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 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”