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Mark Coggins

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Confessions of an Email Forger

Posted: 06/10/10 01:45 PM ET

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Email forgery or "spoofing" involves changing the sender address to make it appear as though an email originated from a different source. Usually it's done with messages sent over the Internet--as opposed to messages sent within a company--and often it's employed with spam to make it harder to trace the identity of the sender. My motives were entirely different. I sent forged emails from inside a Fortune 50 company to get dates with hot chicks. And it worked. Until it didn't.

My crimes took place at a large computer firm--we'll call it Big Iron--where I worked in the IT department as a computer programmer. I was in my late twenties, coming off a divorce and desperate to get back in the dating game. The only problem was, I'd never really been in it. I dated a grand total of one woman in college (whom I promptly married after graduation), and whatever limited skills I'd once possessed with the fairer sex had gone the way of the corduroy bell bottoms I used to wear.

It wasn't that I had trouble finding women. There were plenty in the building where I worked. I'd even managed to strike up a conversation with one or two in the cafeteria or the softball games in the Big Iron league. The difficult bit was screwing up enough courage up to ask one out.

Face-to-face was out of the question. I couldn't deal with the real time, surround sound, 3D experience of being rejected. Phone was another option, but that meant asking a woman for her number--which was the moral equivalent of asking her out. Sure, there were devious ways of getting a number that avoided the awkward face-to-face request, but most of them were just that: patently devious.

"Hi Sally, this is Mark. I was calling to see if you'd--"

"How'd you get this number?"

"I, ah, got it from the department secretary's emergency contact list."

"Emergency? You've got a funny definition of emergency. Don't ever call here again."

That left email. Email avoided all the unpleasantness of real time rejection, but it was the coward's way out. It wasn't so much that I minded being a coward--because, after all, I was a coward--it was that I didn't want to be identified as one. I imagined a conversation between two women in a Big Iron powder room:

"Do you know what Mark Coggins did?"

"Coggins? You mean that nerdy guy working on the Whatzit 2.0 project?"

"That's him. He emailed me to go on a date to the planetarium."

"Emailed you? To go to the planetarium? Jesus. What'd you say?"

"Here's a little hint." FLUSH.

So that was my dilemma. Email was the only communication medium I felt brave enough to use, but I didn't want the very fact I'd employed it to be an excuse to reject me. If only there were a way to use email and somehow make it cool at the same time. Then it hit me: as part of my work on the Whatzit 2.0 project, I was writing a program that would allow users to send email without going through the regular interface. That meant the Whatzit software was authenticating the sender instead of the corporate directory.

It also meant--as creator of the Whatzit/email integration--I could fudge the authentication and send emails to anyone in the company from anyone in the company. I was a god! (By nerd standards, anyway). If that didn't make me and my emails cool, I didn't know what would.

All that remained was to determine the receiver--and the sender--of the email. The answer to the first question was easy. I'd had my eye on a girl named Leah for quite some time. She had red hair, a beautiful smile and a great sense of humor. (Meaning that she laughed at my jokes.) Although she was about my age, she, too, had been through an early marriage and divorce, which somehow made me feel less awkward around her. The other thing in her favor was that she also worked in Big Iron's IT department, albeit on a different project, so she would fully appreciate the technical prowess required to hack the company's email system.

I had already chatted Leah up over beers after one of the company softball games, so I didn't think she would be too surprised if I took the next step and asked her out. But from whom would the phony email come? I reached that decision almost as quickly as the first. I would send the email from the company CEO.

Nowadays, large companies have rules about abuse of company email. Back then, Big Iron's employee handbook didn't even discuss email, but I didn't doubt for an instant that I would be walked out the door if caught or reported. You don't send a phony email from the company CEO--especially the CEO of a Fortune 50 company--and keep your job.

Strangely, I never gave the risk a moment's thought. Me, a guy who was too chicken to ask a girl for her telephone number. I did, however, spend a considerable amount of (company) time drafting the email. In my persona of Big Iron CEO, I told Leah what a great job she was doing, moved on to a glowing description of Mark Coggins and the stellar contribution he, too, was making and then pointed out that it would be in Big Iron's best interest if we (Leah and Mark) got to know each other better. I suggested a good way to start was dinner this coming Friday. I gave the game away at the end when I mentioned that I (the real me) had assisted fake me (the CEO) in the creation of the email and please DO NOT under any circumstances write back to this address. It would be best to contact Mark directly.

Surprisingly, it worked like a charm. Not five minutes after I pressed the send key, Leah came striding over to my cubicle, slapped down a printed copy of the email, and said, "I don't know how you did that, wise guy. But I'm picking the restaurant."

On our first date, Leah made of point of pulling out a foil-backed sheet with little pills arranged in a circle, popping one out and swallowing it. On the second date, she did the same thing. On the night of that second date, we ended up having sex. When we got to the question about birth control, she looked at me funny and told me she was on the pill. You will rightly protest that I should have already known that she was on the pill--that she had gone out of her way to signal the fact to me--but it was years and years later when I happened to think about the incident that I realized exactly what those little pills were and why Leah had been so demonstrative in her consumption of them.

