Piracy reached record levels in 2010

Pirate hijackings in the Red Sea and nearby waters reached their highest levels ever, the Associated Press reports.

Pirate hijackings worldwide claimed 1,181 hostages and 53 vessels, a rise of ten percent since 2009. Of these, 49 ships were taken by Somali gunmen in the Red Sea or nearby waters in the Indian Ocean. Somali piracy has been the biggest problem area despite an international fleet of warships trying to stop it. Somalis have taken four more ships so far in 2011 and currently hold 31 ships and 713 people captive.

Somali pirates generally use speedboats to come up alongside freighters, tankers, or smaller ships and then threaten to open fire if the captain doesn’t stop. The pirates then board the vessel and radio in a ransom demand that can amount to millions of dollars. Prisoners are generally not hurt, although eight were killed last year. Usually the ransom is paid.

Because naval vessels have been able to stop some attacks near the Somali coast, pirates have moved operations further into the Indian Ocean where they’re harder to catch. Other problem areas include Nigerian, Bangladeshi, and Indonesian waters.

Somali pirates claim they have been forced into piracy because their fishermen have been pushed out of work by illegal fishing by foreign vessels and illegal dumping of toxic waste by big corporations.

If you’re worried about piracy, stay away from the Red Sea area, and check out our handy tips on what to do if pirates board your ship.

[Photo courtesy Mass communication Specialist 2nd Class Jason R. Zalasky , U.S. Navy.]

Detroit airport cop and TSA worker accused of stealing pizza and punching clerk

Ladies and gentlemen, we have two new contenders for the “dumbest TSA workers of the year” award. An airport cop and TSA worker both showed up at a Hartland Township, MI gas station to buy some booze in order to continue their buzz (which means they drove there drunk already). The two paid for the booze, then Renee Zima, the TSA officer, is accused of stealing two pieces of pizza, and leaving the store.

When the store clerk approached them demanding payment for the items, Zima flashed her TSA badge, claiming she was with Homeland Security. When the clerk tried to get their plate number, these two idiots bent the plate, then stood in front of it, blocking his view. When the clerk went back outside, Zima’s partner in crime (and off duty airport police officer) Richard Frederick punched him in the face.

The funny part is that all the effort put into covering up their license plate was completely useless, as these two smart criminals already identified themselves by paying for their booze purchase with a credit card, and I’m sure all the surveillance footage doesn’t help their case that much either.

When apprehended, Frederick claimed he punched the clerk because he felt threatened by “all the store clerks surrounding him”, even though the video clips only show one person. Both the Wayne County Airport Authority and the TSA have started an investigation into the actions. Zima has been placed on administrative leave, and Frederick has entered rehab.%Gallery-76818%

Phony IRS agent gets probation for lying to live in hotel

Eventually, the law will catch up with you. Sherry Lynn Vertoch just got probation and was ordered to repay $55,000 to the people she affected. What did Vertoch do? Well, she accumulated that monstrous tab while posing as an IRS agent and stiffing the Inn Marin hotel in Novato, California. The five-year probation sentence was sent down largely because of her illnesses, including diabetes and high blood pressure.

At first, Vertoch’s stays weren’t long. After 2008, she effectively moved in, staying for two years without paying her bill. Her home, room 121, cost $79 a night … well, it should have. To keep the hotel staff off her back, Vertoch told them she was an IRS agent working on an investigation. The story wore thin, however, and a co-owner of the hotel, Robert Marshall, reached out to the IRS to verify her story. It didn’t check out, and Vertoch ultimately wound up in cuffs.

Robert Marshall noted, “The real crime is, we’re a local family business. We don’t have deep pockets, and basically she’s taken money from our children and the families of all our employees. It’s tough times right now.”

Is the U.S. Forest Service spying on visitors?

Our country’s national parks and forests are intended as sanctuaries, zones of peace and quiet where visitors can get away from the give and take of modern life. But don’t expect to have it all to yourself: these days you might be joined by hidden cameras, placed by the U.S. Forest Service. Don’t break out the tinfoil hat just yet; this “conspiracy theory” may have some truth to it. According to a South Carolina newspaper, the agency has been placing hidden cameras in forest areas for some time.

Visitor Herman Jacob was camping and looking for firewood in South Carolina’s Francis Marion National Forest last month when he stumbled across a wire. The wire took him to a video camera and a remote antenna sitting in the middle of the woods. Perplexed, Jacob took the camera home with him and contacted the local police, who explained it had been set up to monitor “illicit activities” and demanded its return. Further investigation by the Island Packet, the newspaper that researched the story, confirmed that the Forest Service has used the cameras as a tool of law enforcement for “numerous years.” A Forest Service spokesperson quoted in the article indicated that images taken of those not targeted by an investigation are not kept.

In light of the fact drug cartels have been growing marijuana on federal land for some time, this type of surveillance makes more sense. And, legally, the cameras are on public land – surveillance is permissible. But is a policy that allows this type of monitoring, particularly in a quiet forest, a violation of our trust? Or is it a necessary evil, preventing misuse of public land? Leave us your thoughts in the comments.

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Feds Try to Halt Starwood Suit of Hilton to Chase Criminal Charges

Usually, it’s what goes on inside the hotels that is mysterious. Illicit trysts, quiet business deals and the occasional rendez-vous of spies (very occasional, I suspect) are what we’d love to believe happens in behind the closed doors of hotels up-market and down. The reality, however, is far more interesting. There is plenty of espionage going on in the hotel world, but it’s the hotels themselves – not he guests – who are getting in on the action … and now the feds are involved.

A lawsuit filed by Starwood Hotels against competitor Hilton may have to wait for a bit. Federal prosecutors believe that the civil litigation could impede the criminal investigation. The U.S. Attorney’s Office is pursuing charges that could include conspiracy, computer fraud, theft of trade secrets and interstate transportation of stolen goods against Hilton, as well as two executives that that the company hired from Starwood.

According to the filing by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, “The government seeks a stay of discovery pending resolution of the criminal investigation.”

Starwood alleges that Hilton swiped confidential documents in an attempt to develop an offer that would compete with Starwood’s W Hotels brand. Before the civil effort can be put on hold in favor of the criminal investigation, a judge will have to sign off on the motion.

Hilton’s response to the filing, according to USA Today is: “Hilton Worldwide continues to fully cooperate with the Government’s investigation and supports the Government’s motion to stay discovery in the Starwood civil litigation matter.”

Not exactly earth-shattering.