True Crime Thursday – Artificial Intelligence

Photo credit: Laurenz Kleinheider, Unsplash

by

Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Check out the photos of people on this website. Facial expressions change. Body movements and gestures look natural. Yet these “people” aren’t real. They were created by artificial intelligence (AI).

Previous iterations of computer-generated models had telltale signs that gave away their artificial nature.

However, a Japanese company called DataGrid, Inc., founded by three brilliant twenty-somethings, appears to have perfected the technique of creating realistic humans generated by artificial intelligence. This recent article in Forbes describes DataGrid’s process. Here’s the link.

How do they achieve this? They pit two AI systems against each other in a competition called “generative adversarial networks” or GAN. One creates an image from databases, the other critiques it, tweaking the tiniest details until the creation is indistinguishable from reality.

DataGrid plans to license this technology to the fashion industry to showcase clothing lines with created models of the desired size and shape.

But a writer’s imagination explodes with possibilities.

What real-life crimes could be spawned by AI technology? Here are a few ideas:

An innocent person is framed because their created double appears on video committing a crime.

What happens to eyewitness testimony? Whom did the witness see? An actual human or a model?

A head of state is kidnapped/killed and a double takes over, changing the course of history.

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The late, great comedian Redd Foxx used to say, “Who you gonna believe? Me or your lying eyes?”

Who are we gonna believe? How will we know if our eyes are lying or not?

 

TKZers: Let your imaginations run wild. Share crimes you envision from the nefarious use of AI.

