A World Filled With Ideas

I often have the opportunity present talks and workshops here in Texas, and recently a lady raised her hand when I asked for questions or comments. “So where do you get your ideas for these novels you’ve written?”

“They’re all around us. I draw from the news, recollections, personal experiences, stories I’ve heard, and people who are great story tellers.”

“I never see anything I could put in a book, even if I could write.”

I laughed and told her about the Florida experience below.

The story in a nutshell.

I flew to St. Petersburg a few years ago and while driving to Sarasota in my rent car, heard two angry men exchange words. Only a mile later, I came across a beached sailboat full of drunks who were arguing with other inebriated individuals who’d been enjoying a quiet day on the sand.

I took what I saw and added some imagination…and the following paragraphs are the result of that question.

After flying down to St. Petersburg for a writers conference a few years ago, I rented a cherry red convertible and joined hundreds of cars headed south to Sarasota along Highway 41. That gulf coast ribbon of highway was stiff with vehicles, forcing us to proceed at school zone speed.

Except for the bumper to bumper cars and trucks, it would have been a peaceful drive down the old highway. The flow of traffic passing colorful old buildings, neat little vintage 1950s trailer parks, and palm-ridden mid-century motels kept me locked into place from one red light to the next.

At still another red light under a bright blue sky, I was startled when an angry, red-faced guy with a head bald as a cue ball pointed his finger in my direction and shouted over his female companion and through her open window. “Hey, you dread-headed fool! Get off your phone and pay attention to the damned highway. You’re all over the lanes!”

Startled by his verbal attack I had to study on what he said. I hadn’t been on my phone, so I knew he wasn’t shouting at me. Oh, and I don’t have dreads anyway.

A voice from my right yelled through his own open window. “Shut the hell up!”

I turned right to see a man with long dreads responding with vigor.

“The Bible says the word fool is the worst insult you can use, fool! And besides, it’s a free country! You and your mama need to mind y’own dayum business.”

Incensed, the woman beside Bald Guy immediately became enraged. “I’m not his mama, I’m his wife!”

Thinking I was kinda right there with Dreads’ unfortunate observation, my eyebrows raised when Bald Guy yanked the handle of his car and roared from the vehicle like an attack dog. “This free country you’re talking about gives me the right to come over there and knock your #@&%ing head off!”

The light changed and I drove off from between the combatants, leaving them to their philosophical, observational, and constitutional discussions.

The road forked half a mile later and I took the two-lane hugging the beach lined with palm trees. It wasn’t five minutes before I came up on a sailboat full of tanked partygoers heeled over in the shallow water directly in front of a beach packed with young sunbathers.

Traffic slowed even more, as drivers tried to watch what was happening. The pace was so slow that an ambitious turtle could have passed us without breaking a sweat, giving me the opportunity to absorb the scene in its entirety.

An equally sloshed and obviously visually impaired young man sitting on the sand with his girlfriend pointed and shouted. “Get that damned boat out of here!”

The mast stuck out over the beach, and the vessel’s annoyed occupants milled around the deck on a thirty degree slant. Again, a red light brought me to a stop in the middle of two armies so mad they could spit at each other.

“Can’t you see I’m trying for God’s sake!” A guy on the tilted deck braced his feet on the rail. “Whatta ya’ want me to do, get out and drag the sonofabitch back into deep water?”

A young woman barely covered by three Dorito-size triangles of thin blue material stood on her towel as if afraid of getting sand on her feet. “I don’t care how the hell you do it! Just get it out of here, you’re ruining our view!”

One of the many young men on the sailboat tilted a liquor bottle to his lips and swallowed before verbalizing his own opinion of the situation. “The view ain’t half bad from here.”

“I’ll ruin your ass!” A young man in colorful jams charged the listing sailboat.

The boat’s passenger with the view chucked an unopened can of beer at his attacker but missed and hit a previously uninvolved guy sitting on the sand.

In response, the offended beachgoer picked up the beer, and for some confounding reason, opened it before firing it back at the boat like a rocket. It struck the cockpit coaming right beside a young female passenger, spraying her tiny bathing suit with foam.

The return fire angered one of her other companions who then heaved another full beer at the beachgoers. By the time the light turned green, the air was filled with a barrage of glittering cans arcing in the sun.

The last thing I saw as the light changed was a young man on the beach, throwing handfuls of ice at the shipwrecked crew that was returning the frozen salvo with empty liquor bottles.

A landlubber woman shrieked. “No glass on the beach for chrissakes!”

And the battle faded into my rearview mirror as I resumed my pleasant drive to Sarasota.

Where do plots, characters, and ideas come from?

They’re all around us. Authors simply need to grab one and ask themselves…what if, and expand on that two-word question.

 

True Crime Thursday – DEEPFAKES

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

Believe none of what you hear and half of what you see.

This saying has been around for centuries, variously attributed to Benjamin Franklin and Edgar Allen Poe.

Today, thanks to Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML), you can no longer believe anything you hear or see.

That’s because what your ears hear and what your eyes see could be a DEEPFAKE.

What is a deepfake? Wikipedia says:

…synthetic media in which a person in an existing image or video is replaced with someone else’s likeness. While the act of faking content is not new, deepfakes leverage powerful techniques from machine learning and artificial intelligence to manipulate or generate visual and audio content with a high potential to deceive. The main machine learning methods used to create deepfakes are based on deep learning and involve training generative neural network architectures, such as autoencoders or generative adversarial networks (GANs).

