Greg Conic was nineteen, going on immortal. The glowing computer monitor in his otherwise dark bedroom gave his face a washed out, ghostly cast. His skeletal frame and the dark bags under his eyes revealed that he neither ate nor slept with regularity. His mother, who might have cared, was upstairs somewhere, probably drunk again. None of that mattered. Down here, he was a god.
He had lost his last job many months ago, and the unemployment benefits would run out in a few weeks. He made a bit of cash by harvesting and selling credit card numbers, but he needed a real score. Something worthy of his talents. Something that didn’t depend on stupid, unpredictable human beings.
Illinois was the first state to offer online lottery ticket purchases, beginning in March of 2012. Tickets could be purchased up until 9:45 p.m. on the date of the drawing. The drawing itself was at 10:00 p.m. Chicago time.
Since the beginning, Greg had bought two tickets every week, one for the Tuesday drawing and one for the Friday drawing, always making his purchase in the last fifteen minutes available. Except for tonight.
Tonight was a test run, months in preparation. Was he good enough?
He had hacked his way into the Illinois lottery computers, an objective more difficult than any bank or military installation. He had monitored his transactions and e-mails through every server, leaving nothing but a tiny Trojan in his wake. The small program could do only one thing: reset the system time. But it should be enough.
The live drawing of the Mega Millions numbers had just finished. Greg entered one winning white ball and the mega ball in his online form. It would net him three dollars if he had done everything right. At 10:02 pm, with his thin lips forming an unconscious, lopsided smile, he clicked the “Buy Now” button.
That action fired off a cascading series of Trojan instructions. Each server had its clock set 30 minutes back. The transaction passed through and the clock was reset to the correct time, all in a few hundredths of a second.
In an act of supreme self-control, and as something of a celebration, he went to bed without waiting for a confirming e-mail. In the morning, Greg found that his online lottery account had indeed been credited with a three dollar win. Proof of concept: achieved.
Now, he waited, maintaining his pattern of buying a ticket twice a week, until the lottery payout was over $100 million. It took just three weeks.
Greg repeated his earlier trick, only this time, he entered the actual winning numbers before he clicked the “Buy Now” button. The Trojans fired off, just like clockwork. He sniggered when he thought of that. He was a god who punned.
Gotta love computers. Understand ‘em. Stroke ‘em in just the right way, and they deliver every time. All he had to do now was figure out how to spend $100 million dollars.
Seven hundred and fifty miles away, at the Mega Millions headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, Ron Hatten prepared to waste another Friday night of his own time waiting for that tiny, unexpected hitch to reappear. He was new on the job, and his boss was not impressed. “We’re like Fort Knox. There’s no way anyone could interfere with our systems. Now don’t get me into trouble by putting in for overtime. I told you to go home.”
Instead, Ron met his girlfriend for Italian and was back at his desk an hour before the drawing. A single glass of red wine had mellowed him just enough to enjoy the task of checking his server logs and double checking that his own small, unauthorized programs were alert and ready.
After three weeks of painstaking analysis, he knew exactly what the guy had done, and admitted a grudging admiration for his skill. But Ron felt territorial and predatory when his kingdom was threatened. He was on the hunt, and no unimaginative bureaucrat was going to call him off. The interloper would be back, and Ron would make him pay. Your biggest mistake was to pick my servers. Loser.
The monitor chirped a small warning that boosted Ron’s adrenaline to an exhilarating high. In a few seconds, Greg’s planted programs had fixed the times on all the intermediate servers, creating an electronic trail to confirm his purchase. But just before the winning numbers were processed, Ron’s program changed one number by one digit. Then he processed one more transaction before letting Greg’s programs take over again.
In the morning, Greg would find that his $100 million had shrunk to just $10,000. Thanks for the ride buddy. And here’s another tip: you may be good with computers, but you didn’t count on me. I’m better.
In the morning, Ron Hatten would give his two week notice and vanish. In thirty days or so, he would make a claim under his real name. The planning had been fun, the hacking a challenge. The illegalities didn’t bother him, but he never loved the idea of stealing from some innocent person. In the end, he might have walked away. But stealing from a thief? That was sweet.