What do you think will be some of the unintended consequences?

~~~

Debbie Burke’s new thriller, Stalking Midas, contains no characters created by AI, only ones dreamed up by her imagination. Available in Kindle or paperback.

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True Crime Thursday – Elder Fraud…And a Book Giveaway

Courtesy of Pixabay

by

Debbie Burke

@burke_writer 

Today’s true crime is personal. My adopted mother, Ruth, was a victim of elder fraud.

Estimates of losses from elder fraud range from $2.9 billion to $36.5 billion per year. That’s billion with a B. Every single year. 

After doing considerable research into elder fraud, I was shocked to discover dirty, little-known secrets about indifferent banks, lack of prosecution, and impotent enforcement.

Here’s what happened to my mother:

Ruth, a widow, was fiercely independent and insisted on living alone in her own home in San Diego. After a medical crisis in 2016, Ellie (biological daughter) and I (adopted daughter) tried to convince Ruth to move in with one of us—Ellie in L.A. or me in Montana–or to have another relative live with her. Ruth flatly refused but finally consented to a visiting caregiver three times a week.

For several years, Ruth’s older sister had been taken care of by a woman named “Jane,” (not her real name for reasons that will soon become clear). The sister’s adult children vouched for Jane. The situation seemed ideal since Jane was already familiar with the family and could drive our mother to visit her sister.

Fast forward to 2017 when a catastrophic stroke left Ruth unable to speak or swallow. Ellie and I rushed to San Diego to care for her.

While we were there, Ruth’s credit card bills arrived in the mail…showing balances of more than $15,000 for items Ruth clearly not had charged.

Ellie called Jane and asked about the charges. Jane broke down and admitted she had been using Ruth’s credit cards. She had also been intercepting mail so Ellie would not find out about the bogus charges. After their distressing phone conversation, Jane sent numerous apologetic texts, promising to pay back the money.

But more evidence of fraud kept turning up, like:

Months before, Jane had changed the address for the cable TV, redirecting the service to Jane’s own home, and set up auto-pay from Ruth’s checking account to pay for it.

While we were at the hospital, a neighbor saw Jane snooping in Ruth’s mailbox, evidently trying to intercept more bills.

Jane had written checks to herself for large amounts of cash that Ruth had signed.

We notified Ruth’s local bank. They closed the checking account and turned the case over to their fraud department.

Ellie called Discover and they immediately froze Ruth’s account. They provided photocopies for the past year and we quickly identified many bogus charges Jane had made.

Now for the first dirty little secret: Your bank may not protect you from theft.

Ruth also had accounts and a VISA at a different Big-Name Bank. Ellie and I visited the branch to report the fraud. We explained Ruth was in the hospital and Ellie brought a copy of her power of attorney giving her authority on the accounts.

A bank officer told us the account could not be frozen nor would they provide copies of suspicious charges…until after Big-Name Bank’s legal department reviewed Ellie’s POA, which could take ten business days.

What???

The POA was simple and straightforward. Because of this mindless policy, the bank left the account wide open to more bogus charges. For the time being, all we could do was destroy the card and pray Jane didn’t have a duplicate.

Next, we called the police. Two detectives from the elder fraud division interviewed us. They copied the texts where Jane admitted the theft. We gave them paperwork showing the bogus charges from Discover and from the local bank where the auto-pay accounts had been compromised. They agreed the evidence was more than enough to recommend prosecution of Jane.

Two weeks after the stroke, Ruth passed away just before her 91st birthday. At the funeral, we heard the first hints of suspicion from the children of Ruth’s sister (who had died a few months earlier). The sister’s jewelry was missing and other money had mysteriously disappeared while Jane was caring for the sister.

Meanwhile, Jane had apparently fled to Arizona.

People don’t like to talk about fraud. They don’t want to accuse someone without proof. They’re embarrassed they didn’t catch on sooner. They feel foolish. Therefore, fraudsters have free rein to continue their crimes.

Ellie and I returned to Big-Name Bank where the POA was supposedly under review by their legal department. We were told that, since Ruth had died, the POA was no longer valid and they refused to help, even though Ellie was executor. Fortunately no additional charges had been made.

We then followed up with the police detective. He said he’d tried to interview Ruth but couldn’t locate her because she’d been moved from the hospital to hospice. Not that an interview would have helped—she couldn’t talk and was comatose.

Then came the biggest shock of all.

The detective said that, since Ruth had died, the case against Jane would not be prosecuted because the victim could not testify. The text messages where Jane confessed the theft plus the paper evidence of fraud were not enough.

WHAT???

Thanks to Discover and the local bank that acted quickly, Ruth didn’t suffer a significant loss. Discover reversed all charges. They were responsible about protecting their customer who’d been a crime victim. I feel bad they had to write off thousands of dollars.

However, my heart doesn’t break for the loss incurred by Big-Name Bank that refused to freeze Ruth’s VISA.

After that account was finally closed, Big-Name Bank then tried to claim Ruth’s estate owed them more than $5000, despite irrefutable proof the charges were fraudulent. The lawyer for the estate finally convinced them it would be a cold day in hell before they collected a cent.

What lessons did we learn?

First, it’s hard to prevent predators from taking advantage of vulnerable seniors. Be aware and suspicious of allowing outsiders access to a loved one, even if their references seem valid.

Second, no one is immune. Ellie works for a superior court judge whose own brother was victimized.

Third, encourage your family member to share their financial dealings with a trusted relative or friend. Understandably, many seniors resist because they fear they’ll lose control of their money. Too often, sadly, they instead lose control to a smooth-talking fraudster.

Fourth, glaring loopholes in the law allow scammers to slip through and move on to their next victim.

Fifth, there are no easy solutions.

If Ruth had consented to live with Ellie or me, would this have happened? No.

But if we had insisted on imposing our good intentions on her, we would have disrespected our mother’s proud, independent spirit. We loved her too much to do that. 

We thought we were making her life safer and easier by hiring a caregiver. Instead, we inadvertently opened the door to the henhouse for the fox.

How do you respect the rights and autonomy of loved ones while protecting them from those who would take advantage?

I don’t know. Dammit, I wish I did.

~~~

Life imitates art. More than a year before my mother’s incident, I had been writing Stalking Midas, the second book in my Tawny Lindholm Thriller series.

The theme?

Elder fraud.

After this experience, I rewrote parts of Stalking Midas to incorporate some hard lessons learned. Although the story is fiction and very different from Ruth’s, I hope readers will find truths within the book to protect themselves and their family.

