It sounds like a scene straight out of the movies. Federal immigration and customs agents burst into an LA home, guns drawn. But the nature of the crime they were tracking will shock you. It doesn’t involve terrorism, murder, drugs or even illegal immigration. The target— was a recycling advocate. His incredible saga is today’s cover story.
Eric Lundgren: I’m a recycler, and that’s what I’ve lived for since I was 16 years old.
We first interviewed Eric Lundgren last June. We had to talk over a computer connection because we were on opposite coasts.
Sharyl: You’re going to prison in just a couple of days.
Eric Lundgren: I’m going to prison in five days. For a crime that I don't think is truly a crime. I don't believe that anybody was hurt by this. My actions were meant to help people. I was trying to help people repair their legally owned product to keep it out of landfills.
At 34 years old, he’s spent his entire adult life attacking a growing problem— toxic e- waste.
Sharyl: Is e-waste, for example, an old laptop someone can't use anymore?
Eric Lundgren: E-waste is anything with a board. So, think of routers, switches, hubs, servers, tablets, laptops, cellphones, gaming consoles, speakers, Bluetooth. Anything that has a board in it that you plug in the wall, that is e-waste. And that's not meant for our landfills.
Eric Lundgren: When I was nineteen years old, I went to China, Guiyu, China. I witnessed a lot of toxic issues where lead in the back of CRT monitors was thrown in rivers that kids were playing in and that people were drinking from. I got to see what mercury poisoning, and lead poisoning, and bromine and cadmium do to the human body in large access when it's just toxic. It's just toxic. And I saw that first hand at nineteen years old, and I wanted to do something about it.
Lundgren grew to become well known in the e-waste industry. He started a company that makes useful items out of old electronics like cellphones. And last year, in an electric car his company built from recycled consumer trash — he set the record for traveling the farthest on a single charge at highway speeds… beating out fancy, high priced electric cars.
But his latest record is far different: he’s the first e-waste recycler to be sent to federal prison. That part of his story began in 2012 when federal agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement raided his Los Angeles home.
Eric Lundgren: I was in Dallas, Texas working with Radio Shack to help them recycle. And I got a call from two colleagues, a elderly couple, senior citizens that were staying in my home in Los Angeles. And at six o'clock in the morning armed gunman had raided the home with masks and arrested them and taken all of my electronics. I thought that they were joking but in actuality there was a warrant that was left. And, I realized quickly that it was a serious matter.
He learned he was in trouble over a shipment of 28,000 CDs he’d sent from China to a business partner in Florida.
Eric Lundgren: I might have saved 28,000 computers from going into a landfill. We might have saved 28,000 laptops that now low-income families can use.
Eric Lundgren: I provided a free restore CD that anyone can access online or download for free. And I tried to give it to people that were distributing secondhand computers. So, that consumers can repair their computers whenever they broke and use their legally owned property as long as possible.
Sharyl: what did the prosecutors say you had done wrong?
Eric Lundgren: The prosecutors said that I had inherently, potentially taken a sale from Microsoft of a new operating system with a new license by helping consumers to repair their existing technology.
He went to meet with the federal prosecutor to clear up what he says he thought was a misunderstanding. He argued there was no meaningful dollar value to the discs with software from Dell that he’d made since anyone can download the content for free.
Eric Lundgren: I tried to explain to him that I am a recycler and that these are free repair tools for people to be able to repair their legally owned property using their existing licenses; but, he wasn't listening. His exact words were, "Microsoft wants your head on a platter, and I'm going to give it to them.”
Neither Microsoft nor prosecutors would agree to an interview. But in court, Microsoft argued Lundgren was a nothing less than a criminal counterfeiter. Microsoft: “These sales of counterfeit operating systems displaced Microsoft's potential sales of genuine operating systems.”
Eric Lundgren was charged with 21 federal crimes and faced the possibility of millions in fines, and up to forty-seven years in prison. He says his attorney told him his only reasonable option was to plead guilty to something—
Sharyl: What were you convicted of? You actually plead guilty so people might say you did do something illegal.
Eric Lundgren: I did do something illegal. You know, looking back I should have never put the Dell logo or the word Microsoft on the actual freeware. I should have instead just typed in Times Roman numeral the word Dell and Microsoft. My crimes was actually trademark infringement, which is a civil issue. It's never handled criminally. No case like mine has ever been handled criminally in the United States or in the world.
Eric Lundgen says he’d been told the worst penalty he’d face would be house arrest. And was stunned when he heard his sentence: 15 months in federal prison.
Sharyl: When the judge told you you were going to prison, what went through your mind?
Eric Lundgren: You know, it was like a bad dream.
Sharyl: Five days after we spoke, Lundgren dropped off a petition at Microsoft headquarters in Seattle, then turned himself in to do his time.
Eric Lundgren: I still don't know why I'm going to prison. Um, it's - I don't know what I'm supposed to repent for. I don't feel that I've taken anything from anyone. Or that I've hurt anyone in any way. I haven't stolen. I haven't cheated. I haven't attempted to gain from… I didn't hurt anyone. So, now I'm stuck feeling like I've been … like I got in the way of a profitable corporate agenda.
In an online bog, Microsoft wrote that it supports recycling but: "Unlike most e-recyclers, Mr. Lundgren sought out counterfeit software which he disguised as legitimate and sold to other refurbishers” which “exposes people who purchase recycled PCs to malware and other forms of cybercrime, which puts their security at risk and ultimately hurts the market for recycled products.”
As Lundgren prepared to go to prison, he told us that becoming a criminal convict… has made him more determined than ever continue his path.
Sharyl: What is it you've learned or what should the public take away from what's happened to you?
Eric Lundgren: I've learned what happens when you get in the way of giant corporations. I mean, that's what I've learned.
Lundgren is currently serving the fourth month of his 15 month sentence.