Thursday, December 1, 2011

Too Clever By Half

Some folks think they are being clever and devious, when in fact, they are just annoying.  Avoid such folks!

In your life, you will run into a lot of people, most of whom are hard-working, honest, kind, open, caring, and friendly.  However, you will also run into a lot of folks who are the diametric opposite, and of course, such folks are trouble.

Why are people this way?  It is hard to understand.  At the extreme end of the spectrum, you have Sociopaths - the Ted Bundy's of the world, who look and act like humans, but are little more than manipulative robots inside, using other people toward their own ends.  People like him can be charming, friendly, and persuasive.  And they are easy to spot, as they are charming, friendly, and persuasive - in a manner that is always too-good-to-be-true.

But aside from Sociopaths, I think there are a lot of ordinary people who get knocked about in life and convince themselves that no one gets ahead anymore by their merits, but rather by fixing the system.  And the media presents ample evidence of this, of course, and lately has been dramatizing it in television fiction shows - where the good guys are now bad guys, and morals are vague and subject to interpretation these days.  This is a corrosive effect on our society, and of course, it goes without saying that not watching television is a really good idea.

I stopped watching television a few years back, when it became alarming to me that we now rooted for the bad guys.  Tony Soprano was the new hero - breaking hearts and kneecaps, one at a time.  In a way, it is a parallel to the Japanese Yakuza dramas of the 1990's, which glamorized their own mafia, with predictable and disastrous results.

But the low point, to me, was when the TeeVee started glamorizing serial killers as the new American Hero.  And we wonder what is wrong with our society.

But getting back to the point, an increasing number of Americans are convinced that the whole deal is rigged.   They think that in order to get ahead in life, you have to cut corners, rip people off, have some sort of con going, or have insider information, some sort of system, trick, or whatever.  The old ideas of saving money, working hard, living within your means are for chumpsters, in their opinion.  Only a fool would believe that sort of Mayberry mentality!

And yet, experience has shown, time and time again, that the con artists and flim-flam boys always end up in the trash heap, over time.  You just have to wait for it - and often not wait long.  Karma catches up - always.

And many ordinary folks, beaten down by life in general, and in particular by the con-artists and rip-off kings, again and again, start to think that maybe, they too, should step over to the dark side and become clever fellows themselves.  And so they start to think of life as one big con game, with corners to cut and shortcuts to be made.  And usually, this just makes things far worse for them.

The problem with all these sorts of folks is that they are too clever by half.  They think they are getting a strategic edge in a deal by pulling a fast one, without realizing that "heads I win, tails you lose" is not a sustainable business model.  Eventually, over time, people realize your are a rip-off artist and they stop patronizing your business.  Or the FBI breaks down the door one day.  Or you are subpoenaed in an investigation, or they repossess your furniture.  Or, if you push people hard enough, someone shows up at your office with a gun one day.  Being a crook is no answer to anything.

How do you avoid dealing with crooks like this?  Well, it can be easy to spot them, once you know the signs.  And the key thing is, to see the signs and have the guts to walk away immediately and not look back!  It is tempting to ignore trouble signs and think, "Hey, this still might be a good deal!" and later on end up in a world of woe.

If a potential business partner, a vendor, or other person you have or are contemplating to have, a financial relationship with, tries to con you or steal from you or deceive you, even once, just walk away.  There is no "second chance" you should give to intentionally and habitually dishonest people.

What do I mean by this?  Let me give some examples:

1.  Starting a Business Relationship Based on Deception:  I gave the example the other day of a telemarketing robo-call that purported to be a "survey" with a "free cruise" offered for completing the survey.  This is a blatant and ineffective attempt to get around the Federal "Do Not Call" act, by deceiving you into thinking that you are participating in a survey, when in fact they are just selling cruises on a cruise line you've never heard of.

I'll say it again and again, until I am blue in the face:  If you start a business or financial relationship with someone or some organization based upon a deception - no matter how trivial the deception is - the relationship will only go downhill from there - and you will have no one to blame but yourself.

But of course, the temptation is to overlook the deception.  "OK, so they tricked me in a marketing scheme.  No harm done!  And they are giving away a free cruise!  It is too good a deal to pass up!"

It is tempting, yes.  But no one is giving away free ponies, so just stop thinking that way.

If someone lies to you at the beginning of a relationship, and you continue the relationship, you have no one but yourself to blame later on.  They have clearly telegraphed to you what scumbags they are.  You are the fool for continuing to deal with them. 

2.  If It Sounds Too Good To Be True, It Probably Is a Raw Deal:  I worked with the Federal Trade Commission, as an Expert Witness in a fraud case.  It was one of those Invention Broker scams, where they take your money and do little in return.  And yea, Invention Brokers advertise on TeeVee, which is a key right there that the TeeVee doesn't have your best interests at heart - they take ad money from anyone, without even bothering to figure out whether they are assisting in a rip-off or not.

The people at the FTC are hard-working government employees, and the sort of folks the GOP would like to put on the unemployment line.  After all, their investigations are harming "legitimate" businessmen and creating "unnecessary regulations!"  But the reality is, they are the only Sheriff in town, provided with a tin badge and a rusty six-shooter, holed up in the town jail, waiting for the Black Hats to come into town and wipe them out.  (and I guess if you want to torture that analogy further, that makes me "Old Gus" the town drunk, in the jail cell with the Sheriff). 

