Fraud Antennae

By comparison, we’re a very strange family. We almost never talk to and never text with Away At College Daught (AACD). We Skype on Sunday nights. Typically, six days without any contact. I understand if you want to tar and feather us.

So it was quite surprising when AACD called mid-morning, mid-week recently. Someone had just called her from her bank and said they needed her debit card number because they were having problems with their network. She gave it to the caller. And immediately realized she’d been duped. Her mom told her to immediately call the bank and everything would be okay. She did and it was, but her experience begs an important question. How do we form meaningful trusting relationships with others while simultaneously guarding against criminally inclined people looking to take advantage of us? More succinctly, how do we develop fraud antennae? The more desperate people’s economic lives become, the more critical it is we develop fraud-detection skills and sensibilities.

I told AACD’s younger sissy the debit card story as a precautionary tale and explained to her surprise that there are people in the world who wake up every morning trying to figure out better ways to steal elderly people’s life savings.

Bernie Madoff, besides offering regular 20% returns, was supposed to be pretty charming. Nicholas Cosmo probably was too. A minnow compared to Madoff, Cosmo only defrauded 4,000 investors out of $195m. Or consider David Dutcher’s experience. Here’s a teaser to get you to read the entire LA Times article:

David Dutcher met Sharon on Match.com in late 2008, a few months after separating from his wife. “We had a lot in common,” he recalled. Sharon loved four-wheel-drive trucks and sports. They met for coffee, then dinner. Sharon was tall, slender, blond and beautiful. She moaned that she had not had sex in a long time. She told him he had large, strong hands and wondered if that portended other things. She described his kisses as “yummy.” “It felt a lot like Christmas,” said Dutcher, 49, a tall, burly engineer with wavy red hair. The women fiddled with Dutcher’s tie and massaged his neck and shoulders. The brunet unbuttoned her blouse to reveal generous cleavage. “I am way over my head with these girls,” he remembered thinking. “I hadn’t been out dating in a while.”

Apparently Dutcher’s Christmases are different than mine, but I digress. “Sharon” had been hired by Dutcher’s ex-wife. The night ended much worse than Dutcher imagined—with his arrest for driving under the influence by a cop working with Sharon and Dutcher’s ex. The age-old honey trap* with some crooked soccer moms and cops thrown in for good measure.

The crooked uniformed cop, an admittedly extreme example of fraud, brings to mind the uniformed Norwegian killer who every adult on the island somewhat understandably, albeit tragically, assumed was legit.

Dutcher simply needed to stop staring at the cleavage long enough to ask himself if what he was experiencing was so far out of the ordinary that maybe he had been set up. This is what I’m going to call the “so far out of the ordinary/too good to be true test” and maybe that’s the answer to my question. Then again, a lot of very smart and successful people didn’t think that Madoff’s promised 20% investment returns in a wildly fluctuating, but mostly down market were too good to be true so how can I expect D-squared to have applied the test?

More importantly, how do we guard against more subtle attempts at fraud, like the stream of fake emails or phone calls seeking debit card numbers? And how do we teach young people to form meaningful trusting relationships with others while simultaneously guarding against criminally inclined people looking to take advantage of them?

Experience is the best teacher. AACD is less naive as a result of that phone call, panic, and quick trip to the bank. But what kind of curriculum, dinner conversations, and other resources might help young people be proactive in detecting and thwarting the fraudsters in our midst? More simply, how do we teach them things may not be as they appear?

* When I was a teacher at an international school in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia back when Al Gore was inventing the internet, the US embassy folks invited my male colleagues and me to the embassy for a meeting where they cautioned us about beautiful Ethiopian women known to seduce American men in the hope of weaseling their way out of the country. Even showed a film with case studies on how it was done. This had one effect on my friends and me. We were more excited than normal to go clubbing the next weekend. Alas, I regret I was never a victim of the honey trap. :)

One thought on “Fraud Antennae

  1. My lesson in life here was believing I could trust an outfit who promised to insure our daughter would be accepted to college by buying into their scam. It cost me $800 dollars but I have learned to believe no one is going to hand you anything on a silver platter, especially someone who wants all of your money up front.

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