Episode 52 - Jon Swartz, USA Today Tech Journo and Author of “Zero Day Threat: The Shocking Truth of How Banks and Credit Bureaus Help Cybercrooks Steal Your Money.”
I was most interested in having Jon on DishyMix to talk about "the day in the life" of a leading tech journo. His beat, social media, the Silicon Valley power players (like Google, Y! et al) and cyber crime are a fascinating stew in the world of what's happening right this second.
Jon wrote, "Zero Day Threat," which I assumed to be a geek boy's tech novella. Wrong! This book is fascinating. I would have NEVER thought to read it if Jon wasn't coming on the show. I got hooked in.
Jon and his co-author, Byron Acohido, also a USA Today reporter, did an amazing job exploding the heinous business of cybercrime. You go in the gutter with Canadian meth addicts and their dumpster-diving, mail stealing abuses all the way to Russian data theft cells and warehouses full of laptops and electric guitars. You learn about mules and re-shippers, the skimmers and botnets and all the amazing online and offline criminal activities that now comprise a $200 billion, lemme say that again, a two hundred billion dollar business that rivals money-laundering and drugs!
Why are banks are enabling this crime? How do the scams work? What can you do to protect yourself? Jon lays out the best precautions with sage advice.
And it wouldn't be a DishyMix if we didn't talk about sex, drugs and rock and roll. Jon's favorite book, "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls" covers the 70's in Hollywood. From urine-flinging (yes, pee) to porn stars to LSD-fueled swan dives and psychotherapy sessions in hot tubs, this book chronicles what Jon believes is the best era in movie-making.
This is a not-to-be-missed episode beautifully balances mind expansion with silliness and a soupçon of cautionary tales. Join in to get the vibe of this legendary tech reporter, Jon Swartz.
Susan Bratton: Welcome to "Dishy Mix." I'm your host Susan Bratton, and of course, I had teed up another great guest on this week's show. Today you're going to get to meet Jon Swartz. Jon is a technology reporter, not only that but an award winning technology reporter, one of the most important, powerful, and influential reporters here covering San Francisco Bay Area and the Silicon Valley. And he's with USA Today now.
He got his start doing work in the trade press with MacWEEK and Communications Week. He's done some amazing stints, including one in London where he worked over there covering the technology world for MacUser UK. And he's an author. Jon has written two books. The first was a book called "Young Wealth: Trade Secrets from Teens Who Are Changing American Business" and the next, which we are going to talk about today. Fascinating book! "Zero Day Threat: The Shocking Truth of How Banks and Credit Bureaus Help Cyber Crooks Steal Your Money."
So on today's show, of course we're going to talk about cybercrime, the business of social media, which is one of Jon's big beats with USA Today. We're going to talk about one of your favorite topics, crackheads and meth addicts. We're going to talk about exploiters, enablers, and expediters, and a day in the life of a journo.
Jon Swartz: It's interesting, computer security. The more you learn, the more it's terrifying to you, and the more you understand how far ahead of the game the criminals are.
In tech security circles, one of the most feared phenomena is something called a zero day threat. It basically refers to a virus that can exploit a system through a security hole, for which there is no solution.
As more people go online, there are more Web 2.0 technologies that aren't completely secure. More people use social media. More people use instant messaging, iPhones, etc. With more applications, there are more ways for us to communicate, but there are also more ways for the crooks to find holes in the way we communicate and exploit that trust.
The criminals count on us to be too trusting, and then if we're burned, to not share that information. In a sense, one of the tragedies I think with it, the banks aren't obligated to publicly disclose how much money they're losing to this type of crime. What they've done through their attorneys is find a way to report to the federal government without making it public.
Susan Bratton: Welcome to the show, "Dishy Mix," Jon Swartz.
Jon Swartz: Hey, thanks for having me.
Susan Bratton: Hey Jon! It's great to have you on today. I'm actually really lucky to have you. I think it was a close call. This is a big news day in the Silicon Valley, isn't it?
Jon Swartz: This was a crazy day. There's multiple things going on. First of all, one thing, Yahoo! as we speak is on a conference call describing its $800,000,000 a year up to 10 year deal with Google, in which they'll partner on a search partnership. At the same time, this comes maybe two hours after Microsoft and Yahoo! allegedly, and I say allegedly because you never know what's going to happen with those two companies. They're called off talks for a full or partial merger.
At the same time, actually MySpace, this is going to be news when it comes out tomorrow. But MySpace has gone through this incredible overhaul of their website and introduced dozens of new features that will be making their debut next week. So I was working on both those stories at the same time. I usually don't do this for my own sanity. And in addition I was working on a third story which is a profile of the chief security officer of Mozilla, whose new version, Firefox 3.0, is coming out next week.
