by Ellen Brandt, Ph.D.
Think you’re too sophisticated to be terrorized by anonymous thugs? Just wait until they start leaving baby animal carcasses on your doorstep.
After years of incessant, senseless harassment, I now view my Short-Seller-Hacker-Tormentors as pitiful and childish sociopaths. They may still be able to harm my computers and my finances, but at least they no longer frighten me. Once upon a time, though, they scared me witless.
That’s despite a background which might seem well-suited to on-line investment. I’m an Ivy League-educated Ph.D. and former college teacher. I’ve had a 30-year career as a business journalist and editor. I’ve used computers since there were computers. And I was an investor relations manager and NIRI regional vice president, back in the halcyon days before algorithmic program trading roiled the markets.
No matter. A group of Crazies fixated on me as their Designated Victim. My appeals for help – to the police, to regulators, to the Guardians of the Internet – went unanswered. And soon the situation was out of control.
It all began in 1998, when magazine headlines blared that the Russian Mob had infiltrated Wall Street and when many of the major financial information sites were Wild West-style hotbeds of libel and sadistic bullying. All “Chinese Walls” had seemingly been exploded. There was no apparent distinction among active traders, sober analysts, and blatant con men. Everyone could say and do anything they wanted to anyone they wanted. And if there were any Sheriffs around, they must have been on lunch breaks.
So why did I venture into this Cesspool of Corruption? Then unattached and without children, I was extremely close to my parents. When my mother died suddenly without any forewarning in late 1997, I was emotionally devastated and thought I needed a hiatus from my journalistic career.
And it seemed everyone in my Baby Boomer generation – then aged 33-51, now aged 46-64 – was attempting to earn a little extra money by Internet trading, made suddenly easy by the proliferation of on-line brokerages and the burgeoning of financially-oriented media programming, both in print and on the Web.
I wanted to recover from my family tragedy by working by myself in what I thought would be a relatively stress-free environment. I thought I had an edge on the majority of other new traders, with my strong backgrounds in finance, investor relations, computers, and heavy-duty journalism. If someone who’d been a major magazine business editor and corporate investor relations manager couldn’t do this, who could?
But sometimes, Alas and alack! it is better to have neither knowledge nor talent than to have too much of both.
I say that not immodestly – in fact the opposite - because my skills in logic, literary exegesis, and good old-fashioned propaganda set me up as an instant target in the minds of my Tormentors, Kiddie Short-side Traders, who’d been given permission by their firms to think of markets at Battlegrounds and those who opposed them as Enemy Combatants.
Today, its influence is minimal and its conduct exemplary or boring, depending on one’s viewpoint. But around the turn of the Millennium, Yahoo and its financial message boards was the place one went to discuss – or more accurately spar – about sectors and individual stocks.
It was also an incredibly disturbing sort of venue, especially for someone like me, whose previous experience in the market had been pre-high-frequency trading and prior to the period when Short-Selling evolved from a Fringe Cult to the Established Market Religion.
I was used to an intellectual, logical, gentlemanly sort of market, based on rudimentary rules of probity and politeness.
The Yahoo financial boards were the exact opposite, dominated by short-side traders and/or script bots – which I found out about later – who/which had no qualms about libeling companies, their managers, their products, or their conduct.
“Libel” may be too generous a term, in fact. Every other word seemed to be a curse word or an outrageous lie. Links tended to direct one to utterly horrid pornographic sites or gruesome anime-style cartoons, with sketches of disliked CEO’s being raped by herds of buffalo or long-side investors decapitated or eviscerated, with pools of technicolored blood literally oozing from the page.
The transmission of viruses, worms, newts, locusts, or common colds was the rule, not the exception. And it was typical practice to “out” every long-side trader who happened to wander by, in retrospect, a practice one would think would directly implicate the on-line brokerages themselves.
For instance, if a Yahoo board said something like “Irving Kennedy, bespectacled, mild-mannered chiropractor, a Sheep and a Shnook and an Idiot, who lives at 478 Willow Lane in Peoria, Illinois, owns 3,000 shares of Bank of America and 700 shares of Newmont Mining” – and Yes, that’s the kind of thing these “outings” did – how were these tidbits of information acquired by the ranting script bots? Would not Mr. Kennedy’s brokerage have to have been involved? Or was brokerage security so lax back then, any Tom, Jane, or Script Bot could find out anything he/she/it wanted to? And which scenario is worse?
We’ll Get You, My Pretty, and Your Little Birds, Too
Although the late ’90′s marked the hyper-hysterical days of the Dot.com boom, I was never particularly fond of the technology sector and mostly stayed far away.
My corporate background is in materials, and those were – and are – the sectors I tend to like most. That’s also where my problems with my Tormentors began, on various Yahoo finance boards focused on materials stocks, although I participated in some other Yahoo finance discussions as well.
I believed the constant ranting, raving, pornography, and more or less perpetual libelous remarks on the Yahoo boards were both offensive and childish in the extreme. I didn’t understand why no one was stepping in to stop it – regulators, politicians, attorneys, the companies themselves. Could allowing this sort of behavior to go on unchecked be good for markets, retail investors, institutions, or our country?
So putting on my Dudleyette Do-Right Mountie hat, I plunged in, ready to right all wrongs. Not only did I fire off E-mails to all sorts of security agencies, regulators, and politicians, I also contacted various managers at the affected companies, asking if they knew, for instance, that their Chief Financial Officer was being accused on a Yahoo board of embezzling 98 billion dollars and fleeing to Fiji with a fetching male prostitute and his pet llama.
