The semi-fraudulent bubble of recent years is finally getting a full hearing in the court of mass panic. The great swindlers Enron, WorldCom and Global Crossing have taken the savings of the middle class and now, as the President says, “America has a hangover.” But while the big boys were fudging numbers, switching columns and heading for the Caymans, there was and still are hundreds of smaller scam artists running stock-based ponzi schemes that, like the cyclopean rip-offs of the big firms, rely on greed, gullibility, ignorance, and lies.
I should know, because for the tail end of the bubble and well into the bust I was a “stock jockey” at a so-called “chop shop.” Each day in the “boiler room” I made cold-call sales to unwitting customers for a firm that specialized in “pump and dump”—that is, deliberately pumping up the penny stocks it held a significant share of, selling the rising equities to as many people as possible, and then dumping its own shares high, bringing the paper back to pennies it was originally worth. Our clients were left holding the bag while we moved on to the next equity. Such scams can be run illegally in connection with the mob, as we did, or above ground in an area of dubious legality, which we also did. Either way, it was Enrononomics of the bottom feeding variety.
Of the seventy or so stock jockeys working with the me at the preposterously names “Royal Stanley Securities” (which, in typical fashion, has since changed its name) only a handful had college degrees, and only a few had passed their Series Seven licensing exam, which is the first step toward becoming a legal broker. Several had never graduated High School, a few more than that were convicted felons; one was a convicted murderer and one guy was brain damaged from a vicious beating he had received during a drug deal gone bad.
But we worked from a simple script, a simple idea, and the money rolled in as if we knew what we were doing. About 1,000 times a day I’d ring the phone; 100 times I’d actually talk to a potential investor. The conversations would typically go something like this:”Hello, Dick!” I’d say into the phone as if we’d been life-long chums, though I’d never talked to the bozo in my life. I liked to shorten first names whenever conceivable, it bred familiarity and that all-important value—trust. “How’ve you been? (Don’t wait for an answer, just move on.) “It’s Holden Brown here,” I’d say, using one of the names of the few licensed brokers at the firm, in what was the first in a series of lies. “I am getting back to you from Royal Stanley Securities. I’m not sure if you recall, but we spoke a few months ago in regard to the market.” All lies, of course.
Generally, you’d have no reaction yet from Dick, other than an “uh-huh.” So I’d carry on: “I gave you a recommendation on a company, Altera Semiconductors.” (This would be about the fourth lie in a row.) “You told me you didn’t want to get involved at the time but that you were going to at least track the stock. Did you get a chance to do that?” What I’d be saying, in other words, was: Guess what, buddy? You blew it.
Of course, whatever stock we were pretending to have pitched six months ago would be one that had gone through the roof. The plan was simple: appeal to a man’s most base elements—fear, greed, regret and stupidity—and make them feel dumb for not following your advice; then get ‘em to give you their money and bam! make a killing.
Interestingly, we never pitched to women. As the movie Boiler Room points out, you don’t “pitch the bitch”—she’ll never buy from a stranger on the phone. I initially thought the policy to be sexist and so pitched to the ladies anyway. My mistake: it was impossible to sell them anything. Perhaps stupidity and greed are genetic.
So once I had Dick thinking he’d missed the gravy train and would never live up to his father’s expectations, I’d give him “one last chance.” I’d tell him about a revolutionary new company that was about to solve all his problems and make lots of money on the way. Company X would of course have cutting-edge technology that was about to sweep the market, or they’d just signed contracts with a bunch of big players, which I’d always name. Dick, et al, loved hearing names like Cisco or Sun MicroSystems.
Then I’d tell him they were about to sign a deal with IBM or somebody else huge, and once they did, “you won’t be able to touch a stitch of this stock for less than 40-45 dollars a share.”
And if I was pitching pharmaceutical companies they naturally had a drug in “phase III” of the FDA approval process. Once I asked the real Holden Brown the name of the drug. He replied: “I don’t know. Stop asking questions and pitch the damn stock.” When I pressed him he said, “I don’t care. Call it Cockanol.” For the next three weeks we pitched a company about to swallow the market with a drug called Cockanol. Keeping a straight face was the hardest part. Even the doctors brought it.
Our entire pitch, from hello to hang up, was dictated by “the script”—an illegal book listing every objection anyone could ever have to the purchase of stock, and right next to it, a rebuttal (or three). If the sap told me he had to talk it over with his wife, I’d attack his manhood: ”Dick, that’s exactly what you told me last time. The only reason I’m on the phone with you today is that you’re a successful businessman (doctors also liked that one). You became successful by making the right business decisions at the right time. This is nothing more than a business decision and you know it’s the right one. Now step in and do the thousand shares.”
Or if he said he had a local broker there was a page or two of rebuttals. “The closer you are to the source of the information the faster you can move. I’m right here in the heart of the financial district—in New York City! I learn more in the elevator on the way up in the morning than you broker hears all month. Pick up a thousand shares and come play with the big boys.” And once we ran out of memorized rebuttals, we’d pass the phone off to someone new, and the poor sap would remain clueless. I even worked in an Emiliano Zapata line a couple of times. “It’s a better to die on your feet than to live on your knees. Stand, up Dick. Do the thousand shares. I won’t let you die.”
Getting pumped up to operate effectively in this deep, almost primordial psychological territory—that is, to play our parts well—required method-acting style research. So we’d log onto Napster and watch clips of Al Pacino in Any Given Sunday and use his lines on our customers.
“I’ve made all the mistakes a middle-aged man can make,” one 28-year old jockey told a client, as he quoted verbatim from the bottom of some Pacino-esque madness. “I’ve pissed away all my money. I’ve chased away everyone who’s loved me…”
Another trick we called the “horse to water” went like this: If I’d been on the phone an excessive amount of time I would open my bottom metal drawer and ask, “You know what you’re supposed to do to a horse that you walk to water but still won’t drink?”
