I know the silent alarm was probably tripped in the first thirty seconds. With your typical mid-morning midtown traffic chaos and the cops already dispatched to at least half a dozen banks apparently being robbed simultaneously, I figure they may not get here for twenty minutes. I’m not counting on the delay any more than I have to, but I figure my margin for error is pretty healthy.

I walk out the front door. Fifteen steps from the bank entrance is a convenient manhole. And look… the cover is already off. The hole is surrounded by four orange cones connected by official-looking Men At Work tape. Of course this is my doing: started and finished a few minutes before entering the bank. From my bag I take a hard hat, some old gloves, and an orange reflective sleeveless vest. Standard issue street crew garb, bought for a few bucks here and there at thrift stores. I pick up the steel tool used for removing manhole covers and drop it into the hole. The rest of my props I leave for the cops. I climb down into the hole and pull the cover across on top of me. Although the covers are heavy, putting one in place is actually a surprisingly easy job when done from below.

The sewers of Manhattan are pretty ugly, despite large-scale efforts to sanitize and modernize them in the 90s. But there’s no need to stay down for long in order to simply disappear. I’ve walked this route before a few times. It’s no big deal. How do I know all this? The plans are on the net: obtained and published online by some urban spelunking group. Along the way I remove the red shirt and put it in my bag. A little over six minutes later I emerge from another manhole in a lane behind a hotel. A couple of suits are standing outside having a smoke. Nothing if not brazen, I bludge a cigarette and a light from one of them. He’s only too happy to help a working man in a hard hat. Show his mates he’s on good terms with blue collar America. With a false mustache, non-prescription glasses, a vest, and the hard hat, there’s not going to be much to go on later, even if these guys do wind up talking to the cops. Besides, as is well known, witnesses are wonderfully unreliable, so the more the merrier as far as I’m concerned. You’ve got to know how these things work and use them to your advantage. I tell the suits I’m on a break from the sewer, got to go to my bank, and off I slouch. Around the first corner I remove the working gear and it goes into my bag too. By my reckoning, the cops wont have even gone down the manhole outside the bank. At most they’ll have a call in for someone to remove the cover. They’ll also know that I’m probably no longer underground.

I walk down into the subway and head home to count my cash ($47,000 and change) and to catch the headline news: Daring daylight robbery! Criminal mastermind! Nine (only nine) banks used to create a distraction while one was well and truly robbed. The police chief is interviewed, indignant: we’ll hunt these men down and put them where they belong. A sophisticated operation like this isn’t done in a vacuum.

Well, good luck chief. For me this is just the beginning, just a proof of concept really. No-one should have to rob banks for a living. That kind of crime doesn’t pay well enough, even if you never get caught. Of course, I have other plans. As the world becomes more digital, less messy, things will only get easier for those who have the balls.