I just had an extensive conversation with a scammer. His command of English was quite high, he was polite, and sounded awfully forthright for a scammer. In contrast to most of the ones that start cursing me in Tamil or Marathi when I use the word “scammer,” he openly talked about the business he’s in. He thanked me for complimenting him on thinking quickly when I presented a particular objection. He was NOT new at this: he was aware of methods and terminology that scammers were using ten years ago.
I learned reading The Screwtape Letters that liars lie even when they’re talking about lying, so I’m not going to accept everything he said as true – but he really didn’t have a reason to answer my questions untruthfully, either. His estimate of a $10,000/month income seemed high, but for a high-performing scammer it’s not out of the question, especially if he supervises other callers. I was surprised that he told me he wasn’t in India at all, and that he was calling from Arizona. Improbable, but certainly possible.
The most astonishing thing this scammer told me was his success rate. He said that his system did keep track of how many calls were attempted vs answered by a live voice, but he didn’t know that percentage. The more important percentage was that once calls are actually connected and answered, he could count on getting at least one valid card number in one call out of six.
One in six. I can’t tell you how many times I post information about scammers on social media. I talk about it with the tellers at the bank (Kids, ask your parents about “bank tellers!”), with people who work in home care, in assisted living or retirement communities. I talk about it at church. I blog about it. Sometimes my wife thinks Rachel from Card Services is an ex because I talk about her all the time. Pen Fed sent us an email about phone scammers just this week, as did Chase. I think it was Chase. So naturally, because my entire professional focus is on fraud, I’ve been assuming that everyone else is as aware of the epidemic as I am.
Obviously, they’re not. One in six. Okay, of course the numbers are skewed. That’s one in six, but selected from the set of people who will answer the phone, and that’s a small percentage. It’s probably one out of hundreds of automated call attempts. But one person in six who – who I thought – is constantly surrounded by warnings about fraud will give up the information to a well spoken criminal on other other end of the phone.
I’m obviously at a loss as to how to reach people, and that’s concerning. Because it isn’t just my little crusade. It’s a concentrated effort among thousands of people like me, and we’re still not reaching the most vulnerable consumers. I realize that for a small percentage of people – who knows, maybe that percentage is indeed one in six that answer unknown numbers – it’s just not possible to protect them from themselves, but I know we can do better. We have to. Any ideas?
The writer of Hebrews told us, “Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some have unwittingly entertained angels” (NKJV, 13:2). But in my case, I think it might have been an angel that entertained me.
On the Friday before Christmas 1986, I found myself in a restaurant bar in the Mall of New Hampshire. Northern New England was still pretty new to me. I had left a job in Manhattan barely a year earlier, I was 100 miles from my coworkers, I lived alone, and I seemed to find myself in bars pretty often.
As guys will do, I started talking with the man a few barstools away, who obviously had a head start on me. We found as much common ground as we could, for one guy with no knowledge of sports and another guy with no knowledge of banking. As an hour turned to two and then three, my new friend admitted that he was there because he really didn’t want to be at home. His sister-in-law was visiting, he said; he couldn’t stand her and she couldn’t stand him. As the restaurant was closing up around 10:00, he admitted something else: he was drunk (which I knew), and he’d missed his meeting.
I felt pretty awful at that point, thinking that I’d contributed to his momentary backslide by buying beers and swapping stories for the evening. I had learned by that point that my new friend lived barely a quarter-mile from me, on the north side of Concord, past the state prison, just where Penacook starts. So on a whim, and because it was Friday and I didn’t have to go anywhere in the morning, I offered to drive him home in his car.
Neither of us talked much from Manchester to Concord. He thanked me a couple of times in that time-honored drunken “I love you man” tone, but for the most part he was preparing himself for what waited at home.
When I took him to his door, it was about 11:00. The lights were all on, the kids were still up. His wife didn’t look angry when she came to the door, so much as she just looked sad. In the days before mobile phones were common, all she knew was that he was hours late coming home – and I’m guessing she knew the condition he’d be in.
She thanked me, and offered to drive me back to Manchester to retrieve my car. I think what she really wanted was to be out of that house until after her husband was asleep. I declined, saying I’d be fine. I walked back toward my apartment, and as I made the driveway I stopped. It was late, it was cool but not cold, maybe 30 degrees. There were no streetlights on that section of the road, so with no moon it was quite dark. With no plan whatsoever, and not giving any thought to the fact that in another mile or so I’d be hitchhiking away from the gates of the New Hampshire State Prison and likely to draw attention, I started walking toward Concord. And when I saw headlights reflected in the mist around me I turned around and stuck out my thumb. To my absolute astonishment, a car slowed and stopped next to me.
