Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Desperate Times, Desperate Measures, Desperate People

Why are some people predisposed to fall for cons?  Could the Genie effect be at work?

Lately, I have been getting dozens of SPAM messages in my SPAM box, and most of them are for frauds.  A few make it to the regular e-mail Inbox - and they are getting better all the time.  I started getting one a few months back, claiming to be from Amazon, saying I had ordered a new $745.65 television to be shipped to someone in Louisiana.  "If this is not correct, call this 1-800 number now!"

I always like how con artists use very specific numbers!

Well, you know how the con works - they get you to panic, thinking someone has compromised your Amazon account, and you call and give them your credit card number and expiration date and CVV2 number to "cancel" the order and "credit your account" - but instead the scammers just charge stuff on your card.  Social Engineering at its finest!

The first messages were pretty crude and went right to SPAM, but I got one today that Google thought was legit and other than the return address being nonsense, looked pretty convincing - they had the logos and the spelling right for a change!  But since I had seen this same scam before, I knew it was a hoax, even before I clicked on the return e-mail address.  Somehow I doubt Amazon is using "I_luv_katz_8641@yahoo.com" as a return e-mail address for official communications.  But then again, who knows?  Maybe Bezos is a cat nut.

But it was interesting how they use fear to get you to call some phone number in a panic - convinced that you were going to be on the hook for a new television that some crook in Louisiana ordered. He'll be laughing at you, while he surfs 500 channels of cable!

Of course, there are other ways to tell it is a fraud.  If my credit card was charged for this, I would get a text message and/or an e-mail from my bank telling me this - right after the charge was made.  I set up my "notifications" on my bank site to do this.  I presume you do too, right?  I mean it is a PITA to erase these things on a daily basis - balance notices, notices of charges, etc. - but we old people are lonely anyway and it gives us something to do.

It is handy for other things.  I was running a charge once at a small retail store and the clerk wasn't sure the charge went through.  But almost the second she swiped the card, my phone buzzed with a notification from the bank that a charge was being made.  Kinda handy - but you'd be surprised how many people fail to use this free service.

Of course, I can also log on to Amazon and see there is no $745.65 television charged to my account.  And even if there was, I could cancel the order, dispute the charge with my credit card, and so on and so forth.  But it does illustrate the folly of storing credit card numbers on retail sites - someone hacks into your Amazon account, they can order things and your credit card might be charged.  But then again, it would be kind of stupid for a thief to order a television shipped to their home address.  Some thieves try to get around this by having the item shipped to an abandoned house or to someone else's home, at which point they porch-pirate it.  But even then, a stakeout could catch such a thief, if the local police were notified by Amazon and the shipping partner.  It is a pretty dumb crime.

But that wasn't what I was posting about. Well, it was in a way. The "Social Engineering" scam outlined above relies on fear to get people to respond.  If you can get your victim to think emotionally and not rationally, you can fleece them before they know it. That seems to be the common denominator in  most scams.

The other scam e-mail I have been getting - in droves - is from an online casino, where they tell me, in ludicrous fonts and with lots of odd characters and emoticons, that I have $9,567.32 waiting for me in my account.  Really, like this could actually happen?  How dumb do you have to be to click on crap like that?

Not dumb, just desperate.  I got to thinking (always a dangerous pastime) and realized the people who click on these things are probably in desperate straits.  They are in debt and see no way out - student loan debt, credit card debt, car payments - whatever.  Suddenly, someone tells them they have over nine grand waiting for them in an account somewhere!  Maybe the computer made a mistake in their favor for a change!   Who knows?  It might be just the thing to dig them out of their financial hole - the Genie they've been hoping to find.

It reminds me of Chelsea Clinton's Father-in-law. They had to delay her wedding for a year because he was in jail for stealing from his clients.  He got sucked into a Nigerian con and claimed he was using client money to send to Nigeria in order to receive millions of dollars in "certain modalities".  Hard to believe a smart guy like that could fall for such a con - and steal money to do it.  But I wonder if perhaps it was the other way around - he was "borrowing" money from client funds, and when this e-mail came from a Nigerian Prince, he thought it was the solution to his problems!  Those millions would pay back the missing funds and keep him out of trouble!  What could possibly go wrong?

