Click play below if you’d prefer to hear me tell this story, rather than reading it.
Way back when, just shortly after the whole dot com bubble burst, I was working at former-internet-giant Lycos. You remember them, right? The dog? Yep, that’s them. I know, I was surprised to learn they still existed, too. I spent just over three years working there, watching their customer service group (of which I was originally hired as a member of, and was eventually the manager) go from around 50 down to 2 (of which I was one). It was sad to watch a company shrink by the hundreds of employees. Anyway, I digress.
In August of 2006, well after most of the team had either left or been laid off, I got a fax brought to me by the receptionist — I believe her name was Caroline, but I could be wrong. It was from the FBI’s Boston field office.
This happened from time to time, we’d get a subpoena either from the FBI or some other legal authority. This happened sometimes because people would anonymously use one of the Lycos services (usually Tripod or Angelfire — web hosting services or Lycos Mail) because they were so easy to sign up for and do malicious things and remain anonymous.
In an attempt to capture the criminals, the authorities would reach out to us to get information on the account holder. Usually they registered with fake information, but we always complied.
This time was a bit different, in addition to the subpoena, there was also a request to set up a meeting. At this point I had only been the manager for a short period of time, so I didn’t know how unusual this was. I later spoke to some of my buddies that used to work there in the Fraud and Abuse department (that had been long defunct) and found out that it was uncommon for the FBI to want to come in and chat.
I called the number on the fax right away and spoke to the Agent who sent it. I’m not sure if I can say what his name really is, so we’ll call him Agent Awesome, because he was pretty awesome.
Agent Awesome informed me that they believed they already knew much about this particular user, but wanted to see what else they could get. He asked if I could pull together user data and IP address logs by the following morning.
“Not a problem, we’ve got a tool that can do that quickly.” I said.
“Great, would it be okay if a colleague of mine and I came by tomorrow at 9?” he asked.
“Of course. Just let the receptionist know you’re here to see me and she’ll bring you back. Showing your badges probably wouldn’t hurt to get you in,” I joked.
I went back to my desk and pulled the information they wanted, putting it on a blank CD because this was a time before flash drives were cheap enough to make them disposable. I finished up my night and went home, eager to find out what the ordeal tomorrow would be about.
The next day I got to work early, around seven, to make sure I got all of my day-to-day work done before the agents showed up. By the time they arrived, I was ready and waiting, dying to know what this was all about.
I shook both of their hands, reviewed their credentials (at their request) and lead them into an empty conference room called “Planet” (which was a failed Lycos product from the year before).
“I know this is out of the ordinary,” Agent Awesome started. “But we’ve got a big one that could be a big win.”
He went on to explain that they were going to be pressing charges against an individual shortly, and needed the records that I’d prepared for them, but also needed to have someone fly out to Los Angeles to testify in the court case. Being a big fan of cop shows, I was pretty stoked for the chance.
“There’s some paperwork,” Agent Awesome’s partner said. “You’ll need to clear a background check”
Agent Awesome slid an application for security clearance across the table.
“Fill that out as soon as you can and fax it to the number on the cover sheet. Once that all comes back, I’ll call you with more details.”
It was the biggest, most complex, longest application I’d ever filled out in my life. It went into the history of my history’s history, asking questions about my great-aunt twice removed on my great-uncle’s nephew’s side. It was very thorough to say the least. They really wanted to make sure that I was legit and that the clearance they were giving me wasn’t going to jeopardize anything.
It only took two days, but Agent Awesome called me to come down to the FBI’s office to be fingerprinted and have some photos taken. It was part of the security clearance. After all that was taken care of, I was granted Confidential clearance, which is a civilian level clearance given to people who help the FBI and other governmental agencies with things. I felt pretty badass.
A few months had gone by and I hadn’t heard anything. I’d almost forgotten about everything all together when my phone rang. Given how unusual it was for my desk phone to ring, I was a bit shocked. It was Agent Awesome, and he needed me to speak with their travel coordinator to be on a plane Monday morning to fly out to Los Angeles. I’d be testifying in Federal Court on Tuesday or Wednesday morning. He’d email me the fine details.
I coordinated my flight, packed my bags and headed to the airport Monday morning.
In a time before iPads (or even iPhones), I read a book on the flight. I don’t recall what, but knowing how lame I am, it was probably a crime thriller of some sort.
When I landed, I took a cab to the hotel. I remember being fascinated by how large Los Angeles was. We drove for 45 minutes in the cab, on the freeway, and were still within the city limits. It felt like it was so far away from the airport. We just kept going and going.
As I arrived, the hotel clerk knew who I was and got me checked right in. I got a room overlooking the rock garden below. (I tried to find the name of the hotel online just now, but I think it’s been closed down. It was something with an Asian name — Oriental something or other.) It wasn’t the nicest hotel and since the government was paying for it, it was overpriced, too.
Agent Awesome called me later to make sure I was settled in and asked me to meet him at the courthouse at 9am Tuesday morning. He gave me the address and told me to go out in the city and have fun.
Which meant that I stayed in the hotel, ordered room service, and watched television all night.
Early the next morning, I woke up, did all of my day-job work, printed out directions to bring with me (since there were no smartphones then — man do I feel old saying that). I put on my shirt and tie and headed out to walk over to the courthouse.
Once I’d gotten through security and up to the District Attorney’s floor — mind you, still having really no idea what any of this was about — I met with Agent Awesome and the Assistant District Attorney for Los Angeles.
“Thanks for flying out,” she said.
“My pleasure. I’m not sure I had a choice in the matter, but I’m happy to help any way I can.” I smiled.
We sat in her office for half an hour or so, going over the types of questions that they’d ask and what questions the defense attorney would likely ask. They prepped me the best I could and then told me to go down to the third floor and find the witness waiting room. Easier said than done. I got lost a handful of times before finding my way.
As I entered, the guard asked me who I was and told me I wasn’t to tell anyone inside my name, where I was from, where I worked, or any other personally identifiable information about myself. I joined the half dozen other witnesses at a cold steel table in the tiny room. There were some magazines scattered about the table, and everyone mostly sat in silence.
A representative from the actual court room came every so often, escorting someone out by their designated number, ushering them back down the hallway towards the courtroom, silently.
I don’t remember how long it was before it was my turn, but it seemed like an eternity at the time. I still had no idea what any of this was about. I sat in silence for what felt like hours, just waiting for the man in the suit to come and escort me out of the room by my arm. When he finally did, I was excited. I walked down the hallway and entered the courtroom, which was quieter than any other room I’d ever been in throughout my entire life.
It was nothing like you’d see on TV. I watched so much Law and Order over the previous few years and this was nothing like that.
I walked down the long aisle towards the witness stand, where the man who had come to get me told me to stand. The bailiff swore me in, hand on bible, and ushered me into the box to sit down.
“Please speak and spell your first and last name for the record,” the prosecutor said loudly.
“Michael Jandreau,” I replied and then spelled aloud.
“Mr. Jandreau, please tell the court your employer and position.”
“I work for Lycos and manage the customer service department.”
“Does Lycos operate the Angelfire brand and product?” she asked.
“Can you tell the jury what Angelfire is?”
I explained how customers could sign up, build a website, and publish it to the internet completely free of charge.
Some of the jurors nodded as if they understood what was I saying. But this point, I had been at Lycos for almost three years and had explained what the various properties were to colleagues and customers a million times, so I had my speech down.
“Can you look at the screen in front of you for me?” she asked.
There was a large plasma TV mounted on a stand in front of the witness box — definitely not like anything on Law & Order — which now showed a small image of a man. The image was, at best guess, 200 pixels squared. A tiny tiny image. Even by 2007’s standards, it was a fairly unrecognizable image.
“Does the image on the screen in front of you look like the defendant?” she asked.
I looked long and hard at the image, then the defendant, then the image again. I did this a handful of times and still wasn’t certain that I could identify the defendant in the picture. It was old, small, and grainy. Not to mention that it was taken from a good 15-20 feet away with a digital camera that by today’s standards wouldn’t even exist anymore.
“I suppose it could be.”
“But you’re not sure?”
“It’s hard to be sure. It’s a tiny photo.”
The jurors laughed a bit. They were seeing the same image I was, and sympathized with my inability to tell if it was him or not.
They spent some more time focused on how Angelfire worked, what types of things people could do with it, and whether or not the information on the account in question belonged to the defendant. Since it was registered with fake information, I couldn’t confirm that the account actually belonged to the guy they were saying it did.
The defense council asked me many of the same questions, focusing quite a lot on whether I (or anyone) could identify the image on the screen as his client.
Before I knew it my time on the stand was over, and I was being ushered back to the witness waiting room, where I was, again, told not to talk about the case or who I was.
At the end of the day, Agent Awesome and the Assistant District Attorney came into the witness waiting room and told us we were free to go and thanked us for our time. We all left at the same time, oddly enough meeting up outside and heading in the same general direction, though separate from one another.
It turned out that we were all staying at the same hotel and met up outside. None of us had any idea what the case was about, or who the guy we were testifying against was. But we did discover a bit about each other; many of us worked for software companies that offered services online that people could mostly use for free. One of the guys was from Geocities (one of Angelfire’s biggest competitors). I found it odd that we were all at the same hotel, but I guess the FBI got a bulk rate. I wonder if Agent Awesome stayed there too. I bet he did.
He called me later that night, Agent Awesome that is, and thanked me for helping out.
“You can call the travel service and fly home tonight if you don’t want to wait until tomorrow.”
“Oh, that’d be nice,” I said, taking down her name and number.
I didn’t actually call her, I just decided to hang out in the hotel room and enjoy being away from home. Aside from that, I didn’t want to take a redeye home.
“I watch enough cop shows to know that you can’t tell me what this is all about. But once the trial’s over and you can, can you call me and let me know?” I asked.
“Absolutely,” he said through a laugh. “You’re right, I can’t tell you now. But I’ll call you next week.”
He kept his word. Once the trial ended the following week, he called me to fill me in.
The defendant’s name was Jeffrey Brett Goodin. He was accused of (and subsequently convicted of) violation of the Can-Spam act of 2003, wire fraud, and a number of counts of phishing. You can read more about the actual charges here. In short, he used Angelfire (and other web based services) to send emails to unsuspecting AOL members to point them to a phishing site to steal their credit cards. He’d then use them to wire himself money (hence the wire fraud charges).
If the judge sentenced him on all counts, he was facing 101 years in jail. I was a bit shocked when I heard that number, but figured it’d be far less than that.
In the end, he was sentenced to 70 months in Federal prison. I tried to find any information if he got out last year (as he should have), but couldn’t. The internet apparently just knows who he was, that he was convicted, and that he was sentenced to just under 6 years.
I also recall reading that he had to pay back $10 million in restitution to his victims, but I can’t find any documentation that proves that he actually was sentenced to that, or that he actually did it.
Thus concludes the story of how I got my government clearance, took my first trip to Los Angeles, and helped put away a man who took advantage of unsuspecting AOL users.