Susan Bratton: Those are your big beats. You're really focusing a lot on the Yahoo!, Google, Microsoft embroiling. You're also focused a lot on the business of social media, and of course cybercrime. You and your partner and coauthor have written over, what? Probably close to, maybe nearly 200 stories now over the last four or five years on the whole category of cybercrime?
Jon Swartz: Probably. Yes, Byron Acohido who I work with. He's up in Seattle. We have been at the paper each 8 years, and about 4 years ago during a story meeting, we started talking about this idea. We started brainstorming about the possibility of teaming up. He writes about Microsoft because of where he's based. He was writing a lot about computer viruses and such, while I was writing about spam, phishing. And we started seeing this collaborative effort, almost kind of one joining off the other, viruses that led to spam and vice versa. And we started looking at it as a criminal enterprise and decided we should team up and start bringing our expertise to the story.
So, yeah, that led to 200 stories and counting, and it led to the culmination of several years of reporting with "Zero Day Threat," which just came out in April. It's interesting, computer security. The more you learn, the more it's terrifying to you, and the more you understand how far ahead of the game the criminals are and how there seems to be no end in sight to how big this industry will get. I think, the latest estimate I've heard is it's a $200,000,000,000 a year enterprise, which is probably roughly the size of the worldwide drug trafficking industry and money laundering industry individually.
Susan Bratton: Yeah, I read that. You had that stat in one of your recent articles. And you also said that just cybercrime here in the US will touch about 8,000,000 of us.
Jon Swartz: I think that's a conservative number. The more I think about it, the more I think we're underestimating the scope of the problem. I mean, just six months ago I was talking to Byron about what we thought the scope of cybercrime was on an annual basis worldwide. We thought it was 100,000,000. We think actually we probably underestimated that size.
I remember several years ago, the FBI came out with a report where they thought it was a $60,000,000,000 industry, but they've given up trying to estimate that size just because of the enormity and the fact that a lot of people who are victimized don't know about it, don't report it. They rarely catch crooks. It's quite fascinating, and in a sense, actually one thing that we want to do next is we want to start talking more directly to the criminals, by they in prison, they just get out of prison, or while they're still committing crimes overseas and in the US.
Susan Bratton: Well, that brings me to a good point. You know Jon, I like you and I wanted to like your book, but I really worried that... I would read it for "Dishy Mix," and I would read it for the interview, and I would read it to support you. But I was afraid that it would be boring or it would be too techy.
Jon Swartz: [laughs]
Susan Bratton: Or it would be something that was kind of, like, out there in the cloud for me. I started reading it, and I was riveted. You did a really interesting combination of a couple things. One. You told the stories. Like your stories of Socrates and Biggie and Yolanda and Hula Girl. You brought characters and their life stories went into this when you were describing how they did the fraud rings and all the bank tapping and all those kinds of things. And they were real people. You changed their names. I love the names by the way. You changed the names, but these are real people.
Jon Swartz: Oh, they are.
Susan Bratton: So you've gone all over the country and interviewed them. So you were talking about interviewing criminals. You've already talked to a lot of criminals, haven't you?
Jon Swartz: Right, we did. Thanks for the compliment. What we wanted to do, and I think we succeeded, and you never know while you're writing the book. We wanted to write a cybercrime thriller. And we wanted it to be like a detective novel. We wanted real people in the story. We wanted to make it as immediate as possible. So I would travel to talk to the victims and, in some cases, the law enforcement. Byron talked to criminals. We both talked to criminals, but he actually went up to Edmonton and spent a week with the actual perpetrators and the meth gang.
Susan Bratton: Right, with your Canadian group.
Jon Swartz: Right. I would spend a lot of time getting first account stories, or horror stories from the victims. And then we would go confront the banks and the credit bureaus or whomever. I would spend a lot of time on the road trying to find as many people I could talk to. Right, except for a few names which we used to protect the safety of the members of the meth gang, this is a non-fiction book. Everything in this is true.
We wanted it almost to be like a movie, like a "Syrianna" or a "Traffic." We wanted to have a multi-layered approach to an industry that is like a drug traffic industry as depicted in "Traffic." The more we delve into it, the more we learn. And we think over the next several months, we're going to do a couple more stories that will add even more of a "wow" factor to what we've already written about.
Susan Bratton: So a couple things. One. The title of your book, "Zero Day Threat." First of all, you have to describe what a zero day threat is, and then I want to get to after the colon. I want to talk about "The Shocking Truth of How Banks and Credit Bureaus Help Cybercrooks Steal Your Money." So you have a point of view there, obviously. Talk about what the zero day threat is first.
