Back to basics: What is a scammer, and what is a scam?
Note: If you've been following this blog for a while, this post may seem superfluous. But this is for the benefit of new readers, and also for the benefit of those who sometimes find themselves fielding questions about the definition of a scam or a scammer.
So, are y’all enjoying February so far? I sure am, despite the currently dreary, wintry (for here) weather. Although I have work deadlines as usual, I’ve made a vow to start blogging more frequently again, since I have so much to write about, and especially since it appears that, as per usual, there are evil people who are fiercely determined to shut me up. (As my pal Salty Droid might say, Suck it :: evil people who want to shut me up!) Anyway, although I have more info to share about some of my favorite snargets (snark targets), such as jailed serial scammer Kevin Trudeau... his ex-b.f.f. (the stupidest man in Scamworld)... Joe "Mr. Fire" Vitale... and numerous others, I thought I’d take a little detour with a long-overdue post.
I was inspired to do so because recently a couple of people wrote to me asking a question that I’ve been asked many times throughout the years that this blog has been in existence (it was born on July 27, 2006; here's my post about its eighth birthday). Since I’ve never gotten around to doing a FAQ – though I probably should have done one years ago – I thought it might be a good thing to write a post to which I can direct people when I get asked this question again, as I inevitably will. Here’s the Big Question I’ve been fielding for years in various forms, and which I’ve been asked again recently:
define a ‘scam’ or a ‘scammer?’"
This type of conversation is played out over and over and over again, probably thousands of times a day, all over the Interwebz. It’s not just a Cosmic Connie/Whirled Musings thing. Critics of selfish-help/McSpirituality/New-Wage/alt-health gurus are often criticized for being lacking in some manner. Those who slam the industry’s critics with ad hominem attacks, egregiously defamatory lies, lawsuit threats, or death threats are all too common.
But there are some people who don’t resort to those tired old tactics, and are simply expressing a seemingly genuine concern that said critics can’t seem to find anything good to say about anyone. And I understand that perspective: sometimes it probably seems that we can’t find anything good to say about anyone. (The short rejoinder to this point is that a critical blog or other forum doesn’t exist to promote or blow smoke.)
A related question to, "How do you define a scam/scammer?" is this: "Where do you draw the line -- is the person automatically a scammer if he or she makes any money at all from his or her shtick, or do you draw the line at specific monetary amounts?"
Good questions, all, and people who ask these questions in sincerity deserve sincere answers. I’ll address the money issue at the end of this post, but for now let’s take a closer look at the first question: How do you define a scam or scammer?
To begin with, dictionary definitions of "scam" are not all that useful, except as a possible starting point for discussion. Not that this has prevented some folks from waving dictionary definitions in my face and arguing that their guru of choice isn’t a scammer, and I am unfairly categorizing him or her as such, and that by golly, I should be sued for "slander," arrested and charged, or possibly killed. I’ve heard it all.
I am thinking, though, that in the real world that exists outside of the dictionary, each person probably has his or her own definition of "scam" and "scammer." (There are specific legal definitions of fraud, no doubt, but this isn’t a legal discussion.) Some folks are more hardcore in their parameters than I am, believing that a scammer is simply someone who takes your money and runs without delivering anything. By that definition, if Guru A uses hype to promote a "breakthrough" book that costs $20.00 or $200.00, and the book turns out to be just recycled crap that you could find for free or cheap in scads of other places, Guru A is not a scammer. After all, you paid him $20.00 or $200.00 and you got a book. A crappy book, maybe, but a book. The point is that Guru A didn’t just take your money and run without delivering some tangible something. Of course if he doesn't have some sort of money-back guarantee, that takes it to a new level, scam-wise.
