I had come a long way. I knew that over thirty billion isk filled my wallet, and the time had come to bring the story to an end. Suddenly, the login was interrupted. A pop-up revealed that my account had been banned. I read the words.
"Ban lifted on: Permabanned"
Permabanned? That sounded like a long time. In the blink of an eye, all of my stolen isk had vanished, tens of billions of it. I sat back and considered what my next move should be. But first, I decided, I should take account of what had brought me here. How did it all happen?
In the spring of 2005, a group of highly-trained mercenaries called the Guiding Hand Social Club pulled off a heist of 20 billion isk, by far the largest in Eve's history. A prominent feature article about the Guiding Hand's heist was made in a popular gaming magazine, glorifying their theft and drawing tens of thousands of new players into the Eve galaxy. In December of 2005, I happened upon a link to an online copy of the article. Intrigued by their success and by the game that allowed such a thing to take place, I wanted to see if I could beat their record, stealing more isk in less time--and by myself rather than with the help of a dozen operatives. I soon formed a plan, and Eve's history was destined to be changed forever.
I decided to create a Ponzi scheme, a fake company that promised to give money back, plus 20% interest, after two weeks. The investments would not actually be used to generate wealth--that would be too time-consuming and risky. Instead, the investment would be left to sit for two weeks, and the interest would come from a piece of some later investor's investment. If I was able to increase my number and size of investors during the intervening two weeks, I should be able to give back the promised 20% maximum returns, which would hopefully cause the investor to invest back more, and possibly spread the word to others in the corp.
In planning for my ponzi scheme, I decided to do a little research on Eve's history, to see what other scams had taken place. To my surprise and dismay, the Eve universe had already seen a high-profile, massive Ponzi scheme done by a scammer named Morbor. His pyramid scheme used a slightly different form: he offered two types of investments. For small investments, you could put in, say, a million isk and get it doubled in a few days. If you wanted to make a large investment, you could get them doubled in a few weeks. He did not explain how he would use investments to make money, but this took place back in 2003, when the game first was released, and no one yet had an established reputation. A million was a small amount to risk, and when it was doubled for the first investors, it unleashed a flurry of repeat investors, who put in tons more isk and encouraged their corpmates to do the same. The real-life human operator behind the Morbor name amassed an estimated 10 billion isk, an incredible sum. The pyramid then collapsed, as he became ill for a few days and could not tend to his pyramid. He took the 10 billion isk and attempted to sell it on E-bay; he then disappeared forever.
The discovery of the Morbor episode was both good and bad news. It was good in that a Ponzi scheme was feasible (at the time I had not yet played the game and did not know the mechanics of isk transfers). The downside was that because of Morbor's exploits, the denizens of the Eve universe would be wary of such scams in the future. Even if they had not been playing the game back in 2003, the words of caution from those who had been, and the stories, would thwart the attempts of those who would follow in Morbor's footsteps.
I had another problem. It was no longer 2003, and the game was no longer new. My character would be created in 2006, and everyone would be able to see this. How could I possibly persuade old-timers to hand over their isk to a n00b who had just been created? It would be too obvious that it was a scam. Furthermore, everyone was in corps. Even if I created a corp of my own, I would only have a few characters in it, and they would all be made in 2006. Too obvious. If I remained in an automatically-assigned n00b corp, it would be even more obvious that it was a scam. I faced yet another problem. Where to find investors? Morbor had advertised on forums and used alt characters to bolster his claims. But this was obviously not an option now. When I looked on the Eve forums, everyone was a skeptic and eager to dissuade potential investors. And n00b alts would get me nowhere.
It was a mission impossible--my favorite kind. I resolved to find a solution for all of these problems and become the most successful scammer in Eve's history.
The first problem I tackled was the issue of where and how to attract investors. I immediately ruled out using the forums, since they would attract skeptics. Instead, I would send out advertisements individually by evemail to selected targets. Since each target would be unable to know of the existence or identity of the other targets, skeptics could not poison those who would otherwise be receptive.
The bigger the mailing list, the better. And the evemails would need to be spread out over time, so the pyramid could grow gradually. First I would send out only a few, and as it grew, I would send out more and more. Similarly, I decided to target the lowest-value targets first, and then the richer, so that the pyramid would not outpace itself. Those likely to be rich would be those who had the oldest accounts, and those who had more corp mates (and more people they could spread the word to) were the highest value. The only thing that could crash the pyramid would be if an early investor put in far too much to pay out. However, with only a 20% payout over two weeks, it was unlikely such a thing would occur.
But where to get the names for my mailing list? I considered using the forums, or perhaps using a character search. But then, after flying through Rens and seeing the huge volume of traffic in and out, I got a better idea. I would simply sit in the highest-volume systems (Rens, Jita, etc.) and take down notes of the names after checking their corp membership and creation dates. Later, I also started taking down names from the main trade and corp recruitment channels, along with the race channels.
After starting on a mailing list, I saw that the Notepad in Eve actually ran out of room. I created a series of notepad documents on my computer to transfer the mailling lists over to, and compiled one large Word document. Once a target was used, I would change its font color to red so I wouldn't use it again. To prevent repetition of names I had accidentally taken down twice, I would simply run an alphabetic sort and delete those who showed up twice. Each name included the corp name and size, along with the creation date of the character.
Now that I had figured out a way to get a list of people to contact, how could I get them to listen to me? First, I knew that no one would listen to a character born yesterday, or a week ago. I decided that I would wait at least two months before contacting anyone, and I would use the intervening time to amass my mailing list and any other materials I could use to persuade them to invest. But still, why listen to a character made two months ago?
Young characters are either n00bs or alts. I was a n00b. But I decided it would be better to be considered an alt than a n00b, so I created a fiction in which I was an obvious alt. I created the name "Currin Trading" for my character, who would act as a front man for my business of the same name. My only criteria for a name was that it would need to be something distinct from all other character names. And I wanted to make some kind of hint as to what the business was. I knew Eve involved trading, so I came up with Currin Trading, named after a friend of mine (there were no Currins on Eve).
