We’re From The FBI And We’re Taking Over

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You may remember a scene in the movie Passenger 57 where Federal Bureau of Investigation agents come into the airport and pretty much attack the town’s stereotypically incompetent police chief who is holding Wesley Snipes’ character as a prisoner while the terrorist is getting away. After Snipes is released, he starts barking orders to the FBI agents which they follow blindly.

How many other movies have you seen where the FBI rushes in and takes over? In reality, this doesn’t happen. In fact, at the request of local law enforcement agencies, the FBI quietly provides investigative support and many times their involvement isn’t even mentioned.

Where did I learn this? During the month of October 2009, I spent three hours one evening a week in a classroom at the FBI’s Silicon Valley Regional Forensics Laboratory (RCFL), followed by a Saturday at the Alameda County Firearms Training Facility to take part in the FBI Citizen’s Academy.

FBI Citizen’s Academy and InfraGard

Who attends? Business, civic, and religious leaders, each nominated by a Bureau employee or a previous Academy graduate. You must be at least 21 years old (with no prior felony convictions) and must live and work in the area covered by the field office sponsoring the academy. Because classified techniques used in criminal and national security cases are discussed, nominees must undergo a background check and get an interim security clearance.

Who teaches? Stephanie Douglas, the Special Agent in Charge (SAC) of the San Francisco field office, her Assistant Special Agents in Charge (ASAC), Supervisory Special Agents (SSA), and Special Agent (SA) experts came in to talk to the thirty of us about their job duties and to draw back the curtain that some people think masks the real FBI.

Even if you have no interest in the Citizen’s academy, employees of companies involved in food production, high tech, infrastructure services, or other key product and services should seriously consider joining their local chapter of  InfraGard. This is an association of businesses, academic institutions, state and local law enforcement agencies, and other participants dedicated to sharing information and intelligence to prevent hostile acts against the United States. I joined InfraGard while working for a company which was having problems with product counterfeiting overseas.

Special Agents and Everyone Else

The FBI is made up of two populations; Special Agents and everyone else. The Special Agent title is used to describe a criminal investigator or detective. Competition for an SA position is extraordinarily fierce, with often less than 5% of qualified applicants eventually working for the FBI.

SAs are required to have at least an undergraduate degree and three years work experience, and must be hired on or before their 37th birthday. Once hired, they receive a minimum of five months of basic training at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia followed by more specialized training. The FBI follows a practice of lifelong learning ensuring that agents are always up on the latest tools and techniques. SAs are armed and have the power to arrest and conduct investigations into the violation of federal laws.

Everyone else refers to a wide range of professionals. Because of the breadth and scope of the FBI’s mission, they employ professionals in fields as varied as intelligence analysis, laboratory sciences, linguistics, security, information technology, human resources, general management, and so on.

While some agents work undercover out of necessity, the FBI is much more open than other government agencies such as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and National Security Agency (NSA). Some people seem to think that the FBI hides their real work, but this curtain is not put in place by the FBI.  It’s just that we tend to believe what we see in movies rather than taking a trip to the FBI’s web site to learn for ourselves what FBI staffers do for a living.

The Mission

The FBI’s mission has ten priorities, and they are in place to protect us not only from terrorists, but also from white collar criminals, such as Bernie Madoff, unscrupulous mortgage brokers, and sleazy politicians.

This is what the FBI’s priorities look like in 2009:

  1. Protect the United States from terrorist attack
  2. Protect the United States against foreign intelligence operations and espionage
  3. Protect the United States against cyber-based attacks and high technology crimes
  4. Combat public corruption at all levels
  5. Protect civil rights
  6. Combat transnational and national criminal organizations and enterprises
  7. Combat major white-collar crime
  8. Combat significant violent crime
  9. Support federal, state, local and international partners

10.  Upgrade technology to successfully perform the FBI’s mission

Sick Puppies

Some of the hardest cases to work include human trafficking and crimes which target children. Human trafficking falls under the FBI’s civil rights program, while crimes against children can fall under multiple categories. SAs in this section are working with some of the most heinous crimes again the innocent and the persons who perpetrate them.

There is a difference between human smuggling and human trafficking, although the former sometimes become the latter. Smuggling is bringing someone into the USA at their behest, while trafficking is kidnapping on steroids.

It’s sad but true: in almost every country around the world. people are being bought and sold. They are trapped in lives of misery—often beaten, starved, and forced to work as prostitutes or to take grueling jobs as migrant, domestic, restaurant, or factory workers with little or no pay. It’s even worse when the person being trafficked is a child and worse still when the child is being used for sexual gratification.

It takes a very special agent to work in The Innocent Images National Initiative (IINI), a component of the FBI’s Cyber Crimes Program. The mission of the IINI is to reduce the vulnerability of children to acts of sexual exploitation and abuse which are facilitated through the use of computers; to identify and rescue child victims; to investigate and prosecute sexual predators who use the Internet and other online services to sexually exploit children for personal or financial gain; and to strengthen the capabilities of federal, state, local, and international law enforcement through training programs and investigative assistance.

My blood runs cold when I think of children being tortured, raped, or killed to fulfill someone’s sick fantasies – and imagine if your job was to look at hundreds of these images a week so that you can track down the perpetrators. SSA Jack Bennett is one of the very special people who do this dirty job because it saves lives.

Mortgage Fraud

SA Brian Webber and SSA Fran Gross came to class to talk to us about mortgage fraud. From foreclosure fraud to subprime shenanigans, mortgage fraud is a growing crime threat that is hurting homeowners, businesses, and the national economy. You know, the thing that almost totally destroyed the US economy over the last year?

The Prieston Group estimates that annual losses are from $4-6 billion. And it isn’t just the big boys who are screwing us over. There are over 2,400 pending FBI mortgage fraud investigations (through 4/30/09).  We learned about one method which first  calls upon an unscrupulous appraiser to over value a home then follows up with a dumb or desperate, but usually innocent, person (called the straw man) to take out a loan to buy the house.

It goes something like this: A worthless home is bought by the suspect and an appraiser in on the deal overvalues the home. A straw man (who needs a good credit score) uses the bogus appraisal to get a loan to buy the house from the suspect. The suspect and the appraiser take the bulk of the money and may or may not give some to the straw man, who defaults on the loan. When the bank repossesses the house, they discover that it is worth substantially less than the loan and the straw man probably will be left with a ruined credit rating. The suspect and the appraiser repeat the process.

Note to self:  If someone comes to you with a real estate deal that offers you the chance to make money by signing your name to loan documents for a piece of property you have no interest in buying, be suspicious. As with all things, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is – and you could be left on the hook for money or charged with a crime.

Too Good To Be True

Between 2005 and 2007, victims were persuaded into investing at least $50,000 with Metro Dream Homes, either by refinancing their existing homes or buying new homes at inflated prices.

Investors were told not to worry about high mortgages because Metro Dream Homes would pay their future monthly payments and pay off their mortgages within five to seven years using returns on the homeowner’s original investment. Then the homeowner and Metro Dream Homes would own an equal interest in the home.

Victims were told that their $50,000—not including an administrative fee of up to $5,000—would be used to fund investments in automated teller machines, flat-screen TV displays that carried commercial advertisements, and Touch-N-Buy electronic kiosks that sold telephone calling cards and other items.

To make the scam seem more legitimate, the company marketed its program through live presentations at posh hotels in Washington, D.C.; Baltimore; and even Beverly Hills, California.

In the end, it was a classic Ponzi scheme: the proceeds from later investors went to pay the mortgages of earlier investors. The ATMs, flat-screen TVs, and electronic kiosks never generated any meaningful revenue, federal prosecutors contend.

And the bulk of the money? It lined the defendants’ pockets—with $200,000-a-year salaries, luxury cars, and travel to major sporting events like the 2007 Super Bowl.

By the time law enforcement shut down the company, homeowners had already invested about $70 million. When Metro Dream Homes stopped making the mortgage payments, the homeowners were left holding the bag. The defendants, meanwhile, are facing long prison terms for multiple counts of fraud, conspiracy to commit money laundering, and other charges.

Back To The Future

I originally started this article with a statement about how FBI agents don’t come barging  in to take over an investigation from local law enforcement. In fact, the FBI uses their own budget to train local law enforcement so that they can help themselves. It turns out that the largest of the Bureau’s training efforts for non-FBI personnel is for local and state police who are trained at the field level under the Field Police Training program.

One of the FBI’s oldest and most prestigious law enforcement training programs is the National Academy at Quantico for foreign, state, and local officers.  Since 1935, nearly 35,000 police executives have completed the National Academy’s ten-week management course.  Through this program, the FBI has developed excellent contacts with domestic and foreign officers and fostered relationships which have greatly increased cooperative investigations across the country and around the world.

Relationships that make it easier for a local police force to reach out to the FBI for help when their own resources are tapped out.

Citizen’s Academy Alumni Association

Graduates of the FBI Citizens’ Academy are invited to join its Alumni Association. This organization is a community-based and supported organization, distinct and separate from the FBI. Its purpose is to promote a safer community through community service projects and a process of educating business, labor, media, medical, minority, religious, government, senior citizens, and other community leaders about law enforcement, with particular emphasis on the mission, resources, and limitations of the FBI.

Just like InfraGard, members of the Citizen’s Academy Alumni Association are not Junior G-Men and there is nothing nefarious going on. We have no law enforcement authority nor other special powers, and no, we don’t carry guns. We do share a common spirit to uphold the rights of all citizens and we meet once a quarter for a briefing from our local FBI office on what’s up in our community and what we can do to help both the FBI and our fellow citizens.

It’s All About Sharing

The FBI commonly works in task force environments where representatives from a multitude of jurisdictions are engaged together to target a specific crime problem (e.g. gangs).  And while it can investigate cases start to finish on its own, the FBI also supports local law enforcement whether it be for crimes involving civil rights, kidnappings, child pornography, crimes against children, gangs, and other instances where there is overlapping jurisdiction. In some cases, they will pursue federal prosecutions alongside state cases. If the local cases do not go anywhere, but there is still a valid federal case, the FBI will take on sole responsibility.

Most importantly though, the FBI shares much of the information which it gathers. Anyone is welcome to visit their web site, citizens involved in supporting our nation’s infrastructure are welcomed into the InfraGard public/private partnership, and community leaders are invited to attend the Citizen’s Academy. So the next time you see a movie or TV show where the FBI rushes in, kicks out the locals, and tells them to get lost, you know it’s only because it’s a movie.

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