As a professional writer and very skilled propagandist myself, I also determinedly countered every single libelous or merely outrageous remark made by a Short-side human or script bot with more accurate information from the Long-side, often making good use of whatever wit and humor I could muster.
Clearly, my Short-side Opponents were not enamored of my persistence, my experience, my talent – or me. My virus-worm-or-boa-constrictor-every-two-minutes problem began back then. And like Irving Kennedy, mild-mannered, bespectacled chiropractor, I was “outed” on several Yahoo boards.
I’m not an avid birder, but I belong to Audubon and think birds are pretty, so my shtick at Yahoo was avatars based on bird names, about which more later. My “outings,” therefore, would include posts like “Ms. Macaw is actually Ellen Brandt, a Sheep, a Shnook, a Molester of Ponies, and a Serial Killer, who owns 2,000 shares of DIS and 400 shares of GE.”
The worst thing about this supreme silliness is that, in my case at least, it affected other, even more innocent people with the same name. “Brandt” may not quite be the Teutonic equivalent of “Smith,” but it’s close. I began to hear about totally blameless Ellens – pharmacists in Hamburg, schoolteachers in Vienna, store managers in Dubuque – who had suddenly started receiving bouquets of black tulips or telegrams reading “We know what you did last winter – and we’re telling Interpol.”
This “fun” began to turn into terror, when I sparred with my Tormentors over the stock of a company called Tatneft, a then-ADR which traded under the symbol TNT. Some background:
Tatneft is a vertically-integrated oil and gas company, the sixth largest in Russia, with more than 70,000 employees. In 1998, it became the first Russian company to trade its shares via an ADR on the NYSE. It left the Big Board in 2006 and now trades in Moscow, Frankfurt, and London.
I became interested in the stock at about the time of that infamous Barron’s cover story that said Oil was as useless as cheap soda pop and would probably drop to $2.78 per barrel in four more trading days. Everyone knew this was patently ridiculous, and that article heralded an interim bottom in Oil for several years to come.
I felt TNT was ridiculously undervalued for a company of its size and importance, partially because the financial information on it was at that time quite sketchy and not particularly transparent, a situation which was to improve considerably over the next few years.
In any case, I bit the bullet and bought 5,000 shares at something like $4.50, which seemed to be rock bottom. It wasn’t. And before the entire international Oil sector started to ascend as the price per barrel began to escalate quickly, The Boyz decided to Boo! the hoi polloi by taking all sector stocks down some more.
I think TNT made it all the way down to $2.75, but I wasn’t particularly worried, because I believed it would prove a very good trade a few more weeks out. It proved to be The Trade of the Century – or pretty darn near it – but I wasn’t allowed to share in it.
Because all of a sudden, a truly massive campaign began to try to get me to sell my TNT shares. It now sounds like a comic opera. But back then, I was so scared, I could hardly breathe. Newsweek‘s and Time‘s blaring cover stories on the Russian Mob and Wall Street came to life, as I started getting dozens upon dozens of midnight phone calls from men with breathy Eastern European accents. They threatened to do grave harm to me, my relatives, my neighbors, my friends, my dentist, and the checkers at the supermarket I went to, unless I forfeited their stock as quickly as possible.
Remember, I had just lost my mother. And the phone calls, plus a series of lightly veiled threats via E-mail, focused on my father, who they implied would be the first victim of my recalcitrance.
Hey, Ellen! Were there black vans and helicopters? Sorry, no ‘copters. But vans aplenty, or at least dark-colored vehicles, which took to coming straight up my driveway at 3 AM with lights so bright, they were able to awaken me as they shone in my bedroom window. The vehicles didn’t do anything. They just sat there for 30 seconds or so and then backed up, peeling away with a squeal of brakes as they hit the road.
Then came the baby animals.
Birds first, because I used bird names as my Yahoo avatars. Pitiful little things, left on my doorstep with their throats cut. But soon, squirrels, mice, garter snakes, voles, rapidly escalating to puppies and kittens.
Didn’t I call the police? At first, of course, I did. And got the standard police response to anything that happens in my County, which is – “It’s probably just kids.” Kids who speak Russian? Kids who know about my shareholdings? Kids who can break into and out of E-mails without leaving a trace?
So I complained on-line and via snail mail to a whole assortment of government security agencies and regulators, most of which sent me back standard form letters, and none of which bothered to telephone me to chat.
Possibly, things have changed for the better. But in the days prior to 9-11, nobody seemed to be interested in stock market bullying at all, at all.
For Us, the Richest, Most Delicious Cake – For You, Not a Single Crumb
As the body count of infant animals went ballistic – I’m sure they would have slaughtered a baby yak, if they could find one – I became increasingly agitated, particularly after I started hearing that assorted friends and relatives were getting 2 AM messages from gruff types, too.
By the time the Oil stocks finally started to make some gains again, I was so terrified, I sold back my TNT at a slight loss, saying to myself, “The heck with it! It’s not worth losing my family over.”
In what seemed like a nanosecond, TNT skyrocketed up to a high of close to $130, meaning that my $23,000 investment in 5,000 shares would have been worth about $650,000, if I had not been maliciously bullied out of it.
A little later on, I experienced a chillingly similar incident, with a stock with the symbol KOSP, for KOS Pharmaceuticals, a South Florida maker of generic drugs.
Pharma is not my area of expertise nor my special interest. But I have lots of friends and relatives in South Florida, and a couple of them had been hearing stories from gurus at Rotary meetings or plein air watercolor classes that KOS was a major turnaround story in the making.
