Hunting the thieves behind a rash of six-figure wine heists ... “They’re not crawling under laser beams or anything. They’re using sledgehammers and crowbars. But they know what wine they want. This is wine stolen to order.” ... The FBI thinks so, too. The agency’s San Francisco bureau has been tracking the crimes for similarities. The thefts usually occur over a holiday, when the targeted restaurant is closed. Only certain types of wine are taken–usually French or Californian, priced at thousands of dollars a bottle. ... A wine theft is notoriously hard to investigate. It’s often compared to an art heist, because once a bottle is stolen it usually makes its way through a series of black market dealers before winding up in somebody’s private collection, where it remains unseen for years. But unlike art, if stolen wine does resurface, it’s difficult to prove what it is or where it came from. ... Downey trained as a sommelier before becoming a part-time wine fraud investigator. For the past 10 years she has been on a one-woman crusade to rid the wine industry of counterfeit and stolen wine. And there’s a lot of it out there. The French newspaper Sud Ouest estimates that 20 percent of wine sold in the world is either fake or stolen; Wine Spectator puts it at around 5 percent.
There are 1,480 living species of cacti, all but one indigenous to the Americas. The journal Nature Plants recently studied the level of danger to almost every species on earth––the largest study of any plant taxon––and the alarming result was 31 percent are threatened, the fifth most of any taxonomic group, just behind amphibians and corals. Loss of habitat to humans and the clumsy plodding of livestock factored highly. No surprise. But what shocked the report’s author was that the largest extinction threat comes from horticulture, specifically the illegal collection and trade of cacti. ... Last October, Chinese and German customs agents busted a smuggling ring and seized 1,250 plants, some rare and endangered cacti. As might be expected, there are few scholarly reports investigating the cactus black market. One such report, called “Prickly Trade” (the cactus world is full of egregious puns), estimated that in one three-year period people illegally plucked about 100,000 cacti out of the Texas wild or smuggled them over the Mexican border. That was in 2003. Then Internet commerce arrived. A report from 2012 monitored just 24 online cacti sellers for 1,000 purchases. These were not just any 1,000 cacti. Each was listed as an “Appendix I” specie by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which are plants threatened with extinction. To trade any of these, a seller needs a permit. Of the 1,000 cacti researchers monitored, the report found at least 90 percent had traded hands illegally.
The medical student told me to use his name. He said he didn’t care. “Maduro is a donkey,” he said. “An a**hole.” He meant Nicolás Maduro, the President of Venezuela. We were passing through the wards of a large public hospital in Valencia, a city of roughly a million people, a hundred miles west of Caracas. The hallways were dim and stifling, thick with a frightening stench. ... Why were hospitals so heavily guarded? Nobody threatened to invade them. The guards had orders, it was said, to keep out journalists. Exposés had embarrassed the government. ... For decades, the country had been ruled by two centrist parties that took turns winning elections but were increasingly out of touch with voters. A move to impose fiscal austerity was rejected, in 1989, with a mass revolt and countrywide looting—a paroxysm known as the Caracazo—which was put down by the Army at a cost of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of lives. Chávez was an Army lieutenant colonel, from a humble background—his parents were village schoolteachers. He crashed the national stage in 1992, by leading a military-coup attempt. The coup failed, and Chávez went to jail, but his televised declarations of noble intent caught the imaginations of many Venezuelans. He offered a charismatic alternative to the corrupt, sclerotic status quo. After his release, he headed a small leftist party and easily won the Presidency. ... He soon rewrote the constitution, concentrating power in the executive. ... After Chávez barely survived a 2002 coup attempt, the Cubans also sent teams of military and intelligence advisers who taught their Venezuelan counterparts how to surveil and disrupt the political opposition Cuban-style, with close monitoring, harassment, and strategic arrests. ... Polar employs about thirty thousand workers (it is the country’s largest private employer) and is responsible for more than three per cent of Venezuela’s non-oil gross domestic product. Besides corn flour and the country’s top-selling beer, Polar produces pasta, rice, tuna fish, wine, ice cream, yogurt, margarine, ketchup, mayonnaise, and detergent. Yet it operates in an atmosphere of continual uncertainty, its planners and logistics mavens never sure what roadblock or subterfuge the government will toss up next. ... The crisis has a small but crucial constituency, starting with the generals and other high government officials who are thriving financially, mainly through smuggling, graft, and import fraud.
In short, FPAQ—the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers—is OPEC. Formed in 1966, the federation was tasked with taking a business in which few could make a decent living—the price went north to south with the quality of the yield, which went north to south with the quality of the spring—and turning it into a respectable trade. This was accomplished in the classic way: quotas, rules. You control supply, you control price. You limit supply, you raise price. Because Quebec makes 72 percent of the world’s maple syrup, it’s been able to set the price. As of this writing, the commodity is valued at just over $1,300 a barrel, 26 times more expensive than crude. ... By making syrup production seem like a good business instead of just an eccentric survivalist hobby, it has brought a great increase in production, much of it in the U.S. Just like OPEC, which, with its near monopoly, spurred the search for new sources. With oil, it’s the deep deposits reached only by fracking. With syrup, it’s forests in Vermont, New Hampshire, and especially New York State, which, Canadians tell you with a shudder, has three times more maple trees than all of Quebec’s maple farms combined. The French province produces 72 percent of the world supply, but if the Americans ever make the push to self-sufficiency, French Canada is cooked. ... nearly 540,000 gallons of syrup had been stolen—12.5 percent of the Reserve—with a street value of $13.4 million.