The car was a silver 1982 Toyota Corolla two-door sedan. The driver, a guy maybe my age at the time, leaned over to open the door and announced that he never picked up hitchhikers, but God had told him to do it this time. Since at the time I was a follower of the Religion of Tom and believed I was too smart for other faiths, my first thought was…. “Great. Abso-freaking-lutely fabulous.”
The car was comfortably warm, so he’d been driving for awhile. There was a man preaching from his cassette deck (Kids, ask your parents about cassettes!); I don’t remember who the preacher was, but the more I listen to One Place the more I think it was probably J. Vernon McGee. He had small brass plates glued to the dashboard of the Corolla with Bible verses inscribed on them, the size of the plates you’d see on a trophy. The young man asked where I was headed, so I told him the story of the evening, where I’d been, what had happened. I just needed to retrieve my car in Manchester. He nodded and said that he really didn’t have to be anywhere, so he’d take me there. But, he warned me, he was probably going to talk about Jesus on the way.
Today I don’t remember much of the conversation. But I remember his earnestness, his openness. I remember that I didn’t feel preached to, or judged. He pointed out some of the verses on the brass plates and told me what they meant to him. And he said he was grateful for the opportunity to share his heart with me. He asked questions about my faith and my life, but didn’t pry at all.
It’s not terribly far from Bog Road in Concord to the Mall of New Hampshire, about 27 miles, so the ride didn’t take very long. Of course the mall was closed by then and there was only one car in the parking lot, but I’m betting he would have recognized my car if it’d been earlier. The young man pulled his silver 1982 Toyota Corolla two-door sedan up next to my silver 1982 Toyota Corolla two-door sedan. We said a brief goodbye, he thanked me for listening and said he’d pray for me, and we went our separate ways.
We all seem to notice cars like our own, right? Well, at the time I was aware of a burgundy two-door Corolla that belonged to a girl who worked at the Shaw’s in Stratham, and I passed a silver one like mine sometimes in Mount Washington Valley. But I never saw that Corolla again, at a time when I was on the road all day every day in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont.
For all the stories people tell about being saved and coming to Christ in one glorious lightning-bolt moment, I think many stories are more like mine: marked by fits and starts and slow awakenings, and by long periods of resistance and doubt. I’ve always been skeptical of any preacher who claims to have brought anyone to salvation, mainly because a preacher may have no idea how many family members or concerned friends or sermons or Casting Crowns songs on the radio might have brought that person to that moment. I certainly didn’t experience that moment in my new friend’s Corolla, and he didn’t press the issue. It would be a few more years until I would accept the gift I’d been offered.
Years later as my complicated journey progressed, I heard Newsboys’ Entertaining Angels for the first time: “So temporary / The things that I have seen / I ran so far / Will you take me back again.” I read the relevant passage from Hebrews as well, suggesting that angels are indeed all around us. I came to realize that, supernaturally or otherwise, I’d encountered an angel in 1986. He led me just another step closer to understanding what my heart, whether I liked it or not, had always known.
When Rachel from Card Services calls about your credit card, she might be calling from any one of dozens of fraudulent call centers in India. Have you ever wondered why all the different scammers use a similar (or in some cases identical) script? In a word, familiarity. Their scripts, and the recorded message that calls you, are crafted with specific reasons for every phrase.
Some of the calls I get start with, “This is Chase Bank.” Some of them even spoof the phone number on the back of a Chase credit card in their Caller ID. And why do they claim to be calling from Chase? Because JPMorgan Chase has about 92 million credit card accounts in the United States, compared to a small issuer like First National Bank of Omaha which, while no slouch in the business, probably has no more than 7 million. So chances are good that whoever answers the phone might live in a household that does indeed have a relationship with Chase.
The familiarity with the brand name is enough to make someone who might actually be a Chase customer pause for a second. The script depends on that pause to get you to “Press 1” on the chance that there’s something going on with your account, because chances are pretty good that you’re a customer. Usually the call center scammer who answers has no idea what the outgoing recorded message said, but that message has accomplished its purpose: You pressed 1 and your defenses are down just a little.