Deepfakes have garnered widespread attention for their uses in creating child sexual abuse material, celebrity pornographic videosrevenge pornfake newshoaxes, bullying, and financial fraud. This has elicited responses from both industry and government to detect and limit their use.

 

I wrote about AI three years ago. Since then, technology has progressed at warp speed.

The first recognized crime that used deepfake technology occurred in 2019 with voice impersonation.

The CEO of an energy business in the UK received an urgent call from his boss, an executive at the firm’s German parent company. The CEO recognized his boss’s voice…or so he thought. He was instructed to immediately transfer $243,000 to pay a Hungarian supplier. He followed orders and transferred the money.

The funds went into a Hungarian account but then disappeared to Mexico. According to the company’s insurer, Euler Hermes, the money was never recovered.

To pull off the heist, cybercriminals used AI voice-spoofing software that perfectly mimicked the boss’s tone, speech inflections, and slight German accent.

Such spoofing extends to video deceptions that are chilling. The accuracy of movement and gesture renders the imposter clone indistinguishable from the real person. Some research shows a fake face can more believable than the real one.

Security safeguards like voice authentication and facial recognition are no longer reliable.

A November 2020 study by Trend Micro, Europol, and United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute concludes:

The Crime-as-a-Service (CaaS) business model, which allows non-technologically savvy criminals to procure technical tools and services in the digital underground that allow them to extend their attack capacity and sophistication, further increases the potential for new technologies such as AI to be abused by criminals and become a driver of crime.

We believe that on the basis of technological trends and developments, future uses or abuses could become present realities in the not-too-distant future.

The not-too-distant future they mentioned in 2020 is here today. A person no longer needs to be a sophisticated expert to create fake video and audio recordings of real people that defy detection.

In the following YouTube, a man created a fake image of himself to fool coworkers into believing they were video-chatting with the real person. It’s long—more than 18 minutes—but watching even a few minutes demonstrates how simple the process is.

Consider the implications:

What if you could appear to be in one place but actually be somewhere else? Criminals can create their own convincing alibis.

If corrupt law enforcement, government entities, or political enemies want to frame or discredit someone, they manufacture video evidence that shows the person engaged in criminal or abhorrent behavior.

Imagine the mischief terrorists could cause by putting words in the mouths of world leaders. Here are some examples: https://www.cnn.com/interactive/2019/01/business/pentagons-race-against-deepfakes/

Deepfakes could change history, creating events that never actually happened. Check out this example made at MIT of a fake Richard Nixon delivering a fake 1969 speech to mourn astronauts who supposedly perished on the moon. Fast forward to 4:18.

How was this software developed?

It arose from Machine Learning (ML). The process involves pitting computers against one another to see which one most accurately reproduces expressions, gestures, and voices from real people. The more they compete with each other, the better they learn, and the more authentic their fakes become.

A fanciful imagining of a contest might sound like this.

Computer A: “Hey, look at this Jack Nicholson eyebrow quirk I mastered.”

Computer B: “That’s nothing. Samuel L. Jackson’s nostril flare is much harder. Bet yours can’t top mine.”

Computer A: “Oh yeah? Check out how I made Margaret Thatcher to cross her legs just like Sharon Stone.”

The Europol study further outlined ways that deepfakes could be used for malicious or criminal purposes:

Destroying the image and credibility of an individual,

Harassing or humiliating individuals online,

Perpetrating extortion and fraud,

Facilitating document fraud,

Falsifying online identities and fooling KYC [Know Your Customer] mechanisms,

Falsifying or manipulating electronic evidence for criminal justice investigations,

Disrupting financial markets,

Distributing disinformation and manipulating public opinion,

Inciting acts of violence toward minority groups,

Supporting the narratives of extremist or even terrorist groups, and

Stoking social unrest and political polarization

 

In the era of deepfakes, can video/audio evidence ever be trusted again?

~~~

A big Thank You to TKZ regular K.S. Ferguson who suggested the idea for this post and provided sources.

~~~

TKZers: Can you name books, short stories, or films that incorporate deepfakes in the plot? Feel free to include sci-fi/fantasy from the past where the concept is used before it existed in real life.

Please put on your criminal hat and suggest fictional ways a bad guy could take advantage of deepfakes.

