Dan Rather faces the victim, a long-haired blond man with an earring.
"Is it addictive?" the CBS anchorman wants to know.
The thin young victim, John Skiersch, looks into the camera. "Yes."
"Are you a sucker?"
"Tough thing to admit publicly," Rather suggests.
Yes, yes, it's hard conceding you're a sucker with a zillion people watching. It's harder still when the audience includes your mother and two brothers who told you not to day-trade the money your grandfather left you. And then they told you not to talk about it--to stay away from the mobs of reporters documenting this strange corner of Wall Street.
But there you are on "60 Minutes II," telling the world how you frittered away your $200,000 inheritance in one of these new shops that let amateurs trade stocks all day.
"Yes," Skiersch repeats to Rather, with a whisper of a midwestern accent. "I was a sucker."
This painful admission, repeated dozens of times since the March airing, has reincarnated this failed Chicago actor into day trading's sad sack, a permanent victim whose plight is manna for the media and raw meat for federal regulators. See, in all the hoopla about how day trading is a massive public menace, a walking, talking victim is very hard to come by.
"I'll tell you the real story in day trading if you don't identify me," said one regulator. "Where are the victims? Show me the victims."
Invariably, John Skiersch has been the answer to that call. Changing his hairstyle and his fashion regularly, he has appeared on "60 Minutes" three times, "CBS This Morning," the evening news and CNBC. He has been interviewed dozens of times for newspapers and magazines (The Washington Post quoted him first in print). He may well be on C-Span in January, when Congress is expected to call on a victim for a series of day-trading hearings.
"I was getting out of a cab the other day and someone stopped me and said, 'Aren't you the idiot who lost all that money day trading?' " Skiersch, 34, groaned.
Skiersch is the victim extraordinaire--the credible crusader against an industry that regulators say is teeming with closet losers. In just a few years, about 300 street-front salons equipped with high-speed computers linked to the stock market have opened. An estimated 4,000 to 5,000 people frequent these shops, and tens of thousands more day-trade at home through online services.
Because individuals pay commissions with every push of the key--whether the trade is profitable or not--even defenders of the industry concede that most day traders lose money before they succeed. The North American Securities Administrators Association, a trade group of state regulators, found that over the long run 12 percent of traders in one shop in Massachusetts made money; 70 percent lost.
Regulators shut down that shop and others for practices they deem deceptive. Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Arthur Levitt Jr. has compared hyperactive trading to gambling and has urged investors to smarten up. Congress is weighing whether to write new laws.
But there are few official complaints. Lawsuits are scarce. Go out hunting for a few good victims and you'll be disappointed.
"We traveled all over the country looking for a victim," said Russ Torres, an associate producer for "60 Minutes II." "Sometimes their stories wouldn't hold up. Sometimes they'd say yes and when we got there they said no."
Industry foes say losers feel too stupid to talk, blaming themselves, bound by contracts. "There are hundreds and hundreds of victims like me, but they're scared to come forward," Skiersch recently told Barron's.
This camera-shyness, if that's what it is, is bad news for those hellbent on smoking out the problems. They need to get the message out to a large audience--and television is vital.
"TV reporters tell us all the time: No victim, no story," said Marc Beauchamp, spokesman for the state securities group. No story, no public outcry. No public outcry, no SEC investigation. No investigation, no congressional hearings. . . .
Owners of day-trading firms call this a witch hunt. "There are no victims, because we're not doing anything wrong," bristled Harvey Houtkin, the self-dubbed "father of day trading" and owner of a national chain called All-Tech Investment Group Inc.
The name Skiersch pushes a hot button in Houtkin. "He's that nut with the earring," the "father of day trading" hissed. "You ever hear of 15 minutes of fame?"
This is not the 15 minutes Skiersch had envisioned.
Once, he was "Johnny Vegas, the Disco King," a one-man vaudeville act that toured Windy City nightclubs, guitar in hand, wearing a polyester suit and a ponytail. The gig was not paying well, and he was constantly battling health problems.