But all that aside, you talk to these folks and they say the same thing over and over again:  Prosecuting con artists is an endless task - and often impossible.  They feel like Sisyphus, pushing the same rock up the hill, over and over again, only to see it roll down again.

No matter how hard they try, no matter how many warnings, press releases, websites, law suits, criminal prosecutions, public service announcements, whatever, there is still some Jethro out there willing to believe that he can get something-for-nothing because some fly-by-night operator told him so.

And so, they say, over and over again, "If it Sounds Too Good To Be True, It Probably Is" - that whenever someone tells you they can make you rich, give you dramatic discounts, or otherwise transmute tin into gold, all they are after is your money.

And it is a simple thing, if you think about it.  If there was a "money system" that allowed you to become rich with no effort, why would anyone SELL IT - wouldn't they make more money just using the system?  Folks don't think about that, they only think about this fantastic payout, and fail to realize that they are spending thousands and thousands of dollars on a con.

Again, if something seems too easy, just walk away.  No one is giving away free ponies.

3.  People Who Don't Pay You:  If you are a landlord, you will be approached by a number of people wanting to rent your place - and telling you how lucky you are to have them as a tenant (in spite of all the flaws in your rental property, of course!).  These people never pay you.

And many amateur landlords fall into this trap.  They offer a place for rent, often setting the rent too high, thinking it will attract better tenants - twisted logic to be sure.  So, after months of no applicants, they are thrilled when an apparently sophisticated tenant shows up, willing to rent the place, but of course noting "flaws" in the property.  And they have a very long-winded excuse why they don't have the first month's rent or down payment.  And they talk you out of doing a credit check, because, after all, they are so wealthy you don't need to do that!

But the upshot is you are being conned, and you will never see a dime from them.  They will use every trick in the book to stay in the property until you finally evict them, which they will further delay, until the night before the Sheriff shows up to toss them out, at which point, they will leave, taking the appliances with them.

As soon as you get a whiff of "not getting paid" be sure to run for the hills.  When a tenant doesn't pay the deposit and first month's rent, don't give them the keys or allow them to occupy the place.

It is temping to say, "Well, they seem like nice people, and I want to rent out my place!"  Just move on to another tenant - one with the first month's rent and security deposit in hand.  And lower the rent until you attract such tenants.  Better to get less rent from a real tenant than to get fantasy rents from a non-paying con-artist.

And again, the warning signs were all there for you to see - people too slick, too smooth, and with excuses for everything.

4.  Employers Who Don't Pay:  This scenario can happen to employees.  The folks running the telemarketing scam selling "free" cruises don't pay the people who man the phones, according to one website.  And this is not atypical of most telemarketers.  They put an ad in the paper for a "manager trainee" to get in desperate people who are tired of minimum wage no-skill jobs.  They are told they can make big money, on commission, selling over the phone, with the potential to be promoted over time.  And they bring in a shill, a fake "fellow employee" who touts how much money he is making, perhaps even showing off his new car.

But the joke is, they never pay these people.  They string them along with one excuse after another, for weeks on end, perhaps paying them a pittance here and there, until one day the employee (if they don't quit first) shows up to a locked office door.  The con artists have fled, off to a new location to ply their trade.  And by the way, their landlord is wondering where they went, too, as they never paid a dime in rent.

As soon as you get a whiff of "not getting paid" be sure to run for the hills.  When an employer misses a paycheck, just quit right then and there.

Again, it is temping to say, "Well, if I quit, then I won't get the back pay I am owed!" - but you ain't getting that anyway, so just move on to a real job with a real paycheck.

* * *

All of these scenarios occur on a regular basis.  I have seen them firsthand, when people have tried them on me.  I have seen them used on other people who were not wary enough to catch the warning signs.  And of course, you read about them in the paper all the time.

What prompted me to write this was a scenario in my own life.  A new client appears, wanting work done.  The work is due tomorrow and requires I pay a $500 fee to the Patent Office.  The client is in a foreign country.  I send them an invoice for payment for my services and the fee, and immediately they object to making any payment whatsoever.  They believe a third party should have to pay - when there is no realistic reason that party should pay at all.

I call them out on this, and they proffer apologies and say they want me to represent them.  Should I?  It represents a big chunk of business, and with the economy the way it is, it is temping to say "Yes".

But they have tipped their hand, haven't they?  They are trying to be too clever by half by interpreting an agreement with a third party in their own favor, in a manner that places me caught in the middle, unpaid.

And the big tip-off here was their initial reaction was "we don't pay".  Where is this relationship going from here?  Uphill or Downhill?

How much money do I want to throw at this before I throw in the towel?  Why should I have to pay to find out if someone is honest?  Why bother even risking it, if they have already tipped their hand.

So, reluctantly, or perhaps gladly, I walk away from the business.  I have been stung before by foreign clients - and domestic ones - who ask to have a lot of work done, fees advanced, and then go belly-up in Chapter 7 bankruptcy.  I end up not getting paid for my labor, and not getting reimbursed for my fees.  I end up paying for the privilege of working, for free.

And it is a scenario that I simply cannot afford.  In the last two years alone, I have been stuck with close to $20,000 in unpaid fees from bankrupt clients.  I realize that with the way the economy is, we are all taking our lumps.  But that sort of losses are simply not sustainable.

And yet, I have to fight my inner urge for the Free Pony.   'Don't walk away now!' my brain argues, 'They might just pay you!  You are leaving money on the table here!'

But you have to fight the inner urge to go for the free pony.  Free Ponies don't exist!