Leah and I went out for another four months, but I gradually became convinced that I just wasn't up to her speed. There also was the unsettling matter of her granny underwear. For someone who appeared to have a healthy interest in sex, I couldn't understand the motivation to throw a wet blanket on the festivities by wearing belly-button high bloomers of a particularly unappetizing industrial beige. (After all, I had done the expected thing after my divorce and purchased and entire new drawer full of Speedo-type briefs in a Crayola box of colors.)

We broke up after a Halloween party at her house--she was the spacewoman in a hand-sewn gold lame suit; I was the Samurai in jerry-rigged bathrobe--and I was on the hunt again. I had been fairly disciplined in use of my email powers after the original missive to Leah. There had been the odd gag played on (trusted) coworkers requesting them to attend nonexistent executive briefings to justify their projects, but for the most part, I'd laid low. Now I decided to cast off all restraint and use the power to lure in another fish.

The tragedy was that the "fish" did not really need any luring. The woman in question was named Delilah, and she was tall, dark, athletic--and sexy as hell. I'd originally seen her at lunch time, blasting past my friends and me as we jogged along the running trail near the Big Iron campus. I later encountered her at the top of a vertiginous black diamond ski run named "Thunder Saddle."

My buddy and I had just determined that the blue run "Gerbil's Escalator" was more our speed, and were attempting to claw our way to the other side of the mountain, when she swished up in a skintight suit. She introduced herself, flashing a smile that set me tingling all over. The tingling graduated to a rigid numbness in all extremities as I stared at her perfect Lycra-bound flesh and attempted to hold up my end of the conversation. Suddenly the talking stopped and I realized with horror that she'd asked if we wanted to ski down the slope with her.

Fumbling, I explained that my buddy had snow in an uncomfortable place in his long johns and that we were on our way to the lodge to remedy the situation. She gave a knowing laugh and disappeared over the lip of the precipice. "See you soon" she called out from the Volkswagen-sized moguls of Thunder Saddle.

And soon it was. Within the next week, she invited me to her house for dinner. The evening started off well. I earned points by helping her in the kitchen. The conversation flowed smoothly (she worked in the procurement department of Big Iron and we both had a bit of Native American blood) and I even managed to make her laugh. But just as we were finishing the meal, and would perhaps be moving on to a little cuddling while watching a rented movie, disaster struck. My eyes betrayed me.

If replacing all your underwear was the first imperative of the newly divorced, replacing your glasses with contacts was the second. I had worn my new contacts to dinner and now they decided to act up. I began blinking and tearing, and eventually it was clear I couldn't keep the lenses on without clawing out both them and my eyes. I hadn't brought my glasses or even the little plastic storage case for the contacts, so I beat an ignoble retreat to my car and blinked and cried my way home.

The next day I made the fatal calculation. I knew that I had lost ground with the contacts fiasco, but I thought I scored points at dinner with my jokes. What better way to get back in the plus column than to send one of my side-splitting emails?

Maybe it could have worked. Maybe if I had picked the right sender and just the right text, I would have impressed her--or at least amused her--and moved the ball forward. What I did instead was idiotic. Looking back on it now, I can't even begin to imagine what I was thinking.

I decided to send an email that appeared to come from a goofy married guy in her group named Ralph. We had talked about him at dinner and she had poked gentle fun at his appearance and his decidedly unhip demeanor. I further decided that Ralph would appear to come on to her in the email (in a goofy, unhip sort of way), and then at the end--ha-ha-ha--I would reveal the true sender was me.

I waited until I knew she was at her desk and launched this torpedo. Fifteen minutes went by. Then thirty--and still no response. I began to worry. I walked by her desk and didn't see her. I went by again. Nada.

She didn't talk to me until the next day. Trembling with emotion, she told me that she'd read the first few paragraphs of the email and rushed off to the bathroom. She was panicked and sickened at the thought of Ralph coming onto her and she couldn't think of anything else to do. She stayed in the bathroom until lunch time when she hoped Ralph would be away from the area. It was only when she went back to her computer to forward the email to Human Resources that she read the final few paragraphs and realized the sender was me.

I was mortified and ashamed. I had never considered she wouldn't read the whole email. I had never considered what a stupid idea the whole thing was to begin with. I fell all over myself apologizing. She listened to my pleadings, then walked away. She was justifiably cool to me for a time--she would have been well within her rights to report me to HR instead of Ralph--but eventually she forgave me enough to come over to dinner at my apartment. The dinner went well enough, but her interest was clearly diminished. Complaining of a cold, she went home early and we never went out again. A few months later she moved to Boise. I heard she married a lumberjack.

The whole experience illustrates a pattern I've only recently come to recognize. When confronted with a challenge--particularly one where I don't have the guts or patience to do the traditional, expected thing--I will come up with some crazy end-around that can unexpectedly succeed.

But then, having tasted success, I'm not content to let it go. I have to push it further. If one vial of crazy love potion did the job, then two will do it twice as well. Only it doesn't. It only leads to a toxic overdose.

I've got an entire morgue of poisoned relationships to prove it.

(Photo adapted from the original by Stian Eikeland. CC 2.0 licensing.)