All That Glitters is Not Gold – Learning the Street Smarts

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While schools put their major emphasis on the three R’s, ‘reading ‘writing and ‘arithmetic, few of them teach the street smarts needed to navigate the minefields found in the real world. And so even a very successful businessman can easily be relieved of his last penny by a slick-tongued con artist who poses as a legitimate businessman.


Millions of dollars are lost each year to clever rip-off artists who use a multitude of schemes to cheat the gullible, unwary, and unknowledgeable out of their hard earned money. Some even lose all their retirement funds and life savings to shrewd and deceitful con artists.


At one time or another we’ve all been taken for a ride. Perhaps it was by a mechanic who sold us a new battery or generator when all we needed was a minor adjustment. Perhaps it was by a doctor who prescribed an antibiotic for a virus infection, or a charity collector who has enough money hidden under his mattress to last for the rest of his lifetime or some health freak who convinced us to buy a load of vitamins that our body doesn’t need. Con artists are all around us and can zero in on their intended target as a bee finds nectar, or a homing pigeon finds her nest. No one is immune. The odds of becoming a victim of some scam or swindle are far greater than the chance of being mugged. While a mugger usually robs only one person at a time, a con artist can easily swindle many hundreds at once. The emotional devastation of being stripped of our money can be far more devastating than being the victim of a violent crime. However, the better prepared we are, the more difficult will be their task.


While it would take an encyclopedia to expose the many tricks and hoaxes used by a con artist, it is important that we learn to recognize some of the more common scams and educate ourselves to recognize their warning signs. Here are a few simple rules that everyone should know.


The first and most basic one of them all is “If it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is.” There is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow! No one gives away something for nothing, and there is no quick way to riches unless you inherit it. Anyone who dangles a diamond-studded chain in front of your eyes is certainly a con. So don’t allow your greed and need for money to destroy your normal thinking process and common sense. It’s always good to be cautious and skeptical. Watch out for the sales pitch that totally distorts the truth about the investments a company is selling or the commodity markets that are extremely speculative and carry a great risk. The recent collapse of Enron, which was called the largest bankruptcy in US history, should send a powerful message to investors as to the corruption and fraudulent practices that are part and parcel of today’s stock market and accounting practices.  This is certainly not the first time that dishonest accounting practices have been used to mislead investors. That a most respected accounting firm turns out to have been an accomplice in the largest Ponzi scheme in US history is a scandal of major proportions. One wonders what other bomb like Enron may be ticking away ready to explode any day. Some deals become so complex that even seasoned investors become confused. If the investment doesn’t make sense to you, then chances are that there is something wrong with it. One must realize that the only way to catch mice is to put cheese on the mousetrap. Therefore beware of testimonials from others who may have invested and received high returns, since this may be a Ponzi scam whereby the first investors are paid with the money taken in from later recruits. When someone offers you some investment plan that guarantees 14% interest at a time that the bank barely gives you 4%, then you ought realize that you are stepping on a very slippery slope and risk losing everything.


Some scams typically begin by convincing a few important people in the community to invest. The con artist then uses their names to convince others to invest. Once he’s earned the people’s trust, he can easily swindle the entire group as well as the community.


The better the speaker the more dangerous his slippery tongue may be, and the easier he can sell you a large red balloon full of hot air. Always beware of the slick talker who convinces you to buy a coal mine that he claims contains diamonds. A swindler may be very personable, articulate, an excellent salesman and usually has an inflated ego and is a professional liar. Some even have the audacity and nerve to later call their victim and offer to get their money back for a small fee. As soon as they receive the fee they disappear into thin air. And remember, just because there is a “special sale” or a “going out of business” sign doesn’t mean that you’re not being suckered, since you may be buying a discontinued model or one that they can’t get rid of. Many stores have been “going out of business” for years, and many “special sale” prices are especially higher than normal. Many times the picture in the paper will not match the model that is on sale, or the cheap model they advertised was “just sold out!” Watch out for hidden fees that don’t appear in the ad.


It’s very important that you learn to recognize a Ponzi scam; a commodity fraud, a high-tech fraud, and stay away from Multi-Level Marketing (MLM) pyramid schemes, no matter how legal they may be, since they rarely deliver what they claim. They usually offer hope but only deliver soap.


We must learn the language of the confidence men and avoid them like quicksand. During the past few years many people in our community have lost lots of money to MLM schemes such as JewelWay, Winners Circle, CornerStone, Golden Circle, Purchase Plus, ALN, and others, all which the FTC eventually closed down for being illegal pyramid schemes. When I exposed one shrewd operator who had swindled thousands of their hard earned money, he had the gall to take me to a din Torah for exposing his fraud. When the Bais Din asked me to prove my case, I simply showed them that he was offering people a 3,000% return on their investment, which was surely absurd and an impossible return. Yet, all the Bais Din did to stop this swindler was to tell him that he was not permitted to write the word “guaranteed” in his advertisements. Unfortunately, many continued to fall in because his advertisements appeared in respectable Yiddish newspapers that seemed to lend them credence and credibility. That a Yiddish paper accepts ads that help spread swindles is appalling and scandalous, I can’t understand how the readers and the newspaper’s rabbinical affiliates permit this outrage to continue without protesting loudly and strenuously.


Watch out for the bait-and-switch games that are the normal way of doing business in many so called respectable stores. You come in for an advertised item only to be told that it is no longer available or that there is a much better value at a higher price. Don’t be convinced by money back guarantees unless the company has a good track record, since by the time you try to get your refund, they may be someplace in Afghanistan. Watch out for the contractor who takes his fee in advance and leaves you hanging in the middle of the job. This seems to be a very common problem nowadays. The cheapest price may sometimes turn out to be more expensive after you add up all the hidden costs they never told you about.


A good scheme may employ two or more confidence men who work together to outwit their mark. Sadly, most of these successful operators will never spend a day in jail to pay for their crimes and will usually continue their operation even after being caught. One must realize that some of these schemes are very clever and sophisticated, and therefore one must consult both a knowledgeable accountant and lawyer before investing one’s hard earned-money. Each year, thousands get taken by Ponzi schemes, which can even involve a reputable bank, your best friend, a relative, and even a trusted lawyer. A recent Ponzi scam that involved a reputable American bank and which relieved thousands of Japanese of millions, should serve to convince us of how far this con game can go and how dangerous it can be. The time to worry about your money is before you invest it. Once you lose it, chances are that you’ll never see it again. And never believe that it can happen only to the other guy; we’re all vulnerable!