Thus, in early January of 2006, Currin Trading was born. But I knew that an alt would still have zero credibility, even if named after a business. All along, I planned to have my business run out of a website. I could make the website filled with content that made it appear that the business was legitimate. It would explain the idea behind the fake business and create the illusion that the business had many members and explain why it operated out of a front man--namely, for secrecy and security. The story would go that it had formerly operated out of a corp officially, but competitors would attack them or hire mercenaries, and loyal investors would be forced by the shifting alliances of their corps to cut off ties. So our heroes decided to go underground and operate solely out of an alternate account.
I would also make the business appear older than it was, by creating an announcements page with announcements that went back in time. They would all be fake, of course, telling a fictional story of how the business had evolved, including a story about a message board that had to be taken offline after too many griefers spammed it (mercifully, it was kept on archive mode for awhile so people could save their posts, and then the plug was pulled, making its existence unverifiable), the introduction of other components to the website, and an obligatory reference to Hurricane Katrina with a link to the Red Cross donation website. A key component to this would be the transition from some other, unnamed alt to our new one, Currin Trading, in January. Why the change? An alt with the same name as the company sounded more official, and because the other alt (always unnamed, so no one could do a check on it) had skillpoints on it that would go to waste if it continued to be used as the front.
When to make the fake birthdate of the site? I decided I wanted to have an announcement regarding the heist pulled by the Guiding Hand (referenced only as "a thread on the forums about a major corp theft"). I would then have repeated warnings about evil scams and thieves taking place across the galaxy. Since I was operating under the shadow of Morbor's scam, I decided to use it to my advantage, playing the role of the responsible company that warns people off, telling them to moderate their investments and always to be careful, and to be wary of people promising unrealistic returns (in other words, returns larger than ours), and if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Rather than being desperate for investments, Currin Trading would almost dare people not to invest!
Still, the site needed some kind of positive word of mouth, both to calm investors' fears and to encourage them to invest large sums. Normally, a pyramid would rely on its earliest investors. But I was running a supposedly one year old company that had no investors at all. Like everything else, I would need to fake it. I decided that a useful tool for the site would be a "current accounts" section with a spreadsheet detailing the amount a person invested, when it was scheduled to mature, and for how much. I could make such a spreadsheet both public and secure: an account was identified only by a code name, so only the account holder would know whose it was. Best of all, I could create dozens of fake accounts, supposedly investing billions, and no one could verify that these were not real investors. There would be a variety of investors putting in varying amounts, and for various periods on various days. I made sure that the first investor listed would have a long-term investment starting from December and going on into April, to heighten the illusion of a business that had been running a long time. Looking at the investment information would be convincing. And once a real investor invested and got his account info posted to the spreadsheet among so many others, how would he ever suspect that his was the only real one among so many fakes?
And so, during that preparation time from January to March, I went to work creating false accounts. They would start with a letter of the alphabet (the original group included the A's, B's, C's and some D's), followed by a dash, and then a random word. Then they would all be alphabetized. Genuine investors would be D-Something, with that "Something" a word carefully wedged alphabetically between fakes so they didn't feel like they stuck out. Creating the account names was a wonderfully silly project. I look to my left and see a telephone and a box of cheese crackers sitting on a desk. D-Telephone. A-Cheese. I rummage through a drawer. C-Cotton. B-Battery. A lousy movie plays on HBO. A-Alexander.
As all of this preparation was going on from January into March, I actually did enjoy some of Eve's legitimate activities. On another character, I flew around asteroid belts and blew up the npc's, scooping up the dropped loot and trading it on the market. I found that trading on the market--simply finding items with large profit margins and leaving lots of low buy orders and high sell orders--actually was profitable. I even joined a fairly new corp and helped them build it up. But I never told them about my other plans. They never could have suspected that their loyal comrade, all the while, was developing a secret master plan that would go down in history.
Making isk the legitimate way was easier than I thought. Generating a fortune was simple: I made isk and almost never spent it--except to get more ammunition. I would buy the next largest ship, and I wouldn't lose it. If my ship was in danger of losing its shields and armor, I left the npc's in my dust. And I used warp core stabilizers, so I was never killed by pc pirates. By the time the scam went live in mid-March, I had amassed over one billion isk through these legitimate activities. I could have done well playing as a law-abiding citizen. But that's not why I had come to play Eve. At any rate, the money I had made legitimately would pay for the spam fee on my evemail advertisements and perhaps cover the interest payment on any unusually large investments, should that be a problem.
Before my website could be finished and my advertisements mailed out to the first batch of potential investors, I knew it would need graphics. Unfortunately, I had no idea how to make any kind of artwork, and I was committed to making this a solo operation. I decided to make use of Eve's own artwork. Going through the official website's item database, I randomly saved images of icons of items I figured a trader might sell (other than ships, since the icons looked bad). I then resized them to make them bigger. For my main logo, I enlarged the isk icon, put several in a row, and then wrote "Currin Trading" over it in gold. Then I played around with some effects on Photoshop to make it less obvious how incredibly bad the text looked. The webpage design was very simple. It had to be, since I had almost no experience making a webpage. It was a table with three columns. The item icons ran down the two side columns, and the Currin Trading logo kept the middle column wide. I then had all of my text in the middle column. I realized it didn't look as professional as many websites out there made by people who knew what they were doing, but it actually turned out better than I expected. And though its appearance would sometimes be mocked by artists who visited it, the two hours or so I spent on it would help me earn billions.
I also made preparations for the genuine investors, creating some private files to help me keep track of them when they arrived. I made some files to match up the names of my investors with their account codes and personal information (I wanted to track which corps were investing so I could see how active the word of mouth was), and a version of the "current accounts" with the real names attached. Knowing that my pyramid would eventually collapse, I wanted to know the precise moment to cash out, so I created graphs tracking the amount of isk in Currin Trading's wallet and the number of active investors. These would be updated twice a week. I started, of course, with zero active investors and 100,000 in the wallet to pay for future spam fees.
By the time Currin Trading was ready to be open for business, I had finished the website, put up the announcements and FAQ (with its extensive but fake list of questions supposedly asked by investors), created the Excel spreadsheet full of fake accounts, and amassed a list of two thousand potential investors to mail. Lastly, I drafted the evemail which would give a summary of my business and invite them to go to the website, which unfortunately could not be viewed on the Eve browser. I had uploaded my work to Geocities, which made it look even worse with its intrusive side ad banner and annoying pop-up ads. Having Geocities in my site's URL didn't add much to my credibility, but I was determined.