Or put on your detective hat and offer solutions to thwart the evil-doer.

~~~

 

Debbie Burke’s characters are not created by Artificial Intelligence but rather by her real imagination. 

Please check out her latest Tawny Lindholm Thriller. 

Until Proven Guilty is for sale at major booksellers here. 

How to Earn Short-Term Rewards During the Long Haul

Author Debbie Burke and Buffy

No, this picture is not Photoshopped clickbait. It’s me and a real bear. Details below. 

 

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

In your real-world job, would you be willing to work for two or more years before receiving a paycheck? Probably not.

Yet, as authors writing books, that’s exactly what we do.

Writing a novel is often likened to a marathon. It takes months, if not years, to complete a book. Traditional publishing tacks on another one or two years before you see your book for sale. Indie-pubbing speeds up the process but it still doesn’t happen overnight.

Thirty-plus years ago, I was stuck in the endless loop of writing novels, submitting them, and being rejected. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Because fiction was my passion, I didn’t really consider writing nonfiction until a couple of journalist friends offered their help and encouragement. I dipped my toe into article writing and made the happy discovery that nonfiction was much easier to publish than fiction (not to mention it paid better).

At last, I had the satisfaction of seeing my words in print.

One magazine gig led to another. As my file of published clips expanded, editors began to call me. Article assignments took a little sting out of the rejections that my novels continued to collect.

Many more years would pass before I reached the ultimate reward of a published novel but, along the way, articles were small consolation prizes. They encouraged me to keep moving toward my goal.

My journalist friends taught me another neat trick—take the same article but re-slant it for different markets. Do research once and get paid several times.

For instance, a story about how to run a successful garage sale could be pitched to community newsletters, antique/collectible magazines, and senior-interest markets as tips for retirees to earn extra money.

An article about gold mines might fit in a travel magazine, a state historic journal, and a niche publication for hobbyist prospectors.

Often, during research, I ran across interesting people and wrote personality profiles about them.

One in particular led to a number of offshoot articles plus a memorable experience with the stunning bear in the above photo.

At the Flathead River Writers Conference in the 1990s, I met Ben Mikaelsen, a kid-lit author who had his own bear. Buffy had been a research cub that couldn’t survive in the wild. To save him from being euthanized, Ben adopted him. Life with Buffy inspired Ben’s award-winning novel Rescue Josh McGuire and several other books.

Side note: Ben does not advocate keeping wild animals as pets. He went to great effort and expense to build a suitable home for Buffy that was approved by state and federal authorities.

The unique friendship between an author and a bear was a story idea that begged to be written. Ben graciously invited me to his home near Bozeman, Montana, for an interview and to meet Buffy

Yes, that really is me feeding Wheat Thins to the 700-pound black bear. Fun fact: He didn’t use his teeth or tongue to take the treat but rather his prehensile lower lip, similar to an elephant’s trunk. I watched in awe as his bottom lip gently folded around the cracker in my hand.

The amazing encounter resulted in multiple articles that were published in Writer’s Digest (including a reprint in their annual children’s writing guide), several Montana general interest magazines, and international nature and wildlife magazines.

This experience was definitely not a consolation prize but rather a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for which I’ll always be grateful.

Back to the marathon. While I wondered if I’d EVER have a novel accepted, articles were like short sprints where the rewards of publication and payment were only months away rather than years. Those helped sustain me through decades of discouragement.

In addition, writing nonfiction helped hone my craft.

Here are a few things I learned:

Write concisely and clearly. If an editor said 500 words, that’s what has to be turned in.

Choose what’s necessary and what should be cut. No matter how fascinating the research might be, it can’t all be crammed into the allotted space.

Always meet deadlines.  

Most important, I learned about storytelling and pacing to keep the reader engaged.

The 21st century changed the market for short nonfiction from print to online. As the internet expanded, magazines went out of business.

Nowadays my articles are mostly digital content. Fewer trees give their lives. I no longer have to buy sample print copies to study magazines’ style and focus. Finding outlets to write for is as easy as asking Mr. Google.

The downside is online markets often pay little to nothing because there is so much free content on the net. To make significant money, one needs to find particular niches that pay for specialized content.

However, there’s a different kind of reward: Publication is fast. As soon as authors hit submit, their writing is available to an audience of millions. 

On top of that comes the gratification of immediate feedback. I really enjoy reader comments on my posts for TKZ.

Steve Hooley recently asked me if research for an article had even sparked an idea for a novel. Not yet. But the research I do for articles often finds its way into my plots.

The second book in my series, Stalking Midas, concerns elder fraud. I attended seminars presented by local and state watchdogs to learn about that growing, insidious crime. Unfortunately, research turned personal when my adopted mother was victimized by a caregiver. Her experience became a True Crime Thursday post.

Several newspapers published my elder fraud article. It also formed the basis for a talk that I give to senior groups. Additionally, I revamped parts of Stalking Midas to incorporate what I’d learned.

I started writing articles to counteract discouragement during the long marathon of trying to get novels published. Articles became short sprints refreshed by water breaks of publication. They helped keep me going toward the ultimate finish line.

In 2017, my thriller Instrument of the Devil was published.

Seven novels later, I’m writing more articles than ever because…

A funny thing happened during that decades-long marathon. I discovered I like writing nonfiction as much as fiction.

Especially when I get to meet a bear.