Since it was trading south of $3.00, I thought, “Why not?” and again bought 5,000 shares. They languished for a few months, at which point – Yes, again – 3 AM visits from dark-colored cars; midnight phone calls from men with gruff voices, this batch with vaguely Sicilian accents; and what seemed like zillions of E-mail death threats.
This time, I sent copies of nearly every threat I received to a different Guardian of the Internet, from Microsoft to Norton to the NASD and the FCC. Same ole, same ole. Form letters. “Due to the volume of complaints we receive” letters. Or the occasional, “Whoever this is, they’re routing via Singapore to Acension to Bratislava, and we can’t get a handle on the trail.”
And, Yes, too, there were baby critters again, one placed lovingly with wildflowers on the hood of my car.
At least in the case of KOS, I got a gain. Hysterical though I was, I held on until the stock was over $9.00, for a triple. But a short time afterwards, KOS was taken out by a Big Pharma competitor, Abbott Labs, for $78 a share. My 5,000 shares, acquired at $15,000, would have been worth $390,000.
After KOS, I stopped being afraid of them forever. Let them threaten to wipe out my immediate neighborhood with a nuclear bomb. Let them leave a poor baby snow leopard on my doorstep. Let Boris and Natasha and an entire crew of black-clad Ninjas – or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – show up on my doorstep in the middle of the night. I’ll put on a robe and invite them in for cocktails.
But of course, from their perspective, the dirty tricks apparently will not stop and cannot stop. For instance, I now think the main objective of targeting me so assiduously during the Great Crash was to get their hands on a couple of gold stock positions I’d been tenderly nursing for about a decade, since before the First Washington Agreement.
I made some of my purchases of one of those stocks at under 50 cents. Adjusted for a takeover – it’s now part of a larger company – those shares are currently worth about $7.00. I bought the other gold stock, among the sector’s biggest winners, at under $4.00. It now regularly trades in the $60.00 range.
But the particulars of any of these situations or the way-beyond-illegal-and-immoral finaglings of my Tormentors to bleep, bleep, and bleep me into the ground financially and psychologically are far less important than the mere fact that they – or any human being – would wish to act this way towards another human being ever, ever, ever under any possible set of circumstances.
Or that any employers, regulators, security forces, or assorted Guardians of the Markets or the Internet could just sit back and allow them to do it.
In chapter 5 of this narrative, I’ll talk about some even stranger Silly Hacker-Short-Seller Tricks that I’ve been the victim of or witness to over the past several years. I hope that these narratives will encourage others who’ve experienced or witnessed similar shenanigans to come forward and speak their minds.
Because most of us – at least the adults among us – know what is at the core of our dysfunctional markets – and possibly of our dysfunctional economy. And that is a lack of cooperation, of rationality, of give-and-take, and of economic consensus-building.
Which brings us back to my Sociopathic Tormentors and their general attitude towards me – or you – or you – or Yes, you, too. We are not viewed as fellow human beings and fellow market participants. We are viewed as The Enemy, to be crushed and pulverized and at last obliterated.
In other words, to those with my Tormentors’ mindset, markets are not cooperative ventures, in which it is possible that everyone may – and indeed should - be permitted to win, if they make rational choices. Instead, they see markets as violent, volatile, shoot-’em-up video games, in which they, as Players, strive to take everything, every last little bit, while the rest of us, their Opponents, need to be shot down like vermin and left to die with nothing at all.
Of course, major investment banks, hedge funds, and other powerful financial entities have lately encouraged just such a mindset by hiring as traders not the buttoned-down, circumspect gentlemen and ladies who made markets in prior generations, but rather Gonzo Kiddies like those on the infamous Enron tape.
These Technogeeks of the “Let’s Bleep Granny” variety seem to have come straight from the birth canal to a permanent computer desk, where they’ve been allowed and encouraged to play games of one kind or another since before they could crawl.
But life – or individual lives – are not Games, nor should they ever be considered as such. Nor should economies. Nor should markets.
And a Winner Takes All philosophy couldn’t be more wrong for the markets – or the world – at this point in our history. With several large countries and entire regions entering the ranks of middle class nations, this should be an exciting and optimistic period, marked by innovation, industrialization, and growth.
World markets should be optimistic, too. That they are not – seriously not – is due as much as anything to the stresses and strains caused by excessive volatility, the Cult of Short-Selling, and the Everything-for-Us-Nothing-for-You mindset of the Gonzo technical traders who’ve reigned unchecked for far too long.
For the next chapters in this saga, see “An Open Letter to My On-Line Broker”
and “Curiouser and Curiouser - How I Became a Comic Book Villain, the Butt of an SNL Skit, and Perhaps the Inspiration for Twitter”
For the initial story in the series, see “My Life Versus Mrs. Blankfein’s Diamond Earrings” http://wp.me/pVYiX-7
June 3, 2010
by Ellen Brandt, Ph.D.
Of all the technical indicators around, none is as accurate at predicting market or sector turning points as the deliberate crashing of my computer system. If my poor little PC is weeping buckets of computer-tears and writhing in computer-pain – trust me, something wonderful or dreadful is about to happen to the markets.
My two recent computer breakdowns from within my brokerage account were the first ever – in more than twelve years – to occur while using an Ameritrade site. They were also the first destructive breakdowns of any kind to happen to my fairly new – purchased 16 months ago - Vista-based computer system.
But in the early days of my encounters with my Hacker-Short-Seller-Tormentors, computer system destruction was the weapon of choice, applied so consistently at key market moments, I clearly should have attempted to sell monitoring rights to institutional investors or government agencies seeking to get a better handle on the markets.
Was a sector in which I owned a significant position about to get very good news or very bad news momentarily? Ka-boom! Kaput! Bye-bye, Computer!