OPEN FOR BUSINESS
I picked five low-value targets from my list and sent out the mail. And then I simply sat back and waited for the isk to roll in. And I waited. And waited. After a day had passed without any response, either in isk investment or a friendly "you suck" evemail response, I was disappointed. I logged into Geocities to see how many hits I had gotten on my page. Zero. This was the bad news. The good news was that I had 1,995 more people to try. Surely at least a few of them would be willing to respond and start the ball rolling?
I sent out several more evemails. The next day, no investments. No response. Not even a single hit registered on the website. More invitations went out. The next day, no investments. No hits on the website. But I did get a response from one person, who wished me luck on my scam. It was one thing for them not to trust an alt of two months, but if they didn't bother to at least check the website, they would never invest. Then, on the fifteenth of March, 2006, I received a single hit on the website. But no investment. No response. The next day, no hits. No response. No investments.
But on Saturday morning, I discovered that my site had been flooded with hits overnight. I realized that the only possible reason for this could have been someone posting on the forums about my site. Using eve-search, I saw that I was right. Someone had made a post about Currin Trading, warning everyone to beware the scam. He made a link to the site, and that is how I got all of the hits. Reading the thread, I became irritated by its author. He claimed the site was a scam because it told people how to transfer funds to Currin Trading. He didn't understand what an investment was. Worse, after some people asked him how he knew it was a scam, he claimed that some of his friends had lost money on their investments. I knew that couldn't be true; I didn't have any investors yet. Checking my character, I saw that all of those hits to the website had yielded zero investments. Worse, all of those forum readers had been poisoned against me.
I decided not to respond on the forums. I knew that I would quickly be asked for proof of CT's legitimacy, and I knew that I would have no investors to defend me. Instead, I decided to let the forum thread die. I put up an announcement on my website dismissing the claim that people had lost their isk, challenging the author of the thread to produce the names of his friends. This was well enough, but after a week of sending out advertisements, I had gotten zero isk in investments. In fact, I had lost isk on the project, due to the spam fees.
Since I had gotten so few hits on my website from my evemail advertisements, I decided to change them. Rather than detailing the business, I decided to simply leave a cryptic message about making isk with less work, and the address of my website--along with a note explaining that an out-of-eve browser would be needed to view it. The number of hits to my website were slightly more, but still very few, and though I increased the number of evemail invitations released each day, I had no investments.
By Wednesday, the 22nd of March, a week and a half after the scam went online, I had 89,288 isk in my Currin Trading wallet. I had lost over ten thousand isk to spam fees (usually 100 isk a person, but sometimes 1 isk, sometimes 0, sometimes a thousand, and occasionally a 100,000 isk spam fee I never chose to pay). No investors. By this point, I had already decided that my scam simply wouldn't work. All I had gotten for my efforts was a handful of evemails from people saying what an obvious scam it was and where I could stick it. I even got the occasional evemail from people who said they were already making enough isk. Enough isk? Though I realized the scam wouldn't work, I still had tons of potential targets left in my mailing list, and since I had gone to all the trouble of setting up the scam I may as well continue going until everyone had been mailed. You never know what might happen.
Modifying my evemail advertisement further, I removed the "external web browser" notice. Out of sheer laziness, people were not bothering to alt+tab out of Eve to open a web browser. With the warning removed, people might now open up the Eve browser and enter the address, just to see that it didn't work. Having already invested a few seconds trying to view the page, they might then open up an external browser and view the site. I got a few more hits after this, and I started sending out around 10 evemails a day.
On Thursday the 23rd, I opened up Eve and selected the Currin Trading character. He had just over two million isk in his wallet. My first investor. It had begun.
THE FOUNDATIONS OF A PYRAMID
I knew that if one person was willing to invest, others would be, too. It was just a question of how many I would be able to get out of my total mailing list. I also realized that most people would put in a small "test" investment, just to see whether they would get any returns. If returns came in, they might invest more.
Two days later, another investor showed up, putting one million more isk into CT's wallet. I was encouraged by this, but even more encouraged by the third investor, who put an additional ten million into the wallet by the end of the day. It was clear: a very small but significant percentage of those reached by evemail would try investing. I went to work gathering new names for my mailing list, and continued to do so from then on.
In the week that followed, I received two new investors, one putting in another million, and one contributing twenty million. Now I was beginning to get a feel for how large these "test" investments would be. They tended to range from one to five million on the low end, and from ten to fifty million on the high end. But I saw that getting investors was not an easy task: only around five percent of people contacted actually contributed investments. But I was eager to see what would happen once I started giving the returns, two weeks after the investments were first put in.
The next week, I finally got a chance to give the first investors their cash back, with interest. My website had promised 15-20% returns, and used the 15% figure for estimates on the "current accounts" spreadsheets. After two weeks, I would send an evemail alerting them to the investment maturity and indicating their return. I always returned 20%, followed by a statement "the current maximum return is: 20%". This way investors always got more than they expected.
As I anticipated, people tended to re-invest more than they received back. After the third investor received back his original 10 million plus 2 million in interest, he put in an investment of 100 million isk. This would become the norm, and by the amounts people invested and re-invested, I could get a fairly clear picture of how much the person had in his wallet.
I had hoped that every investor, upon receiving his returns, would spread the word among the members of his corp. If they did this, I would get a lot more investors and would not need to rely so heavily upon my mailing list. They would also have more trust and might skip the "test investment" phase altogether. But as the next several investors rolled in, I saw that they were all people who had been contacted by the evemail list. There were a few investors from unidentified sources, but none from corps of previous investors. I deduced that these were the alts of people I had contacted.
In the next few days, I started receiving convo requests while I was online as Currin Trading. Previously, I had not spent much time online as the character, since I had no investments to deal with. But a few people who had been contacted added me to their buddy lists and wanted to speak with me. I figured they were probably as irate as most of the people I contacted by evemail, so I ducked the first two convo requests. After all, what would happen if they asked me a question I could not answer and then reported my slip-ups to other potential investors?
But on the tenth of April, I decided to accept one of the convo requests. It came from an individual whom I shall call "Morty", so as to allow him to escape undue embarrassment from this telling. Morty announced that he had a few questions about my investment company, and wanted answers to a few questions. I asked him if he had visited the website yet, to which he replied that he had. I told him that there was a lot of information there. He then responded that he would return to the website to read it over again. I remained online, wondering what might come of this most disorganized conversation.