~~~

TKZers: Do you write fiction, nonfiction, or both? How important is getting published to you? What sustains you during the long haul of writing a book?

~~~

 

 

DNA is supposed to prove guilt or innocence. Instead, it reveals deception and betrayal in my new thriller, UNTIL PROVEN GUILTY. Please check it out at these online booksellers.

True Crime Thursday – Racehorse Doping

Photo credit: MJ Boswell – Wikimedia

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

In March, 2022, Federal Correctional Institution Miami, a low-security facility that was formerly home to Manuel Noriega, welcomed a new resident: Jorge Navarro, a thoroughbred horse trainer who pled guilty to federal charges of doping racehorses with performance enhancing drugs (PED).

Navarro’s nickname was “Juice Man,” a moniker he had emblazoned on a pair of Croc shoes he kept at his barn.

In January, 2020, one of Navarro’s horses, XY Jet, died of a heart attack at the age of eight. XY Jet had won $3 million in purses including the Dubai Golden Shaheen race. At the time of the horse’s death, Navarro gave this statement:

With deep regret, I am sorry to notify you that X Y Jet died this morning as a result of a heart attack. X Y Jet was more than a horse on my trained list. (He) was the one that took us through a wonderful and exciting roller coaster of emotions. He always fought against adversity and despite the injuries that affected him during his career, he always brought out that kind of champion he was.

PEDs used in horses do not actually improve their performance but rather mask pain that could slow them down.

In December, 2021, U.S. Attorney Damien Williams said:

Structures designed for the protection of the horses abused in this case failed repeatedly; fixtures of the industry – owners, veterinarians, and trainers – flouted rules and disregarded their animals’ health while hypocritically incanting a love for the horses under their control and ostensible protection. Standing as the keystone for this structure of abuse, corruption, and duplicity was Jorge Navarro, a trainer who treated his animals as expendable commodities in the service of his ‘sport.’

Navarro made a tearful statement at his sentencing hearing: “I became a selfish person who only cared about winning and I lost my way.”

Navarro was fined $26.8 million and given the maximum sentence of five years.

At FCI Miami, his options include working in the commissary, laundry, kitchen, or doing landscaping with a pay range of 12 to 40 cents an hour.

Paying his fine could take a while.

In a similar scenario, the 2021 winner of the Kentucky Derby, Medina Spirit, was later disqualified after he tested positive for corticosteroids. On December 6, 2021, the horse collapsed and died at age three during a workout at Santa Anita Park.

Corticosteroids act differently on the body than anabolic steroids, which are long-lasting drugs used for muscle building and strength. According to MoveUnited.org:

Athletes have reported that corticosteroids help them push through the pain of extreme exertion and allow them to recover faster for the next event. The benefits of corticosteroids wear off pretty fast, which is why they are prohibited in-competition only.

Medina Spirit’s trainer, Bob Baffert, was suspended for 90 days by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission and fined $7500. Baffert, a Hall of Fame trainer, also forfeited his purse from the Derby win and was banned from entering horses in the Derby for 2022 and 2023. Hearings to delay the suspension are ongoing as of March, 2022.

The day before Medina Spirit’s death, Baffert’s horses swept the Los Alamitos Stakes.

Were any of those horses tested? Who knows? 

Starting in December 2018, thirty-seven horses died at Santa Anita in less than a year.

In December, 2021, Deadline.com reported:

Former Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey organized a task force to investigate and released a report two years ago that found ‘no criminal wrongdoing’ on Santa Anita’s part.

Existing safeguards against doping are not working and many critics are calling for a ban on horseracing.

~~~

TKZers: What do you think? Should horseracing be banned? What action would clean up the sport?

~~~

 

An innocent father in prison. A guilty rapist set free. A surprise son from the past.

DNA links three puzzling cases in my new thriller Until Proven Guilty. Order at Amazon. 

True Crime Thursday – Eyes of a Killer

Photo credit: perchek industrie-Unsplash

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

April is National Donate Life Month to promote the importance of organ, eye, and tissue donation. I covered this subject in an article for Montana Senior News. While researching, I spoke with people who had either been recipients of donations or surviving family members who agreed to donate organs, corneas, or tissue from their deceased loved ones.

The stories were bittersweet but also heartwarming. A recurring theme ran through them: the worst day for one family is the best day for another family.

 

Miranda Denison with the tools of her trade.

A major source for my article was a woman named Miranda Denison, one of six people in Montana with the unusual job of harvesting corneas. When someone dies, she or one of her colleagues goes to the hospital or funeral home to remove the thin, dime-shaped tissue that gives sight. She carefully packages it, then arranges transportation to an eye bank. There, the corneas are medically evaluated and, if viable, sent to hospitals to be transplanted. The surgery has a 95% success rate of restoring vision.

Miranda’s duties are similar to that of a coroner or medical examiner. She undresses bodies and thoroughly examines them, draws blood and other fluids for lab analysis, makes note of injuries, scars, tattoos, needle tracks, and signs of trauma or disease that might affect whether or not the corneas can be transplanted. For instance, IV drug users are excluded as donors, as are people with hepatitis C or who are HIV positive.

Donors’ and recipients’ identities are confidential but a transplant coordinator can act as an intermediary. This allows recipients to send thanks to the surviving donor family. With consent from both parties, they may communicate directly with each other, often forming lasting friendships because of the gift of life that connects them.

What does this have to do with True Crime Thursday?

Sometimes donors are victims of crimes. In such cases, recovery of organs takes place at the crime lab in Missoula, Montana.

Sometimes donors are perpetrators of the crime.

In the early morning hours of January 19, 2022, Kirk Brown, 48, shot and killed his dog and his mother, Florence Brown, 79, in the home they shared in Big Arm, Montana. Then he turned the gun on himself. He didn’t die immediately and was transported to a hospital where he later succumbed to his injury. The case was ruled a homicide/suicide.

Kirk Brown was a registered organ donor. Recovering his corneas was an especially grisly task because of the gunshot wound. Although Miranda didn’t work this particular case, she was familiar with it because her colleague handled it at the Missoula crime lab.

Miranda knows I write thrillers. After she told me about the case, we started talking about fictional possibilities.

If someone received the eyes of a killer, how would that affect them? Would they view life and people differently? Would they take on characteristics of the murderer?

The concept is not new. A 1920 French novel, Les Mains d’Orlac (The Hands of Orlac) explored the idea of transplanted body parts. After an assassin is executed by guillotine, his hands are attached to a pianist who had lost his in an accident. The pianist begins to commit crimes because he cannot control the grafted hands. That story inspired several horror films, including Hands of a Stranger (1962).

Other films, including Body Parts (1991), In the Eyes of Killer (2009), told stories of characters who develop criminal characteristics after receiving parts from a murderer.

I’ve never written horror or sci-fi/fantasy. But the idea of a killer’s eyes intrigues me. I may have to give it a whirl.

Kirk Brown’s corneas were indeed successfully transplanted—the silver lining in an otherwise dark cloud.

Thanks, Miranda, for introducing us to your unusual occupation and for triggering my imagination. 

