The missing 800 million
I had finished eating my dholl-puree and was crumpling the wrapping paper to throw it into the bin when I noticed some printed characters. I smoothed back the paper and looked closer. Right at the bottom, in the left hand corner, was the following : IP 18.104.22.168. Now, to most people this might mean nothing, but to any computer programmer the symbols “IP” followed by a string of numbers are highly meaningful. IP means ‘Internet Protocol’ and the numbers indicate the unique address of a computer on the Internet.
I looked at the dholl-puree seller and shook my head in disapproval. Instead of spotless white paper, that guy was using computer stationery for wrapping his dholl-purees! “Must have picked it outside some office,” I thought, and I had a good mind to tell him that he should be more mindful of his clients’ health.
But my irritation soon gave way to curiosity. That string of numbers kept floating in front of my eyes and I was burning to know what computer they were referring to. Apart from the IP address of Harper & Dayle (the company where I was working), I knew of no other IP address. And it was this IP address, precisely, that I was using from home to access my mail from the office computer. (I was using a File Transfer Program, or FTP, for this purpose.)
As soon as I arrived home, I switched on my computer, logged on to the Internet and clicked on the FTP icon. I got the usual log in prompt that asked for an IP address, and with my eyes glued on the dholl-puree wrapper, I carefully entered the string of nine numbers and pressed ‘Enter’.
Immediately, the following message appeared on the screen: “You are now logged on to the Republic Mercantile Bank” and just beneath was another message: “Please enter Username”.
The Republic Mercantile Bank! I could not help whistling through my teeth. That bank had always boasted to be “the best” and in a recent – and, may I add, well publicised! – interview on TV, its manager had bragged that it was easier to break into Fort Knox that into its computer system. And there, on my computer, was its “log-in screen”… as if challenging me to enter!
But what username was I going to type? I knew some of these blokes by sight. I had often seen them going to work in their air-conditioned van but they were not actually people who rubbed shoulders with me. And even if I knew their names, there was no guarantee they would use their real names. Most probably they would go for some fancy names, like the name of a film star, a singer or some soccer player.
I don’t know why, but all of a sudden I thought about the super-user. Now, a super-user is the chap who has a list of all the computer users and it is he who decides what files they can access. But more importantly, he can add a new user to his list or remove one off. In sum, he is the one who manages the computer system. And before I knew what I was doing, I found myself typing ‘Manager’ as Username.
‘Manager’, if I may inform you, is the default name for the system manager when a new system is installed. That is, the very first time the system manager logs in, he will type ‘Manager’ as username. This gives him access to the system and it is up to him from then on to change the username or to keep it the same. For security reasons it is advisable that he changes his username but more often than not, he keeps it the same. A question of ego? Hard to tell!
And bingo, right I was! No sooner had I finished typing ‘Manager’ and pressed enter, than the following message flashed on the screen: ‘Please enter Password’.
I knew, of course, that the system would ask for a password. I had managed to pass through the main gate and there was I standing in front of the door. And now all I needed was the key that would get me inside the house. But how on earth was I to get hold of this key? Well, I could open a dictionary and enter all the words one by one until one would fit. I shook my head. No way! Too time consuming! And then, there was no guarantee, he would use an existing word.
“That’s as far as I can get,” I thought, “last stop!” But that manager’s boast was still ringing in my ears and I was burning to take up the challenge.
While I was chewing my lips, an idea suddenly propped up. For fun, I had once written a Trojan Horse program. Allow me to explain: if you send somebody an email and then attach a Trojan Horse program to it, that program will get lodged into his computer and observe everything that he does. It will spy on his username and password and then pass on the information to your computer. And, once you get to know his password, you can break into his computer system. Just like the Greeks broke into Troy after the Trojans had introduced a wooden horse (that the Greeks had left behind on the beach) inside their city.
I started rubbing my hands. The time had come to put my Trojan Horse program to the test. I opened the phone book and flipped through it till I arrived at the Republic Mercantile Bank. There were two full pages that gave a host of details about that bank and its satellite branches. I saw a lot of fax numbers and Telexes, but it was the email addresses that grabbed my attention and quickly enough I spotted the email address of the computer system manager.