Morty returned, saying that he would like to make an investment. I told him I had no problem with this. (For some reason, certain investors felt comfortable putting in investments only if I was online, as though I would lose track of them if I looked at my wallet's log later. Morty was one of these.) I discovered that I had been right to accept Morty's convo request, because he declared that he should like to invest one billion isk. I was stunned by this, since up to this point all of my other investments combined totaled just over two hundred million. I saw my wallet icon flash and I quickly pulled up the log to verify the transaction.
After the transaction took place, I assured Morty that I had received the investment and that it would soon be "processed". ("Processing" was a term I gave to what was done to investments before they started making money. Actually, the "processing" was simply my recording the money in my files, but investors liked receiving the evemails confirming their investments had been processed. For some, it was such a comfort that they re-invested in large amounts immediately afterward.)
Morty then asked a question that gave me no end of amusement. "Wait, how can I trust you?" Blinking at the computer screen, I said aloud, "You ask me this after the transfer of a billion isk?" I paused before typing a reply. It was a question that I was sure to be asked again and again. I replied, "there's really no way to verify this. That's why I always recommend that people only invest what they feel comfortable with, and that varies from person to person." Morty seemed satisfied by my answer, and after an interminable series of pleasantries, he finally closed the convo. I had just stolen a billion isk. I glanced at my mailing list, hoping that it would contain the names of more people like Morty. Only less chatty.
A few days later, Morty showed up again, requesting another convo. I feared he might be suffering from investor's remorse, but instead he said nothing until my wallet began blinking again. Morty had invested another billion isk. Once again, he started asking me questions only after giving away his isk. Little did I realize that he had a lot more isk and was merely seeking excuses to put more into my humble investment service.
As it turned out, Morty had originally received knowledge of CT because one of his many alts had been contacted through evemail. He now wanted to know exactly how I had gotten that name. I had a feeling this was another question I would be asked a lot. I decided this would be a good opportunity to pass the buck to one of my many silent, nonexistent business partners. I explained that I couldn't tell him how the names were selected for advertisements, since someone else was in charge of that department. I simply hinted that those contacted had "good reputations" or something. Once again, Morty seemed satisfied. He informed me that he had billions more in assets that he planned to liquidate in the future, so he could invest them with me. I told him this was not a problem at all.
In reality, it was a problem. Against all odds, I had run up against one investor who was willing to put in far more isk than the rest of my investors combined. This was not the way a pyramid scheme was supposed to work: pyramid schemes rely on an ever-increasing number of investors, not one big investor whose whims might lead to wildly fluctuating amounts. To pay for the interest on Morty's investments, I would theoretically need to use up all of the other investors' investments. And if Morty failed to re-invest, I would be cleaned out. This problem became more apparent the next week, when Morty invested another two billion isk. However, since Morty's investments were each a few days apart, I figured I might be able to keep my head above water if Morty quickly re-invested after each one, thus paying himself back his interest with each subsequent investment.
Unfortunately, when Morty noticed his previous investments were set to mature the following Monday and Wednesday, he inquired about combining them all into one single investment. This was precisely what I had hoped to avoid. I dissuaded him from this by informing him that he would make more isk if he kept the investments as they were, each making money from their original investment date. If he took them out of circulation for a few days and then invested them all back at the same time, he would lose out on those few days' worth of interest. This was actually quite true--or at least it would have been, if the business were legitimate. Morty understood, and he agreed to keep things as they were. He did not seem to be disappointed that his returns had only been 15% rather than the maximum 20%. In fact, Morty was the only investor who received less than 20%, and on his maturity notices alone did I remove the line about "the current maximum return".
Then the situation became manageable. Morty re-invested each of his billions immediately after the maturity (each one gaining him a few hundred million in interest). He also decided, mercifully, to make them long-term investments. With the exception of an extra billion he put in later, they were all set to mature in either the beginning of June or in July. Until then, I would be safe. Hopefully by the time those summer months arrived, I would find a lot more investors.
THE DAILY BUSINESS OF A CON ARTIST
And so the scam rolled on through April and into May. I gathered around fifty active investors, and scammed about a billion non-Morty investments. I was repeatedly pulled into convos, usually lasting only a short time as they asked a few questions. Within the first few lines of communication, I always knew whether or not they would invest. Those who would not become investors always made specific requests for information, requiring several referrals of non-alts who had been playing the game for a few years. Obviously I could not provide this without giving the names of other investors. Since my business' website guaranteed anonymity, this was not practical. But those who did not make specific requests, and instead asked open-ended questions like "how can I trust you?" and "how do I know this is for real?"--these were future investors. They were asking me to persuade them. They wanted to believe. And I always responded exactly as I had to Morty. "There is no way..." And in spite of this, they handed over their isk.
Often, these people would send in an investment and explain that they would invest more, if everything went well. This was not a wise thing to reveal. After all, wouldn't a scammer then simply give you returns, wait for the bigger investment, and then run? After one such investor put in fifty million as his "test" investment, I looked up his character information to add to my private investor files. Looking at his employment history, I was startled to learn that I had just been speaking to a former member of the Guiding Hand Social Club. Much later, an active operative of the Guiding Hand also put in investments. Together, they would be scammed out of nearly 700 million isk. It was then that I realized how much had changed. Earlier in the year, the Guiding Hand's most famous operative bragged in the forums about how he and a friend had scammed 260 million isk from a few people. It seemed a bit desperate, his bragging about a scam that was a mere 1% of the size of his famous 20 billion isk heist. And now members of the Guiding Hand were being taken in by my own humble operation?
But the Guiding Hand were mere men. No one was safe from the scam. By the time it was all over, I had investors from every major alliance and most of the minor ones. The territories of those alliances were all across the galactic map. Some were miners, some mercenaries, some traders. But there was one alliance that never supplied me with any investors. No matter how many evemail advertisements went out, the Huzzah Federation was immune. I grew to admire the plucky alliance and its financial discipline.