Was a particular company I was following about to soar or to falter? Uh-oh, there went my system again.
Was the entire market about to go up 800 points or down 1800 points? Couldn’t take the chance that I’d snag the top or the bottom. Absolutely necessary to take me – The Enemy – out of the game.
Does all of this sound unbelievable, unimaginable, idiotic, and extraordinarily childish to you?
That makes two of us! Because normal human beings don’t act like this. Normal human beings – even if they are Master-of-the-Universe spolled and privileged Kiddie Short-side Traders — don’t believe that playing a cat-and-mouse game with such Guardians of the Internet as Microsoft, Verisign, Intel, and Sun in order to pulverize The Enemy’s driver codes and other system essentials is a “justifiable trading strategy” or a justifiable life strategy.
But that’s just us.
To my Tormentors, anything was OK, so long as they didn’t get caught. And they didn’t. Despite my pleas, my desperate entreaties to everyone from Homeland Security to Interpol to the the SEC to the Pope and the Dalai Lama – OK, I made the last two up - no one in a position of influence seemed to be able to do anything to stop these constant crashes.
In the first eight years of my battles with Tormentor-Hacker-Shorts, from about 1998 until 2006 or so, I lost five entire computer systems, literally broken down so many times and to such an extent, they eventually became unrestorable and unfixable.
These five systems were from different manufacturers in different price ranges. One was even designed by a custom computer builder. No matter. Prior to Vista, the Tormentors had no trouble whatsoever shredding my computers to pieces.
I’ve kept two of these five systems in my home office as paperweights, though. So if a forensic computer investigator ever takes this seriously enough to examine their burnt-out innards, perhaps proof of Who did What to Which is still available.
Pre-Vista, the worst viruses or plagues or worms or scorpions - whatever the heck the weapons of choice were – seemed to have as their goal various driver control files, starting with those affecting peripherals, like monitors and keyboards. This has changed for the better with Vista.
But in the Dark Ages of my initial eight-year battle, in between their knocking out entire systems, my Tormentors gleefully took aim at a system’s Outliers - its peripherals – which were clearly the hacker-prone weak spots before Vista came along.
In the first eight years of my Cyber-Victimhood, I lost a computer mouse about every six or seven weeks, a keyboard every three months or so, and a hard-to-take-out monitor every eight or nine months. Even the most experienced computer repair people became baffled at the success of these attacks, clearly the result of Evil Genius Hackers of Kevin Mitnick-caliber. (Mitnick is the only celebrated Black Hat Hacker whose name I know, because I read Tsutomo Shimomura’s wonderfully interesting book about him.)
I can imagine two nasty little overweight, pimple-faced, 23-year-old “technical traders” on the Maserati Platinum Partners Ultra-High-Frequency trading desk – I do hope this is a not a real firm - gleefully plotting an algorithmic-robotic-goblin-in-the-machine attack:
“Ooooooooooh, Wow! We got her this time, Chad! Convert the keyboard to an obscure Amazonian tribal dialect, using characters shaped like little poison frogs. When the frogs turn purple, they take out the function keys first, the numerals second, and then the rest of the keyboard, which I’ve additionally programmed to give her a bad electric shock – and ideally jump to her washing machine, stereo speakers, and toaster oven.”
Ah, Youth! Ah, Evil!
Let’s Turn Her Eyeballs Into Sightless Marbles
None of my Tormentors’ machinations comes close, however, to their deliberate use of something called Blaster Viruses, which seem to piggyback off various Flash facilities, especially those involving screen savers, wallpapers, or other applications which link visual and audio components.
Blaster Viruses probably first evolved as malicious attempts to take over users’ desktops. Quite aside from their “normal” viral effect, since they work off Flash files, even average computer users may intuitively feel the Blaster Viruses are there, because they cause a slight increase in eye strain.
To me, though, Blasters are incredibly harmful. That’s because, along with a fair number of other people – it’s not that rare an ailment – I have something called a macular hole in one of my eyes.
Don’t confuse this with macular degeneration, which affects many elderly people. A macular hole is a mechanical defect caused by some sort of trauma, like whiplash after a car accident or a serious fall. Mine was caused by a skiing accident in my early 40s.
The condition is cured somewhat by a standard operation involving the injection of a gas bubble into the eye and a prolonged healing process during which you must keep your eyes downcast. I also had to have several follow-up procedures over a five-year period.
But the defect never fully heals. It usually has little long-term effect on basic eyesight. In my case, being only moderately near-sighted and not at all far-sighted, I need glasses for driving, but not for reading, watching television, or working at my computer.
There is one very serious residual effect for people with macular holes, however: We literally cannot stand rapidly flashing lights, If I’m behind a police car with a rooftop flasher or one of those horrid brightly-flashing towtrucks, I have to pull over to the shoulder and wait until the flashing light is completely out of my field of vision.
So to someone like me, Blaster computer viruses are downright painful. Stare at a screen with one for even a half-minute, and it feels like burning hot daggers are being thrust into my eyeballs. My eyes may start pulsing crazily. I get nauseous. And at times, I’ve had to lie down with ice compresses on my eyelids for several hours before the effect is diminished.
To make a gruesome tale shorter, my Evil Tormentors know about my eye condition – like all expert Hackers, they can find out anything by breaking into other people’s files, including medical files – and they’ve used their knowledge for the purpose of pure sadism, causing me as much physical pain and torture as possible via the use of Blasters.
And Blasters have the additional bonus effect of being extremely destructive to computer monitors and systems. Reach out and feel your computer screen. It may not be ice cold, but it shouldn’t be particularly warm. If a very bad Blaster had been placed on your computer, your screen might get so hot, you’d have trouble touching it without getting burned. Sometimes, the monitor gets fiery hot, like the burner on a stovetop.