Some people have very stereotyped ideas of what constitutes a scammer or a scam. For instance, they may think of scammers mainly in terms of hucksters who get on the phone at dinnertime and trick vulnerable elderly people out of their life savings. Or perhaps they envision a scammer as someone such as Bernie Madoff, who clearly cheated many people out of millions and millions of dollars with his Ponzi schemes. By these definitions, many of the people/schemes I’ve written about on this blog over the years are not scammers/scams.
For my purposes on this blog, however, scamming comes in many flavors. Granted, some of the flavors are subtler than others, and I also recognize that in many cases, one person’s scam may be another person’s satisfactory customer experience. Keep in mind, too, that despite my research and care to include sources and links whenever possible, my blog is primarily an expression of my informed opinions, which may very well differ from yours.
And that’s something you’re just going to have to deal with. You are, however, welcome to argue with me on this blog, or privately. I'm happy to publish dissenting opinions.
From my perspective, it's not the method of scamming that defines a scammer, it's not the money or the amount of money, and it's not even necessarily a conscious intention to scam. I think it's more complicated than that. In the following sections I will attempt to define scams and scammers as I see them. Maybe it will help you understand this blog better, if you don’t understand it already. And maybe you will also find the list helpful for your own purposes when trying to determine if someone is selling you a bill of goods.
To be sure, this is not a comprehensive list and isn’t intended to be. And I'm sure there are plenty of other similar red-flag checklists available online. But this one is based mainly upon my own years of observation. It is also heavily grounded in content that I wrote a few years ago for a nascent group project in which I was involved (and which may still come to fruition at some point).
Identifying Frauducts and Flopportunities
Once again I have to thank Salty Droid for coining those terms. The following are traits and techniques that characterize questionable products and opportunities – or "scams," if you will. By extension, those who use these techniques could be "scammers" by my definition.
The medium is the message.
Many critical blogs such as Salty Droid's, and to a lesser extent my blog, have focused on individuals who use the Internet (web sites, social media, email blasts, and other online forums, including mobile apps) as their primary promotional means. But it is important to understand that frauducts and flopportunities are promoted across many media channels today as a means of establishing credibility – or what passes for credibility in Scamworld. Apart from an online presence, common media being utilized include (but are not limited to):
- TV (infomercials; pay-for-play appearances on talk shows, "reality" shows, or fluff "news" segments)
- Radio (ads; pay-for-play appearances on radio talk shows)
- Print media (newspapers (particularly to advertise their "free" seminars); ads or advertorials in in-flight magazines (if any of those still exist – wait, I guess they do); business magazines, and other periodicals)
- Direct mail (junk mail) – old-school, but still in wide use
What to watch out for
No matter where or how the promotions appear, a person/company might be a scam/scammer if they meet some of the following criteria…
- Product or opportunity sounds "too good to be true": the copy promises or strongly implies extraordinary results with little effort and/or no prior experience. (Generally there are disclaimers, either on a separate page or in very fine print at the bottom of the sales page, but they are played down in comparison to the hype.)
- The promotional content either blatantly or subtly appeals to various emotions, desires, or traits. Some of these are positive emotions, some are negative, and some are a combination of the two. These emotions/desires/traits may include:
- Fear (of poverty, loss, missed opportunities, uncertainty, future instability (apocalyptic/survivalist marketers specialize in the "scary future" scenarios))
- Guilt (Are you really providing for your family – or yourself – the way you should? Don’t they and you deserve better?)
- Greed (More is always better, especially if you’re talking about more money!)
- Narcissism/sense of entitlement (You are more special than those around you, and you deserve the best of everything. It is your birthright; you were born to be a Champion!) [Narcissism and a sense of entitlement are two separate things, but they often tend to be pandered to together, particularly in New-Age/motivational marketing.]
- Elitism/snobbery/competitiveness: (You owe it to yourself to join this group of elites or Champions who know the secrets to wealth/health/happiness. It will give you a real edge over your friends, neighbors, colleagues, and/or it will make them envy you. Even gurus who preach that "the only person you are in competition with is yourself" often resort to playing the elitism card, particularly when faced with criticism from outside forces. The guru may peg the critics as jealous losers who don’t know the secrets to being a Champion or an elite, or who are perpetual outsiders looking in and consumed with envy.)