Justice never caught up with Jane. Her successes with Ruth and Ruth’s sister probably emboldened her to victimize others. That makes me sick.

However, a crime fiction writer can dispense justice on the page……

And I did!

~~~

I’m happy to announce the launch of my new suspense thriller, Stalking Midas.

 

Charming con artist Cassandra Maza has cornered her prey, Moe Rosenbaum, an addled millionaire with nine cats, until investigator Tawny Lindholm disrupts the scam. Tawny suspects elder fraud and won’t stop digging until she finds the truth.

Cassandra can’t allow that. She’s killed before and each time it’s easier. Tawny will be next.

 

 

Stalking Midas is available in ebook and trade paperback.

Especially for TKZ readers, I’m giving away a signed copy of the paperback. The winner will be selected at random from comments on today’s post.

For discussion: Have you or a loved one been a victim of elder fraud? What lesson did you learn?

 

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True Crime Thursday – The Burt Reynolds “Murder” Scandal

by

Debbie Burke

@burke_writer 

Congratulations to David F., lucky winner of the book giveaway from Tuesday’s post. H.R. D’Costa will send you a print copy of Story Stakes. David’s name was drawn randomly from everyone who commented. Thanks to all of you who provided terrific examples of story stakes.

Now for True Crime Thursday

Wikimedia Commons – Photo credit Adam Bielawski

The passing of mega-star Burt Reynolds in September, 2018 resurrected tabloid rumors about a mysterious death in 1973 during the filming of The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing.

David Whiting, assistant to Reynolds’s costar Sarah Miles, was found dead in a pool of blood and pills after an altercation with Miles. An inquest determined cause of death was a drug overdose. The blood may have occurred when Whiting hit his head on a counter.

Unless you’re a tabloid reporter.

In that case, Reynolds’ hair-trigger temper and fast fists, his friendship with Miles (who was married), and his admission that he’d removed a vial from the dead man’s hand were enough to spin the tale into a full-blown scandal alleging murder.

MGM Studios likely made the situation worse by initially refusing to allow Reynolds and Miles to testify at the inquest, saying the delay would cost them $25,000 in production costs. When Whiting’s mother accused the studio of a cover-up, Reynolds and Miles ultimately were forced to testify.

Turns out Miles and Whiting were allegedly lovers (a revelation that later broke up Miles’s marriage) and apparently got into a fight because Miles had been drinking with Reynolds, inflaming Whiting’s jealousy. The fight turned physical and Miles told her son’s nanny to “Get Burt,” apparently to protect her from Whiting.

Reynolds arrived and Miles spent the rest of the night in Reynolds’s motel room. The next morning, they found Whiting’s body in Miles’s room. At that point, Reynolds removed the vial and didn’t remember what he did with it. The inquest cleared them but rumors persisted for years.

Mystery author and popular blogger Anne R. Allen adds a weird twist to the story. She had dated Whiting in college in the 1960s. In 2012, she wrote The Gatsby Game, a novel inspired by Whiting’s mysterious death. In 2014, a docu-drama about Whiting won the L.A. Film Critics award.

In this post from February, 2019, Anne explores the blurred world between real and fictional people.

Thanks to Sue Coletta for alerting me to this story.

 

TKZers, have you ever used a real death as the basis for a fictional murder most mysterious?

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True Crime Thursday – Could a Parrot Testify?

by

Debbie Burke

@burke_writer 

Hannah Dickens-Unsplash

 

In 1958, Erle Stanley Gardner wrote a story where a chatty parrot’s “testimony” helped solve a murder. It became an episode of the Perry Mason TV show entitled “The Case of the Perjured Parrot,” teleplay by Marian B. Cockrell.

 

A real-life crime in 2015 gave a starring role to another talking parrot.

An African Grey parrot named Bud might have witnessed the murder of his owner and repeated what were perhaps the last words of the dying victim.

In May, 2015, Glenna Duram shot her husband Martin five times, killing him in their Sand Lake, Michigan home. She then turned the gun on herself, causing a non-fatal head wound. She recovered and was charged with Martin’s murder.

Pet parrot Bud was apparently present during the crime. Afterwards, family members say Bud mimicked Martin’s voice and said, “Don’t f**king shoot!”

According to Martin’s mother, “That bird picks up everything and anything, and it’s got the filthiest mouth around.”

