Shouldn’t we have sympathy for scam victims in general?


John Oliver ran a fantastic segment last week on The Prosperity Gospel. You should watch it. We discussed it on The Non-Prophets a bit too.

Adam Lee wrote a post about this segment asking, “Should We Pity the Victims of the Prosperity Gospel?”

Adam’s an excellent writer; I agree with most of what he says most of the time. He points out:

It’s amazing to me that so many people fall for it. Clearly, this shell game doesn’t work just because of a nice suit or a slick sales pitch. They’re tapping into something that’s hungry for hope and willing to follow anyone who promises it. The people they’re fleecing are eager to be deceived.

And for that reason, as much as I’m outraged by the brazenness of the preachers’ con, I have difficulty feeling sympathy for those who are taken in by it.

Here are a few things to consider on the other side. Poverty correlates strongly with low education, and religion has a long history of preying on the desperate. People who are under-educated and lack critical thinking skills, often wind up in that state in for reasons that are not entirely within their control. It’s very easy for me as an educated and comfortably middle class individual to make fun of people who give away their own money in the vain hope that it will fix their terrible living conditions — and yes, I enjoy making fun of stupidity. But at the same time, scams like this work best on people who don’t understand scams; and those people tend to be the ones who can least afford to lose their money.

It’s not just religion. Think about another topic that John Oliver has discussed: predatory high interest payday loans. Yeah, watch that video too.

Accepting such loans is STUPID, on some level. But who takes those loans? In many cases it is also poor, uneducated people. Scam artists count on people not being savvy enough to defend themselves, and to a poor person who can’t see beyond surviving the week without quick cash, it seems like a good deal.

People who were raised on religion often have a hard time distinguishing promises that “God will give you money” from an ironclad guarantee. Has a Christian ever told you that they could no more doubt God exists than they could doubt that their own mother exists? That’s the state that many people find themselves in after a lifetime of indoctrination.

So if you’re poor, you haven’t had competent education, aren’t particularly skeptical, and someone you trust tells you that God — who is as real as your own mother — has promised to give you money if you meet certain conditions… a few people will wind up doing that. Are they greedy? Sure. But it’s not the Robert Tiltons and the Creflo Dollars of the world who lose their money to these scams; they’re the ones who take advantage of it. The real greedy ones are those who are perpetrate the scams.

W.C. Fields [edit: or perhaps it was Canada Bill Jones] once said “It’s morally wrong to allow a sucker to keep his money.” At the end of the day I agree that you can’t protect people from their own stupidity. Better education and inoculation against gullibility is the solution. Criticize religious scams openly, and don’t pull any punches when it comes to talking about harmful beliefs. But at the same time, I don’t feel so much schadenfreude towards the victims of scams that I don’t think we should go after Tiltons and Dollars and other con artists. They’re still thieves and crooks, even if you’re not likely to ever be their victims.

Comments

  1. says

    For what it’s worth, Wikipedia attributes the quotation “it’s immoral to let a sucker keep his money” to card sharp Canada Bill Jones, though it’s apparently also been attributed to P.T. Barnum and W.C. Fields.

  2. says

    I’ll add in one other point: Being in a desperate situation, with your back against the wall, is not conducive to thinking rationally. When you are threatened by homelessness, or a loved one is wasting away from a disease and you can’t possibly afford the treatment, even the most rational, well-educated and sensible people might crumble and buy into some ridiculous scam because what if?

    We’re not Vulcans. We’re human beings. Sometimes our emotions get the better of us, especially when we’re threatened and vulnerable, desperate for someone to tell us they can help. It can happen to the best of us. If you think it can’t happen to you, you’re fooling yourself.

  3. AMM says

    People who are under-educated and lack critical thinking skills, often wind up in that state in for reasons that are not entirely within their control. It’s very easy for me as an educated and comfortably middle class individual to make fun of people who give away their own money in the vain hope that it will fix their terrible living conditions — and yes, I enjoy making fun of stupidity.