Jon Swartz: OK. In tech security circles, one of the most feared phenomena is something called a zero day threat. It basically refers to a virus that can exploit a system through a security hole, for which there is no solution. So if no patch exists, you're scrambling. It's like a hole in a dam, where water is gushing through. There's no solution for it, so you have to scramble to come up with one. And up until a few years ago, there weren't many zero day threats, because there weren't many flaws in security that could be so actively exploited.
Well now, there are more and increasingly more. As more people go online, there are more Web 2.0 technologies that aren't completely secure. More people use social media. More people use instant messaging, iPhones, etc. With more applications, there are more ways for us to communicate, but there are also more ways for the crooks to find holes in the way we communicate and exploit that trust that's built into the Internet. I guess, the other thing you were mentioning was just that the culpability of the financial institutions and the credit bureaus.
Susan Bratton: Right.
Jon Swartz: We're not saying that these institutions in effect are aiding and abetting the criminals. But what they're doing is the way they built their systems, as flawed as they are in security, they're not compliant to federal code, or the way that they handle data, or the fact that they handle so much data, and that they sign us up to credit so quickly. Or they compile data about us or aggregate data about us without us knowing about it. It exposes us in ways that weren't around in years before.
Before you'd have to dive into a dumpster and find material or steal mail out of someone's mailbox. Now you go in, you implant a trojan virus in a computer network for a bank, be it a large or small bank, and you have instant access to all the information in my online checking account or my online brokerage account. We're saying that these institutions, in effect, have created even more opportunities for the criminals to rip us off. And in many cases, these banks and institutions aren't as beholden to penalties as they might be in a non-digital world.
Susan Bratton: Well, and the other point you made is that it's good business for them to do as much business as they can online.
Jon Swartz: Right.
Susan Bratton: They want us doing all the work. It's kind of like consumer generated media. Why write a story when you're customer is going to write it for you? Why not just have your customer manage all their stuff on your platform, right?
Jon Swartz: Exactly. In a sense, the profitability is astronomically higher through online businesses. The overhead costs are almost nonexistent. There will be fraud related losses, but they're not at a point yet, they're not at that tipping point yet where it doesn't make sense for the banks and the credit bureaus to continue to pursue our business online. I know that when I've gone into my local bank, the last several times they've almost been hectoring me to start an online account.
Susan Bratton: Right.
Jon Swartz: But knowing what I do know about the threats out there, I don't think under any circumstances would I do that.
Susan Bratton: Well, one of the things that I also thought was really thorough about your book, it was the characters and the stories and explaining it. That was helpful. But also all of the precautions. You have chapters on the precautions that we need to take, both the financial, what we're doing on our computers, what we're doing when we're web surfing, doing e-commerce, how we're managing our email, and also activism. If something happens to us, not being the silent victim, but speaking out.
Jon Swartz: Right. The criminals count on us to be too trusting, and if we're burned, to then not share that information. In a sense, one of the tragedies I think with it, the banks aren't obligated to publicly disclose how much money they're losing to this type of crime. What they've done through their attorneys is find a way to report to the federal government without making it public. And the reason why the banks have hammered out this agreement is they've insisted that the confidentiality of their customers, us the public, not be made public. But the irony is that maybe it should be for the benefit of the greater good of consumers.
Susan Bratton: That's right. Well, and it's funny too, because one of the things that I really learned about in "Zero Day Threat" was how the business has evolved so significantly. I mean, when you talk about $200,000,000,000, I think OK $200,000,000,000. [laughs] It doesn't really register with me. It very ethereal for me.
Jon Swartz: Right. [laughs]
Susan Bratton: But I was thinking about how after I read the book, I realized how amazingly more sophisticated things have become. You know, you talked earlier about dumpster diving and mail stealing and reembossing credit cards was another thing. This is like old timey shit. This is like yesterday's news. The level of sophistication. Oh, there's a quote from your book that I thought was really funny. It says, "precocious teenagers, disaffected computer geeks, egotistical virus researchers, determined spammers." You were describing some of the people in the industry. And I was that, in a way, it's come from that to a whole new level. This is like a big, organized crime situation.
Jon Swartz: Yeah, I'm sure there are organized crime groups around the world. There are probably enterprising individuals. There all types of different folks who would do this. Somebody who has good computer skills can sell their services, like a contract worker, to an organized crime group. You can freelance this stuff as the people in Canada and the meth group did, and then get involved in a larger operation eventually.
You can be somebody plucked off the street as a mule or a low end bag guy who does the bidding of the people who ripped off the data from TJX, for instance. There was this whole group of individuals who were using stolen credit card numbers to buy good and gift cards throughout Florida, to the tune of several million dollars over the course of a couple of weeks. They were hired by someone to do this for them, and they would sell the goods overseas. This great black market.