During Glenna’s trial, the prosecutor attempted to include Bud’s words in court but that request was denied. Even without the parrot’s testimony, there was enough evidence to find Glenna guilty of murder. She was sentenced to life in prison in August, 2017.

Here’s a video of Bud.

TKZers, what do you think? Is Bud a convincing witness?

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True Crime Thursday – Flying Bank Robber Thwarted by Cow

Creative Commons, public domain

by

Debbie Burke

@burke_writer 

Today’s true crime is a blast from the past, a 60-year-old saga of crime and justice.

FBI Wanted Poster for Frank Sprenz

Note: click on the photo and it becomes little clearer to read.

In the late 1950s, Frank Sprenz was a bank robber so successful he made the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list. His MO: steal a car, rob a bank, flee to another state, and repeat, crisscrossing the country.

Sprenz upped his game when he learned to fly. After robbing a bank, he would then steal a plane and escape to new territory, earning his nickname “The Flying Bank Robber.”

Then came the fateful day when he landed his plane in a Mexican field across the border from Raymondville, Texas. He refueled, intending to escape to Cuba. But on take-off, a cow meandered into his plane’s path. He swerved, hit a tree, and wrecked the plane.

On April 15, 1959, in cooperation with Mexican authorities, the FBI ended Sprenz’s high-flying career.

Here’s the full story.

Sprenz was a lifelong criminal who eventually died in prison, yet his MO showed a certain dash and daring that seems missing in today’s crimes. Or maybe it’s just my nostalgia for the past.

What do you think, TKZers? Are crimes of yesteryear more romantic than current ones?

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True Crime Thursday – Employment Scam

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

Photo purchased from Shutterstock by Debbie Burke

You thought you’d found a home-based job to earn extra income. Instead, you became the unwitting participant in money laundering.

Today’s True Crime is a sneaky scam that the Better Business Bureau reports is sweeping the country.  It recently hit a man in my small home town of Kalispell, Montana. Here’s his story.

 

 

 

Debbie Burke regularly launders money when she throws jeans in the washer w/o checking pockets. Her thriller Instrument of the Devil is on sale during April for only 99 cents. Here’s the link.

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True Crime Thursday – Property Seizure

Shutterstock image purchased by Debbie Burke

Can police take your property even if you haven’t been arrested or convicted of a crime? The disturbing answer is yes, according to this story from South Carolina:

https://www.greenvilleonline.com/in-depth/news/taken/2019/01/27/civil-forfeiture-south-carolina-police-property-seizures-taken-exclusive-investigation/2457838002/

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Introducing TRUE CRIME THURSDAY

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Welcome to True Crime Thursday, a new feature on TKZ. The fourth Thursday of each month will showcase:

  • Interesting, unusual, or bizarre crimes;
  • Legal developments;
  • Colorful criminals whose antics boggle the mind.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

A real-life incident just might inspire the plot for your next novel.

To kick off True Crime Thursday, check out the lady who thought her high heels were a good hiding place for cocaine

 

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A Little Something Extra

People love something that is free. The problem which those of us who offer commodities for sale face is that our audience after a bit not only loves “free” but also expects “free.” There is a way around this. It is the concept not of “free” but of “extra.”

Most of us infuse a bit of our personal knowledge and/or interests in our stories. If you do this you can take things a step further, giving your reader (who is also hopefully a buyer) a bit more about the subject matter or point(s) of interest in the book either within the narrative or outside of the story by providing further information within the book itself or through a link to a dedicated web address that does the same thing. It gives the reader a bit of lagniappe, a French term meaning “a little something extra.”