- Desire for "forbidden" or "secret" knowledge (All of the information "they" don’t want you to know about. Often goes hand-in-hand with elitism. Kevin Trudeau is of course the all-time master of things "they" don't want you to know, and so was Rhonda Byrne with The Secret.)
- Envy (Don’t you want to be just like the guru pushing the product (or the enthusiastic, successful-looking people providing testimonials), so you too can enjoy the opulent lifestyle, the McMansions, the expensive sports cars and other toys, the privilege of lolling on the beaches of the world?)
- Loneliness/desire for sexual or emotional fulfillment (This is the bread and butter of relationship "experts," PUA (pick-up artist) gurus, and the like.)
- Sense of inferiority or feelings of failure
- Laziness (Not all products exploiting human laziness are bad, of course; it’s often been said that laziness, rather than necessity, is the mother of invention. However, if the seller promises that the product or opportunity will allow the purchaser to become healthy, wealthy, or otherwise miraculously transformed with virtually no effort, that should be a huge red flag.)
- Spiritual hunger, desire for transcendence or for a sense of magic and wonder
- A desire to "make a difference," help others, change the world for the better, or be a part of something larger and grander than one’s self
- Borderline or vague emotions or traits such as discontent, boredom, lack of direction. (Clever marketers seek to transform these into stronger emotions: fear, guilt, envy, etc. Even if you’re fairly satisfied with your life, they attempt to make you feel guilty for "settling" and/or being an underachiever.)
You can see that not all of the emotions, traits, and desires listed above are negative ones; some are actually quite commendable, even noble. The shrewdest and most skillful scammers – e.g., Kevin Trudeau through his massive scheme GIN (the Global Information Network) – have managed to appeal to both the noblest and the basest desires in the human heart. Many people joined GIN to help "change the world" and be part of something big and important. Contrary to what I used to believe before I got to know some wonderful ex-GIN members, not all who joined GIN did so out of greed (spurred by promises of great and effortless wealth through GIN’s now-defunct MLM program), or out of a desire to be part of an "elite" society that looked down on all of the sleeping sheeple.
Of course, all advertisers and marketers use emotional appeal; however, the types of gurus targeted on this blog are more in-your-face about it – actually promising, or strongly implying, that purchasing their product or opportunity will directly result in the achievement of the purchaser’s desires or goals. Apart from the fact that beer and cars are tangible products (unlike "success" or "happiness" or "wealth"), an ad for a lite beer or a car is generally more subtle than the promotional efforts of Scamworld gurus. Most emotionally appealing ads for "real" goods merely invite the viewer or reader to associate the product with a pleasant scenario or outcome; they generally do not go so far as to specifically promise that buying the product will result in the realization of one's deepest hopes and dreams.
Moreover, many of the Scamworld gurus on whom this blog focuses work very hard to influence their clients' emotional/psychological/physical state, sometimes with deadly results. The same generally cannot be said of someone trying sell you a new mini-van.
As it happens, the above is a summary of an argument that I’ve had numerous times with self-help industry apologists who insist that self-help, motivational, or pop-spirituality marketers are no different from someone selling beer or cars or cosmetics. Well. Yes, they are different. I elaborated a bit about this in a May 2010 post based upon conversations I’d had with Trudeau’s former marketing guy, Peter Wink, who more recently allied himself with the stupidest man in Scamworld.
For that matter, cults use many of the emotional-appeal strategies listed above… but that’s a whole other subject.