Once you’re talking with the human scammer, the script is littered with terms consumers might be familiar with but might not fully understand. Even the fake company name, “Card Services,” is familiar to you because the payment address on many credit card statements is indeed, “Card Services.” The script says “our records reflect that not only do you pay your bills on time, but you usually try to pay more than the minimum payment.” Well, duh? That’s true of the overwhelming majority of people who use credit cards. On an intellectual level you might understand that that’s true of millions of people, but the emotional response to that question comes because he’s talking to you.
Once he asks whether your have a higher balance on your VISA or your MasterCard, he’ll ask you to verify the expiration date on the card. Deep down, you’re feeling safe because he didn’t ask for the actual account number. And that sounds okay, right? He’s not asking you for the expiration date – he’s just asking you to verify it. At this stage in the scam if you answer him, no matter what date you give, valid or not, the scammer will say, “Yes, that is what our records show.” So, by asking the expiration date but not the account number, he’s asked a less threatening question and gotten you to answer it. He’s confirmed that either you know your number by heart or you’ve now taken out your card, and he’s confirmed that you’re willing to part with a little information. And if you have given him the actual expiration date from an actual card, he’s obtained a potentially valuable piece of information. You’re like a bobblehead doll at this point: just nodding, Yes, Yes, Yes.
Once you’ve been softened up, he’ll ask you to verify your account number, but it’s okay, right? He’s not asking you to give him the number, he’s asking you to verify it. He must already know it. And he’ll prove he knows it because he asks for the account number, “which I see from our records has 16 digits and starts with 4” (or 5). A typical American consumer may know that every VISA account number begins with ‘4’ and every MasterCard number begins with ‘5.’ And yes, every bank credit card number has 16 digits. But then, maybe that American consumer doesn’t know. Or, once the familiarity game is moving along, that consumer may not make the connection.
The scammer’s script might have a response to someone who says, “I’m not comfortable giving you my number.” The scammer may say all you need to give him to “verify” the account is the last four digits of your account number, hoping that you’ll breathe a sigh of relief that you don’t have to give him all 16. But if you’re this far into the conversation, you’ve already parted with your ZIP code and “only the last four” of your social security number. And for lots and lots of credit card issuers, all you need to dial in for automated customer service is two out of those three: Phone number, social security number last four, or account number last four. While you’re on hold, his associate is going to spoof your number – the one he called you on – to dial into the bank, and then try the ssn and the account number. And when he comes back on the line to let you know your balance, last payment and payment due, his associate will be listing the number for sale or dialing in again to perhaps change your address, order a new card or arrange a transfer while you’re still talking about reducing your interest rate to zero percent.
We’re all aware, probably, that “con” is short for “confidence.” The basis of scams like this is building a bond based on a sense of familiarity on the part of the target. Every word in the outgoing message and every word in the scammer’s script is crafted to build familiarity and trust. Because, after all, I can’t steal from you – until you trust me.
Are we all familiar with the expression, “The enemy of the good is the perfect”? The saying speaks to our natural human tendency to ditch what we have because of some perceived flaw, in favor of something completely different which we will then assume to be perfect. It comes from our arrogance: the idea that we’re good enough, we’re smart enough, we’re resourceful enough to make everything better, all the time, until everything becomes perfect.
One example might be our very own White House. The current administration seems largely populated by people who see flaws in free markets and flaws in our republic, and would fundamentally transform all of it. The direction they’re heading has been proven destructive pretty much since the Russian Revolution, but that doesn’t deter them from trying. This time, they say, things will be different and it will all work.
I like to turn that expression inside out, however, because when we talk about Heaven, I like to say that the enemy of the perfect is the good.
You see, here’s a piece of bad news: Heaven isn’t for good people. It isn’t even for very good people. Heaven is for perfect people.
Here’s more bad news: None of us are perfect. None of us ever have been.
And finally, even more bad news: on our own, with our own dedication and our own good deeds and our own compassion for our fellow man, none of us will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven, ever.
Here’s the good news, however: we don’t have to try. God’s not going to require us to work to get into Heaven because He knows it’s a fool’s errand. He knows we’re not perfect. That’s why He gave us the extraordinary gift of His Son.
I like to use the criminal justice system as an example when I preach. Most of you know that I have some experience with the system, and I know from that experience (and, of course, from hundreds of episodes of Law and Order and NYPD Blue) that in general, a criminal defendant typically has only two opportunities to get a break in sentencing.