~~~

TKZers: What are some other works of fiction or movies where transplanted body parts are the basis for the story?

How about the opposite scenario? Do you know of fiction where an evil character receives a good person’s organs that redeem the bad guy?

~~~

UNTIL PROVEN GUILTY is published!

Today is launch day for the seventh book in my Tawny Lindholm Thriller series.

An innocent father in prison. A guilty rapist set free. A surprise son from the past.

Investigator Tawny Lindholm and her attorney-husband Tillman Rosenbaum juggle three baffling cases where DNA is supposed to prove guilt or innocence. Instead, it reveals deception and betrayal, triggering a crisis in their marriage and an unimaginable threat to their family.

You can buy UNTIL PROVEN GUILTY from Amazon and major booksellers.

True Crime Thursday – Obituary Piracy

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Photo credit: JR Harris – Unsplash.com

Ole and Lena had been happily married for many years. When Ole died, Lena wrote a long, glowing obituary about him. She took it to the local newspaper office for publication.

The editor said, “Lena, this is a beautiful tribute to Ole. That’ll be $975.

Lena said, “What????”

The editor answered, “We charge by the word for obituaries.”

Flummoxed, Lena thought for a moment. Then she wrote a new version:

Ole died. Boat for Sale.

~~~

Being a writer, I’m often tasked by family and friends to compose obituaries for loved ones. Apparently, I’m pretty good at it, judging from newspaper clippings that, years later, are still attached with magnets to family refrigerators.

But…recently I learned from a funeral director that obituaries aren’t what they used to be.

In previous centuries, they served as notice to a person’s local community that they had passed, listing accomplishments, naming family members, and inviting people to a funeral with a reception to follow.

Sometimes scofflaws show up at such receptions for free food. Sleazy, right? But no big deal.

Worst case, burglars read obituaries to find out funeral times and, while the family was at services, broke into the deceased’s home. Really stinkin’ but fairly rare.

Obituaries have long been an important tool for genealogists because of the wealth of family history in them.

According to the funeral director, the internet revolutionized obituaries. Information is no longer limited to the local community but is instantly accessible to billions of people around the globe.

Some of those people are criminals who found a new avenue for fraud:

Obituary piracy.

Consider the abundant facts in a typical obituary.

Full name (including maiden name);

Dates of birth and death;

Place of birth; place of death;

Full names of parents (including mother’s maiden name), siblings, children, grandchildren, predeceased family members, even pets;

Military service;

Employment history;

Medical information such as cause of death;

Miscellaneous personal tidbits like hobbies, travels, special talents, etc.

In other words, a treasure trove of information that provides unscrupulous data miners ways to profit from tragedy.

When a bank wants to verify the account holder’s identity, what do they ask for?

Yup, your mother’s maiden name.

What are common passwords to online accounts? Often, it’s names of children, grandchildren, and pets.

When you open an account or apply for a loan, what is required? You guessed it—facts that can be found in obits.

Data miners are skilled at extrapolating info gleaned from obituaries. That can lead to identity theft, intrusions into credit accounts and medical records, and child identity theft. 

A death triggers cascades of documentation that must be provided to government and private agencies including county, state, federal, Social Security, Medicare, IRS, property ownership records, banks, investments, pensions, etc., etc., etc.

Death certificates are generally recorded by each state’s department of vital statistics. Family Search offers how-to info by state: https://www.familysearch.org/wiki/en/How_to_Find_United_States_Death_Records

The National Death Index (NDI) is maintained by the Centers for Disease Control and is the database of all deaths in the US.

Because of identity fraud, death certificates that used to be public records now often have limited accessibility (for example, surviving family members).

Obituaries, on the other hand, contain similar information and are widely available to anyone with internet access. 

How many of us receive spoofed calls supposedly from the IRS or FBI or “your bank” or “your credit card company”? Spoofing is when criminals manipulate phone numbers to make calls appear to be coming from a legitimate agency or business.

Spoofed calls threaten dire consequences if we don’t immediately wire money or send gift cards to pay an alleged debt or avoid arrest. Hurry up because officers are on their way to your home this very minute.

Grieving widows and widowers are prime targets for greedy criminals. Bereaved families are vulnerable to such scams because they know death taxes are due and there are often debts to pay.

There are even more ways for scammers to profit from obituaries. Other variations on piracy include lifting obituaries from a legitimate funeral home site and pasting the content on a bogus website. The phony site often ranks higher than the legitimate site due to manipulation of search engine optimization. So, when people Google the deceased, they can easily stumble on a phony site at the top of page one.

