Help for the Gullible

I am not an expert on scams, but I am a gullible person who has learned to be careful

I was brought up in the Midwest, the land of Suckers, Hoosiers and Buckeyes, all nicknames for the rubes that a slicker could take. Fraud is as American as apple pie, and has been with us since the beginnings of the country. The great mass of Americans grows up greedy for gain without effort, but ignorant of the nature of mankind. A few grow up in glorious realization of the fertile fields of profit that this creates, and become preachers, promoters and politicians.

As a Sucker-Hoosier, I believed that people generally meant what they said until middle age finally brought enlightenment. I believed President Eisenhower when he talked to us on the radio. I believed my Mess Sergeant about the state of the inventory. I believed my investment advisors when they said they derived great pleasure from just helping me to make money. I believed the stewardess when she hoped I had a good time in El Paso. The Pullman porters were courteous, but never took an interest in my pleasure; how different were the airlines! So, you see, I am definitely a gullible person, if no expert on confidence schemes.

It is probably sheer luck that I have never been seriously fleeced by the entrepreneurs that surround me, but I have become observant and careful, so now I am only mildly sheared by mostly legal banks and insurance companies. It is interesting to look into the deep smoking pits of fraud that I have not fallen into as I pass by them. Here is what I have learned.

Corporations, by and large, deal only in legal frauds, and are not as much to be feared as the enterprising individual, who usually can succeed only by tapping the deep resources of illegality. Corporations are managed and staffed by people who are not the corporation, but individuals like you and me with consciences and feelings. The corporation, however, is not a person, but an entity for which conscience and feeling have no significance or place. Its sole reason for existence is to make money for its owners, who are never the people you meet in dealing with the corporation. The owners only ask for profit, and let the corporation run itself otherwise, as long as it keeps rolling in. An alligator is not an evil and cruel beast. It mostly lies in the sun and makes little alligators, and occasionally gets hungry, when it eats. There is no malice whatsoever, just hunger. A corporation is like an alligator that is hungry all the time, and eats everything in its path. There is no malice or evil, just insatiable hunger. It is only necessary to beware, and you will be fine.

No insurance company is interested in your welfare or that of your survivors. No automobile manufacturer is interested in the safety of your children. No food company is interested in your nutrition. No drug company is interested in your health. The tenderness and care you see in the TV ads is all the tenderness and care that you will encounter, pure crocodile tears. Of course, the servants of a company with which you deal may have concern for you if that is their nature, and will always be encouraged by their superiors to simulate concern if it is good business, but concern will never get in the way of business. It is worth noting that the great humanitarian efforts of, for example, the Rockefeller Foundation are due to the work of a man, not a corporation. The corporation only made the money. Nothing like this happens today. In fact, charity is no part of a corporation's business, and should be left to individuals. Corporate charity is done in the sunlight in support of the search for profit.

If you have noticed that politicians or newspapers all seem to be saying the same things, it is because they all want to say exactly what you want to hear, not what they believe. If your opinions change, so will theirs. The politicians want votes, the newspapers the greatest audience for their advertisers. Presidential candidates stage "debates" and tell what they would do if elected, which is what they perceive the greatest number of hearers might want done. Of course, even if elected, they cannot do anything like this at all--it is Congress that determines such matters, and Congress is owned by the corporations that spend so much money on its members. As Gore Vidal says, there is only one major political party in the United States, the Corporation party, and it has two right wings, the Democrats and the Republicans.

No one is giving away money or anything else of value. The Sucker does not accept this, since the chance of unearned bonanza is what appeals to the Sucker. My excitement rose recently in a Radio Shack when the salesman said I had $400 to spend on anything I wanted. Of course, I knew it was a scam, but the gullible person still feels the excitement. All I had to do was chain myself to some satellite service to the tune of thousands to get this unearned bonus. Smithsonian told me that I had been specially selected (no doubt as a scholar or professional) to receive a FREE Smithsonian membership. All I had to do, it turned out, was to subscribe for a year at the usual price. You may find it entertaining to find the catch in every such offer of something for nothing. This pervasive practice is probably quite successful, however, since the true American Dream is Something for Nothing.

This tendency is exploited in the official lotteries that now are everywhere. In technical terms, these are Sucker Bets, where the chance of winning appears much greater than it actually is. The hook is to give publicity to a big winner, as in your state lottery or the Publisher's Clearing House Sweepstakes. The suckers sucked in in hopes of bonanza bring much more money than the cost of the winner. They are paying for the bare chance, however slim, of being such a winner themselves, not making a reasonable wager. Their chances of winning are little greater than if they never buy a ticket at all. This is amenable to experiment. Take $20 and buy yourself some lottery tickets, basking in the hope of gain. Find out how long it takes until all your money is gone.

Lotteries were once an important source of income for education in the United States. Communities knew where the money was going, and it was pleasant to have some prizes to spice things up. Then the professionals moved in, and more and more of the money went to the professionals, less to schools. Lotteries were abolished as corrupt. Now they have returned, as a tax on stupidity.