It boggles the mind. And I'm convinced that a lot of these organized crime groups aren't just overseas. I'm sure they're based in the United States. I mean, this is too big an industry to overlook. It's one of the fastest growing industries with one of the biggest upsides given. And given the economic downturn, it's almost like free money in a sense. If you're willing to take the risk and get away with it, it's like a way of ripping people off without spending any of your own money.
I mean think about it. Before this stuff came along if you were a criminal, you had to put yourself at physical harm to steal from a bank. You had to spend some money on the gun that you were using to rob someone. Now you just use credit card numbers to subsidize everything that you run. You don't spend a penny of your own money, and you don't put yourself out there in harm's way.
Susan Bratton: So, we're going to take a break, and when we come back, I want you to prioritize some things for us. And I want you to do it from the perspective of us as your friends that you can protect. Tell us what the biggest risks are for us and what we need to be aware of. Is that OK?
Jon Swartz: Mm hmm.
Susan Bratton: All right, that sounds good. And I also want to know how you make meth, because you talk about that in your book. I want to hear how you learning about that. [laughs] That was weird and fascinating! So we're going to take a break. I want to thank my sponsors. My sponsors are the reason that you get to listen to Jon and I talk today. So thank you, sponsors. I also want to encourage you to forward this episode to a friend. It's a really important story and something that we can take away both from a top level perspective as well as a personal perspective. So let's get to our sponsors, and when we come back, we'll talk to Jon Swartz from USA Today and author of "Zero Day Threat" a little bit more about what we need to do.
Susan Bratton: All right, we're back. And Jon, so tell us where we need to be the most careful, and what from our individual perspective we're at most risk for being harmed by.
Jon Swartz: OK, well I'll be blunt about it then I guess. This sounds terrible, but I wouldn't do online banking. I just think there are too many flaws involved. You could have the best, most secure computer security network for a bank, but if someone's determined enough, they're going to find a flaw in your personal computer. Maybe your kid downloads something, or you open some email attachment that you shouldn't be opening, or you don't have the proper up-to-date anti-virus software.
I would just avoid online banking and online brokerage trades. I would do that. I would constantly, vigilantly update my computer with the most up-to-date anti-virus, anti-spyware, anti-spam software. I'd have a firewall. What I would do is I would try to create as many obstacles to a would-be criminal, so if they come to your machine and see any type of resistance, they'll just go to the next most easiest victim. Criminals are lazy. They're basically going to go after the people who are least protected and most gullible to social engineering scams.
Set up a couple of obstacles. Just like your house. If you lock the doors, you keep the lights on, you have an alarm system if you go that far, it makes such a big difference. So I think you almost apply those same safety tips to the digital world. And the other thing is, most people really don't' know or care about this topic until they're victimized. And then they realize what a pain it is and how it throws their life off-kilter, spending months trying to resolve ID theft problems.
Susan Bratton: Yeah. You said it was 175 hours is the average amount of time it takes if you have identity theft.
Jon Swartz: Right. I think that average actually might be on the low side. It's constantly rising. Yeah, just save yourself the grief and be extra cautious and protective. Just treat your computer the way you would treat your car or your home.
Susan Bratton: And never send passwords and things like that in email.
Jon Swartz: Right.
Susan Bratton: And your social security number, right?
Jon Swartz: Yes. I would keep that hidden somewhere. I wouldn't put it on your computer, and I wouldn't put it in writing anywhere. You know, the one big irony is that, not to be a scare monger or fear monger, but you know the biggest source of stolen data is through mailboxes. A lot of people in rural areas leave their mail out in their mailboxes overnight for the mail service.
Susan Bratton: Yeah.
Jon Swartz: And I was told by more criminals than I care to mention that that was the number one way. Either that or they would find somebody who worked in a mail sorting facility or a facility that had access to a lot of bills. They would pay them to steal information for them.
Susan Bratton: As a matter of fact, on the way back from lunch today, we stopped at the post office and we held our mail, because we're going away until Monday. So we'll be gone for four days. And we always hold our mail, and we always pick it up right out of the mail box, because had our mail stolen. And it still is, even though it sounds like it's old school.
Jon Swartz: That's the number one source.
Susan Bratton: Talk about the rings, like the meth rings and how they operate, because you really explain that very well in the book.
Jon Swartz: We came across some detectives who had busted this ring. What I found out, it was really interesting. Byron and I started looking into this phenomenon of meth addicts being perpetrators of a lot of ID theft. And the reason why is, again, it's easy. They steal mail from a post box or a mail sorting facility. They collect as many credit card numbers as they can, and they use that to buy goods, which they then can hock for money, which they use to take drugs.