Let’s get back to the list of red flags to watch out for…
- The promotional copy cites impressive-sounding "authorities" and "experts," and/or "research" in some field of expertise, with vague or nonexistent references, thus making it difficult or nearly impossible for the prospective customer to verify the claims. The gurus themselves, or some of those whose testimonials or endorsements they list, may also claim to have professional-sounding degrees or credentials that are either commercial products of "diploma mills," or are impossible to verify. New-age marketers in particular like to utilize pseudoscientific research and claims to make the product or opportunity sound more impressive -- while at the same time they're often willing to disavow science or "reductionist"/Western thinking when it suits their marketing needs or when they're called on some of their nonsense. ("Science doesn't have all the answers!" "Doctors make mistakes!").
- The advertiser brags about his or her own success in the field, implying that he or she is revealing the secrets to success out of a sense of altruism or a desire to "give back," or some other noble reason. While there is nothing wrong with offering products or events that teach real skills, and teaching itself is an honorable profession, one has to wonder why, particularly in highly competitive industries such as real estate or marketing, a guru who was truly successful would be spending the bulk of his or her time and energy grooming potential competitors.
- The product or opportunity is promoted via blanket emails from several different sources, giving the impression that it has been vetted and endorsed by people who have actually had success with it – when in fact the endorsements are affiliates and the product or opportunity is of negligible value. The tighter FTC regulations that took effect in late 2009 really didn’t seem to have much effect on this practice.
- The advertiser offers an almost too-good-to-be-true money-back guarantee, usually within a specific time frame, but the refund policy is sometimes framed as something that the buyer would have to be crazy – or at least a hopeless malcontent – to even consider.
- An abundance of supportive hype: Often, a product is released and immediately receives many glowing testimonials, leading one to believe the launch and product was successful. However, the testimonials tend to be very slanted (positively) and with research many times can be seen to be connected in some way to the offer -- either through reciprocal support/promotions, or affiliated in cross-channel sales of some variety. Look to networks and syndicates that support each others' efforts through published testimonials, and look for heavily biased reviews (often from reviewers who only publish one review, ever) as a warning flag. A lack of problems being addressed and solved following a launch is not normal with legitimate options.
- Failure to even come close to living up to the hype. The product or opportunity is considerably more complex and/or much less of a sure thing than advertised. Far from being something that can be mastered in three or five or seven simple steps by anyone, no matter his or her level of experience…far from allowing the purchaser to get rich while he or she sleeps… the product comes with lots of caveats, and few real money ops. (This is true of many of the Internet Marketing scams that Salty Droid has written about.) Alternatively, the product or opportunity is basic and minimalist, lacking in substance, offering little in the way of new or useful advice.
- Constant upselling/attempts to suck the buyer further into the marketing funnel: Rather than offer support (or a refund) for what has already been purchased, the seller continually pressures the purchaser to buy more products, tools, or training, and/or to attend expensive workshops and other events in order to achieve the results promised in the initial product/opportunity.
- Forced continuity. Despite FTC regulations, many sellers are still sneaking these deals into seemingly simple one-time purchases, and a customer thinking that he or she is purchasing one item may actually be authorizing the seller to dip into his or her bank account or credit card every month for "membership fees" or other "benefits." Some customers find it almost impossible to extricate themselves from these deals, and end up having to cancel their credit cards. Kevin Trudeau, anyone?
- Incompetent or nonexistent customer support/refund problems. These can vary. Sometimes the above-mentioned upselling is what passes for customer support. The product doesn’t work? Okay, no problem: here’s a more expensive one! Should the buyer decide he or she wants a refund, some sellers make it as difficult as possible by offering only a narrow window. They may refuse to issue a refund before, say, 30 days are up, even if the customer has decided he or she wants a refund after only a few days. Then after the 30 days are up and the customer asks for a refund, he or she may be told that it is too late. Other sellers are slow to issue refunds or refuse to do it, saying the customer is not eligible, or blaming the customer for not using the product correctly, not working hard enough, not wanting to be successful, etc. Alternatively, the seller offers a two-week or 30-day money-back guarantee, but the product or opportunity is so complex that it takes more time than that to determine its effectiveness (or lack thereof).