    I don’t think it’s being “undereducated and lacking critical thinking skills.” It’s desperation. One of the things about living in poverty, as with other desperate circumstances, is that education and critical thinking skills tell you that there’s no hope. If you think rationally, you realize that if you’re poor and from a poor family, the likelihood that anything you do will get you out of poverty is practically zero. (And it’s even worse if you’re black.)

    If all rationality (i.e., education and critical thinking skills) tells you is “you’re screwed,” then the rational thing to do is to try irrational things. What have you got to lose?

    And if it turns out that your money is gone, well, your lived experience has already told you that if you do by some miracle manage to save anything up, The System is going to find a way to take it away from you. At least this way, it bought you a little hope. (And at least it didn’t kill you for having a pack of Skittles in your hand.)

  4. says

    I was thinking about emailing the Non-Prophets about this since you guys were having a discussion two weeks ago(?) about whether or not more liberal religion is dangerous. I haven’t listened to yesterday’s show yet, so I don’t know if you’ve readdressed this question, but it is things like this where I say, “Yes, liberal religion is dangerous.” You ask, “Has a Christian ever told you that they could no more doubt God exists than they could doubt that their own mother exists?” Liberal Christians do no good in helping out here as they help contribute to the notion that God definitely exists. Plus, they may also contribute to the narrative that God will help those who seek his help. One only need to twist this a bit to say that the way you seek God’s help is to send God money…oh, by the way, you can’t send God the money directly, of course, so you should send it to the pastor instead.

    (On a side note, I had disagreed with your emailer’s analogy of responsible drinkers versus alcoholics. The flaw is that the responsible drinkers are not saying that alcohol is not dangerous. Liberal believers don’t necessarily see a problem in believing things for no good reason…er, I mean on faith.)

  5. corwyn says

    This is, quite simply, false.

    Here is the most pessimistic analysis I could find:

    Seventeen percent who were born in the bottom fifth of income make it up to the middle as adults. Nine percent make it up to the fourth highest fifth and a measly 4 percent climb to the top fifth of income in the United States.

    4% of the poor go from the bottom 20% to the top 20% in a single generation! That is much more hope than a prosperity gospel scam.

  6. corwyn says

    @5 Me:

    That was meant to be in response to 3:

    is that education and critical thinking skills tell you that there’s no hope. If you think rationally, you realize that if you’re poor and from a poor family, the likelihood that anything you do will get you out of poverty is practically zero. (And it’s even worse if you’re black.)

  7. says

    @5 & 6

    4% of the poor go from the bottom 20% to the top 20% in a single generation! That is much more hope than a prosperity gospel scam.

    The problem with that fact doesn’t state the cause of the upward movement and, when it correlates with somebody who has bought into the prosperity gospel, it gives the preacher somebody to march on stage to bear witness to those who are desperate.

    Also, a 30% chance of prosperity (17% at 3/5 + 9% at 4/5 + 4% 5/5), while much better than “practically zero”, still isn’t very good odds, especially if you rationally see the likely causal factors of that prosperity working against you (lack of education, racism, etc.).

    Another thought: I’d like to see an economic breakdown of the donors to these prosperity gospel sharks (number of donors per stratum (parent family and current), amount donated per person per stratum, total received per stratum, etc.). Something tells me a majority of their money doesn’t come from folks in the bottom two fifths hoping to get out, but maybe from folks who start out at the top three fifths and move down to the bottom two fifths. Anybody know if anything like this has been gathered or leaked?

  8. doublereed says

    People often think education or intelligence will defend them against scams. Realistically, this sort of confidence in your own abilities can make you quite susceptible to a scam. Oh sure, you can defend yourself against scams similar to those you’ve seen before, but what about something that you’ve never seen before?

    Scam artists do not have be more intelligent than you to deceive you. That’s a common misconception. In this case, a lot of what they’re preying on is pure desperation.

    You should always have sympathy for scam victims.

  9. lorn says

    In the US it is considered as something of a noble calling to be a grifter. To have the smarts and smoothness to talk people who cannot afford to give to give.

