Monday, January 25, 2010

The Art of the Scam

Of course, we are all fascinated by scams. Since they never happen to us, our interest must be academic and altruistic.

We are thrilled to probe another corner of the human mind and we are happy to think that our knowledge will help others to avoid being scammed. For one reason or other, we believe that awareness cures.

Supposedly, scams exploit the vulnerable and the needy. We think of scam victims as rubes who have just fallen off the proverbial turnip truck.

Of course, the research suggests that scam victims are often successful businesspeople. Link here. Via Simoleon Sense. Then again, in a post-Madoff world, it is impossible to imagine that scam victims are merely weak and naive. Madoff preyed on the invulnerable, the sophisticated, and the wealthy.

Scam artists are great seducers. They see your vulnerability, tell you what you want to hear, exploit you, and make you feel good about it. In this way they closely resemble seducers. Theirs is an art, not a science.

You want to get rich; you deserve to be rich; through his exceptional intuition the scammer will echo your hidden thoughts. Then he will ensure that you have less.

Perhaps you are the soul of charity; you bleed for the underprivileged. The scammer will provide you with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to save lives, not just to do good, but to do best.

What makes it a scam? Is it the dishonesty, the false pretense, the lies, and the deceit? In a classic scam like a game of three-card monte, scammers make you feel that you can win. Only you cannot.

But three-card monte is downscale. How about something more upscale, like a casino. The casino does everything in its power to make you feel like a winner. It makes you feel that it will provide for your creature comforts in ways the rest of the world has not.

As we all know, you cannot win in a casino. The house is the only consistent winner in a casino. The gigantic monuments to human extravagance that fill the Las Vegas strip were not built because gamblers have a fair shot at winning.

Yet, gamblers continue to trek to Las Vegas to lose their money and we do not think of it as a scam. Most gamblers are not vulnerable and needy. Most of them are as aware as you and I that they are going to lose their money at the roulette wheel or the baccarat table.

Strangely, their heightened awareness merely serves to make them more vulnerable. They tell themselves that they are paying for the thrill of the game, for the entertainment. If they believe, in some corner of their mind, that they are going to win, they refuse to admit it in public.

I credit casino owners with this subterfuge. They have persuaded gamblers that they are not victims of a scam, but are players, participants in the great game of life. But why don't we consider three-card monte players as players in the game of life?

Even if you lose in the casino Las Vegas will make you feel like a winner. You will come away with a lot of stories. And you will have lived like a king or a queen while doing it.

Being aware of the scam does not immunize you. It makes you more vulnerable. If you are in on the scam, if you have a heightened awareness, doesn't that increase your odds of beating it?

People who think that they are in on the scam place themselves on the side of the scammer. They might stick around to watch the game play itself out because they get a rush of superiority watching a mark get taken.

And yet, how often does it happen that such a person is so enthralled by the action at the three-card monte game that he does not even notice when his pocket is being picked.

Keep in mind, even if you go to Las Vegas with the firm resolve not to gamble, you will surely find many, many ways to spend money.

Las Vegas was not built by gamblers alone.

Casino owners do not lie to you directly, but they certainly allow you to believe that you can win. And you do win... some of the time. Over the longer term, you simply cannot win at roulette. It is statistically impossible.

And you never walk into a casino and see, looming ahead of you, a sign saying: "Play at your own risk. The more you play the more you will lose. We guarantee it."

We consider gamblers to be sentient adults. They have the right to risk their money as they please. But what happens when there's a widow sitting alone in her Florida condo, who has lost most of her friends, who is being ignored by her family... and who receives a phone call one day from a nice young man offering... whatever you wish.

Will she buy whatever he is selling? Probably she will. Will she give him her credit card number? Very likely she will. Does she know that she is being scammed? Perhaps she does, but perhaps she does not care. Even if the products she is induced to purchase are not remotely as represented.

Having lost touch with other human beings, she is willing to spend whatever it takes to maintain her conversation with the nice young man. Can you really blame her?

Given the choice between having no one and paying for companionship, she opts for the latter. Hers is not the only way of doing this. How many other scam victims are allowing themselves to be had because they want to feel like they are still in the game.

But scams are not games. They are theater. If the outcome is predetermined, we cannot call it a real game. Moreover it is not a real social connection. A scam draws you into something that seems to be a game, but is really a scripted drama.

Scams create dramatic or theatrical moments. They offer to cast you in the drama. Sometimes, they will make you the center of attention in a drama that is consuming the interest of the crowd that has gathered around; sometimes they will let you feel like you are the hero.

Being scammed means that you are willing to pay for the thrill involved in your chance at minor-league stardom. Even if stardom means being the butt of a joke.

I am not sure that we should ask: can you afford it? The real question that determines most people's calculations when they meet a scam artist is: can I afford not to take the risk, not to take the chance at coming out the big winner, of fulfilling my destiny, of finding my proper place in the world?

Once you get someone thinking that way, you have involved them in the narrative and are waiting for the opportunity to cast them in their role.


vanderleun said...

I'd like to believe you but the article leaves me feeling so empowered and in control I think it's gotta be a scam.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

If that's true it would mean that I just scammed myself... an interesting thought...