Another thing that we heard is that there's a really strange behavior. People who take meth tend to like to do repetitive tasks over and over again. And one of the things that they like to do is work on a computer all night. So, there are plenty of websites where you can find where you can buy, sell, and trade stolen information. So a lot of them became really adept at trading in stolen data, and it fed their drug habits, and in a sense was the easiest way for them to make a living, kind of fed off it.
And I understand that it was in Sacramento, Phoenix, Seattle, Hawaii where it really started. It's moving east. There are a lot of individuals who find the best way to feed your meth habit is to deal in stolen IDs, and it's a very heavily task-oriented job. And these folks, because they're under the influence, find it the best way to make a living or to stay high. It's really very strange, but I heard that consistently from police agencies around the country. In fact, they told me that one of the biggest trends within police departments is to team up your ID theft expert and your drug experts and have them work together, because there was such as overlap of the crimes.
Susan Bratton: So two things. One. I liked how you were talking about they steal the mail, the get the credit cards. Or one of the other things they were doing was they were getting the credit cards and then going out and tapping the ATMs and getting cash out all at the same time at a bunch of ATMs. Right?
Jon Swartz: Right. Yeah, they were doing that. Also, some of these guys were pretty talented.
Susan Bratton: Organized.
Jon Swartz: Yeah, were organized. People who take meth also tend to gravitate toward one another. They also tend to see people out in the field who have the same problem. So they can offer them drugs in exchange for stolen information. So they would find moles in different areas. They are technically astute. They made the most out of a grave situation. It's interesting. Looking at these different types of crooks, you get all types. Male, female, young, old, technically astute.
Susan Bratton: Right. You had Yolanda and Hula Girl and Marlene. There were as many women in your stories as men.
Jon Swartz: Right. There was a woman in particular who I initially met through the Canadian Police. I'll call her Marilyn. And she just opened our eyes to the lifestyle and the idea that you could blend two different types of crimes and live. It's a pretty hard life, but it's something that nonetheless... I think it spread to the Midwest. I think it's moving to the east coast. It's just a crazy, crazy story, and it fell right into this, with what we're doing.
Actually, there were also really large organizations, like Shadow Crew, which was busted by the FBI and Secret Service, where they had several thousand people contributing stolen information to this one website. There were about 20 guys who ran the operation. But they ran it like a start-up. They had the executives. They had the marketing folks. They had the people who were involved in managing and distributing information. They had the enforcers. I mean, it was quite an impressive organization.
Susan Bratton: In your book, you talk about... Oh wait, I wanted to go back to the meth thing before I move on. One of the things that I read is that if you're a meth addict. Well, it's made out of ephedrine, is that what it's called?
Jon Swartz: Right.
Susan Bratton: The stuff that's in sinus tablets?
Jon Swartz: Uh huh.
Susan Bratton: They boil that down and they extract it out of there. And then what do you do? Do they smoke it? How do they get it in?
Jon Swartz: They smoke it. Usually that's the most common way to use meth.
Susan Bratton: Put it in a pipe. Like crack.
Jon Swartz: Put it in a pipe. Yeah, it's like crack. Instant high, yeah.
Susan Bratton: But then it's supposed to... I read in your book that it lasts sometimes two or three days?
Jon Swartz: Yeah, people pull... Yeah, they're twittering.
Susan Bratton: They keep smoking it.
Jon Swartz: They're up for two or three days at a time. That's why if you're going to be involved in the criminal enterprise, it's great to have people who work 72 straight hours and then they crash for a couple of days at a time.
Susan Bratton: [laughs] Right.
Jon Swartz: So you have like a 24 hour service. You have five people. You have half of them up for three straight days, and then the other half. [laughs] Yeah, that was good for productivity.
Susan Bratton: And what was this thing about the reshippers and mules?
Jon Swartz: Oh. I ran across a guy who was...
Susan Bratton: That was your Grass Valley trip, right?
Jon Swartz: Yeah, Grass Valley. There are a lot of newspaper ads. Smaller papers, maybe even large papers, but usually small papers. Also websites that advertise jobs that basically say, "Look. If I send you a box to your house, when you reship it to another address, I'll pay you $25 a box." So basically what's happening are the criminals who have the stolen credit card numbers are buying goods. Say they're buying goods from Russia. They can't have those goods sent directly to them, because it would...
Susan Bratton: Track it.