In mid-May, the scam seemed to be peaking. The wallet was hovering in the five and a half to seven billion range, and the number of active investors remained in the fifties. For some reason, some of the investors who had re-invested before and gotten returns stopped investing. More troubling, the anticipated referrals were not arriving. Only a few new investors had come to CT as a result of their corpmates' word of mouth. I felt that it probably only needed more time, and that people might not feel comfortable vouching for the system until they had received returns after several successful attempts in a row. But the evemails also seemed to be less effective. Was word getting out? Were the CCP agents who acted as administrators for Eve secretly informing people who had been evemailed not to invest? Out of curiosity, I did a character search for "Currin Trading" and found that someone had created an imposter named "Currin Trading1", hoping to siphon away funds. Had investors become nervous because of this?
I received a convo request from Morty, and he was behaving in an uncharacteristically paranoid manner, asking all kinds of questions about the operation. "What should I even call you?" he asked. (Ah, the perils of speaking with an admitted alt.) "You can call me CT," I replied. "Alright, as long as it's something respectable." He asked whether I was planning to just take his money and run off with it. I actually found myself offended by this. After all, it had not been fun to return him his billions with extra hundreds of millions in interest, even though I had anticipated he would almost certainly re-invest them right afterward. I responded that if I was going to abscond with his money, I would have done so already. He then calmed down a bit and apologized. But he continued speaking in an intrusive manner, curious about the organization's secrets. He also wanted to make a deal.
As it turned out, Morty was himself a trader, and an enterprising one at that. He detailed an ingenious plan he had for trading shuttles in 0.0 space, one that had helped him earn the billions he invested. He wanted a business partner, someone who could supply the freighters necessary for expanding the business. Since my entire team was fictional, I obviously could not help him. I explained that my organization operated with a high level of secrecy, and we would only grant access to people with a good track record. But Morty insisted. I assured him that I thought his plan was very clever and that I would do my best to convince my teammates to let Morty into our family. But I made no promises. After all, my teammates were very paranoid.
My phantom team became very useful to me. They were the perfect excuse and scapegoat for anything that did not go right or measure up to my clients' expectations. When people asked whether they could join Currin Trading (and there were many applicants), the decision always went to "the team". How did I end up on your mailing list? Ask the team. Would you do this or that for me? I'll talk it over with the team and get back to you. I want to help, and I certainly trust you, but ultimately it's up to the team.
Sometimes I received interesting feedback. One potential investor, referred to here as "Nicky", told me that he wanted to help Currin Trading by improving the website's graphics and design--for a modest fee, of course. He was not an investor yet, he explained, because he did not have the assets. I told him I would present the idea for discussion the next time I met with the team. I considered that Nicky might actually be useful, but the design was not really as important as the graphics themselves, and I did not know how proficient Nicky was in creating these. The team asked for more materials, but Nicky never sent them. He did, however, later become an investor. Ironically, before I had even created the graphics and design for the website back in March, I had incorporated into the early history of the organization (fictionalized in the "announcements" section) an incident in which the investors demanded the graphics be changed, and I playfully scolded them for their bad taste.
I was also contacted by an investor, here named "Senty". He presented me with an alternative to using the Geocities website, and provided the details I would need to set it up. I replied back, thanking him for his suggestion and telling him the team would look into it, though the team was notoriously resistant to change. After looking into what Senty offered, it seemed that I could make the transfer with a minimum of work, so I did it the next day. The ad banner and pop-ups were gone, and the Currin Trading website now had a more dignified URL. I put up an announcement providing a link to the new site, but I also continued to maintain the Geocities site, since I realized that many people didn't bother to check the announcements. Senty was most gratified by seeing he had made a contribution. Senty would make more important contributions later, as we will see.
I had hoped the new address and the removal of unsightly advertisements would lead to an increase in investments, but I was disappointed. Morty's behavior also kept me on edge, and I noted with some concern that he failed to re-invest the one short-term investment of a billion he had made. He now had two long-term investments set to mature at the beginning of June and one in July. The June ones would be costly when they matured, and if Morty failed to re-invest again, it would be a damaging blow. Even with the loss of the billion isk short-term investment, Morty still accounted for nearly two-thirds of my wallet. I decided that I would not risk it. If Morty did not re-invest that billion by the beginning of June, he would become the first investor that I would not pay back. I realized that this could mean the beginning of the end of my pyramid.
The pyramid was not yet as energetic as I had hoped. As mid-May rolled over to late May, I had only brought in a bit over seven billion isk--far short of the twenty billion the Guiding Hand had stolen. I realized that if word of mouth did not become effective enough, the only way to really get my scam to pick up steam would be the use of the Eve forums. I had resolved to stay out of the forums, hoping that someone would make a thread about Currin Trading and find some of my successful investors there defending it. But although this would happen on a couple of occasions, it seemed to do no good. The chilling effect of the skeptics was too great.
People who posted on the forums seemed to have a negative attitude about everything. Rather than being a cross-section of the Eve populace, the forums were populated by a group disparagingly known as "the forum superstars"--people who spent all their time on the forums instead of actually playing the game. Not only did they have a fame and influence far out of proportion to their playing abilities, they were accused of getting special treatment from the administrators of the Eve servers. But it was their persistent scorn for anyone making anything new--and their seeming inability to make their own positive contributions to the game--that maintained the ordinary players' low regard for them. The forum dwellers' negative attitude toward player-created businesses appeared to have three sources. First, since they were not capable of creating anything of their own, they envied those who did. Second, they needed to justify their own risk aversion (which would usually prevent them from participating). Third, they were right. Virtually all of Eve's businesses were scams or failures. Or both.
If I was going to use the forums for my own advantage, I would need to find a way of neutralizing the forum skeptics. For the foregoing reasons, it would not be possible to win them over, but if I could shut them up for a long enough period, I might be able to persuade ordinary readers of the forums to invest. While I ruminated on this puzzle, I came across a news bulletin about an Eve lottery program. It was then that I got my idea.
CONQUEST OF THE FORUMS
Using the pretext of a lottery, I could draft all of my investors into an army and unleash them upon the forums--or at least one forum thread. Once again, my phantom team proved useful. I could pretend that one of my teammembers was leaving the game and willing away all of his assets, including one billion isk that he would give away in his lottery. People could sign up for tickets in a forum thread. Out of his appreciation for the investors, entry into the lottery would be absolutely free for each Currin Trading investor. They would simply show up in the forum thread, announce that they were investors, and at the end of a couple days, one person would be randomly selected to win the billion. Outsiders could also purchase tickets, though it was unlikely many would want to, in the face of so many free entry players.