    I used to know a door-to-door salesman. For the price of a drink he would tell you his story. About how when he started it was selling vacuum cleaners and brushes, and brooms to middle class housewives. How in the 70s it all changed. The economy turned south and the big-box stores sprouted on every second block. Times got tough for salesmen.

    How the middle class market shut down so they found another market and other products. The key to this was to find people who could be profitably flim-flammed. People too stupid, ignorant, uneducated, emotionally exhausted, or harried to fight off a patter and presentation well delivered. People who were desperate for things to get better, for something to work, for a ray of light in the dark.

    Generally you wanted to go for several small scores instead of one big one. Higher profits in the long term and the urge to avoid getting run out of town on a rail meant that the scams had to be small. It took some time to find high enough concentrations of likely targets to make this strategy work.

    There was something of a breakthrough when the salesmen figured out you could tell where vulnerable populations were concentrated. If you know the secret all you have to do is read a map. Get yourself a map of a city or town. Look for the symbol marking churches. Neighborhood with lots of churches are where you find the vulnerable populations.

    NYC to LA, Seattle to Miami, if you want to find populations who can be easily scammed all you have to do is look at a map and find the clusters of churches. For me, that was an insight that was well worth the cost of a few drinks.

  10. says

    doublereed said:

    People often think education or intelligence will defend them against scams. Realistically, this sort of confidence in your own abilities can make you quite susceptible to a scam. Oh sure, you can defend yourself against scams similar to those you’ve seen before, but what about something that you’ve never seen before?
    Scam artists do not have be more intelligent than you to deceive you. That’s a common misconception. In this case, a lot of what they’re preying on is pure desperation.
    You should always have sympathy for scam victims.

    Yep, agree with this completely. Believing that you’re too smart/cunning to be taken in by a scam is basically a variation on just world bias that plays on intellect rather than virtue, but really comes back to virtue anyway since it asserts that the less intellectual deserve to have bad things happen to them because of their relative lower intelligence.

    Scam victims are victims, right? If we agree on this, then it should be easy to agree that blaming people for being scammed is blaming the victim. The particular type of scam is irrelevant, so far as I can tell.

  11. xyz says

    Along with everything else mentioned, mail scams of all kinds are usually quite effective upon elderly people who are starting to suffer from symptoms of dementia. This kind of thing is a common reason for relatives to seek power of attorney for Grandma or Grandpa. It’s not someone John Oliver’s age who would typically be receiving those blank checks and dollar bills. It’s someone 40 years older, lonely and confused.

    No sympathy? Really?

  12. corwyn says

    @7 Changer:

    Also, a 30% chance of prosperity (17% at 3/5 + 9% at 4/5 + 4% 5/5), while much better than “practically zero”, still isn’t very good odds

    I thought I might get a response like that. So, if you could wave a magic wand, and change those numbers to whatever you wanted, what would you make them be?

  13. corwyn says

    @10:

    since it asserts that the less intellectual deserve to have bad things happen to them because of their relative lower intelligence.

    Really? So when you narrowly avoid being hit by a car, and praise your dexterity that saved you, what you are saying is that less dexterous people DESERVE to be killed? When washing your hands helps you avoid getting sick, you are actually saying that people who don’t DESERVE to get sick?

    Wow. How horrible is that?

  14. says

    Making fun of victims can be counterproductive. I’m reminded of fortune telling scams, where often the victim won’t tell anyone because they’re too embarrassed.

  15. doublereed says

    @12 corwyn

    People don’t usually blame others for getting sick or getting hit by cars.

    However, people do often blame others for being taken in by a scam (especially because scams are seemingly obvious in hindsight). It is very much a victim-blaming mentality, where you are convincing yourself that you could never be foolish and stupid to be taken in by a scam. It uses all the same language and everything.

    But of course, my actual point was that the logic there is wrong anyway. Because even intelligent and educated people can be scammed. It is actually quite a bad idea to think that one is too smart or intelligent to be scammed.

  16. doublereed says

    People want to help each other. People want to avoid confrontation. People want to believe the best in others. People want to believe others are genuine. People get distracted. People get desperate. People want hope even in hopeless situations.

    These are the kinds of things that actually make you susceptible to scam artists. Not stupidity.

  17. lorn says

    Nobody deserves to be scammed.

    That said, yes, stupidity, a lack of basic intelligence and/or knowledge and understanding can make it easier to scam someone. People with higher intelligence and/or education can still be scammed but it takes a more elaborate plan and setup. People who are quite accomplished make better targets simply because they have earned more that can be taken. Success also builds the ego, which makes for blind spots and overconfidence.

    Kids or adults with limited mental capacity might be convinced that dimes, because they are smaller, are worth less than nickels. It isn’t much of a scam and it earns the scammer a nickel.

    Scams are almost always centered on misplaced trust. A kid who has mastered the whole larger-smaller thing, and who has confidence in their ability are easy to fool. People who distrust others but trust their ability to trust their own eyes are fooled other ways.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BAF9OAO4TtA

    People who trust religious figures get taken because of their misplaced faith.

    Whatever you are confident in is what a con man will target.

    Of course the salesman I was referring to wasn’t into that sort of thing. He was simply doing door-to-door what capitalism does. Selling a hyped $4 brush for $20. Unlike the classic cons, which are illegal, calling a cop won’t help you. This is what free-markets and capitalism has always been about, and it is legal. Your broker can legally sell you nearly worthless stock and make a commission doing it. A preacher can demand a 10% cut and threaten you with Hell if you fail to pay. DeBeers can convince the entire world that a piece of carbon is worth three months pay and establish that as the ante for marriage.

  18. Daniel Schealler says

    And for that reason, as much as I’m outraged by the brazenness of the preachers’ con, I have difficulty feeling sympathy for those who are taken in by it.

    Whenever I hear this, I always find myself suspecting that the person who said it is a generally self-absorbed person who has difficulty feeling sympathy towards anyone, and in the case that they’re talking about they’re just excited to have an excuse for a change.

  19. Daniel Schealler says

    Accepting such loans is STUPID, on some level. But who takes those loans? In many cases it is also poor, uneducated people. Scam artists count on people not being savvy enough to defend themselves, and to a poor person who can’t see beyond surviving the week without quick cash, it seems like a good deal.

    Also, on this: Pretty much everyone who takes these kind of loans already knows that they’re a bad idea.

    The problem is that they often have no choice.

    If you are poor and your sole means of transport gets towed and you don’t have $200 to pay up until next week, but the towing company is going to add on $25 for each additional day that they store your vehicle, and you’re still paying that vehicle off, and you won’t be able to work and get paid between now and then, and you don’t have a savings account, and you have kids to feed and rent to pay…

    You take whatever financial assistance you can get on short notice. You know it’s just going to make things worse in the long run. But if you don’t have a choice, what else can you do?

  20. says

    I thought I might get a response like that. So, if you could wave a magic wand, and change those numbers to whatever you wanted, what would you make them be?

    Such an easy question! Answer: 100%

    Of course, if we assume that some people need to be (actually or on the verge of) homeless, sick and starving in that bottom fifth, this would mean sending the Trumps of the world in the top fifth down to that level. Not exactly fair, but most of them probably deserve it. So, sorry wealthy people, it was good while it lasted, but changerofbits’ magic wand has made you dirt poor now because we can’t have communism or something. /plentyofsnark

  21. says

    @16 Daniel

    Now that you mention it, I’m not entirely sure what Russell is saying.

    But at the same time, I don’t feel so much schadenfreude towards the victims of scams that I don’t think we should go after Tiltons and Dollars and other con artists.

    I’m having trouble parsing the above… I think those of us who see the scam for what it is do have some moral obligation to “go after” the scam artists, in one way or another. Even if only wealthy Christians are giving money to these scam artists, that money could do a lot more good in the hands of a charity, even if its a religious charity.

  22. says

    Hi Russell, thanks for the reply! I had a couple of further thoughts.