No, I am not exaggerating.
How About Knocking Out a Library?
After my Hacker-Tormentors knocked out my fifth complete computer system to the point where it was unrepairable, I got so disgusted, I decided that I’d trade my Ameritrade account at the public library.
I actually found a library – not the closest one, but only ten miles away – that had a very nice, modern computer room, if you could ignore the strange people muttering to themselves, others with a slightly pungent odor, or teeny-boppers crowding in after school to collaborate loudly on whatever projects teeny-boppers are assigned these days.
But guess what? At key moments in the general market, sectors I followed, or my individual stocks, my Tormentors still contrived to stop me from trading expeditiously. Only now they had to knock out the entire library. And most of the time, they managed it.
There I’d be, contentedly reading stories from Der Spiegel or Asia Times, intending to make some key trades at the close. And all of a sudden, every computer in the library – which is a lot of ‘em – goes dark. The research desk, the circulation desk, the library’s financial lady working on her accounts – all dark, all kaput, all because of me!
Of course, this was – and is – impossible to prove. And there’s no way of knowing if the darling little Super-Hackers were able to accomplish their amazing feats remotely or if, as part of the Game, they actually sent a young Trader-Hacker to the library itself from somewhere nearby – say – let’s do this by initials – R.T. in East Setauket, the only quant hedge fund within 50 or 60 miles of where I live.
At least it was too difficult for my Tormentors to send Blaster Viruses to an entire library’s machines, so my eyes got a rest. And my foray into Computing-Among-Homeless-People did have the positive effect of introducing me to Vista, which the library switched to soon after I started to use its computers.
In general, Vista seemed safer to me than previous versions of Windows. So in late 2008, after the Crash ate my life’s savings, I decided to bite the bullet, purchase a new Vista-based machine at Best Buy, and retreat once more to the comfort of my home office.
I still had to deal with Hackers and Flamers in the process of relaunching my journalistic career. See “I Don’t Like What You Wrote. You Should Be Stabbed With Stiletto Heels” http://wp.me/pycK6-5 and “My Life With a Twitter Stalker” http://wp.me/pycK6-L .
In fact, I now believe these apparently non-market-related hacking attacks might, indeed, be linked to my original Tormentors or those firms funding their delightful and congenial activities. More about this in future chapters.
But the sinister and physically painful Blaster Virus attacks did not reemerge as a problem on my new Vista machine until I reentered the stock market at the end of February, 2010.
Please reread that. No Blasters trying to take out my eyesight until I dared – dared! – to intrude upon my Tormentors’ main territory again. As if to say, “It’s bad enough Those Who Are Not Us muddy up the Internet with their presence. How dare they attempt to play in our personal playpen, the stock market. Good luck getting us to share our toys.”
With the reemergence of painful Blasters literally hours into my reactivating my Ameritrade on-line account, I should have figured a computer wipeout would occur eventually.
Now that there have been two – both occuring from within my trading account itself, thereby clearly implicating Ameritrade’s own proprietary traders and/or their on-site “Partners” like – oh, I dunno, how about Something-or-Otherville? – in a perverse way, I’m glad these attacks have occurred in such a blatant fashion.
As I said earlier, I had hoped against hope – as I’m sure you did, if you’re a market outsider like me – that after what our country and the entire world suffered in 2008, steps would have been taken to stop the most egregious abuses aimed towards retail investors and smaller institutions.
I had hoped against hope that the perverse concept of on-line brokerages being permitted to trade counter to the interests of their own customers would be held up to public and legislative scrutiny and be abolished forever as the immoral and, in terms of “Chinese walls,” illegal practice I believe it is.
I had hoped against hope that massive class actions would be initiated against the on-line brokers, in an attempt to get retail customers and smaller institutions some restitution for the life-threatening losses we incurred in the Great Crash.
And I had fervently hoped against hope that the poisonous atmosphere of Short-Seller Bullying, in which the markets are viewed as one big Casino, would end. You all know what I mean. Anyone who dares to be long anything anywhere at any time is looked upon as a Mark, a Sheep, and a Shnook. Meanwhile, the Anointed Short-side Insiders are the designated House, raking in all the profits on the table in periodic massive crashes based on wall-to-wall media propaganda led by UltraBear Dons like Nassim Taleb or Nouriel Roubini (who seem to jet from luxurious conference venue to palatial estate, all the while thundering “Apocalypse Now!”)
Smash Those Widows and Orphans
Whether or not they support financial reform, you would think even the most gilded of Market Insiders or most clinically aggressive of Market Bears would draw the line at crashing opponents’ computers or trying to take out an eye patient’s eyesight as as part of a “reasonable trading strategy.”
Indeed, it is quite likely that many of the dirtiest of dirty tricks perpetrated by Short-side Trader-Hackers on proprietary trading desks or elsewhere are the province of very young Kiddie traders, whose supervisors are simply asleep at the switch. After all, these youngsters were probably hired in the first place for their knowledge of computer systems. And Well, Heck! Boys will be Boys.
Only some Boys spent their childhoods pulling wings off butterflies or torturing their little sister’s pet hamsters. For all we know, they may have quickly progressed to sneaking out in their Donald Duck PJ’s to set fire to the neighborhood old folks’ home.
In any case, getting together with other Boys-Just-Wanna-Have-Fun types on an unsupervised trading floor can lead to mob behavior of the scariest kind. If you doubt this, I suggest you view CNBC’s Enron special, The Smartest Guys in the Room, the next time it airs. The most memorable and frightening scene in the saga was a tape of some Kiddie hacker-traders in their 20′s talking about their plundering of California utilities whose stocks and bonds were havens for the proverbial “widows and orphans.”