Once there, readers are solicited to buy a virtual flower or candle to memorialize a friend or family member. At a buck a flower, thousands of obituaries add up to significant profits. You can even donate hundreds of dollars to plant an entire grove of imaginary trees.

What a meaningful tribute to a loved one.

(Note: legitimate funeral sites offer similar tribute options for additional profit. I’ll leave my opinion about that unsaid.)

Another alternative: the phony site may request donations to help with the family’s expenses. Of course, the family never receives donations because the scammer absconds with the money.

There is no real privacy in the 21st century. Hacking and data breaches are daily occurrences.  You may ask, since so much intimate personal information is readily available on the net, why worry about obituaries?

The answer is the same reason we still lock our doors. Yes, determined robbers can break into our homes.

But we don’t need to make it easier for them, particularly during stressful times of mourning.

Does that mean obituaries shouldn’t be written to honor the deceased?

No.

The funeral director I spoke with suggested limiting the people who receive an obituary by using email and social media groups where access is restricted to family and friends.

He strongly advises that sensitive, personal information be limited to the bare minimum.

Ole died. Boat for Sale.

~~~

TKZers: have you heard of obituary piracy? Do you know bereaved people who have been victimized by scammers?

Today I’ll be away from internet access so my responses to comments will be late.

~~~

 

If you visit Debbie Burke’s website, you can’t buy a flower or virtual candle. But you can find purchase links to her thrillers that include tons of personal information about her characters. 

True Crime Thursday – Please Send Your Unpublished Manuscript

Photo credit: Dim Hou, Unsplash

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

A weird literary crime made news on January 5, 2022 when the FBI announced the arrest of an Italian citizen Filippo Bernardini, 29, at JFK Airport in New York.

The charges against him? Wire fraud and aggravated identity theft.

What did he do? He allegedly impersonated publishing company executives and persuaded authors to send him pre-publication manuscripts. Targets included luminaries like Margaret Atwood.

Since 2016, the writing community has speculated about this peculiar case. For five years, well-known authors had received emails purportedly from editors and agents, requesting unpublished manuscripts. Victoria Strauss of Writer Beware and trade organizations like the Authors Guild publicized the strange requests and alerted writers.

It appeared to be a scam yet no one could quite figure it out.

Turns out Mr. Bernardini was an employee of Simon and Schuster in London where he worked as a rights coordinator. S&S has not been named in the indictment and is not believed responsible.

To further his scheme, Bernardini secured more than 160 web domains and set up bogus email accounts and lookalike websites to mislead people into believing they were communicating with an actual editor, agent, scout, or publishing executive.

For instance, if a legitimate email was XYZ@penguinrandomhouse.com, the letters r and n placed together were substituted for m. Without close examination, XYZ@penguinrandornhouse.com passed muster.

Bernardini allegedly used multiple phony email addresses to contact Pulitzer-winning authors and bestsellers, asking them to send their manuscripts to him before they had been finalized.

According to the FBI statement:

These prepublication manuscripts are valuable, and the unauthorized release of a manuscript can dramatically undermine the economics of publishing, and publishing houses generally work to identify and stop the release of pirated, prepublication, manuscripts.  Such pirating can also undermine the secondary markets for published work, such as film and television, and can harm an author’s reputation where an early draft of written material is distributed in a working form that is not in a finished state.

The biggest question remains WHY?

The stolen manuscripts were not published on pirate sites. No one appeared to reap benefits, financial or otherwise, from the thefts.

If Bernardini hoped to receive credit as the author for works written by others, surely in the small, insular world of publishing, such books would have been recognized long before they were released.

Photo credit: Ben White, Unsplash

Did he receive a thrill because he possessed pre-publication drafts by noted authors?

Was it like having an early unfinished version of the Mona Lisa hidden in your attic?

