CHAPEL HILL -- University of North Carolina junior Elbert Stuckey knew his Blackberry was missing -- but he didn't know where it had gone or what could have happened while the thieves had it. Elbert, one of the fortunate few, got his electronic organizer back before the crooks could take what they had purloined it for: his fifteen minutes of fame.
This report is the first in a three-part investigation into the pilfering of fame, starting with the international network of organized crime families who have moved into this new and lucrative area of theft: stealing the future fame of the ordinary citizens, then selling it on international black markets to the well-to-do. These in-depth reports are the result of dozens of interviews with international law enforcement officials as well as numerous buyers and sellers of fame from around the world.
In America, and other wealthy societies in Western Europe and East Asia, money is cheap. This often leaves the rich wanting something more than riches. Even when you're a Hilton you can only stay in one fancy hotel at a time. Often neglected as children, the rich want love, but as almost everyone knows: "Money can't buy you love." So, they have started buying the next closest thing: attention.
But if attention is opium, attention in its purest form, fame, is heroin.
In the bygone era of the robber barons, the Astors, Carnegies and Rockefellers got their full share of fame because they were so few. In the current era, when a million-dollar mansion is just another tract home, even the rich have their fame rationed out to them like gasoline during World War II.
In 1968, when pop artist and impresario Andy Warhol uttered his famous dictum, "In the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes," he couldn't know how true it would become -- and how a synchronized set of crime syndicates located around the world would thwart it for illegal gain.
The underground market in fame-shifting began in the early 1980s in Lucerne, Switzerland, where a Swiss watch-making family, whose business had collapsed under the combined pressure of digital technology and cheap Chinese labor, was left scrambling for survival. Taking local knowledge of international currency markets running through the Swiss banking system, making connections to futures traders in Chicago, and combining those with their understanding of time-zone shifting, the Kronos family began stealing and selling future fame.
How does it work? Around the world low-level thieves steal PDAs, smartphones and notebook computers, any electronic device that contains a digital daytimer, calendar or personal organization software. These petty thieves then hock the devices for pennies on the dollar to "hot goods" wholesalers.
Then the real theft begins. These syndicates ship this hardware in bulk by air to their own computer specialists who download key data from each device. While personal identification information is taken, as it is of value for those who have good credit or some money in their bank accounts, for the majority it's only the future fame data that's of real value.
Few people know it, but encrypted in the code of every piece of personal organization software is the future fame data for that individual. Usually it's fifteen minutes. Technicians take these segments of fame, adjust them for time zone differences, then aggregate them into consecutive hours, days, even years of seamless fame.
These processed chunks of fame are moved by secure high-speed data lines to Los Angeles, New York, London, Monte Carlo -- and anywhere else the rich "and famous" cavort -- where they are sold for as much as $1000 a minute.
Which brings us to Paris in the springtime, or any other time of year, for that matter. Paris Hilton, wherever she might be, is in the news -- regardless of whether she has done anything newsworthy or not. Explanation: Hilton, say sources inside INTERPOL, the International Criminal Police Organization, is the single largest individual purchaser of fame in the world, often buying upwards of 3000 minutes a week at an estimated cost of $1.5 million a month. A "simple life" indeed.
The same sources at INTERPOL say these exorbitant costs explain why Nicole Richie seemingly disappeared off the face of the earth for months after her split with Hilton. At these prices, super-fame is only for the super-rich.
So, what happens to the thousands, even millions, of ordinary people who each year lose their fifteen minutes of fame? We'll never know -- exactly because they did.
And, meanwhile, what would have happened to Elbert Stuckey, if the police hadn't busted the gang from Morrisville before they could ship his Palm Pilot to Hong Kong? It's hard to say with any certainty, but one thing we know for sure -- he wouldn't have made this story.
Next week: "What do the Famous do with Fame?" The following week: "The Price of Fame."
Gary D. Gaddy fears this is his fifteen minutes of fame.
A version of this column was published in the Chapel Hill Herald on Thursday May 8, 2008.
Copyright 2008 Gary D. Gaddy