Jon Swartz: ...attract the police. The police would say, "Oh, that's who the crook is." So what they'll do is they will hire someone in the United States as a courier. Say I'm the criminal. I buy the goods. I have the goods shipped to what appears to be a legitimate address in the US. The person at that address then rewraps it and then ships it to the criminal. So it's not a direct way to purchase and receive your goods, but you do it indirectly through an innocent person. If there are any suspicions raised, the innocent person is the one who gets arrested.
So for $30, again I'm not paying for any of this. I'm using a stolen credit card number to have stuff sent to someone who then sends it to me. I pay them probably through, I deposit money into their bank accounts. I don't pay them directly. Or I steal from them as well. It's actually quite common.
I came across a guy in Grass Valley. I came across a guy who ran a security company in Gilroy who fell for this. I came across someone who works in Memphis. A lady who spoke Spanish and didn't speak English very well in California, in San Jose. And they were being paid $30 a box, and eventually the cops would come to their house and tell them, "You know, what you're doing is you're just helping someone consummate an illegal transaction."
And usually, the victims are extremely embarrassed, but there are enough people who fall for this who will do it. There are also people who are asked as mules to lend their bank account so that, as a criminal, I can move cash through their account overseas. That was quite common actually. But eventually, in this one ring that I came across, most of the goods, which were small expensive goods like laptops or digital cameras, or even electric guitars of all things, they ended up in a warehouse in Russia, several warehouses in Russia, where then that stuff was sold on the black market.
Susan Bratton: It was not surprising, and what I also loved about "Zero Day Threat" was that you took that thread and you took it all the way. It was kind of like the whole food chain.
Jon Swartz: It took three months to do.
Susan Bratton: Yeah.
Jon Swartz: And the reason why it took so long was it took... We kept wondering, who is connected to whom? Who is the Mr. Big in this operation? But there are several layers. So you imagine, if somebody who is in law enforcement tries to figure out a crime. And this was a fairly sophisticated operation. But the amount of time that's spent just between Byron and I to figure this out, the police don't have nearly as much time to do that.
So if the police come across an ID theft ring and those people happen to be drug users, for instance, they will prosecute them as drug users. Because it's a lot easier and faster to prosecute them and take them off the market for stolen goods, but that doesn't really solve the problem. It doesn't really appease the people who are ripped off, or it doesn't appease the merchants who ended up being ripped off in the process.
Susan Bratton: Well you told me, too, that writing this book was the hardest thing you've ever done.
Jon Swartz: Oh, it was hard! It's still hard, because we're learning more and we're trying to fill in gaps. I'd love to do a second printing and update it and look deeper at some of the institutions that we touched on. Especially credit card agencies and how they, in sense, were getting more people to sign up for more credit faster than ever, which was like throwing gasoline on top of a burning building.
Susan Bratton: Right. Exactly. Well, I'm going to segue to some more Jon type of things here, too. A lot of times it's funny to ask authors. You've already written two books and you write stories two or three times a week. Sometimes, like today, a couple stories in a single day.
Jon Swartz: Right.
Susan Bratton: So I asked you what book you most recommend to your friends, and at first I didn't get it, because I thought you were telling me movies you liked. It's called "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls." So I went on Amazon and I looked and it's actually, "How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock 'N' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood." I'm like, hah Jon. Now that's why I like you, for God's sakes! We share sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll in common!
Jon Swartz: The reason I love that book is that the people who are interviewed in that book, like Warren Beatty...
Susan Bratton: Scorsese.
Jon Swartz: Scorsese.
Susan Bratton: Spielberg.
Jon Swartz: Right. Spielberg.
Susan Bratton: George Lucas.
Jon Swartz: Those people don't normally offer much in the form of interviews unless they knew someone very well and they build up a relationship with that person over years. And this is one of the few books where I actually got an insight into how these people thought. To me, it was like master reporting, master storytelling by someone who obviously took years to put that book together. And to me, it was like a tour de force on how to cultivate a relationship with someone, build an expertise in that area, and then conceptualize how it all kind of fits together as a historian. To me, it wasn't banged out quickly.
You could tell it took this guy a long amount of time, and he went into such detail about the influence of the 70s tour in American and the way movies moved away from the old establishment, kind of the factory style system at the major studios, toward the independent minded star/producer. Or even more so, the director who controlled the movie. I always thought the 70s was the best decade for moviemaking consistently in the United States. A lot of these people like Deniro, Dustin Hoffman, Woody Allen. They were all at their creative peaks. Copula. You could make the argument for Lucas when he made American Graffiti.
Susan Bratton: Yeah.
Jon Swartz: It was fascinating to me. But actually, I look at it more as like a reporting experiment. And again how this was all put together, to me, reminded me, not to compare our book...
Susan Bratton: Oh, absolutely!
