NEW YORK FBI Supervisory Special Agent Richard Jacobs once had to go undercover as a "corrupt" stock broker to help catch scammers on Wall Street making illegal profits by manipulating penny stocks.
Jacobs had to live and breathe his new role.
"When you're talking to traders, there's a lot of slang," he said in a recent interview with Reuters. "I thought, 'Can I pull this off?'"
Without divulging too much about the case, Jacobs said he succeeded--but with careful planning.
He created a firm and a history for himself: He needed to convince the scammers he was so desperate to make a buck that he would help them sell shares in their fraudulent companies to unwitting investors.
That meant delivering a convincing story about his career as a broker and also creating a shady but realistic-seeming brokerage firm out of thin air.
Of course, Jacobs could not pull this off overnight. He spent six years as a banker at a major Wall Street firm.
"Just explaining a stock option to someone who has no background in finance can take a long time," he said.
Jacobs, 41, is the agent who was cited for his work on the WorldCom case in 2005 and supervised the investigation of former SAC Capital Advisors fund manager Mathew Martoma, who is charged with insider trading. At $276 million in alleged illegal profits, the Martoma case is the largest insider trading case ever brought and has rocked Steven A. Cohen's $14 billion hedge fund.
Jacobs said he draws on his real world experience frequently.
"When hearing about certain types of securities fraud, I was in a much better position to understand the details than people who had no experience," Jacobs said of his work on financial crimes investigations.
There are at least half a dozen other agents assigned to the FBI's three financial crime units in New York who, like Jacobs, left careers in finance to help chase down the bad guys on Wall Street. Their experience helps add depth and continuity to the policing of financial crimes by an agency with plenty of internal reshuffling.
Jacobs, who left Wall Street for the FBI in 1999, was recently promoted to a job overseeing the work of all three securities fraud bureaus in New York, a move that takes him a little further away from the day-to-day action. In recent months, the FBI's securities team in New York lost two of its most seasoned agents, B.J. Kang and David Makol, who led much of the early work in the federal government's long-running crackdown on insider trading in the $2 trillion hedge fund industry.
Makol and Kang both moved to federal law enforcement jobs in other cities. Kang, who may be best remembered making the highly publicized arrest of Ponzi king Bernard Madoff and Galleon Group founder Raj Rajaratnam, came to the FBI with a background in accounting.
The FBI relies on its agents with Wall Street pedigrees to help steer investigations ranging from insider trading to market manipulation and other frauds that often require a familiarity with spreadsheets and complex financial products.
Jacobs said people such agents interview are more open with them, more willing to talk. That's particularly helpful in approaching people about trying to get them to cooperate with an investigation, which requires people to rat out their friends and colleagues.
Lilian Perez, 33, who spent four years on an investment banking team advising on mergers and initial public offerings before joining the FBI eight years ago, said her work on Wall Street has helped her look at Ponzi schemes and market manipulation cases with a keen eye.
Sal Cincinelli, 34, two years ago walked away from a career as a credit trader with an MBA in quantitative finance to join the FBI. He said that for an investigation he's working on, he recently interviewed a person on Wall Street who specializes in collateralized debt obligations, bonds that are created from collections of corporate debt and sold to investors in slices.
He said the conversation lasted an hour and at the end of it the other agent who had accompanied him turned to Cincinelli and said, "I don't even know how I would ask those questions."
But making the switch from Wall Street, where seven-figure salaries are common, to much lower-paying government work isn't always easy.
"Some of my friends said, 'Are you crazy? Have you lost your mind?'" said Cincinelli, whose profile on LinkedIn shows he has held positions at Bank of America and Global FX.
Cincinelli declined to discuss his prior work and said his wife initially was furious with his decision to join the FBI. She was worried for her husband's safety and unhappy about the lengthy FBI training programs.
Jacobs and Cincinelli both said giving up their Wall Street careers meant giving up some friends too, so drastic was the lifestyle change.
Jacobs fondly remembers another thing from his Wall Street days: his Mitsubishi 3000GT, a powerful sports car that he bought with one of his last big paychecks.
He had been at the bureau just six months when the car was stolen. His insurance covered the loss in full, but Jacobs did not buy another sports car.
"I went practical after that."
(Reporting by Emily Flitter; Editing by Matthew Goldstein, Jennifer Ablan and Dan Grebler)