The lottery plan was a risky proposition. While people in the forums would be impressed by seeing so many satisfied Currin Trading investors, the reverse could also take place. All along I had carefully kept my investors insulated from the outside world. By inviting them all into a forum thread, I would risk exposing them to the negative attitude of the forum skeptics, who would dissect my business unmercifully, revealing it to them as a pyramid scheme. I wouldn't be able to predict how many would fail to re-invest their isk. And, of course, I would have to give someone the prize money of a billion isk for free.
But still, I had an army at my disposal. Supposing most current and past investors showed up, I could field several dozen positive-thinking posters in that thread, overwhelming the skeptics. But a good impression needed to be established at once. Even if I got all of the investors to reply, they might first be drowned out by the hundreds of forum posters who would be sure to latch onto my scheme and rip it to shreds--even in the context of a friendly, free lottery.
My solution was to inform all of the investors in advance. Since an announcement on the website probably wouldn't be enough, I would send them all evemails. I would leave a few days as a grace period to ensure that all of the investors had ample time to log in and plan to participate in the lottery, which I sheduled including the day and hour. If all went well, investors would plan to reply to the thread immediately, stifling the would-be skeptics.
But there was one big problem left to face. Including the time period for informing my investors and the time for leaving the lottery open, I would run right up against the first due date of Morty's long-term investments. He had not re-invested his most recent investment, and I was determined not to release any more money to him. My only hope of growing the pyramid beyond these due dates, of course, would be to stall Morty and hope that he didn't complain about it too visibly on the forums when he didn't get paid. By sending all of my investors into the forums, I might be setting up a future disaster. I was determined to see the lottery program through. I finally decided that I would go through with the lottery as planned, and to give myself a little extra breathing room, I went to the "current accounts" spreadsheet on my website and delayed Morty's June maturities by two days each. I hoped he wouldn't notice.
Finally, the first day of the lottery arrived. I created my thread in the General Discussion section of the Eve forums, advertising a free entry to a billion isk lottery. Only inside the thread did one find out that the free entry only applied to Currin Trading investors. The Currin Trading system was modestly advertised with just a few tasteful links. I then quickly copied the URL to the lottery thread and posted it on my website. But I quickly realized this would not be enough to get the speed I wanted. I went back and sent out evemails to all of my investors, providing them with a link and inviting them to participate. Going to the lottery thread, I saw that, as expected, a skeptic showed up for the first reply. But his lukewarm contribution to the thread was quickly followed by several investors who were there to proclaim their faith in the Currin Trading organization--and with that proclamation, a free chance at a billion isk.
To the skeptics' eyes, of course, the first few could have been my alts, and their speed in signing up would tend to confirm this. But the investors kept showing up, one after the other. They explained that the CT system was not a scam, a lottery with free entry would clearly not be fraudulent, and that people signed up so quickly because CT had graciously informed them about the lottery in advance. I decided to allow my investors to do all of my talking for me, while I played the role of the distant and impartial moderator of the lottery.
But suddenly, my lottery thread vanished. What happened? Had CCP, ever-watchful of my scam, decided to shut down the lottery? I was perplexed. I then did a quick search of the other sections of the forum, to see if it had been moved. Indeed it had. There was an "Events" section of the Eve forums that was intended for just such publicity stunts, and a moderator had sent it over there--though without doing everyone the courtesy of leaving a locked version in the General Discussion section so that people could actually see where it went. The Events section was not nearly as popular as General Dicussion, but it would do. The lottery continued.
The skeptics were soon suffocated. Investors poured into the thread constantly. Even when one skeptic showed up to make a particularly thorough and blistering denunciation of my pyramid scheme, it was futile. His post was buried by all of the positive ones, and his post was lost among the several pages of replies that soon stacked up. My army and I were triumphant.
There was, of course, the formality of actually selecting a winner to pay a billion isk. Since my winner would have the opportunity to be a good spokesperson for me, I decided the winner would need to be someone in an established corp with many members. I also wanted someone likely to invest his winnings with Currin Trading. Therefore, he would need to be someone who had already trusted a large amount with CT. But not too large, otherwise he would not be as jubilant with his new billion. There were a few candidates who met this criteria. But I didn't want it to be an obviously non-random reward, so I disqualified all those who had spoken out too favorably about Currin Trading before, or who hinted that they would invest their winnings. And finally, I wanted the winner to be online at the time of the "drawing" so he could immediately respond about his lottery options, be paid, and rejoice on the forums.
Since I had been wary about how the lottery would go, I was initially hesitant about giving out a billion isk. But I needed the prize amount to be compelling. The compromise was to have a standard lottery arrangement where the winner could choose between getting a portion of the prize up front, or to take the whole prize paid out over several installments. The winner chose to take the full prize. I had mixed feelings about this, but I considered that by the time the five weeks were up, I would have plenty of new isk in my wallet to compensate.
The lottery didn't make much sense, of course. First, the payment arrangement did not fit with someone who had willed away his assets. Why would someone who had given away a billion isk care that the prize be paid out over a period of five weeks? And if someone selected to take only the half up front, where would the other half billion go? If this occurred, I planned to use it for another lottery. And then there was the issue of anonymity. All along Currin Trading had advertised the benefits of anonymity, but by signing up in the public thread, the investors would all give it away. Fortunately these questions were not raised. But I knew anonymity wouldn't be an issue, since most investors wouldn't care about their anonymity anyway.
To my slight embarrassment, a few investors continued trying to sign up to the lottery even after it was over. I decided I would need to reply once more to the thread, gently informing them that the lottery was over--something they would have seen had they bothered to read the previous few replies on the thread. But there was also a new skeptic skulking around the thread, and I felt I needed to finally make a response. Fortunately, this particular skeptic was ill-equipped to attack CT. Rather than focusing on the legitimate holes in the CT theory, the skeptic repeated an earlier skeptic's request that the entire transaction list for the previous month(!) be posted in public. Since this was an outrageous request that would be both time-consuming and compromising to the security of any organization--legitimate or illegitimate--I politely but firmly put the skeptic in his place. He was silenced. No skeptic ever challenged CT again, though a few wayward investors would continue to try to sign up to the lottery, weeks after it was over.