The first way to do it, and the one to which prosecutors seem to respond best, is to rat your friends. Turn on the others involved in your crime in the hope of saving yourself. “It was me, yeah, but it wasn’t just me. Marv was standing over there turning the water on in the sink and Sally was waiting for us in the car. Harry brought the ski masks.” Well, for better or worse, I never involved others in the crimes I committed, so that avenue was not open to me.
The next way to do it is what’s called extraordinary acceptance of responsibility. For example, when the FBI came to my door one bright September afternoon, our conversation could be distilled as one agent asking, “Do you know who we are?” and me saying, “Yes.”
He said, “Do you know why we’re here?” and I said “Yes.”
He said, “Did you do it?” and I said, “Yes.”
Then he asked me the hard question. “We know from experience that when this happens, it doesn’t happen to only one client. Did you do this to anybody else?” It took a little longer for me to answer, but I said, “Yes, and here’s his name.”
You see, if you save the government the time and effort of going through a trial to prove to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that you did what you know you did anyway, they’ll give you a break at sentencing because the prosecutor got to keep his numbers up without any real effort. In contrast, if you make the government go through a trial to prove you did what you know you did anyway, then any apology or acceptance of responsibility you offer the Court after your conviction is going to seem pretty lame.
You know what else judges don’t like? Judges really don’t like the “I’m not such a bad guy” defense.
In each of my criminal cases, I had to stand in front of a judge and say out loud what I had done. “Your honor, no sense denying it, you got me. I violated Title 18 Sec. 1341, Mail Fraud, felony.” And that’s where I stopped talking. Because what the judge didn’t want to hear was, “But hey, look at all the things I didn’t do, Judge. I didn’t commit Bank Fraud, Securities Fraud, Tax Fraud or Wire Fraud. I didn’t commit murder, arson, armed robbery or rape. I’ve never practiced dentistry without a license, never shot a bald eagle, and never once have I taken my hot air balloon into the restricted space over the White House. I’m not a bad guy.”
If the judge had any sense of humor, he’d respond with, “Mr. Hughes, in recognition of your extraordinary accomplishment of committing mail fraud but not committing murder, I’m only going to sentence you today for mail fraud – not murder. In this Court, you only get sentenced for what you did.”
Too often we look at the gates of Heaven like a courtroom, and we delude ourselves into thinking that “good enough” is “Good Enough.” We mentally compare ourselves to the people around us, the great unwashed masses whose sins are way worse than our own when we consult our personal Sin-O-Meters. Look at that guy, we say to ourselves, if he can get into Heaven I’m sure I’ll be able to. Wow, he’s there? After what he did? He shouldn’t have a chance. And we raise our hand and we say, “Hey God, what’s the deal, how come that guy’s going to Heaven, he doesn’t deserve it like I deserve it?”
God’s appropriate response, at that point, would be a lightning bolt to the forehead of the questioner. But in the event God felt the need to explain Himself, he could point, wordlessly, to the Man on the Cross. Our standard, you see, isn’t the people around us. Heaven doesn’t have a finite number of places and we’re not competing with others for a seat. We shouldn’t be running around with rubber bracelets on our wrists with WWTGD – What Would That Guy Do – emblazoned on them. The standard is a perfect, sinless life, obedient to the last breath. And once we understand that we can never measure up to that, that we will never be “good enough,” then it becomes crystal clear that we need Him. We’re not going to do it – any of it – on our own.
She would stop and consider whether she was going to go downstairs to get her mail, or whether she expected a neighbor or the VNA or her cleaning person. She would carefully deliberate for a few seconds as we started to leave. We’d reach the door, call over to her, “Jean, do you want me to lock this?” – and leave her in her apartment.
As she entered her late 80s, our friend Jean took a little longer to consider every decision. How much of a contribution to give the homeless shelter or the Cancer Society (it was always the higher number). Whether to keep or toss a bag of cards from friends and relatives (always kept for another day). And whether we should lock the door to her apartment on our way out after putting away her groceries, taking out the trash and updating her checkbook.
Jean had been in the hospital since January 5, and had moved to a nursing facility three weeks later. It was now the end of March. The plan was for us to buy a bigger house in time for her to come live with us, but in any event, she wouldn’t be coming back to this apartment.