Whatever his motivation, he now faces a mandatory two years in prison with the maximum sentence determined by the judge.

~~~

TKZers: Care to speculate on Bernardini’s motives?

What I Learned From Nora, David and Jean: You Have To Connect

You better make them care…It better be quirky or perverse or thoughtful enough so that you hit some chord in them. Otherwise, it doesn’t work. I mean we’ve all read pieces where we thought, “Oh, who gives a damn?” — Nora Ephron.

I feel like now people want more of a mirror. They want to see themselves in the book that they’re reading. — David Sedaris

By PJ Parrish

Well, it’s officially Christmas season. I know this because Ralphie is whining about getting a Red Ryder air rifle. Every time A Christmas Story comes on, I am reminded of my own childhood. But I’m also reminded how dependent writers are on our powers of observation and also our storehouses of life experience. And how we use that to connect with our readers.

This point is especially clear to me because I’ve been reading Nora Ephron’s Wallflower at the Orgy, her dispatches as a reporter about the cultural upheavals of the late ’60s. Here’s the opening:

Some years ago, the man I am married to told me he had always had a mad desire to go to an orgy. Why on earth, I asked. Why not, he said. Because, I replied, it would be just like the dances at the YMCA I went to in the seventh grade—only instead of people walking past me and rejecting me, they would be stepping over my naked body and rejecting me. The image made no impression at all on my husband. But it has stayed with me—albeit in another context. Because working as a journalist is exactly like being the wallflower at the orgy. I always seem to find myself at a perfectly wonderful event where everyone else is having a marvelous time, laughing merrily, eating, drinking, having sex in the back room, and I am standing on the side taking notes on it all.

Nora Ephron, director (Photo by Vera Anderson/WireImage)

Which pretty much summarized how I often felt during the ’60s and later when I worked as a reporter. But that’s the beauty of a great writer like Ephron, and why I am drawn to essayists. They see things more sharply than average folk. And they spin what they see into great stories that anyone can relate to. Which is pretty much what we novelists should be trying to do.

You have to connect. But easier said than done, as any writer knows. I remember reading a First Novel Edgar winner a couple years back. Man, the writing just sang! Gorgeous description, a lean neo-noir sensibility. But I always felt as if the writer was holding back emotionally. And this arms-length style eventually left me thinking, “who gives a damn?”

You have to connect. Some things to think about as you grapple with this.

Make your subject relatable in experience. Nora Ephron wrote a terrific essay called “A Few Words About Breasts.”  It was about her agony, as a tomboy, waiting for her breasts to “develop.” When she begged her mother for a bra, her mom said “What for?” She recounts the horror of going alone to the department store and getting fitted for a size 28AA. When I read it, I was smiling, nodding and ultimately crying.

Many moons later, I happened upon her essay on aging gracefully called  “On Maintenance.” Best line about how getting hair highlights changed her life: “…a little like that first brandy Alexander Lee Remick drank in Days of Wine and Roses.”

Use Your Experiences to Find Your Own Voice. Another of my favorite writers is also an essayist — David Sedaris. Why do his essays connect with readers? Because he writes with wit and humility of his own experiences. He is a storyteller you want to spend your hours with. His essay on learning French “Me Talk Pretty One Day” articulated all the terror I felt in my first French adult ed course: “Learning French is a lot like joining a gang in that it involves a long and intensive period of hazing.” I’m now taking online Babbel courses now and every time I am “buzzed” for incorrect pronunciation — I have a heavy Detroit/Michigan accent, so I will never say anything in French pretty — I think of Sedaris.  He’s got some really good advice for writers. Click here. This one is among my favorites:

Sad stories, dashed dreams, and memorable mistakes are ammunition for writers. Any experience can be converted into a story, and rough experiences often make the best stories. As a writer, failure is soil for growing heartfelt stories. Vulnerability is a powerful draw. Write down your biggest failures, then review the list to see which ones can be marshaled into relatable stories for your readers.

And about that voice thing? Don’t sweat it too much. When you’re just starting out, you might not be able to articulate exactly what you are trying, in your heart and soul, to get across. So be content with trying to become the best damn storyteller you can. If you are successful at that, the voice thing will emerge by itself. As Neil Gaiman says:

After you’ve written 10,000 words, 30,000 words, 60,000 words, 150,000 words, a million words, you will have your voice, because your voice is the stuff you can’t help doing.”

Which leads me to my final essayist who influenced me as a writer. I first encountered Jean Shepherd’s writing in the ’70s when I was reading Car & Driver magazine. (don’t ask…my ex-husband, a race car nut from Indy was a subscriber.) I loved his columns. He went on to write for Playboy, New York Times and others. Time magazine once described him as a “comic anthropologist.” His talent was noticing and using the mundane details of daily life to tell his stories, filtering them through a sensibility that was, by turns, funny, absurd, sarcastic, and often sad. (For the record, Shepherd hated the word “nostalgia.” I found this out when I interviewed him for a profile in the Fort Lauderdale News.)

I loved his short story about the awful rites of prom-going, “Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories” because every detail is acute. And also because I was poor pitiful Wanda:

I began to notice Wanda’s orchid leering up at me from her shoulder. It was the most repulsive flower I had ever seen. At least 14 inches across, it looked like some kind of overgrown Venus’s flytrap waiting for the right moment to strike. Deep purple, with an obscene yellow tongue that stuck straight out of it, and greenish knobs on the end, it clashed almost audibly with her turquoise dress. It looked like it was breathing, and it clung to her shoulder as if with claws.
As I glided back and forth in my graceful box step, my left shoulder began to develop an itch that helped take my mind off of the insane itch in my right shoulder, which was beginning to feel like army of hungry soldier ants on the march. The contortions I made to relieve the agony were camouflaged nicely by a short sneezing fit brought on by the orchid, which was exhaling directly into my face. So was Wanda, with a heady essence of Smith Brothers cough drops and sauerkraut.

But Shepherd is best known for A Christmas Story. You’ve seen it. It runs on a loop during the holidays, the 1983 movie about Ralphie, his long-suffering chenille-robed mom and his old man who lusts after a lamp in the shape of a fish-netted gam.  The movie is based on some chapters from Shepherd’s first book In God We Trust (All Others Pay Cash), which were based on Shepherd’s childhood in Hammond, Ind. Why is the movie evergreen? Here’s what Shepherd told an interviewer in 1971:

“You can tell a story about anything. But the only stories that have any fidelity, any feeling, are stories that either did happen to you or conceivably could have happened to you.”

In other words, to be a great storyteller, you have to connect. Merry Christmas, y’all.

 

 

 

True Crime Thursday – Thanksgiving Wine Heist

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

In 2013, a pair of Seattle plumbers decided Thanksgiving sounded like a good opportunity for a heist. The Sodo neighborhood should be deserted for the holiday. No one was likely to notice two vans parked outside Esquin Wine and Spirits. The building housed climate-controlled rental storage lockers where wine collectors kept valuable vintages.

Samuel Harris and Luke Thesing, then 35 and 36, had planned the heist at least a month ahead. Harris kept a journal entitled “The Plan” with all the steps plotted out.

They rented a locker for access to case the building. At Lowe’s, they bought spray paint, gloves, and black plastic sheeting.

On the big day, they carefully parked the getaway vans to block exterior surveillance cams. Once inside the building, they spray-painted lenses of other cameras, covered motion detectors with black plastic, and went to work. They cut through sheetrock between lockers to gain access to 200 cases of expensive wine valued at $648,000 that they planned to sell.

However, they probably shouldn’t have parked the vans in a towaway zone.

While the thieves were busy inside, their vehicles were impounded.

Uh-oh.

Plan B: They loaded the stolen wine into Harris’s Cadillac Escalade.

In an attempt to cover their tracks, Harris cut a natural gas line and tampered with a pilot light, believing the building would catch fire and burn down.

With the vans gone, the exterior security cams now had a good view of Harris and Thesing as they drove away in the Escalade.

The next day, someone reported smelling gas inside the building. The arson attempt could have resulted in an explosion that would have devastated the neighborhood. Fortunately, it was unsuccessful and the theft was discovered.

Things didn’t go according to The Plan.”

The Escalade was tracked to Harris’s residence. He was identified by the business owner who recognized him from the previous month when he had rented the locker.

They neglected to throw away the Lowe’s receipt that police found in Harris’s possessions. The store’s security video showed Harris and Thesing together buying supplies used in the heist.

Detectives also found more evidence in Harris’s car and home, including his journal plus additional documents: “Is it Accidental Fire or Arson?” and “How to Commit the Perfect Crime.”

Apparently, they did not study those directions thoroughly enough.

The investigation also tied Harris to an earlier theft. In May 2013, he had stolen $250,000 worth of wine from a Belltown woman who had hired him to build a wine cellar.

Harris and Thesing pleaded guilty in King County Superior Court. In July 2014, they were sentenced to prison, Harris for nine years and Thesing for five years.

The best-laid plans…….