Jon Swartz: ...reminded me of like the whole idea...
Susan Bratton: Yeah! You've been doing this for years!
Jon Swartz: You become an expert. The best reporting is done by people who become experts in that field. So they know it better than the people who they cover. And they can become the go-to people who can explain to them, "Look, this is a jigsaw puzzle. This is what it really means. This is not just like a slice of it. Here's the whole picture."
Susan Bratton: Exactly. I would've bought the book just because it's your favorite book to recommend, but when I read the review and they said it covered grave-robbing and urine-flinging, and porn stars, and LSD-filled swan dives, and psychotherapy sessions, and hot tubs. I mean, you had me at psychotherapy sessions and hot tubs, Jon. You know that. I love that stuff! [laughs]
Jon Swartz: [laughs] I thought it was insightful. You know, to me, I remember watching on television, Warren Beatty was doing a TV interview in which he gave monosyllabic answers or just smirked on camera. And I thought, this is such a waste of my time, or anyone's time who was watching it. After I read this book, I had this greater appreciation of who he was and how he put together, almost by himself, maybe not by himself, but greatly put together Bonnie and Clyde and kind of changed the way America made movies. It was like the French new wave influence. And I saw that, and I thought, you know this guy is a lot deeper than he will let anyone on.
But I think it had more to do with his trust of who was interviewing him and how much they knew. And I think that applies to anything. In sports, in business, in politics, there will be these master works that come out. I was going to tell you that I used to work at the San Francisco Chronicle, and one of my frustrations...
Susan Bratton: Oh, I forgot to say that when I did your bio!
Jon Swartz: Oh, that's all right.
Susan Bratton: You went from the UK to the Chron. The Chron brought you back, and then you ended up at USA Today, right? Yeah. Sorry about that!
Jon Swartz: Yeah, I went from Chronicle, Forbes, and then USA Today. But the Chronicle, one of my frustrations was that it had such great access to people, and it's read by so many people in this area, but you had no time to work on stories. So you always felt as if you were on the assembly line and that you had to churn something out. And that is one thing that I do like about our paper now, that you can spend a little bit more time on the stories that are really important to you and make sure you get them right, rather than just feel as if you're making sausage.
Susan Bratton: Well, another thing. When I asked you what the one thing is that people misunderstand most about you. You said how busy you are, and then your occasional curtness on the phone. It's funny, because I like that about you. I love when I can just call you up and go, "Hey Jon. Blah, blah. OK. Bye." And be done. I love that, so it's funny how you think that people misunderstand that about you.
Jon Swartz: Well, no, I think most people do. I've had friends tell me that I was abrupt on the phone, but sometimes, you feel like a juggler. I'm sure you, anyone who has a job that's busy.
Susan Bratton: Everybody.
Jon Swartz: Everybody with stress. There are fewer people doing more work than ever before because of all the cutbacks that are going on because of the economy. You feel as if you're swimming in details, and you don't have enough time to do it. I think a lot of reporters... I have to say, among the best reporters in tech are usually the easiest to deal with on the phone or on email. I could just, next time not pick up the phone if I'm too busy.
Susan Bratton: Right. Exactly. You could.
Jon Swartz: I could just let it ring and return the call.
Susan Bratton: But you also make yourself available, which I think is really good.
Jon Swartz: Sure, I mean, that's a complaint actually. I don't know if you hear this often, but a complaint that I often hear that reporters are inaccessible.
Susan Bratton: Yeah.
Jon Swartz: That they won't pick up their phone.
Susan Bratton: Yeah.
Jon Swartz: And I think there is a point to that.
Susan Bratton: You get overwhelmed.
Jon Swartz: While I'm trying to promote this book, I was reaching out to other reporters, and I realized what it's like on the other side. And I realized that it is really hard to reach most of these people.
Susan Bratton: Yeah, well, you know we all have our jobs to do. It ain't easy no matter what. Sometimes it's just kismet. [laughs]
Jon Swartz: Right. That's right. Good word.
Susan Bratton: So I have one last question for you, because we're out of time. But one of the things that I asked you about was your mentors, and the first mentor you told me about was your recent...
Jon Swartz: Oh, it was a college professor who recently passed away.
Susan Bratton: Your professor. Yeah.
Jon Swartz: He worked at the Wall Street Journal. He owned a series of newspapers.
Susan Bratton: He's not the one I want to ask you about though.
Jon Swartz: Well, I mentioned Byron.
Susan Bratton: You mentioned Byron. Are you talking about Lord Byron the prolific 19th century...
Jon Swartz: [laughs] Well, him too. There are a number of people. Actually, it's so hard to come up with a short list of that. I was mentioning several levels, but it's difficult because there are so many great reporters out there who have written books and do this every day. He gets criticized a lot.