Now it was Monday morning. Over the weekend, with Jean moved from the hospital to a nursing facility, we had moved her furniture, her family photographs, and all those bags of cards and letters out of her apartment. My wife – one of Jean’s closest friends, and certainly her dearest friend younger than about 70 – had enlisted her three sons to help remove all evidence of the last 11 years from the small two-bedroom apartment.
Jean kept everything. Everything. Meticulously wrapped family photographs. Her father’s bookkeeping records from the musicians union. Her parents’ grade school records. Performance evaluations from her job at West Point and her long, glass ceiling-breaking career at IBM. Carbons of her Maryland individual tax returns from the 1960s. And, just in case, her American Express statements dating from 1961 until 2014, when she closed her account because American Express wouldn’t waive their annual fee for a kind old lady who had been their customer for half a century.
But Jean was no hoarder. Everything was in a box, or occasionally a shopping bag. Everything was in order; there were no piles. Every spring we’d look through the previous year’s bills and pack them up in carefully labeled boxes.
It was now Monday morning after the move-out (more like a load-out, from my music business days). We had finished the last run the night before, scarcely 14 hours ago, and now the place was worse than empty: it was sanitized. Maintenance had been there and gone. Jean’s name was no longer on the door. Picture hanger holes were already patched, and the place smelled like fresh paint. I had expected that it would look much bigger than it had the week before, cluttered as it had been with moving boxers and Jean’s furniture – but instead it just looked empty, as empty as it did before my wife helped her move in.
This one last time, it was immaterial whether I locked the door behind me on way out. It didn’t make a difference. It was as though neither she nor anyone else had ever lived there. I left Jean’s keys, my key, my wife’s key, the mailbox key on the kitchen counter and let the door close behind me.
October 31, 1981 was 40 years ago Sunday. I was in my first year in college at my father’s alma mater, and my parents had come from Connecticut to visit so we could spend the day in Boston.
What a beautiful day. Cool, breezy, in the 50s. I don’t recall where we ate, but if we were together more than a few hours then my mom would have made sure we ate at least twice. My parents let me cry on them about the breakup with my high school girlfriend a few weeks earlier. They bought me a blazer at Saks and a winter coat at EMS on Commonwealth Avenue, one that I wore well into my 40s. When my dad bought a couple of shirts for himself at Brooks Brothers, he was subjected to a level of rudeness on the part of the sales lady that I still remember it (She must have come from Boston Brahmin money, because Boston Brahmins don’t care for Fairfield County types).
By the time they delivered me back to my dorm early in the evening we had all had a wonderful day, one full of harmony and promise and possibility. My father, who had graduated from what was then the Bentley School of Accounting and Finance in 1950, was excited to see the changes in the school and proud to have me majoring in a field similar to his. By all appearances it was the opening scene in the story of a great life, of productive college years, then a great first job and a solid career in finance. I was truly on my way.
The way, of course, was not that clear. I allowed my immaturity and lack of discipline to interfere with the tasks at hand, and by the time I dropped out of that school 19 months later, I was just another drug-using dropout on the lookout for an easy buck. A Criminal Justice professor whose name continues to elude me coined the term “middle class losers” about a decade ago, and that description suited me perfectly.
After a year working for a shady character who offered corporate safety services by day and distributed cocaine by night, I talked my way into a job as a commercial lender in 1985. I lost that job three years later over my abysmal work ethic and my inability to manage a 40,000 square mile territory on my own. Now married, I started preparing tax returns and doing monthly writeup, but the quality of my work was awful. I wasn’t halfway through the CPA exam in 1993 when I realized I was never going to pass it; not long after I had the same realization about three pages into the EA exam.
The more my work suffered, the more I depended on a winning smile and a calm, reassuring demeanor to make up for my lack of actual credentials. Having started stealing from them in 1993, the more my clients liked and trusted me, the more I took. And each time I stole something from a client, the decision to steal the next time became easier.
Every decision to steal or not steal, to study or not study, to get up or sleep late, to use drugs or not use drugs, changes life’s path. The momentous ones – the choice of a college, the choice of a spouse, the choice of a career – are recalled at anniversary parties, new partner celebrations or retirement banquets. But our lives are governed more by the dozens of decisions we make every single day than the ones we will recall with our families or coworkers. One could say that bad decision making begets bad decision making until a pattern emerges, but each choice still stands on its own. So while choosing the wrong path on Tuesday makes it more likely that one will choose the wrong path on Thursday, it’s also true that – as Anne Shirley might have said – that Thursday will be a new day, fresh and clean of mistakes. It’s never too late to start making the right choices, and that’s something that gives me great comfort.
