"Public Apology," it began. Two pages of handwritten script followed, spelling out how sorry Farmington Corrections Center inmate No. 1069994 felt about the crimes he had committed three years earlier.
Brandon Samuel Brooks was an Internet scammer, and he felt terrible about it. At least that's what his letter said.
I wondered if the letter was a hoax. Ironic, I thought, that a credit card snake and Ebay thief had decided to come clean now.
A few weeks earlier, my wife had been ripped off by an Ebay scumsucker during the Christmas season's heaviest shopping period. It wasn't much money -- just $50 -- but it rankled me. I'd been the victim of petty crime before, but being ripped off by an Internet schemer made my wife and me feel like technological dumbasses.
I wanted to catch the son of a bitch, and I debated what to do about it. Report it to Ebay? That got me nowhere. Call the cops? Not for 50 lousy bucks.
For a few weeks, I stewed over the idea, wondering if I could go after the crook myself. And just at that moment, the letter from prison was routed to my desk.
I began typing a response. If Brandon Brooks wanted to spill his guts, I'd let him. And maybe, while I was learning something about his methods and what was in his mind, I might learn something that would help me track down the person who made off with my cash.
I didn't wait for Brooks to write back before I started learning about him. He'd left plenty of fingerprints all over the Internet, clues to his reckless, five-year career of online crime. As I chased down old Web sites, random notes he'd left on message boards, and even the remnants of criminal cabals that he'd organized, I stumbled upon an interesting electronic tribute to him written by an old friend.
Encieno had certainly not forgotten his former partner in crime.
I'm using Encieno's screen name at his request because there's a good reason he hasn't ended up in a prison cell next to his old computer buddy. The two started out on nearly identical paths -- both technogeeks as young teenagers, more interested in heavy drinking and seeing how much havoc they could wreak with their computers than in using them for shoot-'em-up games or chatting with girls.
They met early in high school and shared a dissatisfaction for their home lives in Blue Springs, which they both hated for its mind-numbing suburban shabbiness. Taking out their frustrations on the local police seemed like a good idea. In one of their earliest pranks, they assembled their own version of a telephone worker's handset to hack into phone exchanges and call in false crime reports.
Encieno claimed to have pulled out before things got really ugly. After multiple convictions for driving while intoxicated, he'd managed to get his shit together. When I met him, Encieno had a technically unchallenging job monitoring computers that controlled power lines -- a boring gig, but one that paid well, providing him with enough dough to make plans to marry his girlfriend and start a family.
Encieno today is pulling down 40 G's while Brooks -- practically his twin in age and talent (if not temperament) -- is serving time in state prison.
When Brooks' next letter arrived, I hoped it would help me understand why the two had ended up in such opposite places.
Instead, the letter was 11 handwritten pages of self-pity, explaining that his home life had been crappy, his stepdad was a shit, his lawyer was a backstabber, and prison life sucked. Oh, and by the way, between the ages of 15 and 20, he'd stolen about $100,000 from unsuspecting rubes over the Internet.
I wrote back, asking him to save the sob story for the parole board. Over the next several weeks, he wrote more letters, and we spoke by phone so I could put together his entire history. Just for the record, here are the heartbreaking details that set Brooks' life down the wrong path. It begins with the twins.
Like his friend Encieno, Brandon Brooks was the product of divorced parents. He lived with his mother and stepfather in cramped quarters. After his mother and stepdad had twin boys, 12-year-old Brandon was pressed into service. He adored his little sibs, he says, but his parents largely left them for him to raise for long stretches.
"I think part of Brandon's problem was the fact that I worked nights," says his mother, Becky Hall. "That left him with all the responsibility for his brothers." Brandon remembers cooking for and cleaning up after his brothers while his stepdad worked during the day and his mother worked at night.
"Brandon didn't have a very good childhood, but I can't turn back time," Hall says.
Brandon's stepdad says that a family move from Independence to Blue Springs also affected the boy. "Brandon seemed to lose interest in school after we moved." (He and Hall later divorced; Brooks now loathes his stepdad, who asked that I not name him.)