“What’s that?” Dick would respond.
Then Slam! I’d lick the door shut and hold the receiver up to the racket. “You kick him in the ass, that’s what!” Putty. But how was it that these folks could take such abuse?
The truly rampant and surreal nature of the chop shop fraud is perhaps best captured in the fact that many of the jockeys didn’t even know what they were doing: they couldn’t tell an option from a mutual fund; they didn’t understand their scripts and like the fools at the other end of the phone they didn’t care. A fellow jockey, Jesus Camacho, who had recently left Riker’s Island confided in me: “I say all these numbers in the script and it doesn’t make a bit of sense to me, and I expect the guy on the phone to be confused as hell, but he’ll say, ‘You’re right, that does sound pretty good.’ Sometimes I want to ask him to explain what I said back to me.”
The guys who worked at Royal Stanley weren’t especially cruel, cynical, or noticeably greedy, but the corruption and apathy around us created an atmosphere of amorality in which our lesser qualities thrived. And the jockey’s general ignorance didn’t surprise me, considering I had been offered the job in an elevator five minutes after meeting a partner. I decided to take the gig because at the time I was busted-ass broke and figured I could get a glimpse inside the belly of the beast.
When I first came on, the owners assigned me to an in-house class that taught me how to pass the Series Seven. This was a new idea in the firm. During the first day of the class, someone asked how to spell “corporate.” No one could help him, yet these same guys, when not in class would be out on the floor screaming into the phone, “I didn’t become the most respected broker on Wall Street by tracking stocks, and that’s not how I’m going to take you to the next level!”
One jockey (unlicensed for five years and a high school dropout) quit Royal Stanley to sell drugs after failing the Series Seven for the eight time, then returned three weeks later saying he didn’t want to go to jail while his was still young, At least these chop shops keep drug dealers off the streets. Not that there weren’t plenty of stoners and coke fiends at the firm.
Jesus, for example, supplemented his income by selling “kind bud” to the phone weary jockeys. When he was arrested, again, after an altercation, he had a quarter once on him. Several of us went to the courthouse for his arraignment, held at three in the morning. His appointed attorney used us to show how he was trying to get his life back on the straight and narrow, or at least that he was changing the color of his tie. Jesus got a low bail and was back on the phones by Monday.
One of the two jockeys I worked under had several years experience and still hadn’t passed the Series Seven. A score of seventy, out of one hundred, is needed; Hondo (aka Holden Brown) had gotten a forty-eight most recently. His partner, Donnie (aka Holden Brown) eventually passed and the boiler room went nuts. He was also in his fith year and finally allowed to use his real name. His score brought the number of licensed brokers in the firm to eleven.
We got away with this low number of licensed brokers by using each other’s names, which needless to say is totally illegal. To make sure none of the quotidian name swapping, lying and script reading was going on the National Association of Securities Dealers (the body primarily responsible for enforcing SEC regulations) stationed a “compliance officer” in our suite. But this willfully ignorant pushover (aka “Fat Boy”), the sheriff of a few flimsy regulations, rarely even left his office. He was a laughing-stock and the laws were ignored.
If Fat Boy cam by the younger jockeys in the midst of illegally pitching soon-to-be-junk stoc, they would pretend they were merely “qualifying leads”—a less important (in fact, worthless) task but one that would still be illegal for an unlicensed broker. As Fat Boy made his rounds, our illegal scripts would be stashed in drawers. Rumor had it he was on the take, though I never saw any payoffs. Then again, I never saw him enforce any rules either. And when the NASD auditors came by for their annual review of our books, they too, apparently found nothing of interest. While they were there, a lot of the unlicensed brokers didn’t bother to show up, whereas others pitched with eyes in the back of their heads. Other temporary changes included not being able to smoke pot in the conference room, and having to be a bit more discreet about doing lines of coke in the bathroom. Given the mobbed-up, penny-ante nature of Royal Stanley, one can only imagine the timidity which the NASD would approach the malfeasances of a “real” securities firm.
These the days the whole pump and dump branch of corruption is waning, as is the stock market generally. My buddy Hondo summed it up when the NASDAQ began to go south: “Put on your knee boots boys, the market’s taking a dump.”
As for myself, eventually I couldn’t take it anymore. The combination of high-pressure sales, greed, and daily dishonesty—as it was for many former brokers. So one spring Friday after work I passed my Broadway/ Nassau subway stop, made at the WTC (which had yet to become “Ground Zero”) and walked the many blocks home. Near Canal, I stopped and bought a bootleg CD. By the time I was in my apartment I’d decided never to go back to Royal Stanley Corporation. I left New York shortly thereafter and moved to the Eastern Shore of Maryland where I’m now for emotionally disturbed children. Good work if you can get it.
If I never see another stock ticket, my life still be full. I even try to avoid listening to NPR’s “Marketplace” in the evenings. Sorry David, I just don’t care anymore how or why the Dow did what to whom.
The other evening the phone rang and I heard myself on the other end of the line. I cut him off partway through the pitch to save him the trouble. I wasn’t buying any pharmaceuticals with drugs in the third phase that night—even if they were named Cockanol. We talked awhile and he told me times are getting rough, the distrust runs deep, that the market’s taking a dump. But he said he’s still pounding the phones and meeting ends. The whales are still out there. Good luck, I told him, and watch your back. Times could get tougher. Might wanna get that license.
For legal reasons many of the names in this article have been changed.
RYAN GRIM is the senior congressional correspondent for the Huffington Post. He is the author of This Is Your Country on Drugs (Wiley, 2009).