That day in October 40 years ago was truly the beginning of a story. It just wasn’t the story any of us had in mind that day.
Looking back, my sister Eileen was the one who noticed our Dad’s decline before anyone else wanted to accept it. I think it took me the longest to see it, and then I only saw it because I was with them much of the last year they spent in their house.
When I was working in accounting, I knew a lot of experts (or SMEs, in MBA-speak). If I had a question about the Earned Income Credit, for example, I had a client who, as a young lawyer in Washington, had helped write the enabling legislation. If I had an obscure question about S Corporations, I was acquainted with a Big 8765 4 partner who’d experienced every S Corp question, every S Corp emergency and every S Corp tax disaster known to man. If I had a question about a recording contract, there were a half dozen reasonably powerful music business lawyers in Los Angeles or Nashville who would take my call.
But there was only one guy on the planet that I could ask the most important question. There was only one number I could call and say, “Sure, I know what the issue looks like and I know what the book says, but Dad, what do I do?” There was much he taught me that I never could have looked up.
I knew before my parents moved out of the house that Dad’s business mind was declining. The experienced auditor, CPA and retired CFO had been sending checks to some questionable “charities” that showed obvious red flags in their direct-mail pitches. His bill paying was slipping; he’d missed enough important payments that my credit score was actually higher than his (People who knew Dad might be surprised by that, but people who know me would be astonished!). I learned that he’d deposited a couple of scam checks and caused some minor embarrassment at the bank. I learned that he had agreed to pay a fee to a Jamaican guy claiming to be the president of Publishers Clearing House to ensure delivery of his Grand Prize. I took to intercepting most of my parents’ junk mail and turning off the ringers on every phone in their house except the one I carried.
After they moved, Dad’s decline seemed to accelerate. They were in a locked unit because my Mom wandered at night, and Dad really didn’t have a lot of engaging adult conversation with the other residents. In the nearly three years they lived in assisted living, he lost track of things – some small, some significant. We had stopped talking about the markets by 2018. I knew at one point that, when I needed an answer on how to approach a question from a Revenue Agent or how to record a particularly complex transaction, Dad was no longer the guy I could call.
But it’s funny, the things we remember and the things we don’t; the places in our memory that stay secure as we decline and the things we let go. Dad’s military service from 1943-1946 and 1950-1952 was a source of pride to him for nearly 70 years after he separated from the Navy. And we four kids were a source of pride to him from November 1951 until the moment of his death.
One day I showed Dad a book I’d bought about Sumner and Gearing-class Navy destroyers, and opened it to a photograph of the ship on which he’d served. The Witek was in dry dock in Boston with her non-propeller propellers exposed. Dad looked at the picture and as soon as the ship’s name registered with him, he started explaining her experimental “new” (for 1951) propulsion system as though he’d just attended a briefing on the subject below deck.
On another occasion I showed him the website of the company from which he’d retired in the 90s. I mentioned that the company was using a new process to draw copper into projectile shells – and he started telling me about the metallurgical challenges with drawing copper that weren’t present with brass. He may have been his company’s Chief Financial Officer, but he knew the products and he knew the processes.
But nothing filled his heart, or his memory, like his love for Peachy, our Mom, who he first encountered in the summer of 1946 when he came home from the Pacific to finish his senior year of high school. He remembered the first time he’d seen her; he was absolutely devoted to her until the last moment of his life. Our parents often told us that marriage was hard work, but seeing them together made it look like a 70-year honeymoon.
More than one philosopher has pointed out that – with the possible exceptions of Gordon Gecko and Larry “the Liquidator” Garfield – no man dies wishing he’d spent more time at the office. At the end of his life, Dad remembered the Navy. And he didn’t remember the covenants and balance requirements attached to his employer’s 8-figure lines of credit with banks in New York or Dusseldorf, but he sure remembered what his company made and what they did. He remembered the grandchildren and step-grandchildren, recognized them by sight most of the time, and asked about them by name. And he remembered his love for Mom.