"He didn't seem like he was a bad kid," the former stepdad says. "You didn't have to spank him or anything like that." So it was a surprise, he says, when Brandon committed his first crime, shoplifting cologne at a Kmart with another boy. "That flabbergasted me. I couldn't believe that he had done anything wrong. I pretty much blamed the other kid. He was kind of a hood."
But Brandon's promise to reform after the shoplifting incident didn't stick. Deeply unhappy as he started high school, Brandon began to dabble in real crime.
Today, Brooks describes his first credit card thefts like a man wistfully remembering his first love. He was 15 when the family purchased its first home computer, he recalls. He begged his mother to open an Internet account. Back then, in 1995, an AOL account cost just $9.95 a month -- but that bought only 5 hours of connection time. Beyond that, Internet use cost $2.95 an hour, and Brooks says his mother was shocked to get monthly bills nearing $50.
The bills had to come down or she'd cancel, she warned him. But in a chat room, he learned that there was a way to create bogus AOL accounts using other people's credit card numbers. There were even places on the Net where scammers traded stolen numbers with one another.
Thrilled that he'd found a way to screw AOL, Brandon bragged about his computer prowess to his classmates at Blue Springs High School. That made them want their own free Internet accounts -- which Brooks was soon selling for $20 each.
Then he spotted an expensive stereo for sale on the Home Shopping Network.
"A light came on in my head," Brooks says. He wanted the stereo and was tempted to order it using one of the stolen credit card numbers. "But I knew I couldn't send it to my own house," he says. He remembered there was a vacant house down the street, and he walked over to get its address. "The lawn was kept up. There were drapes still on the windows. Everything looked legit for the UPS guy," he says.
He ran back home and wrote down a Visa number. "That is all the information I had. There was no expiration date or nothing. But technology was limited in 1995," he says, referring to an e-commerce laxness that would soon end. "I just made up a name and expiration date."
But first, he wanted to test the Home Shopping Network's security. He called the network's toll-free number, ordered the stereo and gave a bogus credit card number that he invented on the spot. "About a minute later, the lady came back and said, 'Sorry, sir, that credit card number is invalid.' I hung up. That told me they check immediately, especially if it's an overnight delivery order."
Ten minutes later, he called and spoke to a different person. This time, using the fake name "Mark Alloy" (Brooks isn't sure how he came up with the alias), he gave the stolen Visa number and the address for the vacant house. He was told his new stereo would arrive within 36 hours.
"Bam! I was in! I have a free stereo coming!" Brooks says. The following day, he boasted at school about what he'd done -- which he realized later was the error of a rookie criminal. On his bus ride home, passing the vacant house, he spotted a yellow UPS tag on the door. No one had been home to take possession of the stereo, and the note said the deliveryman would be back at 5 p.m.
"This threw me into puzzlement," Brooks remembers. "I sat down and thought about how I was going to pull this stunt off." Eventually, he wrote a note saying that an emergency had detained him and asking the UPS driver to leave the package behind some bushes. He signed the note "Thank you, Mark Alloy."
The trick worked. Hiding across the street, Brooks watched the UPS man leave the package. Once again, Brooks celebrated his victory by bragging at school. And this time, he started taking orders. "I was selling things real cheap," he says. "Like, a $100 object for $15 or $20. High school kids didn't have a whole lot of money, but I sure made mine." Selling clothes, cologne, electronics and other prized high school possessions, Brooks was soon making up to 20 illegal credit card transactions a day.
"Man, I was rolling! I was known as the guy who could get you anything you wanted."
Last year, my wife was surfing Ebay when she found something she knew I'd like: a replica of the football jersey worn by one of my favorite players.
In stores, the thing would go for around $65, so when her $49 bid came in as the winner, she was pleased with herself. However, she didn't have a Paypal account to transmit payment to the seller, a man who called himself Jax. He accepted money orders, so she e-mailed him to find out where to send the money.
He provided an address on McGee Street in Kansas City and asked her to make it out to "Jack Sampson." (I've changed this from the actual name -- not to shield Mr. Sampson but to offer some small measure of protection to me and my wife from potential e-scammers who might unearth our original transactions.) The next day, she mailed the payment.
A week went by, and she heard nothing. Then she got suspicious when "Jax" e-mailed her and asked for our address. My wife debated mentioning this to me -- she didn't want to blow the surprise of the gift, but she knew that Jax should have known our address from her previous e-mails. After more time went by with no jersey showing up, she e-mailed Jax several more times but got no reply.