Likely too, he was halfway into dementia, which is one reason I decided to retire early, pre-dementia. Another attorney where I live is still working well into his late 70's and it isn't going well.  Several clients have complained to me that he is no longer answering phone calls and neglecting their legal matters.  They tell me this because they find out I'm an attorney and wonder if I could handle their case!  But I don't do wills and real estate closings - and besides, I'm retired.  And the reason why I am retired is - other than I can be - is that I don't want to be that doddering attorney I met once at the Patent Office search room, wandering around looking for search work, when he should have been out playing golf at Retirement Acres.  I vowed back then, at age 28, never to be that guy.

But a lot of older people didn't plan well for the inevitable - and by that, I don't mean death (the great inevitable) but getting old and no longer being able to work.   Yes, that's inevitable, too.  This "I'll just work until I'm 70!" sounds keen, but it isn't practical in many cases.  As a result, there are a lot of desperate old people out there, who see the latest MLM scam or scheme, or social engineering scam as a way out of their problems.   Maybe my ship has come in!  If I just send of $500 today, I can become my own distributor of essential oils!

It is very sad, needless to say.

You may wonder why con-men would bother to con people who are broke.  After all, wouldn't it be more profitable to con a millionaire?  Problem is, people who have money tend to be more astute, unless of course, they are lottery winners or something.  So you are wasting your time trying to con them.  That's one reason why these SPAM e-mails are full of typos and poor English.  Whether by accident or design, it turns out to be an excellent filtering means.  People who are astute see through these cons and don't waste the con-man's time.  People who don't notice the bald errors are more likely to be true believers.

But broke people - they have no money, right?  Well, WRONG.  As I keep harping on in this blog, the poor are not without money, they just can't hang on to any of it.  They squander money in a number of ways - buying overpriced status items, for example.  Falling for the worst sort of retail deals imaginable - the poorest deals are offered to the poorest people in the poorest neighborhoods.  The liquor store with bars on the windows sells half-pints of Fireball for $12, while a mile away at the wholesale club, middle-class people can buy a half-gallon of Bourbon for about the same price.

I testified in a case involving crooked invention brokers.  A client had fallen for one of these, sending off $5000 to have his invention Patented and "promoted to industry!"  They told him he would become a millionaire overnight - and he believed it.  Where did he get the money?  Well he had a job, and he borrowed the rest from his Grandmother.  The poor find ways to scrounge up cash - you'd be surprised.

Of course, these con-artists have flexible pricing.  Can't afford $10,000?  We'll take $5,000 and a larger "royalty."  If that's too much, well $2,500 will suffice.  Flexible pricing is one sure sign of a con.  And to a con-man in Nigeria, $2,500 goes a long way.  Even for Americans, it goes a long way.  One crooked invention broker, when busted by the FBI, had 3,000 bogus "Design" Patents pending, for which they charged their "clients" $10,000 apiece (and paid high school kids $500 apiece to write).  That's a total of Thirty Million Dollars and that spends well in Palm Beach as well as Nigeria.

It is just like personal injury attorneys (who also target the poor).  As one wag explained to me, "They make millions of dollars, one crummy $5000 slip-and-fall case at a time!

The poor make good "Marks" for the con-man, not only because they are unsophisticated, but because they are desperate.  They see no way out of their economic situation, and obvious things like not buying $3000 worth of bling rims from the Rent-to-Own bling rim company, for a $2000 car are not even on the table.  Not getting tattoos?  Not having hair extensions?  Not having a designer handbag (even if it is just a knock-off?).   Not possible.  Saving a few dollars a day is for chumps!  You want to go for the big payout!  That's how the "playas" do it, right?

So the poor are ripe for fraud - they want to believe, because they are desperate and they think that's how "everyone else gets ahead" - through chicanery and sharp practice, or from huge pay-outs from long-shot investments.  That's why lottery tickets are a tax on the poor.  That's why the rich are the ones selling bitcoins and the poor at the ones buying them.