I quickly typed him an email. I told him how shocked and indignant I was, that a dholl-puree seller should be using his program listing as paper wrapper and, to add insult to injury, there was even a list of saving accounts at the end. I added a sarcastic note saying how relieved I was, that my account was not on that list!
I finished my email by typing “Please see the list of accounts in attached file”. I made up a list of fictitious saving accounts, put them in a file and annexed the Trojan Horse program to it. Somewhat apprehensive, I clicked on “Despatch” and a few seconds later I got the message: “Mail has been forwarded”.
I was not apprehensive because his virus scanner might detect my Trojan Horse. No, it could not do that! My virus was a brand new virus. It was my brainchild and had never been used before. So, no-one could have written a vaccine (or, an anti-virus software) against it. But you never knew; there was always this risk that he might sense something fishy and delete my email – and in so doing my Trojan Horse program, too! In that case, I would have to think of some other stratagem to break into his system. And even if he swallowed the bait, I could not be sure whether my Trojan Horse program would work.
I needed not have worried. He replied to me later on in the day and told me point-blank that I was mistaken. He had had the attached list scrutinized by no less the bank manager himself and had got the assurance that “the accounts must be from some other bank”. But what set my heart racing was the “treasure trove” at the end of his mail. My Trojan Horse had faithfully recorded all his key-strokes, and everything he had been typing, since he got my mail, was on my screen!
I pressed “PgDn” (Page Down) to rapidly go down this mass of details. There were more than four pages of internal correspondence. One was a message addressed to the bank manager and referred to my mail, another was a directive to the Chief Computer Operator urging him to keep a sharp eye on all the listing that went to the dustbin, yet another was a terse note to a junior programmer concerning the lack of documentation in his programs, and there was even a “spicy” mail addressed to his sweetheart or mistress. But what grabbed my attention was the password he had used to log in at 13.00 hrs (probably the time when he came back from lunch).
My eyes were nearly popping out of their sockets. Just after “Manager”, (his username, that is) was the word that sent the blood pounding to my temples… Believe me, even if I had scanned the whole dictionary, I would never have come across that word. And for a very good reason indeed. It was wrongly spelt!
“Parakete”. Yes, that was the word he was using as his password. Correctly written, it should have been “Parakeet”. Had I come across a bird lover that kept a parakeet as a pet? Anyway, this was not the time to surmise. There were more interesting things to attend to.
I clicked on the FTP icon. In a box, I typed in the IP address of the Republic Mercantile Bank and logged in as “Manager”. With trembling fingers, I entered the password and pressed “Enter”. I waited for a full minute but the screen did not change. I simply could not get inside the bank’s computer!
Perplexed, I kept staring at the screen. Did he (the Computer Systems Manager, I mean) have a special program – a sort of alarm system – that told him somebody was trying to break in? And the words of the bank manager kept echoing in my ears: “It’s easier to break into Fort Knox than into our system”.
Suddenly it dawned upon me that he might still be working. I glanced at my watch. It was ten to five. Unlike ordinary folks, computer people have this uncanny habit of staying at the office until late and for all I know he might still be logged on to his computer. Yes, that had to be it! He had logged in as ‘Manager’ and I, too, had tried to log in under the same name. And, no way the system would allow that!
I went to dine out with my girl friend Lucinda. To her non-stop patter, I just kept nodding my head absent-mindedly. She soon flew into a temper.
“You, I’ve been watching you,” she shouted at me across the table. “You’ve grown aloof lately!”
Several diners looked in our direction and I became quite red in the face.
“What’s gone over you?” she went on. “You’ve barely said a word this evening. What are you thinking about? Some other woman!”
“Lucinda, I…I assure you,” I stammered, “I’m a bit overworked, that’s all. I’m a bit worried about a program. I…I…”
She shook her finger at me.