Nothing on the Ebay auction page suggested that the sale wasn't legitimate. But after my wife clicked on Jax's feedback page, she realized that she'd been had. Reluctantly, she clued me in and apologized that I wouldn't be getting my jersey.
Screw the jersey, I thought. What really pissed me off was that my wife sounded terrified when she said the rip-off artist had asked for our address a second time. "Do you think he's going to come here?" she asked.
I doubted it. But I didn't like it that some bastard who had taken my wife for a sucker had also scared the crap out of her.
As I looked through Jax's feedback page, I could see that Jax had gone on quite a little crime spree, taking other people from all over the country over a period of about three weeks. The total came to about $2,000 in sports jerseys that had been paid for but never delivered.
The earliest marks had tried to warn the rest of Jax's prey. But later victims, like my wife, hadn't noticed all the negative feedback, which didn't appear on the auction page itself.
"Had to leave threatening message. No jersey, sad son."
I knew how they felt. But I had an advantage that they didn't have.
Jax was in Kansas City. And so was I.
While I tried to track down Jax, the letters from Brooks kept coming.
After his easy start in credit card fraud, he explained, times began getting more difficult. Companies were growing smarter. Brooks now needed expiration dates and cardholders' names to use stolen numbers -- and that information was tougher to come by. But he'd also discovered that it wasn't hard to convince some people to turn over that information. In a process called "phishing," Brooks sent e-mails to randomly selected AOL members, telling them that AOL had lost their billing information and asking them to submit all kinds of personal information. Brooks was astounded to find that some gullible users would gladly turn over sensitive info -- even their Social Security numbers.
To crank up production, Brooks recruited about 30 other young scammers through an Internet group he called the "Free Carding Association." The cabal phished as a group, trading credit card info like other teens trade baseball cards. By now, Brooks was feeling nearly invincible. He boasted openly on the FCA's public bulletin board, using jargon that barely hid what the group was up to.
"While I was sleeping, I had people working for me. I would wake up in the morning, and everything would be in my e-mail box, including dates on which to expect products."
But even that wasn't enough. "In 1995, a lot of stores still used the old credit card swipe thing, and they would throw away the white copy," he says. Dumpster diving for the receipts became another way to get credit card numbers. "One night behind a Phillips 66 station, we hit the jackpot. About 200 receipts. I was set for a very long time."
But dumpster diving could be a dirty job. Brooks came to prefer another method. "On Thursday nights my friend would come over because my mom and stepdad would be gone bowling, and we would roam the neighborhood and steal mail. You would be amazed how much information I got doing that. Cash, checks, Social Security numbers, credit card numbers."
Then, in March 1996, Brooks got his biggest order yet. A friend, Kevin, wanted top-of-the-line stereo equipment for his Geo Tracker. "All the shit he wanted came to around $3,000. I gave him an extremely discounted price of $250." Bragging that he'd have all of the packages in about a week, Brooks carelessly told Kevin the address of the vacant house that he was using as a drop site.
As the arrival date neared, Brooks got nervous -- for the first time, he noticed police roaming his neighborhood. "The next day at school I tried to find Kevin to tell him that I was going to lay low for a while." But Kevin wasn't there. Nor did he show up the next two days at school.
Then, riding home from school on the bus, Brooks passed the vacant house -- and panicked when he saw about ten police cars parked outside it. The police had staked out the house after finally catching on that it was being used for credit card theft. They moved in when they spotted Kevin -- who was trying to screw Brooks out of the $250 by picking up the packages himself -- and arrested him.
Brooks spent three nervous weeks waiting for the other shoe to drop. Then, on April 11, he was pulled out of his Western civilization class and taken to the principal's office. Waiting for him was Blue Springs police detective Mike Kruger and a woman from the United States Postal Service. Kruger placed Brooks under arrest for credit card fraud and mail theft. Kevin had snitched on him.
Brooks was accused of stealing about $8,000. He'd actually stolen twice that amount, he says now. However, even after the police searched his room and found stolen mail, he wasn't charged.
By the time I started looking for him, Jax's e-mail account was no good, and the info in his Ebay profile appeared bogus. A call to his telephone number showed that it was disconnected -- and if "Jax" sounded fake, there was no reason to believe "Sampson" was real, either. There was no Jack Sampson listed in the phone book, and simple Internet searches didn't turn up anything about him.
Still, we had the address.
My wife had sent money to a real place, not a Paypal account. Using the database LexisNexis, I looked up the name of the property owner.
Paydirt. The database came up with a name, telephone number, even a birth date. I reached for the phone to call Mr. Michael Ramirez (not his real name) of McGee Street.
A middle-aged guy answered the phone and said yes, he was Ramirez. Then I explained why I was calling. But Ramirez sounded completely befuddled. He hadn't heard of Sampson. He'd never received a money order from anyone. An Ebay auction? Hell, he didn't even have a computer. "I'm just a city firefighter. I don't know anything about Ebay," he told me. If I'd been ripped off, I should call the cops, he told me.
By then I thought it was possible that Jax, like Brooks, could be using Ramirez's mailbox for a drop site. But Ramirez said he'd never noticed anything suspicious about the delivery of his mail. And I believed him. There was nothing in his voice to tell me that he was lying through his teeth.
No, I'd find that out only later.
At 16, Brooks was driving his first car and stealing more and more mail. "I found this one place where there were about 75 mailboxes all in a row. We drove up to them and hit them all. Man, we got blank checks, credit cards and more. This went on for about three months, until they put a new mailbox system in there."
Brooks developed a new scam. He would look through newspaper classified ads for computer equipment. About half of the sellers would accept his offer to pay with a check. "I made sure I called on Fridays," he says. "I'd write the stolen check ... then I'd head directly to Computer Renaissance and sell the computers for cash."
Brooks finally garnered his first criminal charge in 1998 after taking a job at an Amoco station. Because he was broke, he charged $18 in gas to a customer's credit card. "The guy pissed me off, so I picked him," Brooks recalls. The crime resulted in a three-year sentence of unsupervised probation. Brooks reacted by running away to Jacksonville, Florida, for a few days. Then he returned and moved in with a friend. He lived in various places (moving back in with his parents on occasion) and kept up his various scams. He dropped out of high school the same year, a few days after his 18th birthday.
Encieno had dropped out as well, and the two computer friends got jobs together as cable contractors. The money wasn't bad, and for a time Brooks laid off the theft. He eventually got his own place, an apartment just a block from the Blue Springs Police Department, a location he found ironic. It was around this time, the summer of 2000, when money got tight again.
"He got the bright idea of ripping people off [on Ebay]," Encieno recalls. "I remember asking him what the hell he was thinking, and he replied, 'They've got the money to lose.'"
Encieno says he wanted no part of it. "I buy a lot of stuff on Ebay, and it sort of pissed me off that he was ripping people out of thousands of dollars. And for some reason, it took law enforcement an extremely long time to start even looking into it."
Brooks vividly remembers his first Ebay heist. Using a fake name, he created an auction for a laptop computer that did not exist. The winning bid came in at $1,000.
"I told the guy that the only reason I am selling it is because I received two DWIs, my court date is the next day and I need the money now." Brooks convinced the man to wire the money through Western Union to "Mark Alloy," knowing that the service didn't require identification if the sender and recipient established a password. With the secret code in place, Brooks headed to a Hy-Vee with a Western Union terminal and left with ten $100 bills.
Brooks says the experience only fueled his "addiction" to fraud. "I immediately went home and put about five auctions up," he says. But Brooks knew that he'd save himself hassle if he could receive payments through Ebay's companion site, Paypal.com. To do that he needed to provide the service with credit card information. But by now, that was getting even more difficult to fake -- companies wanted numbers printed on the backs of cards, for example. Brooks knew there was only one way to get that information: from the cardholders themselves.
He quickly designed a shopping mall Web site, claiming to have $1,500 computers on sale for only about $400. "Within two days, I had five orders," Brooks says. "They would click 'buy' and enter in their whole credit card information, and it would be sent to my e-mail box." Brooks then created Paypal accounts with the stolen information, and as soon as he received an account's verification code, he sent hundreds of dollars from the bogus Paypal account to his own Paypal account and from there to his bank account.
Throughout the summer of 2000, Brooks spent his free cash on case after case of beer. He says he felt like he would never get caught.
If I was going to find Jax, I needed more information. So I began e-mailing his other victims. One replied that when he'd tried the telephone number in Jax's profile, it rang through.
Their conversation was short, but the victim talked long enough to find out that Jax was actually named Jack and that he lived with his father, a man named Doug. Apparently, Sampson really was their last name. The next time he called, the phone number had been disconnected.
With that information, however, the rest was easy. Mortgage records showed that a Doug Sampson owned a house in midtown. A motor vehicle records database turned up a Jack Sampson who lived at the same address.
I wrote Doug Sampson a polite letter, informing him that his son was known on Ebay as a notorious rip-off artist and that he owed me 50 bucks.
Doug Sampson's reply arrived a few days later.
Brooks says that Encieno's arrest was what set him off on a reckless and final crime spree.
In September 2000, the Blue Springs Fall Fest spilled over from Main Street into the area around Brooks' apartment, and Encieno and other friends had gathered to drink and take part in the festivities. But the party ended when Blue Springs police cuffed Encieno for underage drinking.
A week later, the two plotted their revenge.
"I began to think about it long and hard," Brooks says, remembering how he came up with the idea to punk the Blue Springs police with a fake Web site. To his surprise, the address www.bluespringspolice.com was available, so he paid to register it, brazenly acquiring it under his own name (but charging it to a stolen credit card account).
The fake site debuted on October 27, 2000. A crude parody of a police department Web page, Bluespringspolice.com featured photographs of the real Blue Springs Police Department building, photos of Brooks' multiple outstanding traffic tickets, illustrations of spinning marijuana leafs, a link to LaMar's Donuts and a still photo from a gay porn video that Brooks claimed was a photo of two Blue Springs cops, officers Mike and Dave, going at it.
Two days later, the site had recorded only 50 hits. Disappointed, Brooks made up fliers advertising the site and handed them out around town. "Every time someone hit the site, a ding dong sound would go through my speakers," he recalls. Gradually, the audible hits came more frequently.
Then, on Halloween night, the ding dongs started going off like gunfire.
At 6:30 that night, KMBC Channel 9 had made the site its lead story. Suddenly, Brooks' parody site was a big deal.
Sure that his apartment would soon be raided, Brooks decided to go down in a blaze of glory. He called in numerous false crime reports to the BSPD and began pelting the police department with false bomb threats -- 22 of them, Brooks says, all made with the Internet dialing program Dialpad.com.
And he worked Ebay like never before. "I put up auctions selling laptops, computers, extremely expensive Rolex watches ... I was making about $3,000 to $5,000 a week doing this," Brooks says.
Any day, he expected, he'd be taken down for putting up the Web site. But it was a bad assumption: As they'd explained to reporters, the police couldn't do anything about the site itself, which enjoyed First Amendment protection. But that didn't mean they couldn't take a hard look at its registered owner, Brandon Brooks.
On the site, Brooks reported that police ticketed him seven times in as many days for petty traffic offenses after the KMBC news report. And finally, police reports show, a serious investigation of Brooks' Ebay activity got under way in early November.
Over the next several days, Blue Springs Police Department detectives began putting together evidence of Brooks' thefts, false crime calls and bomb threats. An informant said she'd been in Brooks' apartment and had heard him brag about stealing over the Internet. Victims around the country told detectives how they'd sent thousands of dollars to "Mark Alloy" but had received nothing in return.
On November 21, Blue Springs police finally did raid Brooks' apartment, seizing his computer. But even Brooks didn't expect the next turn of events.
The Ebay scammer found himself facing more than 100 years in prison.
Doug Sampson wrote a note vigorously denying that his son was a crook. Instead, he wrote, his son was the victim of someone who had commandeered his e-mail account.
But if his son was innocent, why had Doug attached a $50 money order made out to me?
I decided to take Doug's money. But I also wanted to talk to Jack.
After November 21, 2000, the Blue Springs police made multiple raids on Brooks' apartment. Each time, though, Brooks managed to get the raunchy Bluespringspolice.com back up and running, Encieno says.