The cute, carefree, adorable little Kiddies acknowledge this on tape with raucous laughter and commentary along the lines of, “Let’s bleep those Grannies hard. Put ‘em on welfare. Out on the street. Poor old Grannies.” Or words to that effect.
With all the problems I’ve experienced over the years, you might reasonably ask why I don’t hire a computer consultant to monitor my system on a regular basis.
To be frank, I can’t afford one. Maybe I could have before my life’s savings went Bye-bye, but not now. Moreover, since my computer has been designated “Laboratory Number One For Hacker Experimentation,” there’s little reason to think an outside consultant could prevent these attacks from occurring any more than the various anti-malware programs I’ve tried over the years could prevent them.
Microsoft and Verisign and Google and my ISP – all the various Guardians of the Internet we rely on – generally “catch” these viruses and worms and dragons and coyotes and Tasmanian devils – whoever or whatever makes life on the Internet such a minefield – within a few hours at their next scan or update.
But sometimes they don’t. And these Guardians seem either unable or unwilling to intrude on the territory of individual financial institutions – like the on-line brokerages or investment banks or hedge funds - if security problems are occurring, even regularly, within those institutions’ own sites.
The two devastating computer crashes I talked about in “My Life Versus Mrs. Blankfein’s Diamond Earrings” http://wp.me/pVYiX-7 occurred from within Ameritrade’s own site, more or less pointing towards direct involvement by someone with security access to that site, either on Ameritrade’s own trading floor or at one of its “Partner” sites to which they’ve given blanket security access.
It’s high time all of us – investors, traders, regulators, politicians, the Entire Planet – stopped treating this protected class of financial institutions as a world apart, somehow exempt from investigating and stopping internal bad behavior or outright criminal offenses perpetrated by employees, “rogue” or otherwise.
In a coming chapter in this series, I will post an open letter to my broker, Ameritrade, asking them to investigate, correct, and somehow reimburse me for the losses I suffered because of their own employees conspiring to crash my computer.
But I’ll go further, telling Ameritrade management how I believe they could stop these abuses from happening ever again and satisfy their customers’ demands for a safer, fairer, and more honest market environment, in which everyone pulls together, rather than acting in direct opposition to other groups perceived and often demonized as “Enemies.”
Markets should be cooperative ventures, not war zones. Legitimate “trading practices” do not include bullying, harassment, hacking, spying, nor disabling other people’s computer systems.
My life and my well-being are not Games – and neither are yours.
We’re all human beings. Not animals. Not aliens. Not avatars in Market-World-of-Warcraft.
The next chapter in this series will go back to the beginning and theorize why and how the anti-Me vendetta came about.
For the next two stories in this series, see “Midnight Death Threats and Kittens With Their Throats Slashed”
and “An Open Letter To My Broker – How To Make Things Right”
For the first story in this series, see “My Life Versus Mrs. Blankfein’s Diamond Earrings” http://wp.me/pVYiX-7
May 25, 2010
by Ellen Brandt, Ph.D.
For over twelve years, my financial existence has resembled an ongoing snuff movie enacted for the enjoyment of the nastiest, most malicious group of sociopaths this country has ever known. They’ve finally gone too far, and I can no longer keep silent. If my own financial life can’t be salvaged, at least I want it to stand for something.
If the above sounds melodramatic, you will see as this series proceeds that absurdity - commingled with the purest Evil – is the hallmark of what I’ve suffered and continue to suffer moment-by-moment at the hands of my Tormentors.
Exactly which Tormentors? I can’t be sure of who the ringleaders are. But I have a good idea who some of them may be, and I intend to name names – or at least affiliations – as this convoluted tale is told.
Over the next 30 or 60 or 90 days, I will publish an article in this series nearly every day, ranging widely, as I must, over the events of the past dozen years, with additional commentary on how my story is also your story - unless you’re fortunate enough to be part of the protected one percent or so of Americans and less than 1/100th of one percent of the rest of the world’s citizens who’ve been given the veritable Keys to the Kingdom, allowed to live in unparalleled splendor with unparalleled power and unparalleled license to harass, bully, maim, and sometimes kill the rest of us as they please.
What they’ve been pleased to do with me is make it almost impossible for me to survive, let alone thrive, despite the fact that in terms of intelligence, talent, education, and ability, I am the peer of any of them.
But twelve years ago, for reasons I’ll relate in future chapters of this narrative, a small group of Masters of the Universe decided that I had to be made an Example of Something-or-Other – still undetermined. They enlisted others to help them in their noble enterprise, which essentially has been to turn my life into a neverending computer game, in which I am cast as The Enemy, who must be sadistically flailed and flayed at every possible opportunity.
Before we go on, a word about the title of this piece, which is arbitrary and generic. I do not know Mr. Blankfein, neither the famous one nor any other, nor do I have any reason to think he is involved in any of the following events.
And if there is a Mrs. Blankfein, I’m sure she is a delightful and saintly little woman, who shuns ostentatious display and devotes her spare moments to ladling out soup at homeless shelters or cultivating begonias in her backyard garden.
Besides being attention-getting, the title is meant to stand as a metaphor for what the central problem in our country – and our world – and my life - has now become:
In a mere three decades or so, pretty much since “supply-side economics” was invented out of thin air, our leaders and our mostly-unwitting population have allowed more and more – and more and more and more and more - of our country’s assets and power and media access and political control to be concentrated in ever fewer and, in many cases, obscenely wealthy hands.