Charity is a virtue. Everyone thinks so, so it is another fertile field for cultivation by the entrepreneur. We see touching pictures of starving children. Television brings us views of well-fed reporters and charity workers mingling with the walking skeletons. During the 1999 floods on the gray-green, greasy Limpopo helicopters were filled with television cameramen and reporters bringing us images of the helpless. That was more profitable than filling them with the helpless. The money flows in, and helps support organizations that feed on charity, supporting large bureaucracies that travel first class, stay in International hotels, and ride in limousines. "Charity" is a business, and a big one. Charity is only in the giving of the money, often by caring people who can scarcely afford it. What money does not support the organization is distributed amongst the elites in the devastated countries. The meek are kicked in the face on both ends of the deal. Anyone collecting for charity is not being charitable, merely facilitating it at best as a dupe, at worst supporting a parasitic organization. Extend your charity in ways that cannot be seen by others, to ensure that your motives are pure. It is impossible to distinguish between true and false charities on appearances.

Telephone charity is largely in the hands of solicitation companies. The voice on the phone is not a volunteer charity worker, but an employee working on commission. Various organizations let these companies use their names, in return for a share of the proceeds. One of the most prominent class of organizations are police and fire department groups. Why such people deserve charity is not known to me, but most people seem to think they are deserving. More likely, they are afraid it is a shakedown, and give to avoid unpleasantness. Of every dollar you hand over, the person on the phone gets more than $0.50, and the solicitation company pockets $0.15. After expenses are paid, the organization gets about $0.20. Then, of the $0.20, only a part, perhaps a few cents, ever gets to the advertised beneficiaries of the charity. This is obviously good business all around. It is not charity, but the exploitation of the unfortunate and helpless, as well of the gullible giver, for profit.

If it is a good idea to be wary of propositions by mail or in person, it is an even better idea to reject all telephone (or e-mail) pitches. Nothing good ever comes over the wires. This is hard for the gullible to believe, but it is true. A voice is heard, and claims to be so-and-so, but you cannot be sure who you are talking to. The person may say, "This is Visa, and we want to make sure that your credit card is not being used fraudulently. Could you give us your number, so we can check this out?" Or, "This is QWest, and we are doing some maintenance on your telephone line. Could you please press # and 80 so we can see if your line is OK?" Or, "Hello, I am Dan Day and am asking for support for the families of policemen injured on duty." Or, "Hello, I represent Children Suffering With Plasmospasmosis, and wonder if you would like to help?", Or, "Hello, Mr. X? (from phone book) You have won a new digital TV in our progam to popularize this new technology. All you need to do is pay for the shipping, $39.95! Do you want to pay by credit card?" You get the idea from these examples, which are taken from real life. Unfortunately, these scams have squeezed out the reputable solicitors, who, however annoying, are at least on the level. It is best not to trust anyone on the phone, never to buy anything as the result of an unsolicited call, and NEVER to give out any credit card or identification numbers to anyone who calls you. If you initiated the contact, what to do is up to you.

If you pick up the phone and say Hello, but are met with silence, it means the computer is taking a little time bringing up your call on the computer screen. If you hang up on detecting this pause, you will save yourself time you can put to better use. No one up to any good ever uses computerized dialing.

That the Internet can be exploited for base purposes is now well-known. It is well suited to fraud, and you can be sure that fraud is there. Many sites stealthily download information to your computer, and even programs that can grab your personal data and subtly alter things. These all were meant for good purposes, but if they can be abused, they will be abused. My advice is to buy nothing over the Internet, and not to divulge your credit card number or other data, except possibly to known and trusted sites with secure communications. If a company will not furnish you with an address and phone number that can be located and verified, you do not know who you are dealing with. A few percent of dishonest sites are enough to ruin it for all. Remember that everything you hear or read from a commercial source is designed for a purpose, and may be a lie more often than the truth. These people are very crafty and deal with thousands like you and me, so they know our weak points. One cannot outsmart them, one can only avoid them.

The safest course is to buy only in transactions that you initiate, by entering a store, by making a telephone call, by writing a letter or by filling in an order form, and to give no excess information when you do so. Avoid buying from a drummer at your door, from an unsolicited telephone call, or over the Internet. Check with the Better Business Bureau, or with someone who has dealt with the concern before. Note that "references" furnished may be spurious, mere shills, and that many frauds are traveling circuses, visiting your area periodically to shear the forgetful. Enjoy advertising, but don't believe it; remember its purpose. Don't be paranoid, but remember they are all out to get you. It's more fun being gullible if you are careful.

There is an excellent article in the February 2001 issue of Scientific American by R. B. Cialdini called The Science of Persuasion. He has identified six principles that have evolved to make living in society more harmonious which are exploited to persuade people to behave as the manipulator desires. He shows how they can be falsely used to further economic and political motives, although when truly used are beneficial. These principles are reciprocation (mutual benefit), consistency (a person wishes to appear consistent in behavior), social validation (others do it), liking (friendly actions and beautiful people), authority (people who should know), and scarcity (may miss out). Misusing authority, advertisers dress up actors like doctors to recommend their medicines, for example. Every picture you see of distress was selected by an advertising agency for the purpose of separating you from some of your money, and even the names of the organizations are chosen for the same purpose. For more details, read the article.

Not every offer is fradulent, and not every "charity" is exploitative, but most are, and the bad have driven the good and deserving from the field. None of this is new, but suckers are born every minute, and every scam is new to them. Modern communication and lack of education have given the swindler a golden age.

Return to Personal Index

Composed by J. B. Calvert
Created 22 October 2000
Last revised 11 February 2001