Dad died a year ago today with Mom at his side. At his funeral, I mentioned that he had taken up photography as a hobby well into his 50s and, characteristically, took it seriously and bought really good gear. Some of the best photographs of any of us, or of Mom, or of the grandchildren were taken by him. But it wasn’t the quality pro-sumer gear that made the pictures good ones (I have good gear and I’ve taken some really crappy pictures). It was the heart of the photographer. Our family pictures all say “This is a family I’d like to get to know better” because they were taken by someone who cared passionately for his subject.
At the end of his life, Dad’s memory retreated to the things he cared most about. And after a year, it seems my memory of him has concentrated on the same things. I haven’t thought about his war story about a three-year running battle with IRS on the valuation of certain tools in a long time – but I think about his smile, his laugh and his love every single day.
The short version of the first story is that Mr. Luis Nobre (left, below), a snappy dresser with truly fabulous hair, convinced the professionals (all of them PWSHKB*) at a large company to invest with him, promising significantly-better-than-market returns on their money. They took the bait, and ended up briefly losing €100 million.
In our second story, Stuart Howatson (on the right) scammed three English hotels out of £2,800.
Mr. Nobre’s gang employed a great deal of effort to swindle Allseas, and briefly gained control of 32,500 times as much as Mr. Howatson gained swindling the hotels. But both were able to manipulate their targets into overcoming their misgivings. The secret, as any fraud artist will tell you, is to get your mark to want to hand it over. In the Nigerian Prince scam, for example, the prospect of pocketing 10% of $24.7 million is dangled as a way to help you get over your skepticism.
Mr. Nobre’s gang got his targets to believe he could offer outsized returns because, they claimed, their enterprise was connected in some way to both the Vatican and the US Federal Reserve. And when it comes to whispered rumors of “special” investments, nothing says “special” like two of the most opaque institutions on the planet. Mr. Nobre didn’t promise Allseas hedge fund-level returns, because Allseas could have easily gone to Westport or New Canaan and bumped into 50 hedge fund managers on the street without involving a middleman. He had to go bigger and promise something unique, something reserved for the “in” crowd. The hook, of course, is directed at the emotional side of us – not at the logical, analytical side.
Bernie Madoff’s feeders did the same thing. They presented Madoff Investment Securities as so exclusive that, for some rich people, their money really might not be good enough. After the fraud unraveled, part of the sting for investors was the memory of how they’d clamored to get involved with Mr. Madoff in the first place.
In our second story, that of Mr. Howatson, he pretended to be an important executive in order to obtain services from hotels. But, of course not just any executive.
You know, even without a business card or a corporate American Express card I could probably convince the front desk clerk in any hotel that I was a VP or higher at General Mills or ADM or Goodyear. But so what? Would they care? Fortune 500 vice presidents are a dime a dozen at every Airport Hilton in the country. And face it, those companies are so, well, ordinary. To them I might as well be Shelley Levene or Willy Loman. Do you think that would get me any favors at the front desk?
No, Stuart Howatson didn’t pretend to be an important manager at just any company. He said he was the Chief Operations Officer of the Mercedes Formula 1 racing team. Now, the head of international tax compliance at ADM probably makes more than the Operations Chief at Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 (actually I have no clue how much either one makes), but saying you’re a really good tax lawyer doesn’t get you relaxed credit guidelines at the Westin. Claiming a connection with the glamour of Hollywood or pro sports, however, may hold a stranger’s interest and draw that stranger into wanting a connection with the glamour – through you.
Mr. Howartson had previously caught a 20-month sentence for claiming to be and playing the part of a Metropolitan Police officer, even to his wife. But even then, he didn’t claim to be just any policeman. He added the details that he was qualified as an armed officer (not all English policemen carry firearms), that he was a dog handler (another engaging detail) and, of course, his backstory would not be complete if he had not claimed to have occasionally protected Her Majesty the Queen herself.
In general, people don’t fall for investment schemes and online frauds for logical reasons. They fall for emotional reasons. Sometimes they just don’t want to sound stupid to the telemarketer who calls at dinner time with a script crafted to make people think they’re stupid. Sometimes they want “in” on an exclusive deal that other people can’t get, maybe a method that famous people might have used. Think of the endless radio commercials for the Bank On Yourself method. They suggest that James Cash Penney and Walt Disney used that very method to become wealthy. True or not (and it’s absurd to think it is), the emotional response is to get involved with the scheme because a household name is connected with it.