- Untoward reactions to, or ignoring of,
complaints or criticism. Some of this is related to
incompetent or nonexistent customer support, but it also
may apply to the bad gurus’ reactions to criticism from
outside sources. Rather than attempt to clean up their
business practices, the gurus instead simply ignore what
the critics are saying, and/or they attempt to silence,
discredit, or threaten the critics.
(For the most part my own snargets have chosen to ignore my criticism, but as you may also know if you’ve been reading this blog (or the Salty Droid blog, or Bernie’s GINtruth blog, or Omri’s Glancingweb blog) for any length of time, a few subjects have chosen the "attempt to silence" etc. strategy.)
Before I wrap this up, I want to address the big issue that seems to come up the most frequently when people either sincerely question my motives for blogging, or accuse me outright of "hating" money. First off, while I can’t speak for any other blogger, I can say that I don’t hate money, and have even made a couple of lame attempts to "monetize" this hobby blog over the past few years. I can say that as far as I've ever been able to see, Salty Droid is not making money from his blog; he has never run ads on it and he doesn't even have a donation button. He has been very careful to keep his blog "pure" in that sense.
But the first thing I did (in utter naivete) to monetize was to sign up for the free, default, you-don’t-have-to-do-anything version of Google AdSense. But it was more like AdSenseless for me. Not only did some really objectionable ads pop up – some of them for the very things that I snark about – but from the time I signed up in May 2009, through my final payment in November 2014 (that’s four-and-a-half years, folks), I made less than $210.00. That’s right: there are no zeroes missing there. I made less than two hundred and ten bucks in four-and-a-half years.
Granted, I never made even the weakest attempt to do anything to increase the effectiveness of the program. Even so, that is an embarrassingly paltry amount of revenue, or it would be embarrassing to me if I had been driven by any sort of profit motive. But I’m not. In any case, I finally suspended the AdSense program earlier this year.
Then there was my decision to start asking for donations, which I didn’t initiate until March 2010, when I had been blogging for nearly four years. It embarrasses me to ask for money, so I tried to make light of launching my donation button by writing a silly poem, based upon Lewis Carroll’s classic nonsense poem, The Hunting of the Snark. The donations have trickled in now and then, but as is probably the case with the overwhelming majority of bloggers, if I depended upon donations to keep me going I’d be living on the streets. (However, once again I will say that donations are always appreciated, and needed now more than ever. I’ll tell you more when I can.)
My point – and my answer to that corollary question I mentioned towards the beginning of this post – is that I do not automatically deem someone/something a scammer/scam just because the potential exchange of money is involved. I believe that people should be paid for their creative content, even if I find that content snarkworthy or I simply don’t agree with it. I’m actually a big believer in capitalism (tempered by fairness); I’m just not a very effective capitalist myself, when it comes to this blog. At some point I will probably get some Amazon thing going and have book ads here. That’s much more my style.
But it’s stuff and nonsense to declare that all who criticize Scamworld gurus (or, for that matter, all those who criticize plutocracy, inequality and social injustice) hate money and the people who make it. That’s simply a straw man argument. I wrote about that topic on this May 2011 blog post: http://cosmicconnie.blogspot.com/2011/05/burning-question-what-happens-when-fire.html.
Another huge red flag for a scammer/scam is a disparity between the marketer’s public and private behavior. Here’s a November 2009 post about why this matters so much:
Here’s a March 2010 post about my thoughts on whether or not there should be more regulation of the selfish-help industry. This was written before infamous "sweat lodge" killer James Ray’s trial and imprisonment and release. I still basically feel the same as I did back then about the issues under discussion:
Tin Promises: A two-part look at the dark side of MLMs, posted on this blog but written by a guest blogger:
I've Gotta Find Me a Scam: A lighthearted tribute to the types of scams and scammers that are the focus of this blog: