The three watches on the man's wrist were all set to different time zones. One gave the time in New Zealand, the second in South Africa and the third in New York. On the table in front of him were three mobile phones, one for each group of customers in each of the three countries, who all thought they were calling him locally. He was actually in Taiwan.
The man with the watches, a Briton known as "Mr Big," showed a second man sitting opposite him a fax he had just received, the contents of which left little to the imagination. "It basically said: `I'm going to come over there and I'm going to kill you. I'm going to kill all your family unless I get my money back. I've spent this much money with you.' It was really horrible," says the second man, who gives his name as Barry Stephens.
"Let me show you something," Mr Big continued. He picked up one of the phones, dialled the number on the fax and checked his watches.
ILLUSTRATION: MOUNTAIN PEOPLE
"Mr So-and-so, I've just got your fax this morning," Stephens quoted Mr Big as saying. Once the torrent of invective at the other end of the line had subsided, Mr Big reportedly continued: "Look, sir, we're a brokerage company. We can't guarantee you're going to make money.
"Stocks go up and down. You're a man of the world, you know that. But what I can tell you is that I have another opportunity here... "
According to Stephens, "The conversation ended with the man agreeing to send another US$20,000 after he had just sent him a fax saying he was going to kill him."
The incident he describes is a snapshot of the world of boiler rooms, where members of the public send complete strangers who claim to be stockbrokers vast sums on the promise of making massive and rapid returns.
More than 75 percent of investors end up losing all their money. Despite gaining worldwide publicity in 2000 with the release of the Hollywood blockbuster Boiler Room, starring Giovanni Ribisi, Vin Diesel and Ben Affleck, thousands of people continue to get conned every year.
Stephens, who claims he was "intimately involved" in Mr Big's brokerage for several years, approached The Guardian after hearing that a suspected boiler room was shut down in Cambodia last week. He claims he wants to expose for the first time the full details of how boiler rooms have fleeced tens of thousands of people all over the world in the past decade, to help prevent others from a similar fate.
Out of fear for his safety -- one man who allegedly double-crossed a former boiler-room partner was gunned down in his BMW in Bangkok last year -- Stephens has asked that his real name not be used.
The premise on which all boiler rooms operate is human greed, he says.
"People think they're going to turn US$10,000 into US$100,000 by doing nothing. They don't think, it's too good to be true. They don't stop to think, if it's so great why are you telling me about it? Why am I so special?" he said.
Stephens says the operation he witnessed succeeded through an elaborate web of deception, fraud and highly refined, high-pressure telephone sales tactics in which most people didn't realize they had been snared until it was too late.
The "sting" would begin with a harmless call from a sweet-sounding, usually female, voice known as a "qualifier." She (or he) would ask if the company's database records were still accurate and offer a free subscription to a company newsletter, says Stephens.
The target would receive this glossy newsletter for several weeks. It was usually up to 24 pages long and contained a selection of business news. Among the genuine features, it would contain one article, often very small, about a company developing a new product or process. This company would have been bought by the boiler room, and listed on the NASDAQ, where the requirements are much less stringent than the New York or London stock exchanges. The boiler room would then start to inflate the share price.
"But before they do that -- say when the price is US$2 a share -- a broker would come to you and say, `Look, I represent [the boiler room],'" Stephens says. "We have some inside information, a bit naughty, shouldn't tell you, but this stock is going to go through the roof in the next two weeks." Among techniques used to convince male waverers were arguments such as: "Who wears the trousers in your family? Do you make the decisions, or your wife?"
These callers are known as "openers." Some victims would send the money straight away but those who didn't would receive a call a couple of weeks later from their "opener," who would point out that the money had not been sent but the stock had continued to climb -- because the boiler room had continued to manipulate it.
He, or she -- Stephens says women "brokers" are usually much more successful -- might offer to backdate the transaction so the investor could "buy" at the original price. With an offer like this, coupled with a little research showing that the stock had indeed performed as claimed, most people were hooked.
"But that's the last they hear about it," Stephens says. "They don't get any stock certificates, they don't get anything. So these people will eventually call back. They'll watch the NASDAQ and see the stock price go down because no stocks were ever bought, the money just went into the back account and that was it. Thank you very much."
Some people who call back in a panic are put through to a "cooler." Their task is to cool down the customer before putting them through to a "loader." Their job is to persuade the anxious investor that the share price has fallen because the company has encountered a hitch but that everything is on track, and it would actually be better to buy more stock while it is cheap rather than sell.
Others who call are just given the run around; told that their original "opener" is no longer at the company. "Eventually, 90 percent just go to sleep," Stephens says. "In other words, they just get fed up and write off the money."
Those who don't give up and start making threats are connected to the best "coolers." Sometimes the brokers will then try and fob off the investor by saying that there are no buyers at present and they should call back.
"The most threatening people were allowed to get some, or all, of their money back, though," Stephens says. "But the coolers were only ever allowed to return the money of 25 percent of the people who demanded their money back."
When too many people started complaining the company would just shut down and reopen under a different name, often less than 24 hours later. Mr Big's boiler room went through several incarnations before he was caught. He is now in prison. Police found a dozen passports in his possession when he was arrested.
The final category of boiler-room employee are the "sloppers." They come into the picture when a firm closes and changes its name. A slopper will call up a worried investor and say he has heard about his or her plight and wants to help recover their money. In order to do this there will be a fee, depending on the size of the original investment.
The irony is, says Stephens, that, relatively speaking, many boiler rooms are not nearly as greedy as the investors they con. He thinks about US$2 million his boiler room raked in each month went on expenses. He saw one monthly phone bill for US$450,000 that was about two inches thick, and he knows that tens of thousands of pounds went into making the company and its operations appear genuine.
"If you went to the company you would have sat down with a broker, sat down with a manager and you would have been convinced this was genuine. They would have bombarded you with pedigrees and testimonials.
"Meanwhile, in the same building, there's the boiler room. They're all in shorts -- some guys are standing on their heads doing yoga, taking the piss, bouncing baseballs off walls and catching them while talking on headsets.
"They have all the objections on the wall, pasted up. Anything anyone might say, below it is the stock answer in order to get by."
Most of the people involved were Jekyll and Hyde characters, Stephens says. On the phone they appeared the epitome of decorum, the reality was different. "These are the dregs of the earth, drug addicts, wasters, used-car salesmen," he says. "If you met them in person you wouldn't buy a box of matches from them. You wouldn't talk to them at a bar. But over the phone they've got it."
Victims corroborate Stephens's claims. In 1997 and 1998, an Australian named Lance (he is too embarrassed to allow his surname to be printed) was persuaded by a broker to part with more than ?8,000 (US$12,923) to buy shares in two companies allegedly on the cusp of greatness.
"No pressure was put on me," he says. "They just went for the soft sell and I bought 1,000 shares of each."
He received share certificates but has no idea whether they are genuine. Three months later, when the shares started losing value rapidly, he tried to sell, but the broker had ceased operations and its accounts had been passed on to a second broker. Lance said this firm was initially just as convincing as the first.
"They even sent round a representative but as soon as I pressed them they, too, dropped away," he said.
Two years later, in August 2000, Lance was suddenly contacted by a third broker.
He convinced Lance to send him the share certificates so he could sell them to people wanting to negatively gear their stock portfolios for tax purposes by buying the worthless stock and selling blue-chip shares in return.
"I gave up when [the broker] insisted I buy the blue-chip shares first," he said. "It's stupid to do it once, it's insane to do it again."
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