Fraud is about overcoming red flags, and it’s easier to overcome a red flag with an appeal to emotion than an appeal to logic. The piker in England may have only scammed a few thousand pounds from the hotels compared to the criminal gang that scammed Allseas out of €100 million, but the method behind the crime was exactly the same.
Even though I’d developed an impressive list of stupid, destructive behaviors by the time I was 42, I’d never spent a night in jail before my first night in a federal prison. But I knew to turn around to put my hands behind me through the slot in the door for the CO (I’d probably seen it on television). He uncuffed me, the slot slammed shut, he walked away, and I was alone.
For perhaps the first time in my life. Really, really alone.
My clothes had been boxed up to be mailed to my ex-wife’s house. The orange jumpsuit (yes, it really was an orange jumpsuit) fit me alright, as long as I rolled the legs up some. I had no belongings and nothing to read. I’d read that inmates were allowed a Bible or comparable book, but the Book of Common Prayer a former pastor had given me was sent back home with my street clothes because it had a hard cover. So I had nothing.
I took stock of my room (the word “cell” hadn’t yet occurred to me). I estimated it was 16 feet long, eight feet wide. Two steel bunks, a shower, a desk, an integrated sink/toilet/steel mirror. The ceiling was quite high, 10 feet or so. “So this is prison,” I thought to myself.
For some reason it startled me when I noticed that the door had no handle on it. I thought, “That’s funny, how am I supposed to get out of here if – -” Ohhhh, right. I’m not supposed to.
But what disturbed me more, oddly enough, was that my room had no light switch. I was at the mercy of whatever schedule governed the unit. A lifetime of miserable behavior had finally landed me in a real live prison, and this is what I was anxious about. It was as though none of the experience was real to me until I realized I couldn’t turn my light on or off at will. Some time around 9:00, I think, the lights clicked off. It had been an exhausting day, and I went right to sleep.
I was awake when the lights clicked on again at 5:00 (Well, it felt like 5:00. It’s not like I had a watch on). And a moment later it struck me: Hadn’t God turned the lights off every evening and then back on in the morning for my whole life? Without any intervention from me? Had I ever worried about that before? It dawned on me that for all I lamented my lack of control in the hours since I’d been locked up, I had never truly been in control in the first place.
Of all the lessons learned in prison, this was perhaps the most important: The belief that I was in charge, that I was in control, that I was running my own life in a vacuum apart from everyone around me – was a delusion. A lie I told myself. The fact was, I had been more in prison every day I spent on the street than I was in SHU at FMC Devens that morning. And once I fully surrendered the past, allowed all the spinning plates to come crashing down and accepted the opportunity prison would afford me, the real progress could begin.
My Dad said, “Tom, I need to do something with this check.”
My wife Denise had suggested that I leave our home in Vermont and stay with my parents in Connecticut for a few days after my mom’s hip replacement and ensuing complications. A few days had turned into what was at that point four months. I was at my usual place at their dining room table.
Their phone rang easily 20 times a day. Sometimes we’d get a ton of calls from the Jamaican scammers, other days we’d hear from Rachel at Card Services. The fake tech-support callers had scammed my Mom out of $1,000 in the previous year. So shortly after “moving in” I disabled the ringers on the house phones. The only phone with an audible ring was the cordless on my hip.
Not 20 minutes earlier I had had a disagreeable conversation with a Jamaican scammer who claimed I had promised to wire him some fee or another a few days earlier. During our conversation I realized that my Dad had probably spoken with him the previous weekend when I was back home in Vermont and unable to keep them away from the phone.
“What check, Dad?”
My father handed me a check made payable to him, at his address, for almost $8,000. It was printed on quality checkstock, drawn on an actual bank, on the account of a small manufacturer in central Maine. Dad had a vague recollection that he’d won some sort of prize and had to deposit this check in the bank.
I now had the rest of the story. The Jamaican guy on the phone was angry that I (because he thought I was Dad) had failed to wire the money to guarantee payment of the prize from – who else? – Publishers Clearing House.
The letter Dad showed me did indeed have Publishers Clearing House’s logo crudely photocopied on top. Along the bottom of the letter, also in greyscale, were the logos of Best Buy, and Wal Mart, and a half dozen other retailers and grocers. The only genuinely official-looking document here was the check – and instead of being drawn on the account of Publishers Clearing House in Westchester, it was drawn on the account of that small manufacturer in central Maine.
I questioned the authenticity of the check. His response: “Well, it sure looks real.”