“Now, listen,” she snarled. “If you are going out with some other girl, I’ll flay you alive!”
I managed to calm her down and we finished our dinner in silence. She kept sulking while I drove her back to her flat. Then I rushed back home and switched on my computer.
This time it was plain sailing. I entered into the system as computer system manager and started reading all his mails. But it was pretty boring stuff. It had mostly to do with directives and meetings, apart from the one or two occasional mails he sent to his sweetheart. I had a look at the programs that the bank was using and soon got tired of that, too. Then, I had a look at the files. I opened the borrower’s file and saw that there was a minister who had got a loan of 12 million at the very low interest rate of 1.5%. I reached for the password file (a file where the password of all the users are kept) and had a sudden urge to tamper with it. For, as systems manager I was all powerful. I had absolute control over the computer. I could not only create new usernames, modify the contents of files or add new software but I could also change the password of users and make it impossible for them to log in the next time they tried to!
I stopped myself just in time. I felt scared. How could such a vile thought have entered my head? There was absolutely no reason to do that. When I did my catechism some twenty years ago, I was told that each one of us had a guardian angel and a bad angel who were always at our side. While the good angel prayed for us and put good thoughts in our mind, this bad angel often tried to lead us astray. Was this bad angel trying to lead me on the downward path?
But all thoughts about the devil were soon discarded as I quickly became absorbed in the accounts file. There, on my screen was a list of all the people and organisations who had an account with the Republic Mercantile Bank. And I was hooked. No, it was not merely about debits, credits and balances; there were also a myriad of details about the transactions effected. I discovered soon enough that many public figures often made cheques to “charitable” organizations only to find that these same organizations were refunding them back the same amount a few days later!
I was puzzled and this got me thinking. When you give away money to charitable organizations, this is tax deductible, isn’t it? Well, well, this was surely a very subtle way to beat the taxman! Others, I found were making fairly substantial cheques to strange ladies month in month out. Mistresses or girl friends no doubt! Anyway, this was none of my concern.
A thought suddenly hit me and I froze. Now, suppose this computer systems manager tried to log in from home! No way he would be able to, since I had already entered the system under the name of ‘Manager – his username. (As already explained, two different persons cannot log in at the same time under the same username.) And it would not take him long to understand that there was an intruder inside his system. He would raise the alarm and perhaps track me to my home computer.
I immediately logged out and I spent the rest of the night writing a program that would display a message on my screen, each time someone tried to access the bank’s computer.
The next evening, after I had come home from work, I installed the program I had written the night before. Then I tried to log into the bank’s computer. I immediately got the message:
Now working Time logged in
So, there were two persons who were still connected to the bank’s computer and the Manager was one of them.
At nine, after dinner, I tried to log in once more and this time there was no message. The bank’s computer was all mine.
I continued to explore the accounts file further. Soon I came across a para-statal organization – The National Benefit Fund – who had deposited a very huge sum at the Republic Mercantile Bank: 800 million rupees to be more precise. Whew! Imagine I had this amount of money! Boy, I would go on a trip round the world, I would have a bungalow, I would have a Ferrari, I would have a private plane, I would have… I continued dreaming.
I had an account at the bank. Before I knew what I was doing, I had located the ‘Transfer Accounts’ Program and with a few key strokes, I had removed 10 million rupees from the National Benefit Fund and deposited this sum in my account! Suddenly I had become a very rich man indeed! I was amazed how this could be done so easily.
Ten million! But why stop at such a trifling! And with a few more key strokes I had soon transferred 100 million. My initial account was a paltry 12 thousand rupees and now I was worth one hundred and ten million and twelve thousand rupees! But would that make me the richest man in Mauritius? I started thinking about those guys who changed limousines every year, who had flats in London and New York and who took the plane as if they were taking the bus.
I soon transferred another 100 million, then another, and then another and soon all the 800 million had been added to my account. Now, if I was not the richest man on the island, I ranked surely among the top ten. But for how long? All this was just a game. Breaking into the bank’s computer was bad enough… and, before the night was over, I would have to transfer all that money back to where it belonged.