Our wholesome, middle class values and ideals – the things that made America the shining beacon for the poor and oppressed of the world – have been forcibly replaced by a firmly entrenched dynamic, supported by a massive unrelenting propaganda campaign, which has established a new Aristocracy of Wealth Alone.
Intelligence, talent, innovation, creativity, kindness, moral worth – all have been downgraded as the basis for our meritocracy and replaced by an “ethic” that tells us Rich is Good in the most absolute sense, the ultimate goal towards which we all should strive, even if one has to get there by actions which are cruel, sadistic, immoral, or downright illegal.
We’ll talk about these issues in future stories.
For now, let me tell you why I am burning with anger against The Insane Ones who have harassed and tormented me for the past decade and why they’ve finally pushed me to tell all - and damn the consequences.
Whatever “It” Is, If We Can Get Away With It, It’s OK
First, a bit of background for those who don’t know me – and an acknowledgement.
Many of the actions and events I’ll tell you about are so outlandish and downright idiotic, your first reaction may be that I am making them up – or that I’m so loony, I should be placed in a rubber room immediately.
Well, I’m not loony. I’m painfully sane, which probably makes it harder to cope with the bizarre Through-the-Looking-Glass world my Tormentors have drawn me into against my will.
And Yes, many of the forms of harassment my self-styled opponents have chosen are silly and childish and malicious and ridiculous – a perfect illustration of the Banality of Evil theory posited by Hannah Arendt and others.
Which, indeed, is another main truth of this narrative: Among those we have placed in positions of great status and power and responsibility are sociopaths and thugs and criminals, with all the finesse and moral acuity of three-year-old tots toting machine guns.
Now for some basic background: I’ll tell you how I came to be trading the markets in future chapters. Briefly, I traded successfully enough, in a very modest way, over a ten-year period to preserve a trading account which allowed me to cover my utterly frivolous expenses, like food, insurance, and the electric bill, while keeping the account itself fairly steady.
In order to do this, you have to allow some leverage. And like so many others “working” their accounts to cover their costs of living, including a goodly proportion of my fellow Baby Boomers, I did.
This strategy worked well for many, many millions of small investors and institutions around the world, including family trusts, nonprofits, and educational and religious endowments, until the Crash of 2008, when outright Predators were given pretty much blanket permission to wipe us out via a series of escalating margin calls.
A scenario that’s very similar seems to be playing out now, although I believe at this writing that the slaughter can still be stopped.
But to continue with my synopsis: Along with millions of others, my very modest but crucial-to-my-survival trading account of a few hundred thousand dollars was essentially wiped out in 2008.
Or so I thought.
Let me backtrack a bit, though, to late 2007, about ten months before the Crash, when something that disturbed me greatly began to occur.
If you don’t understand Encoding, this may be a bit esoteric. But all Internet sites use some sort of encryption standard for their web pages. Most US sites use Unicode, which I believe is fairly safe. In late 2007, my broker, TDAmeritrade, abruptly changed its Encoding from Unicode to European ISO, which may sound good, but which I fear allowed some very shady things to occur.
The move was close to concurrent with Ameritrade’s allowing various “Partners” to incorporate much more material on their trading sites. I’m not going to single out any of these “Partners” yet – although I will in future stories. Suffice it to say that as soon as the Encoding switch from Unicode to European ISO occurred, I began to suspect strongly – actually more than suspect, to know – that my every move within Ameritrade sites was being keylogged, or spied upon, by someone or other.
I say “know,” because I have a certain serious eye condition, which I’ll talk about more in later chapters and which makes me acutely sensitive to the tiny flashes of light one sees upon clicking your mouse or typing your keyboard while you are being keylogged.
I will come out and make my first J’Accuse right here: I believe that upon the switchover to a new Encoding system, Ameritrade gave tacit permission to certain of its “Partners” – as well as to its own proprietary trading floor – to keylog any and all of its customers, enabling them to “trade against” customers literally on a tick-by-tick basis in real time.
It’s possible that this period marked similar events within other on-line brokerages, although I can’t speak about any others. I do know that I started getting keylogged within my Ameritrade account about this time, and I strongly suspect that everyone else’s account has been similarly violated.
I also noticed that suddenly, one had a great deal of trouble getting among the highest prices on a limit sell or the lowest prices on a limit buy within a given trading sequence - showing that somebody out there was parrying one’s moves, trading tick-by-tick in opposition.
Did I call out Ameritrade on this? Yes, of course, I did. And what I was told in response was interesting.
I was referred to a nice fellow who said he was the executive assistant to the CEO. We talked several times. At first, he said he was unaware of the Encoding shift and would research it. In subsequent calls, he acknowledged the shift and intimated that Yes, it might have something to do with various new “Partners” having a bigger part to play on the trading site. In our last conversation, he expanded further, telling me that, indeed, it was possible that Ameritrade’s own proprietary trading floor might be aware – across the vaunted “Chinese Wall” - of what customers were trading on a real-time basis, adding that “we have to protect ourselves by taking the other side of trades.”
Remember that this was almost a year before the Crash.
What I was being told, in effect, was that Ameritrade more or less openly admitted to allowing its own traders – and perhaps those trading for its “Partners” – to trade directly against its customers on a real-time basis.
Imagine that something similar was going on at every other on-line brokerage in the US and in many other parts of the world.
Imagine a protected class of proprietary trading floors and their “Partners” who had a stake in their own customers’ doing poorly. In fact, the more poorly customers did, the better those trading against them might do.