~~~

Today, I’m raising a toast (with lawfully-purchased wine) and giving thanks for many good friends at The Kill Zone.

Wishing you a wonderful Thanksgiving surrounded by loved ones and lots of leftovers! 

Bosses and Boosters Busted

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

This ordinary-appearing video commercial promotes a family business based in Atlanta that hides a dark secret. 

There’s a business term Cost of Goods Sold. In today’s true crime case, it’s redefined as Cost of Goods Stolen.

Richard (“Mr. Bob”) Whitley, 70, and his daughter Noni Whitley,47, ran Closeout Express and Essential Daily Deals which were online storefronts selling products below wholesale.

How could they charge prices that were too good to be true?

The merchandise was stolen. Their inventory was supplied by professional shoplifters known as “boosters.”

Between 2011 and 2019, the Whitleys operated an Organized Retail Crime (ORC) organization, selling more than $6,000,000 in stolen merchandise.

ORC is essentially the 21st century version of old-fashioned fencing. 

According to the FBI:

An ORC operation refers to a professional shoplifting, cargo theft, or retail crime ring, or other organized crime occurring in a retail environment. Robert Whitley was the owner and operator of Closeout Express. Noni Whitley worked with her father and helped operate and manage their ORC operation.

The Whitleys hired boosters who preyed on small businesses as well as national drug store and supermarket chains including CVS, Kroger, Publix, Target, and Walgreen’s. They shoplifted over-the-counter medications, shaving razors, oral care products, and health and beauty aids.

Boosters then delivered large garbage bags full of stolen merchandise to the Closeout Express warehouse where the Whitleys paid them in cash.

The Whitleys’ online storefronts operated as third-party sellers on Amazon Marketplace, Walmart Marketplace, and Sears Marketplace. They processed tens of thousands of orders and delivered the stolen products via the U.S. Postal Service.

After nearly a decade in operation, the Whitley family business was shut down by the FBI and U.S. Postal Inspection Service. A joint task force recovered more than a million dollars in stolen goods at the warehouse and several Atlanta residences.

On October 5, 2021, Robert Whitley and Noni Whitley were sentenced to federal prison under the following terms:

Robert Whitley a/k/a Mr. Bob, 70, of Atlanta, Georgia, was sentenced to five years, ten months in prison to be followed by three years of supervised release. He previously pleaded guilty to one count of interstate transportation of stolen property.

Noni Whitley, 47, of Atlanta, Georgia, was sentenced to five years in prison to be followed by three years of supervised release. She previously pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit interstate transportation of stolen property.

Both defendants were also ordered to pay $4,348,762.90 in restitution to the victim retailers.

Shopping online is easy, fast, and convenient but e-commerce can also hide an underbelly of sneaky fraud.

When prices are too good to be true, you might be buying stolen property. 

How can you tell if products are stolen? 

Here are warning signs

What happens if you unwittingly purchase stolen property? According to Findlaw.com:

Although you will likely not be charged with a crime, if you unknowingly bought stolen goods, you will probably have to return them to the rightful owner. The thief (or thieves) will then owe you the purchase price in restitution.

Good luck collecting restitution from criminals in federal prison.