Suddenly my mobile phone started to beep. I picked it up and looked at the number on display. I cringed. It was Lucinda!
“Yes,” I said in a rather meek voice.
“You,” she shouted over the phone. “I’ve been trying to reach you but your phone is engaged all the time! What are you up to? Are you chatting with some whore?”
“Lucinda, I assure you,” I said, “I am on the Internet. That’s why you can’t get me on the phone.”
“Internet? That’s it!” she shrieked. “You are chatting with some woman on the Internet! Who is she?”
I was about to tell her a lie and say that I was reading the latest news on ‘The Times’ website but suddenly I felt an urge to boast. To boast about what I had done. That woman was getting on my nerves and it was time to show her that the man she was going out with was no dunce.
“I’ve been chatting with no one!” I said rather sharply. “I’ve broken into the computer of the Republic Mercantile Bank and I am reading their files! That’s what I am doing!”
There was silence at the other end of the line.
“Hello,” I shouted into the phone, “you’ve heard what I said.”
I heard her laugh.
“I don’t believe you!” she said.
“Come and see for yourself,” I said.
“It’s nearly midnight!” she said. “But I’ll take dad’s car and come right away. If you are lying I’ll skin you alive!”
She was at my door half an hour later. I let her in and showed her into my room.
“Look,” I said, “see for yourself!”
Her eyes opened wide as she looked at the rows and rows of customer accounts and balances on the computer screen. She saw the bank’s logo in the right-hand corner and she shook her head.
“Well, I never …,” she said, “you are smarter than I thought.”
“Oh, yea?” I said . “And now, perhaps, you’d like to see my account?”
Without waiting for her reply, I pressed “Page Down”, located my account number and high-lighted it.
She saw my balance of just over 800 million rupees and she gripped my chair. I was standing beside her and I thought she was going to faint. Her face became livid and her mouth dropped agape.
“You are all right, Lucinda?” I asked, rather alarmed.
She turned her head slowly, and looked at me as if she was looking at an extraterrestrial.
I took her hand and made her sit on the bed.
She stared hard at the computer screen and I could see that her eyes were riveted on my bank account. After some time, she said:
“What have you done?”
I told her the whole story right from the start: the dholl-puree wrapper, the Trojan Horse program, how I had broken into the bank’s computer system – and that for fun I had transferred the whole of the National Benefit Fund account to mine.
“But it’s a game of course!” I quickly added. “Before the night is over, I will transfer the 800 million back to where they belong.”
She took a deep breath and looked at me straight in the eyes.
“Do you have to?” she said. “Do you really have to?”
I burst out laughing.
“You are joking, aren’t you?” I said. “Of course, I will have to. Sooner or later, they’ll find out that the money has vanished. Then, they’ll see my account and they’ll know right away what has happened.” I shook my head in disbelief. “How can you be so naive?”
“It’s you who are naive!” she shouted. “You could create a new account and move the money there. As a super-user, you can create new accounts, can’t you?”
“Yes, I sure can. But they’ll know who created that account and they’ll track me to my computer.”
I started pacing to and fro across the room.
“And even if they could not track me,” I said, “I would still transfer the money back. Do you know where this money comes from? It’s hard-earned money, earned from the labour and toil of all those civil servants over many long years. That money will go back to them when they retire. And now, you want me to steal it from them? How can such a vile thought enter your head?”
“Spare me all that rhetoric,” she said calmly. “Don’t make as if you are such a law abiding citizen, yourself! Are you aware that it is an offence to break into a computer system? Ever heard of the Information Technology Act of 1998?”
Lucinda had just finished law school and was about to be called to the bar.
“Thanks for reminding me,” I retorted. “As I’ve said, it was all a game.” I looked at her straight in the eyes. “But now, the game is over and like it or not, I’ll restitute the money back!”
“Yes, and then work as a slave all your life for a few meagre rupees!”
“Lucinda, you can’t be serious! You don’t expect me to pocket those 800 million just like that, do you?”