I initially encountered the term “lagniappe in New Orleans.  It doesn’t have to be big, just 1) kind and 2) deliberate. I chatted up a cashier at a Walgreens and when she was done with the sale she tossed one of those counter mints in my bag, I assume because I was nice to her. It’s a good marketing ploy. I still visit that particular Walgreens at least once whenever I’m in the city. It’s not a new concept either. When I was a bambino my parents would take their angelic and perfectly behaved children out for Sunday dinner to a restaurant called The Florentine which was a Columbus institution right up to its closing in 2016.  It was old school before there was old school, with oil paintings on the walls, linen table cloths, and food on the table almost as good as your grandmother’s. What we loved, however, was that the cashier, who seemed ancient in the 1950s, presided over a collection of penny candy. He would pass out an assortment of mini-rolls of lifesavers, Necco wafers, and the like. Naturally, my brother, sister, and I always wanted to go there for the weekly dinner out. We subsequently moved to another city in 1963, but when I moved back to Columbus in 1978 and visited The Florentine the guy was still there, seemingly no older and still passing out candy to the children whose families patronized the restaurant. More recently I found that another Scotty’s Cafe, another Columbus area restaurant, does the adult version of that. At the close of the meal, one of the owners presents the customer with a small but extremely delicious piece of cake or breakfast roll, gratis. Believe me, you’d come back to Scotty’s anyway for the main course, but the little extra surprise — the lagniappe — seals the deal. It tells the customer that they’re glad you came in.

I started thinking about this because of a new James Patterson (with Max DiLallo) novel I just read titled THE CHEF. It’s a thriller, set in New Orleans during Mardi Gras (great market timing, there), and is about a police officer who also runs a food truck. The concept, in case you’re wondering, actually works. My point in mentioning it, however, is that at the end of the book Patterson and DiLallo include the recipes for a number of the dishes mentioned during the course of the story. We’re talking Crab Gumbo, New Orleans-style grits, and the like. They’re food truck-ready recipes, which means that you or I could (probably) make them without setting our kitchens on fire. It was a nice surprise to find those. Lagniappe. Folks aren’t going to buy the book because of it, at least initially, but if the authors decide to turn it into a series readers might remember the inclusion of the recipes (or recall having read about them in a blog post or review) in the first volume and come back for more.

Other authors have a reputation for including similar information and/or lists in their novels. Ken Bruen, in the books which comprise his long-running Jack Taylor series (and yes, the Jack Taylor series on Netflix is based on those novels) includes exhausting but terrific references, usually through the voice of Taylor, to novels and popular music projects, whether in the text or as an epigraph. I actually keep a notebook dedicated to Bruen’s recommendations. I consider myself to be fairly well-read and my musical tastes to be broad and eclectic, but Bruen never fails to either surprise me with something new or remind me of something long forgotten. It’s not just me, either. I know of a number of his readers who buy his books with a mind to heavily underline the music and novel titles which Bruen drops like breadcrumbs throughout Taylor’s narratives.

Author Tim Dorsey does something similar in his series featuring a madcap, cheerfully insane serial killer named Serge A. Storms. While Dorsey invents fresh new Rube Goldberg-type methods of murdering the deserving in each book, the primary reason to read them is Storms’ non-stop, trivia-engorged patter about the state of Florida. One could literally plan a vacation — one week a year for twenty or so years — touring the sites mentioned in the series and visiting the bars, restaurants, and tourist traps noted therein, almost all of which are a bit off of the beaten path. Grab a volume and go. It’s better than a triptych. I know folks who have done this and read each book just for a new vacation idea.

Word gets out among fans, and you can help it along with regard to your novel. Note on your social media pages that your novel is about (fill in the blank) and that at the end of the book you provide a list of places/things/music/whatever pertaining to that topic for those who wish to explore it further. Or include a short story of a few pages. It doesn’t have to be huge, just large enough to say “thank you” to the reader who, when confronted with a mammoth number of entertainment choices, chose you.

My question for you: do you have an unusual interest that you have spun into your writing project? Does something like I have described appeal to you? And readers…do you make lists of referenced works, the way that I and others do? Please let us know.  

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