"The poor will always be with us" Jesus said.  And I think what he meant was that you can try to help people in life - even give them tons of money - but they will still be poor.  You can give a guy a free house or apartment, but they won't cherish it, they will tear it apart.  You can build a house for a poor person - as Habitat for Humanity has done - and find out a year later, that the person you built the house for has over-mortgaged it to the hilt and is about to lose it to foreclosure.  Habitat for Humanity figured that out pretty quickly.  Today, they make it hard for the homeowners to encumber their houses this way - and keep the financial sharks from circling the chum tank.

So what's the answer?  Beats me - there isn't one.  Like Jesus said, we'll always have the poor.  You can't fix stupid, you can't unpoor the poor.  You can try to help them, but unless the help is predicated on behavioral changes or is doled on out little increments (and even then...), they will find ways to squander the largess you give them - after all, that's how they ended up poor in the first place.

Years ago, a neighbor of mine came over with all these financial papers and asked me to go over them and help them dig their way out of debt.  They had only $5000 in credit card debt, but couldn't ever seem to pay it off.  I went through their budget and realized they were paying over $200 a month for cable television (all the channels, natch!) and internet service, including a $39.95 per-month "virus protector."  I pointed out that in a little over two years, they could pay off their credit card debt, if they just cut these services - watched off-the-air television and used the free Internet at the local cafe.  You know, make sacrifices in life to compensate for your own malfeasance.

It didn't end there, of course.  They had a restaurant and bar habit (several nights a week) that cost hundreds of dollars a month.  And instead of driving a simple car, they had a gas-hog SUV that required constant repair.   The upshot was this:  She didn't want financial advice, she wanted to "borrow" $5000 from me to pay off her credit card.  And by "borrow" she meant "take."

It was a real wake-up call for me.  I explained to her that we didn't have cable television, and we had the cheapest Internet service (with no "virus protector" monthly fee) but she would have none of that!  They were entitled to these things, even if I was not.  And it seemed to elude her that the reason why I had no credit card debt and $5000 in my checking account was because I had learned to do without.  Hence the name of this blog.  You can't unpoor the poor.

But you can the middle-class.  There is a lot of hue and cry these days from young people who are in debt in their 20's (as I was) about how "lucky" earlier generations were.  "Grandpa bought a house for $20,000 back in 1968 and paid cash for it!  He was lucky!"   Actually, he had a mortgage, and while the amount may seem small, it was a staggering sum of money back then.  Bear in mind that most folks made $5000 a year or less.  Few had twenty grand in their checking account to buy a house with, particularly when they were in their early 20's with a kid in the cradle and another on the way.  But such details destroys a comfortable narrative.

"We have it so bad!  The only solution is radical social change, debt forgiveness, free college, and free money!"  These things are not likely to happen.  In fact, pining for these things is exactly how the Democrats are going to lose the mid-term elections.  It is all-too-easy to paint the Democratic Party as a party of lunatics with no common sense - and crazy ideas about spending other people's money.  This already is the case in some races today, such as the Virginia Governor's race, which should have been a shoo-in for the former Governor who was well-liked in what is now a Blue State.  But it is close - closer than it should be - and the Democrats might actually lose.  The reason they are losing is they decided that transgender bathrooms should be the centerpiece of their platform - when there are other issues far more pressing.

Or consider the recall election in San Francisco for the District Attorney.  The son of convicted terrorist murderers from the radical 1960's, he actually spent time in Venezuela and thinks Hugo Chavez was keen. He also is letting criminals out of jail as, you know, jail is unfair for someone who steals stuff.  Some of these criminals have committed multiple additional crimes and were not jailed until they actually killed someone.  In an era of rising crime rates, "soft on crime" is the wrong answer to a question no one is asking.

Desperate Times, Desperate Measures - people will vote for a dictator, if they think their personal safety is at stake.  And that's how the Democrats will muck up a wet dream.  Donald Trump handed the Democrats the House, Senate, and White House with this antics.  The Democrats are going to hand it right back, with theirs.

But I digress.

Perhaps there is an answer in all of this, though.  To not be desperate - or think you are desperate, just because you don't want to make hard choices in life.  Fear is not an emotion to be trusted.  And thinking emotionally will always get you into trouble!