"The cops would come in and raid his house, take all of his computer equipment and such, and leave him basically with nothing. So instead of working, like most normal people do, he would just steal more money and buy more computer equipment and whatever else he needed."
For years Brooks had been running porn sites, which made him a few cents every time a visitor clicked on a banner ad. At their most popular, four years earlier, the sites netted him a modest $50 to $300 a month.
Detectives sifting through the thousands of images on his hard drive classified 81 of them as child porn.
"I wasn't promoting child porn," Brooks now claims. Downloading so many images for his sites, it was difficult to weed out every undesirable one, he says. "When I would sort out the pictures, out of 500 I'd find approximately 50 underage pictures." He claims to have dumped them whenever he found them, but it didn't surprise him that out of nearly 10,000 images, he'd managed to miss 81 that were illegal.
But even Brooks' former attorney doesn't buy his excuses.
"Brandon was young and cocky. He had no cares in the world. But he was bright," says Mark Forest, who represented Brooks after prosecutors charged him with possession of child pornography. Forest says Brooks' explanation for the child porn on his computer didn't make sense. "It was graphic, and there were many, many pages. He was sending it and receiving it as well."
But Forest says Brooks still had a chance to get out of his legal troubles.
"He was looking at 105 years and had an opportunity to do 120 days," Forest says.
But Brooks seemed determined to destroy his best chances. If Brooks had made even a token attempt at restitution in the months between his arrest and trial, Forest says, he could have worked a deal for just probation and a short stay in county jail.
"In a way, I wish I would have got my act together and paid my restitution," Brooks says today from state prison. Forest's eventual plea agreement came with a 10-year sentence.
"I don't know. One day I said, 'Fuck the world,'" Brooks says.
After he got to prison, Brooks became determined to reform himself -- or at least to seem that way. After hiring another lawyer, he petitioned to have his sentence reduced. His court file contains numerous certificates showing how hard he has worked to change his character, graduating from drug-abuse programs and Bible-study courses.
When I started corresponding with him, Brooks had been in prison a little more than two years and was taking part in a sex-offender program that would cut six years off his sentence if he completed it without screwing up. But he didn't sound especially sincere about the effort. "I am in sex-offender treatment now, as if I have a problem looking at underage girls," he says, "when my real problem is a problem with authority and financial gain.... I just feel that I am in the wrong treatment and I got screwed in so many ways."
From his driving records, I knew Jack was young. But when I heard his voice, I was stunned. He sounded all of 14.
Jack didn't sound surprised that I'd called, and he seemed eager to explain what had happened with his plan to sell football jerseys. He claimed to have been an Ebay novice who was just too ambitious.
"After people sent in their money, I would buy stuff for less on Ebay to fill their orders," he says. Soon, he said, the orders were coming in faster than he could fill them, and he started to lose track of who had sent what. The complaints snowballed, and then, he claimed, his hard drive crashed, leaving him with no way to find the records and get people their money back. So he panicked and fled, leaving customers like my wife clamoring for their goods.
"The main reason I started doing it was for Christmas and for the wedding," he said, and at that moment, I heard the sound of an infant starting to cry on the other end of the line.
Shit. I was starting to feel sorry for the guy who'd taken my $50.
But what about the address on McGee Street, where my wife was told to send her money order? Who was Mike Ramirez, the guy who lived there and answered my phone call?
"That's my stepdad. I was living between there and at my dad's," Jack admitted. When I'd called, Ramirez had flat-out lied to me. Jack had warned him that someone might call about missing money.
Great. Lied to by a city firefighter. And what about the note? The note from Jack's father, Doug, claiming that Jack had been victimized by someone who had stolen his e-mail address?
"I think that's something he decided to tell you," Jack said.
Wonderful father figures this guy has, I thought. With family like that, I wondered what path Jack was more likely to take. An Encieno, who eventually gets a grip on his life? Or a Brandon Brooks, who lets his anger for an unfair world consume him?
I hung up and told my wife that she didn't need to worry about Jax coming to our house. We also eventually began to purchase things over the Internet again.
In August, Brandon Brooks completed his sex-offender program. His release date, originally scheduled for November 2011, has been moved up to March 2005.
He says he looks forward to his freedom.