Checking my wallet, I saw that a few outsiders actually had paid the ten million isk entry fee, along with some new investments to Currin Trading. In the days that followed, new investors poured into Currin Trading. Many of them were in the same corps as other investors, who apparently made use of the lottery as a conversation-starter about CT. Rather than being poisoned by the forum skeptics, investors were re-investing at higher rates than ever before. The lottery was a complete success.
The Currin Trading scam was rolling again. By the end of lottery week, the number of active investors jumped up to over ninety, and my wallet inflated to nine billion isk. I would no longer need to worry about the pyramid collapsing. But there was still the Morty issue. I had already secretly delayed his June maturities by a few days, and they would soon come up. I still did not want to pay him. I would wait and see.
Three days before his first maturity, the day that Morty's first investment was originally scheduled to mature, Morty invited me to a convo. Was it a coincidence? What did he want? Morty was curious how his investments were doing; I said they were doing very well. He said that he had been looking at the spreadsheet and noticed that his maturities were due in a few days. Did he know? He then explained that starting on those days, he would be going on a vacation and that if he were to fail to re-invest his money, that was the reason. Was Morty making an excuse so that he could keep his money from both June investments and then see if the July investment matured too? Was he trying to escape? I didn't know, but I saw an opening and went for it.
"I could extend your investments so they mature after you get back from vacation."
To my relief, Morty liked the idea. He was planning some big purchases after the summer and would love to get all of his money then. We then arranged to have all of his investments mature in September. The pyramid would continue. Morty had not noticed my changing of the spreadsheet and the days I picked happened to coincide with his vacation, so I wouldn't have to worry about him for the rest of the summer. I had gotten lucky.
Tracking my investments, there was a sharp increase in early June. Happily, much of the new investments were coming from members of the corps of other investors, so word of mouth had finally become common. Investments were rolling in at a faster rate than ever before. My most valuable ally was Senty. He had often acted on behalf of his corp as a diplomat, and now he was putting his diplomatic talents to my own use. Having reinvested successfully several times, and having watched the successful Currin Trading lottery, Senty had the firepower to persuade several of his fellow corp members to become new investors. Best of all, he convinced his corp's CEO of the magic of Currin Trading. The CEO invested a billion in Currin Trading, and before even waiting to see if it would mature, he used an alt to put in an additional two billion in long-term investments.
Strolling through the forums, I saw an unsettling development. After a scammer had bribed a few "market analysts" into endorsing his fictional "IPO", CCP struck back. Normally adhering to a policy of keeping their hands off of scams (after all, Eve is the game made famous by corp heists), CCP had suddenly reversed course and it took away the scammer's billions of stolen isk--and returned them to their owners! This did not bode well for Currin Trading, of course. CCP admins on the forums explained that they only did this because the scammer had used the forums to advertise his scam. Apparently the skeptics and forum superstars had successfully made their case, finally claiming the Eve forums as a pure and magical fairyland, free of all deceit and piracy--entirely unlike that "Eve computer game" some people play.
But there was a popular revolt on the forums. The ordinary players of Eve did not take well to the special treatment given those who had fallen prey to that one scam, when so many other scams had been allowed. Wasn't Eve supposed to be cutthroat? Should the isk be returned from the Guiding Hand's heist? Or Morbor's famous pyramid scheme? The masses bitterly accused CCP of pandering to the forum superstars, some of whom apparently lost money in the scam. CCP could no longer handle the pressure, and it reversed itself yet again. While letting the victims of the scam keep their returned money, CCP returned the scammer's ill-gotten isk and emphatically reaffirmed that scams were allowed, and that CCP would never again intervene against them. I was satisfied by this result, and returned to work.
Another day, another billion isk. Investments surged. From the beginning of the scam, it had taken about a month and a half to reach five billion isk. It had taken another month and a half to reach ten billion isk. But then it only took one week to reach fifteen billion. In three more days, I had eighteen billion. Just four days after that, I had reached twenty-nine billion. By the end of the day, I would break the thirty billion mark and head toward forty.
At this point, I finally stopped to consider where I would be going with this scam. I had originally started it all to see whether I, a lone n00b, would be able to break the Guiding Hand Social Club's record for the largest heist in Eve. And, at last, I had. I stole more isk in less time than anyone else in Eve's history, and I did it working alone using an alt account in a n00b corp. In less than six months of playing the game, I had "won" Eve. But now what?
Part of me was curious how far I could keep the pyramid going. But it was not difficult to see. My investments were growing exponentially. By the end of the summer I would likely clear over a hundred billion isk, maybe more. But already, the flood of investment processing and investment maturities was consuming an ever-increasing amount of time. I was only thankful that I had set up such an efficient spreadsheet system beforehand, otherwise I would never have been able to keep track of it all. If the pyramid continued, I would be spending all of my free time in the summer processing and paying out investments. The question arose, now that I had achieved what I had set out to do, what was the point of continuing, and what would I do with the thirty billion isk I had stolen?
I considered my options. If I had wanted to fly capital ships, the isk would be more than enough. In fact, my legitimate activities on my other character could have afforded dreadnoughts. And no matter how much isk I stole, titans would be out of the question for practical reasons--after all, you can't just browse through escrow until you find a few titans for sale. There was always the prospect of selling my isk on E-bay, but I never considered it a real possibility. Though the isk would be worth several thousand American dollars, fencing that amount of isk would not be possible. And, as strange as it may sound in light of the foregoing story, I considered violating the EULA to be dishonorable.
In the end, I decided that the only value in having stolen all of that isk was not the isk itself, but the stealing of it. I wanted to see if I could do the impossible, and I did it. The more I pondered the actual value of isk, the more I saw that the only people who really valued it were the ones who had earned it themselves. Despite Eve being a game, they had put real work into it. Many of them had spent three years shooting rocks and hauling modules around to earn that isk, and now it would be gone. Even though it wasn't "real", they would feel loss. Worst of all would be the situation of those who had vouched for my services and recommended it to their comrades. I started to feel bad for the people I ripped off. Even Morty. But the damage was done. Unless, of course... I gave it all back.
