I am not the least bit ashamed to admit, as longtime readers know, that I respect the hell out of a good crook. Thieves, burglars, con artists, grifters…I believe that they deserve the punishments they get if caught and convicted, but like many people (judging by the ratings and box office receipts) I admire a good heist. I'm not talking about people mugging old ladies and doing drive-bys. I'm talking about Great Train Robbery type stuff. The dude who stole the goddamn Mona Lisa. The Hitler Diaries. Those Brazilians who robbed a bank by digging a 260-foot tunnel into its underground vault while posing as a construction crew at the neighboring building. And despite how disgusting and symptomatic of the decay of our governing institutions it may be, I even have to admire the sheer balls required to pull off fraud on the scale of an Enron.
That said, I am unable to find any art in the lending/housing crisis of the past two-plus years. Rather than being the work of flashy con men with schemes that require as much luck as talent, the great mortgage ripoff is largely the work of sociopathic, overgrown fratboys with no morals (Even the crooks we tend to love on film live by some sort of code, even if only the norms of the underworld) and bloodless Russian and Chinese mathematicians programming the catastrophe as dispassionately as would do their taxes. It's just sad. From every possible angle. In a dream world in which the perpetrators would be arrested and held accountable for their actions we couldn't even fake an "I have to hand it to you, kid, that was one hell of a plan." It's as though we were robbed by a computer.
That's how I have felt since this all began. It was not until today that I paused to reconsider my position.
Matt Taibbi's latest, which is lengthy but mandatory reading, focuses on how eager our nation's courts are to help insolvent or federally bailed-out banks fuck homeowners with laughably fake documents standing in for long-ago lost paper trails. In it he briefly mentions a new example of kind of thievery indicative of a born thief – simple, brilliant, and requiring little more than enormous balls to pull it off.
First, a short aside. In my three years in the collection industry, I became well-acquainted with a little known profession called process serving. When someone is sued (for example) they must be served with legal documents that summon them to court and so on. I'll spare you the details, but generally speaking an individual must be served in person by a process server acting within the laws of his state and county. This means that people who can't be found – either by design or by the transient, off-the-grid nature of their lifestyle – cannot have a judgment made against them in court in most cases. Cops serve process (for a set fee) but, shockingly, do a half-assed job of it. Basically they knock on the door, and if no one answers they say the person can't be found.
This is where the private process servers come in. For a fee they can find just about anyone. They are similar to bounty hunters in their persistence and often checkered backgrounds (lots of ex-cops, disbarred attorneys, and so on). The important fact is that they are expensive and the individual who is being served is responsible for the fees. So, in my previous job I always told individuals with whom I spoke, "Look, you can accept this summons voluntarily, or we can have Jeff (our server) serve you. He will find you, and you'll owe us the $300-500 he costs." It wasn't a bluff. Jeff was ex-Special Forces, had a little drug problem, and could find Judge Crater if you paid him enough. Even though engaged in a soulless profession, I tried to be honest with people: trying to avoid service would just end up costing them more. Defendants must pay service fees even if they win the lawsuit; that will become important in a second.
Taibbi uncovered an ongoing scam in Florida – probably elsewhere, too – in which banks were making up attempts at process service to stick mortgage holders with a big bill they had to pay even if the bank's suit was unsuccessful. They were telling judges (and the courts were more than happy to buy it) "We tried to serve Joe Blow on ten occasions, and we just couldn't find him. Never home. He was really trying hard to hide from us, the bastard. Here's the bill for $1500." And none of it ever happened.
With all the robo-signing and whatnot, take note of what was happening here: our major lending institutions were using fake process servers to serve fake mortgage documents. That's…incredible. It is so absurd it circles back around to brilliance.
I have a deviant mind, experience with a seedy industry, and a pretty thorough understanding of how hard the law allows financial institutions to ream people who owe them money. Despite all of that, I never would have thought of this in a million years. The people at JP Morgan, Bank of America, et al who concocted this have truly impressive minds for larceny. They are born thieves. My first thought is that it's too bad they chose to waste such criminal brilliance on an industry as dull as finance. Or maybe they recognized their unique gifts at a young age and naturally gravitated toward the industry where they would be in high demand.