There was a time, a few years back, when the most sophisticated cyber-warfare tools were still developed and used exclusively by the world’s most sophisticated cyber-warfare combatants: government spy agencies, such as the ultra-secret National Security Agency and its counterparts in Israel and other developed countries and their arch-rivals in China and Russia. The surveillance and monitoring capabilities that Edward Snowden unveiled to the world in 2013 were shocking and little understood, but an ordinary citizen could at least take comfort in the belief that, if he wasn’t a criminal or a spy, it was unlikely these tools would ever be used against him. ... That was then. ... last August, came the startling confirmation from Apple itself: a genuine remote jailbreak “in the wild,” the one discovered and identified by Marczak and the Lookout researchers. To everyone’s surprise it had been out there operating secretly for years. ... By 2010 a true black market for zero days was emerging beyond the usual black market. ... In this new black market few knew exactly who the buyers were, but it was widely assumed that many were governments looking for clever new ways to spy on their own citizenry.
For more than a decade, Wiseguy was the biggest name in ticket scalping. The company fundamentally broke Ticketmaster, using one of the first ever automated "ticket bots" to buy and flip millions of tickets between 1999 and Lowson's eventual arrest on wire fraud charges in 2010. ... The scourge of ticket bots and the immorality of the shady ticket scalpers using them is conventional wisdom that's so ingrained in the public consciousness and so politically safe that a law to ban ticket bots passed both houses of Congress unanimously late last year, in part thanks to a high-profile public relations campaign spearheaded by Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda. ... But no one actually involved in the ticket scalping industry thinks that banning bots will do much to slow down the secondary market. ... Between 2001 and 2010, the company bought and resold roughly 1.5 million tickets, amassing more than $25 million in profits overall
The very nature of these warships is what makes them both so difficult to remove from the ocean floor and so appealing to illegal salvagers ballsy enough to try. Consider this: The Perch, which was as long as a football field and 26 feet wide, displaced nearly 2,000 tons when submerged. The Encounter and Exeter belonged to a robust class of British destroyers that carried torpedoes, anti-aircraft weaponry, and a complement of about 150 sailors each. The De Ruyter was the largest of all, with a length of more than 560 feet. All now gone without a trace. ... Even in poor condition, gleaned steel fetches about $150 a ton in international markets. A recovered destroyer can easily result in a profit of $100,000 ... There’s a ton more money to be had if you find ships built before the dawn of nuclear testing. Steel is made by melting iron at super-high temperatures and infusing it with carbon. To make sure those carbon levels don’t get too high, steelmakers blow oxygen into the mix, along with ambient atmospheric particulates. That includes radiation. Natural elements like radon create low-level natural radioactivity. We increased those levels exponentially when countries like the United States and Russia began nuclear testing in the mid-1940s. France, England, and China jumped on the bomb bandwagon a few years later. And with each detonation, radioactivity levels in our atmosphere increased. That meant each time steelmakers were blowing oxygen into new steel, they were also blowing nuclear particulates into it. ... That’s not true for the steel used to fabricate pre-1942 vessels, which is virtually radiation-free. And its clean status makes this metal particularly valuable for some technical applications of nuclear medicine and, more commonly, the development of nuclear energy and weapons.
In recent years, nut theft has exploded into a statewide problem. More than 35 loads, worth at least $10 million, have gone missing since 2013. The number and style of the thefts—quick and professional, as if the characters from Ocean’s Eleven had descended on the Central Valley—have drawn the attention of federal organized-crime investigators and prompted the creation of a regional task force. ... California grows the majority of the world’s almonds and is the second-largest producer of pistachios and walnuts. Many environmentalists blame their cultivation for exacerbating California’s drought—nut trees are thirsty plants. ... The man tasked with finding missing nuts in Tulare County is sheriff Mike Boudreaux, and in 2015 he faced a growing problem. That year, thieves had stolen six shipments, valued at $1.6 million, from area processors ... food and beverages overtook electronics as the most commonly stolen cargo in 2010. ... food is the easiest target in an ocean of easy targets. A private investigator and transit-company owner from California named Sam Wadhwani said that he had tracked cargo thefts of tires, Xboxes, computer equipment earmarked for the military, baby formula, tampons, and iPhones. Inventing a fake trucking company is easy, he said, as is impersonating a legitimate one. The only people in the shipping industry responsible for verifying truckers are brokers, who connect customers with trucking companies. ... the situation is further complicated by the fact that many nut processors have avoided contacting the police, worried that reporting thefts could jeopardize future business.