She continued to argue but I sent her packing. She slammed the door in my face and I heard her drive away, her car tyres screeching. I transferred the 800 million back to the National Benefit Fund and went to bed.
But she continued to nag me for the rest of the week. Over the phone, she began talking about a Swiss Bank Account. She knew somebody high up at the Republic Mercantile Bank, she said. With my super user privilege, I could create a new account and then siphon the 800 million to that account. And for a few million, her friend at the bank would keep mum about it.
“Lucinda, how can you talk like that?” I shouted over the phone. “You are scaring the hell out of me? Even if that could be done, we’ll have to leave the country and settle overseas!”
“Exactly, you’ll transfer the 800 million to the new account on the very day of our departure,” she replied in a very cool voice. “As for all the procedures concerning the next transfer with that Swiss bank, leave that to me. I’ll take care of all the details.”
She began telling me yet again what we would do with all that money. She knew a small state in east Europe that was beyond the reach of Interpol, and how we could stay there for some time. Then we would change names and passports before going to another country.
“Just like Piou Piou did,” she said. “If Piou Piou could get away with several murders and not get caught, we, too, could lay our hands on 800 million and not get caught. After all, we’re much more intelligent than Piou Piou, aren’t we?”
I cannot explain what happened, but she managed to convince me. At night, however, I could not sleep. I don’t know who said that “the softest pillow in the world is a good conscience”, but now I know what he was talking about!
After that things happened very fast. We bought two plane tickets for Zurich and Lucinda told me that once we arrived there she would finalize everything with that Swiss bank. She also told me when and where I should do the bank transfer. She stressed that I should do it two hours before our departure (scheduled at eight in the morning) from a cyber café close to the airport – to avoid leaving any trails that might lead to my home computer. That girl left nothing to chance!
During all that hectic week that followed, before our departure, I wrestled with my conscience. I told Lucinda that I could not sleep a wink at night and that even if we did not get caught, this swindling of public funds would not give me peace for the rest of my life. But each time she laughed and told me to discard my conscience.
“We just don’t have to do it,” I pleaded. “Leave those 800 million where they are.”
“Then, you’ll have to leave me too,” she said.
That put a stop to it. That girl was a she-devil. Ever since I met her, we’ve spent much of our time arguing but she was of a bewitching beauty, she was sensuous to the core and I could not bear losing her.
On the day of our departure, Lucinda was already at the airport when I arrived at the cyber café. I sat down in front of a computer to transfer the 800 million to the new account I had created the day before – a joint account for the two of us. We would arrive at Zurich the next morning and once there we would go directly to the bank to make the next transfer. With the collusion of that high official at the bank, everything should work out fine.
I opened the accounts file and quickly located the account of the National Benefit Fund. It would take a few seconds to do the transfer and then I would notify Lucinda right away.
My heart gave a leap. I could not believe my eyes. The 800 million had gone! Surely, I had made a mistake. It could not be the account of the National Benefit Fund. Yesterday itself, all the 800 million were there! I rubbed my eyes and stared at the screen. No, there was no mistake. It was the National Benefit Fund’s account, all right, but the balance was nil! The 800 million had simply vanished. I just sat transfixed in front of the screen as the minutes ticked away.
My mobile started to ring. Lucinda was at the end of the line.
“What’s taking you so long?” she was shouting. “You should come to the airport immediately or you’ll miss the flight.”
But I kept staring at the screen. I looked at the balance of Rs 0.00, as if hypnotized. Somebody had beaten us to the punch. Was it the person “high up at the bank”, the very one whom Lucinda held in such high esteem? But I could not care. I felt as if a great weight had been lifted off from my mind, and all of a sudden I had become light-hearted… so light-hearted that I could have shouted for joy!
Epilogue: It was only a year later that the country became aware of that massive fraud, and up to now, nobody knows who made away with all that money.
Jean Lindsay Dhookit
 In 1986, somebody by the name of Piou Piou shot three persons and then fled overseas. He has never been caught.
Download the story in pdf: The missing 800 million