Would it be possible to return all of the isk I had stolen? It would not be that much work, I found. My files contained all of the information about who invested what. But mathematically, returning all investments was impossible. Since people who had earned interest and re-invested it were really re-investing their own investments plus a piece of someone else's, there was more "invested" isk than isk in my wallet. However, because my wallet had grown exponentially, the great majority of isk was from new investments that had never been paid out with interest. Furthermore, I still had record of what everyone's past investments were. So if someone invested 100 then re-invested the 120 he earned, and then re-invested the 144 he earned after that, repaying him his original 100 would bring him back to where he started. There were some people who had never re-invested, but they were all small investors and I could make up the lost isk with money from my legitimate character. Going down the line, I had solved it. I could reimburse my investors. I could be the greatest thief in Eve history and still avoid doing damage to anyone.
So it was settled. By the end of the day, I would break the thirty billion isk mark. I would take some screenshots for my scrapbook, and then I would begin the process of paying back all of my investors. Afterward, I would need to change my website so that they didn't continue to invest. I was through doing paperwork. But I would still log in from time to time to return the isk that future investors might accidentally put in. Would I find myself bombarded with angry evemails and convo requests? Maybe, but so what? Some might find amusement in the whole thing, and others would at least be relieved to get their isk back. And if they were like me, many of them probably heard of Eve by reading that article about the Guiding Hand in the first place.
I tried to log in, and was stunned to see a pop-up message that I had been banned from Eve. And when was the ban set to expire? "Permabanned". Uh-oh. But why? I knew it had something to do with Currin Trading, but the reason in the message simply said "Trial abuse". Trial abuse? I didn't have a trial account. What was the deal?
ESCAPE FROM THE PERMABAN
There were plenty of possibilities out there. CCP could have seen my character was only a few months old and had thirty billion isk in his wallet. That could have raised some suspicions of E-bay isk. Alternatively, someone could have petitioned in response to one of my evemail advertisements. Just lately, there were apparently some E-bay isk sellers who were sending out evemails with instructions on how to fence it. But a cursory examination of my wallet's transactions or a quick visit to the website advertised would make it obvious no E-bay buying or selling of isk was taking place. And besides, if that was their suspicion, why list "Trial abuse" as the reason for the ban?
The possibility I ultimately found most likely was that CCP was attempting to act against someone who had used a trial account to make three characters to impersonate Currin Trading. This person (or persons) had used names like "CurrinTrading" and "Currin Tradings" to attempt to siphon off investors who might accidentally transfer their investments to the wrong person. The creation of several impersonators had taken place only a few days before the ban. Did CCP ban my own account by mistake? Had CCP unwittingly prevented me from being able to pay back those whom I had scammed, thereby becoming the most successful--though unwitting--thieves of all time?
I sent in a petition. The next day, I received the automatic reply from the CCP Petition system, but no word from any CCP representatives. After two days with no reply, I knew that a point of no return would be passed. Even if CCP's actions were unintentional and I managed to get myself released from the "permaban", the pyramid would be over no matter what. Too many people would lose confidence and fail to re-invest. It was settled, then. I had stolen thirty billion isk and no more, and CCP had apparently prevented me from being able to return it. A week passed with no further response from CCP, and I realized that I would not be returning to Eve. And the stolen isk would be lost forever.
But the next day, I received a message from CCP. By coincidence, they had overhauled the petition system precisely when I had sent my petition in about my permaban. This was what caused the week-long delay. CCP's message said to resubmit the petition into the new system. Why not?
Less than a day later, a representative of CCP sent me a message informing me that he had investigated the situation and discovered that the permaban was, indeed, a mistake. He apologized and reversed the ban. It came as a great relief--I now had restored access to my thirty billion isk worth of loot. Now I could return it to my investors.
Reflecting upon the previous week's events, my relief turned into irritation. CCP had screwed up, and consequently put an end to a pyramid that had taken months to construct. The damage was irreversible. Who knows how much isk might have accumulated had the scam continued for another few months? I surprised myself with these thoughts. After all, thirty billion isk was no small amount, and besides, I had been planning to give it all back anyway. What was the difference?
As I made the final preparations to return the isk, I considered that as soon as I logged back in as Currin Trading, I would likely be invited to dozens of convos of people who had expected their investment maturities from the previous week. I paused. If I returned the stolen isk, there was no going back. No matter what happened, there was no way I was going to ever see that much isk again. But why care about that? Hadn't I already reasoned to myself that having so much isk was pointless anyway? But it wasn't. All of that isk could come in handy some day in the future. Besides, I had earned every bit of it.
Earned it? No, I had stolen what other people earned. But didn't I put more thought and innovation into my scam that all of those rock-shooting, mission-grinding three-year old characters combined? Did that mean they deserved to lose their isk, then? Losing a ship is one thing, but the collective loss I would be inflicting upon my investors by keeping the stolen isk would be the equivalent of a Band of Brothers fleet of dreadnoughts--or three hundred tier two battleships! It would be a massacre, one that I could prevent if only I just gave back the isk, as I had planned.
Something had changed. Having thought for a week that I was banned from Eve forever, I had seen what it would be like to say goodbye to thirty billion isk. And to gnash my teeth over the potential for a hundred billion more isk had the pyramid continued? It was greed, pure and simple. I was consumed by avarice.
But at the same time, I had more sympathy for those whose isk would be lost if I did not return it. Only now did I appreciate just how insidious a scam could be. I had thought the isk meant nothing to me. That it was just a means to an end, a score to beat. But now I was willing to wreak devastation upon all of my investors just to hold onto it. The scam had scammed me. It stole my concern for others and replaced it with gluttony. I was disgusted.
I lied. I cheated people. I used people to help me scam their friends. I was the cause of widespread bankruptcy. But the most damning thing of all? I think I can live with it, and if I had it to do all over again, I would. To my surprise, a guilty conscience was a small price to pay for thirty billion isk. So I will learn to live with it, because I can live with it. I can live with it, but...
I wanted to provide a balance. I wanted to liberate thirty billion or more isk to those from whom it had been taken, and yet my greed would not allow me to give my own thirty billion away. And I knew in the future, new scammers would be lining up to steal yet more billions, and investors would lose it all. I wanted to put an end to all of the scams, to undo the damage I had done while keeping all of my own stolen isk to myself. This was impossible.
But I had done the impossible before. It was time to do it again. I had one card left to play.
Epilogue: The Scam To End All Scams