You would know about John Skiersch's health problems if you tuned in to a CNBC segment in July that opened in Skiersch's doctor's office. "Diagnosed a year earlier with malignant melanoma," a reporter intoned, "he believes his recovery has taken longer as a result of the stress he suffered from day trading."
In case you've somehow missed his story, Skiersch two years ago put down $50,000 to start trading at a Chicago firm. He had a college degree in fine arts and no investing experience. The firm's managers, he said, persuaded him to sell his condo and run up credit cards so he could begin trading with $100,000. He paid $25 per trade and often made 100 "round trips"--or 200 buys and sells. On an average day, he said, he paid $5,000 in commissions.
"I realized there is no way to win," he told Business Week in August. "Just like there's no way to beat Caesars Palace."
Skiersch said he traded more than $200 million worth of stocks, giving the firm $120,000 in commissions. Then he moved to another firm with lower commissions.
He is in arbitration with one firm and recently settled with the other. He said he can't name either firm because it would jeopardize his agreements and hinder federal investigations. "I'm pointing them to the graveyard and all the bones I can find," he said.
Skiersch filed a complaint late last year with the SEC and the National Association of Securities Dealers. He also complained to state regulators. Beauchamp found Skiersch's case particularly credible and got his permission to pass his name on to "60 Minutes" when Torres came shopping for a victim.
"John Skiersch is an effective victim," Beauchamp said. "He's articulate. He's intelligent. There are people who are scammed but don't do well on TV."
Torres flew to Chicago to get a closer look. "The sun, the moon and the stars aligned," he said. Soon, "60 Minutes" flew Skiersch to New York for a three-hour interview with Dan Rather.
Skiersch was burning up with a 103-degree fever. It was his first television interview ever. But you'd never know it. He seemed relaxed. He talked in perfect sound bites.
"What the hell business did I have being in there?" Skiersch began.
"Well, that's a pretty good question," Rather said. "What the hell business did you have being in there?"
The victim looked at the famed anchorman, at the camera--at the world. He shook his head. "None," he said. "None."
Strangers began calling his house constantly--some seeking advice, others chiding him. "I've been humiliated hundreds of times," Skiersch lamented. "But it's worth it, because about 50 calls have been people saying they were thinking about day trading until they heard my story."
The number one question: "Aren't you worried that you're going to get killed by the people you're crusading against?"
One in five callers wishes him well. "Another 30 percent say you're the stupidest person I ever heard of," Skiersch said.
Everybody wants to know one thing: "How can you admit this to the world?"
Like a politician running a campaign, Skiersch began sending videos and blast-faxing stories. He funnels tips to federal investigators. And he coaches state regulators.
"He has definitely had a major impact on our cause," said Beauchamp. "An effective victim is as important as a good regulator."
The media snowball picked up speed after Mark O. Barton, a chemist, walked into two day-trading firms in Atlanta and killed a bunch of fellow day traders. Skiersch's phone rang like crazy. He did marathon interviews from here to Japan. He cut his hair short and bleached it blond.
The Boston Globe led a story with the prominent day-trading victim: "John Skiersch never even came close to killing anyone, as Mark O. Barton did Thursday when he walked into two Atlanta day-trading brokerages and coldly shot 22 people, nine of them fatally. But he dreamed about it."
On "CBS This Morning," Skiersch attempted to explain Barton's state of mind. "It's an incredible--a pain and a terror and a horror watching your life and your freedom and your savings dissolve in front of your eyes and also to watch other people. You know, it's like--it's like, you know, just being tortured."
Skiersch's name is so ubiquitous now that it is sometimes interchanged with "day-trading victim." During a recent interview with CNBC, Phil Feigin of the North American Securities Administrators Association voiced his gripes about the industry. He summed it up like this: "I'm concerned that there are firms out there looking for new John Skiersches."
CAPTION: "I was a sucker," says John Skiersch, who lost a $200,000 inheritance by day-trading stocks.