Susan Bratton: Who? What's his name? Byron what?
Jon Swartz: Oh, oh, oh. This is my coauthor. I was mentioning Byron.
Susan Bratton: Your Byron!
Jon Swartz: Yes.
Susan Bratton: Oh! Byron Acohido.
Jon Swartz: Yes! Byron's won a Pulitzer. There aren't very many reporters out there...
Susan Bratton: You've been nominated for a Pulitzer.
Jon Swartz: Yeah, but he won.
Susan Bratton: Yeah, well, you know. You've got to start somewhere! You can't win if you don't get nominated.
Jon Swartz: Right. I mean, he won and he helped save people's lives in the process for the project he won. But you know, it's just that very few people, given the climate of the newspaper industry and how it's all so bottom-line oriented, there are very few people who will hold out to try to do the story, go above and beyond a story, and they'll fight for the good of the consumer, and they will make themselves, for lack of a better term, a pain in the ass to the powers that be.
He's one of the few people who will fight the good fight, and it encourages me and it probably encourages other to not take the simple answer, the simple route, but to push a topic as far as you think it needs to go. And being vigilant and being difficult sometimes pays off in the end. That usually makes for better stories. The best stories are the hardest ones to get usually.
Susan Bratton: Absolutely. Everything. Life. The harder you work, right?
Jon Swartz: Exactly. It all pays off eventually.
Susan Bratton: It all works the same. It does. Great. Well, good. Kudos to Byron for being your buddy, your partner in writing.
Jon Swartz: [laughs] If I didn't like him, I never would have been able to write this book and write 200 stories with him.
Susan Bratton: Oh, absolutely.
Jon Swartz: I would have given that up long ago.
Susan Bratton: Sounds like you have a really good partnership there.
Jon Swartz: Yeah, it is.
Susan Bratton: Well, Jon thank you, too, because you are making an autographed copy of "Zero Day Threat" available to "Dishy Mix" listeners. So if you would like to have a fun, autographed copy of Jon's book, I have one to give away. You need to go into Facebook, join the "Dishy Mix" fan club, and tell me why you want it, and I'll give it to you. So don't be shy! The first people who come to me with something good as a reason they'd like to have a copy, that one will be yours. Jon, thanks for making that available.
Jon Swartz: Thanks very much. No, no, it's my pleasure.
Susan Bratton: It was really fun to have you on. I really enjoyed the book, so thank you. That was a lot of fun! I didn't expect to. I thought it was going to be like a geeky boy book, you know? And I really liked it!
Jon Swartz: [laughs] Well if it were, I wouldn't write it. That's actually one final thought. Our plan from the beginning was to write something that anybody could understand on the street, but we didn't want to simplify to the point where we talked down to people or we lost the technical resonance of what we were writing about. We wanted to try to straddle the line between educating people but not talking over their heads. We're generalists anyway.
Susan Bratton: You write for USA Today. You know how to write a damn clear piece of information.
Jon Swartz: [laughs] Yeah, that's true. That is a benefit of the job.
Susan Bratton: Even if you don't read the book, all the precautions, like the whole chapter that you did on all the precautions that you need to take. It's worth that, just to buy the book to have that, even if you don't even want to read the crime stories.
Jon Swartz: Exactly, it is prescriptive.
Susan Bratton: It is prescriptive. Exactly. So some lucky person is going to get your autographed copy, and they'll be very happy to have that. Our listeners love their autographed copies. So thank you for that.
Jon Swartz: My pleasure.
Susan Bratton: And thanks for coming on the show.
Jon Swartz: Hey, thanks for having me.
Susan Bratton: It was good to get to know you. I had a nice time talking to you today. And thanks for breaking away from the big Silicon Valley breaking news.
Jon Swartz: I'm going to back now. I'm going to dive back into the fray.
Susan Bratton: Good, all right. Go throw yourself in the mosh pit and crank out some stories, huh?
Jon Swartz: Right.
Susan Bratton: All right Jon, thank you so much. That was Jon Swartz. He's a fantastic tech reporter at USA Today and the author of "Zero Day Threat: The Shocking Truth of How Banks and Credit Bureaus Help Cybercrooks Steal Your Money." Uh uh! Not going to steal my money no mo'. And remember that there are transcripts of this episode at personallifemedia.com, in case you'd like to forward some information around about that. Hey, thanks so much for listening to the show today. I hope you enjoyed it, learned something, and had a little fun. That's my goal, to make you happy. I'm your host Susan Bratton. You're listening to "Dishy Mix," and I hope I'll talk to you next week. Have a great day.
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