Imagine this all being planned well in advance of the Great Crash. And imagine it possibly happening again right now, while the financial services community campaigns rather violently against there being any curbs whatsoever put upon their proprietary trading floors’ Free Lunch.
Your Computer is Dead – And So Are You
Flash forward. I was so disgusted after the Crash of 2008, I literally did not look at my brokerage statements for a year and a half. For all I knew, there was nothing left at all – and good riddance, if it would get me out from under my malicious Tormentors’ thumbs.
It didn’t, as we will discuss later. But at least my life was much less stressful. I considered contacting a securities lawyer and suing Ameritrade over the illegal account keylogging and any role it might have played in the demise of my life’s savings. But I figured so many other millions of people and small institutions were in the exact same boat, it would be better to wait for a class action, if one ever arose.
I also sincerely thought that after such a mammoth national tragedy, our leaders would somehow put aside partisan concerns and assure the American people that Cheating, Lying, and Stealing on Wall Street would now become a thing of the past.
I spent the next 18 months or so making a (very) small beachhead in the senior services sector and reestablishing my career as a heavy-volume journalist, launching three other blogsites, which I hope you will look at, if you’re not yet familiar with them. They are listed in About, as is an E-mail address and telephone number, if you care to contact me.
So all was relatively well until late February, when I decided to reenter the market in a small way. Why just then? Well, I’d started reading up on market events again, and it seemed to me that one of those vaunted “interim bottoms” was upon us.
With great trepidation, I decided to look at a brokerage statement for the first time in a year and a half, to see if I had anything left. Amazingly, about a quarter of my original trading account was still there. And with my annual outrageous property tax payment coming up, I thought I’d try to see if I could cover it by some judicious up-from-the-bottom trading.
While I’m an utterly horrendous “day trader,” in terms of calculating very short-term moves – is anyone, without insider knowledge, a good one? – I’m an OK “swing trader,” calculating possible moves in the medium term, from one to five weeks out.
And since, through a combination of luck and good calculation for a change, I had managed to go back into the market at precisely the right time, I did pretty well, increasing the modest account that was left intact by over 20 percent in about eight weeks.
But three weeks ago, the market was clearly going very sour once more, and I decided to “take some profits,” as they say. Reading the disturbing news stories from Asia and Europe, I prepared to sell all but a couple of my holdings the Tuesday morning before the infamous “Flash Crash,” which occurred on a Thursday.
All of a sudden, without any warning whatsoever, a few minutes before the market open – and while I was literally within my broker’s site! – my computer system crashed completely. Not a normal, easily fixable, crash, but a crash so total, my entire system was frozen, clearly the effect of a major sudden virus or worm or something similarly catastrophic.
I wasted a few hours trying to fix it myself. Then I contacted my computer manufacturer – and its automatically redirected calls to teenagers in India with incomprehensible accents – next Microsoft – more redirects – and finally to the Geek Squad at Best Buy, where I had purchased my computer.
To make a long, sad, horrible, disgusting story a bit shorter, I finally, after a total reinstallation of the BIOS, got my computer fixed two days later, the day of the “Flash Crash.”
Like everyone else, I had lost fifteen percent of so of my account’s value by that time. But with all the talk about mistakes and investigations, I decided to let things ride.
In fact, my account regained all but a thousand dollars or so of its top-level value within the next four or five days, At which point, disturbed once more at the news from and market action in Asia and Europe, I decided for a second time to “take profits” at the top. And for a second time, on the point of doing so – again from within my brokerage account’s own site – my computer froze and totally crashed once more, this time even more thoroughly and dramatically, so that it was three days before I could go on-line again.
We all know what has happened to the market and virtually 100 percent of everyone’s stocks on the second of its two swift mega-dips. At this point, along with everyone else who is not massively short, I may be subject to a 2008-style wipeout again.
But I’m not going to take it lying down. Because this time, Dear Readers, the nasty little bleep-bleeps have gone one step too far.
Crashing my computer - a fairly new computer with up-to-date protection and software that had never crashed before – not once, but twice, at key market moments from within my brokerage account – is just not remotely acceptable behavior.
I do not for a moment believe this was bad luck or an Internet-wide tsunami or circumstances beyond my brokerage’s control.
I believe these two very convenient computer crashes were perpetrated by those “Partners” of the Ameritrade site who’ve been given carte blanche to keylog me and trade against me, in conjunction with the arrogant and malicious little 20-somethings on Ameritrade’s own proprietary trading floor - whose purpose, as related above, is to “protect themselves” by countering the trades of the firm’s own customers.
I don’t make these accusations lightly. As you’ll see in the next article in this series, such computer crashes have occurred with clockwork regularity over the course of a dozen years, albeit never on this new computer system. My nasty little Tormentors, now clearly including some on Ameritrade’s own trading floor, seem to consider hacking and keylogging and sending viruses and worms to crash computers a form of “acceptable trading strategy.”
Most of us would not.
The next two chapters in this strange and frightening saga will relate the lengths to which some “hacker-traders” will go to hurt those they trade against, seeming to forget that they are fellow human beings.
For now, let me just say that the $30,000 or so Ameritrade, instead of me, pocketed in the two “round trips” I missed out on via my computer system being slaughtered would have covered my property taxes for almost four years, my electric bills for six years, insurance payments for twelve years, or various other fluffy and frivolous outlays.
But who am I to rob creative hacker-traders of their massive bonuses, spent on essentials like cigars, champagne, and hard-working hookers?
What is my life compared to Mrs. Blankfein’s beautiful diamond earrings?
For the next two stories in this series, see Blind Woman’s Bluff:
and Midnight Death Threats and Kittens With Their Throats Slashed: