4 Wild Undercover Stings (That Actually Worked)
The justice system has a lot of cracks that criminals can slip through, either by dumb luck or having one hell of a lawyer. As a result, law enforcement sometimes has to get creative in their effort to put the bad guys away. Every so often, a plan comes along that is so far outside the box that it could earn the officers a promotion, or perhaps a psych eval. As the old saying goes, you can’t argue with results. You can, however, marvel at the insanity of the process.
In 1999, scrap metal was a very dangerous business to get into in New York City, given its ties to the Mob. The Gambino crime family had a majority stake in the racket, and they had fixed the prices on all ends to maximize their profits. So, when a new scrapyard named Stadium Scrap opened up next to Shea Stadium in Queens, and their competitive prices started causing the Mob to lose contracts, it was time to inform them what a nice business they had there and how it’d be a real shame if something bad were to happen to it.
When Carmine Agnello, a made member of the Gambinos and son-in-law of family boss John Gotti, and an associate came into Stadium Scrap to convince them there to sell him their crushed cars at a serious discount or else, the employees said no. The workers weren’t exactly concerned about anything happening to their business. For one, they had one hell of a security system. The other reason they weren’t afraid was that Stadium Scrap wasn’t really a business at all. It was an NYPD undercover sting operation.
Every square inch of Stadium Scrap was covered by cameras, hidden microphones, plus a pan-and-tilt microwave camera located 100 yards from the entrance. Their four employees were two officers and two detectives recruited from the NYPD Auto Crimes Department, where they were trained to operate all of the equipment needed to work undercover at the yard. At the very least, they were hoping to bust a bunch of car thieves and insurance fraudsters, which they did. 47 of them to be exact. Taking down a high-profile mobster who had routinely avoided prosecution was just icing on the cake, and it took less than two months for Agnello to walk right into the trap.
On June 17, 1999, after the undercover officers told Agnello his offer was one they definitely could stand to refuse, men were observed cutting the lock on the main gate, throwing glass bottles filled with gasoline at the company’s flatbed trucks and lighting them on fire with road flares. Twelve nights later on the 29th, another fire was set, this time to the office trailer. The night after that, a man was seen sneaking onto the lot and inspecting the damage to the trailer. That man was identified as the hilariously nicknamed Joseph “Jumbo” Burger, the same man who had accompanied Carmine Agnello when he first threatened the business.
Between his associate being recorded on camera being there for both the threat and the aftermath, and one of the firebombers deciding to cooperate with prosecutors, Carmine Agnello was toast. In August 2001, he agreed to plead guilty to racketeering and federal tax evasion in exchange for a nine-year prison term, forfeiting $10 million in assets, paying $950,000 in restitution, and being permanently banned from participating in the scrap metal industry. His wife divorced him while he was in prison, took possession of their mansion, and used it as the backdrop of her A&E reality show Growing Up Gotti for three seasons.
Speaking of reality TV ...
Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s Failed Reality Show
During his 23 years as Sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, Joe Arpaio never passed up on the opportunity to be an unreasonably cruel bastard. When he wasn’t racking up human rights violations at his jail, he was getting in front of news cameras to tell his critics where they can shove it. All in all, he was the kind of guy who would watch The Shawshank Redemption and think the warden was too much of a liberal.
Arpaio quickly became a right-wing media darling, and in late 2008, Sheriff Joe decided to parlay his “America’s toughest sheriff” fame into a reality show called Smile… You’re Under Arrest. It was essentially a prank show for psychopaths. Maricopa County sheriff’s deputies would lure in people with outstanding warrants (mainly for failure to appear in court) and place them in elaborate scenarios like being an extra on a movie set, modeling at a fashion show, or winning a VIP package at a new spa. A lot of staged drama would ensue, and when they finally let the fugitives in on the prank, their prize for playing along was … being laughed at and then arrested. Ha ha, COMEDY!
Just to be clear, these deputies had enough information to be able to lure these fugitives into a prank show, but not enough passion for justice to use that info to simply arrest them. They went out of their way just to be dicks to these people. Sadly for the “contestants” on this show, eighth amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment only apply to convictions, not the arrest itself.
There were only three episodes of the show, and they aired on the now defunct Fox Reality Channel between December 2008 and January 2009. Mike Darnell, then Fox President of Alternative Entertainment, called the show "a reverse Punk'd. Instead of the worst day of your life and then a joke at the end, this is the reverse. This is the best day of your life, and then we arrest you." It’s hard to believe this was a quote from a real television executive who was earnestly trying to get people to want to watch this show.
Here’s how bad this show was: we couldn’t find it. It’s essentially been scrubbed from the internet. It’s not available on any streaming services, if it’s on torrent it’s probably locked away somewhere over by the snuff films, and the only footage we could find on YouTube was a 25-second clip used on a 2017 episode of Last Week Tonight. It speaks volumes about the entertainment value of Joe Arpaio’s reality show when it’s easier to track down full episodes of a sitcom about Hitler than any clips of his garbage Candid Camera rip-off.
Speaking of cops exploiting human misery ...
Police Posing As Panhandlers To Bust Texting Drivers
Currently, only 25 states have some sort of law against using your phone while driving without a hands-free device. 49 states have laws forbidding texting while driving (but in Montana’s defense, there isn’t a lot there for a distracted driver to crash into). Much like drunk driving laws, these distracted driving laws have proven to decrease the number of vehicle accidents and roadway deaths. Unfortunately, just like drunk driving, using your phone while behind the wheel is something that far too many people still think they’re capable of doing without it being a problem … until they get pulled over for it. “I was just looking at my phone for a second!” has become the new “I only had two beers, officer.”
Enforcement of these laws can be a bit tricky. Although there’s new technology being developed to detect cell phone frequencies coming from passing cars or being able to consult a driver’s phone records leading up to an accident, police are still stuck with the old “gotta catch them in the act” method. Between 2012 and 2015, several police departments across Canada started using a new tactic: dressing officers up as panhandlers and standing on street corners to catch drivers texting at traffic lights. If they caught a driver using their phone at a red light, the fake panhandler would signal a motorcycle cop up ahead to pull them over once the light turned green. And it worked.
All right, just for a moment, we’re gonna put aside how monumentally tone deaf this idea is and give these officers credit for the only part that looks good on paper: their spycraft. Judging solely from an intel gathering perspective, what better way for an undercover agent to hide in plain sight than to disguise themselves as the kind of person that most of society does their best to ignore? To think that so many of those drivers decided in the moment to check their phone to avoid making eye contact with a panhandler makes this whole operation kinda feel like entrapment.
Now, they technically weren’t hiding the fact that they were cops. Their cardboard signs did identify themselves as officers and let drivers know that if they were using their cell phone they were about to get a ticket. But then again, they’re making this statement on a sign most people never bother to read anyway. Holding a cardboard sign by the side of the road will get you about the same number of readers as Twitter’s terms of service agreement or a nutritional label on a can of Easy Cheese.
It’s just so messed up that they were fishing for misdemeanor traffic violations by disguising themselves as a misdemeanor public nuisance. They were trying to bust people for using their smartphones while driving a car by cosplaying as a class of people who, by and large, can’t afford either of those things. Yes, those drivers did commit a crime, but in order to crack those cases, did the police really need to denigrate people who are down on their luck? It’s honestly surprising they didn’t nickname themselves something equally insensitive like Hobo Cops. Oh wait, they did.
Perhaps the saddest part is the tactic was effective enough that it was copied in the U.S. as well. California, Washington State, New Hampshire, Maryland, Maine, Washington State again ... and these are just the places it got press coverage! Certainly this plan has gone down in other places as well, so long as the population has had just the right balance of self-absorbed drivers, enough panhandlers around for the cops to be able blend in, and the desire to only take action on the former and exploit the latter.
Speaking of the police and cell phones ...
The AN0M Phone Sting
In March 2018, Canadian tech CEO Vincent Ramos was arrested as part of a joint operation of American, Canadian, and Australian intelligence agencies. His company, Phantom Secure, had been making millions of dollars selling customized BlackBerry phones with dedicated data encryption software, as well as the GPS chips, microphones and cameras disabled. Their phones even came with a remote kill switch that would wipe all data from the phone if it were stolen or seized by the authorities. Those features naturally made the Phantom Secure phone a must-have for drug traffickers and other criminals, which is what led to Ramos’ arrest.
After the FBI failed to coerce Ramos to plant a backdoor into his company’s network to access the customer database, the criminals using that network breathed a collective sigh of relief. But now they were also in the market for new encrypted devices to use. At the same time, the FBI had an informant inside Phantom Secure who was working on a next-gen encrypted device, and that person was willing to cooperate in exchange for a reduced sentence. By late 2019, they had AN0M ready for the market.
The AN0M phones were touted to have the same basic features as those from Phantom Secure, with the GPS, microphones, and cameras disabled. It even had the remote kill switch feature. One of the key differences is the AN0M devices were made using jailbroken Android devices, because even the world’s most fearless criminals wouldn’t be caught dead using a BlackBerry in 2018.
Even if someone were to look through the device, the system was designed to look like any typical Android device. There would be icons for familiar apps like Facebook, Twitter, etc., but nothing would happen if you tapped on them. In order to access the secure messaging, the user would have to enter a special equation into the calculator app.
Around 50 devices were part of the initial beta test in Australia. After that, word started spreading around criminal circles about how great these phones were for their operations … with a lot of that word coming from agents working undercover. By May 2021, there were nearly 12,000 units sold with about 9,000 phones in use. What wasn’t included in the sales pitch for AN0M phones was that every message that was sent through their “secure” network was being BCC’ed straight to the authorities, along with the encryption key and the device’s identification number. Europol estimated that 27 million messages were intercepted in over 100 countries.
But in order for this operation to appear legit, it had to be run like a legit business. All of these international law enforcement agencies had to operate their own cell phone company, complete with customer service and technical support. These criminals were not only getting spied upon, they were paying monthly service fees for the privilege. Evidence was pouring in faster than they could examine it, and the only reason these agencies decided to spring the trap was because most of the wiretap authorizations were set to expire on June 7, 2021.
So, on June 8, Operation Trojan Shield was a go, despite the name sounding like a sponsored safe sex awareness drive. Search warrants were executed around the globe simultaneously, and let’s look at the scoreboard, shall we? Eight tons of cocaine was seized, along with 22 tons of cannabis, two tons of meth, six tons of meth ingredients, $48 million in currency, 250 guns, and 55 luxury cars. 800 people were arrested in 16 countries. In the U.S., no one was arrested because ironically enough, the FBI is prohibited from collecting private messages from domestic subjects.
Dan Fritschie can occasionally be seen performing stand-up comedy somewhere. You can find him being mistaken on Google Search for a hockey player whose name is one letter off from his, or you can find him on Twitter.