    The payday loan comparison is a good one, but I think it points out the difference between these scenarios. The payday loan companies exploit the needy by offering help to people who desperately need money to survive in the short term, and then trapping them in an endless cycle of debt. They use the legal system as a means of coercion to keep people under their thumb. I have no problem saying that that’s an abusive practice that should be banned. The law shouldn’t become a tool of exploitation.

    By comparison, there’s no circumstance in which people can be compelled to donate to a televangelist. They have no means of control or coercion, aside from the belief of their supporters. No one is trapped into giving – they can stop at any time if they choose to.

    It’s surely true that these grifters prey on the uneducated and gullible, and I’m all in favor of improving the education system to make everyone less vulnerable. But I also don’t want to say that atheism and skepticism are only the privilege of the elite! I don’t think it takes any special level of education to see through these false promises.

    Besides, even the wealthy and well-educated can be taken in by transparently phony promises. Just consider the case of Rose Marks, a psychic con artist who swindled attorneys, successful authors, executives and college graduates. She got them to hand over tens of thousands of dollars in gold, said she could reincarnate the dead in new bodies, promised to psychically shield them from tax audits. Her claims seemed so outlandish, it’s hard to imagine how anyone could have fallen for them. The judge who sentenced her said that some people have something in their psychological makeup that causes them to want to believe false promises, and I think there’s truth to that, even if desperation or lack of education also plays a role.

  23. Jeanette Norman says

    I’ve taken out a couple of pay-day loans in the past, not because I didn’t understand the math, but because I really couldn’t get through a week without quick cash; rent was due, and the costs of ending up as a homeless woman would have been a lot higher than the $25 in interest I had to pay for a one-month loan. All of my beautiful things would have been gone, and I don’t want to think about the other details of what my life would have looked like. Everyone assumes that poor people are stupid (and lazy, corrupt, etc.), but that’s not necessarily the case. Sometimes we make different decisions because the cost-benefit analysis looks entirely different when you’re in the depths of despair.

    That may be the case with many of the victims of scamming churches, as well. If there actually was some kind of infinitely powerful being who would come to the rescue in times of crisis, that would change the cost-benefit analysis in these cases. These people fall for the scam that most people fall for, in taking it on faith that there is a deity that offers help to believers. Since their critical thinking skills were already compromised, that set them up for being scammed along similar lines later on.

    But I do agree that lack of education is one of the likely contributing factors to the plight of many of these victims.

  24. corwyn says

    @20:

    So you would have every household making more than $100,000 per year become destitute? That’s two incomes at $25/hour. Most of the people who are in the top 20% keep a lot of their wealth in the stock market, so that would have to crash to near zero. The entire economy would collapse worse than *any* depression. Lovely. Now the plight of that bottom 20% is shared by most of the rest. Well at least its equal.

  25. L.Long says

    Sympathy for scam victims? NONE!
    Are they desperate? Most likely, so what? Being desperate means “Stop Thinking”!?!?!?!?
    Ok! Incurable disease, and any small thinking shows ‘miracles’ DO NOT HAPPEN!
    So we come back to desperate & DELUSIONAL!!! Asa critical thinker I already know what will happen when I get cancer with no hope….Lots of illegal drugs and good bye world! Wasting money on com men is stupid!!!

  26. Monocle Smile says

    @L. Long
    My observation is that you’ve become more and more unraveled with every comment. This one might be the worst. Are you OK?

  27. L.Long says

    @26…Well that’s good for you to let me know but not being specific is not helpful.
    Unraveled about what? Are people seeking WooWoo with not thought not desperate and delusional? Are you saying they did THINK!?! Or are you saying that watching my mother die in agony and not take good drugs to ease the suffering because this dimwitted country has them made illegal was a GOOD thing!?!?! And my decision NOT to let that happen to me or have my family watch me die in agony for a year something I should do just to make their suffering better?!?!?!
    Just how is that being ‘UNRAVELED’?

  28. Tim H. says

    @L.Long

    Since you have no sympathy for scam victims, you must have a great deal of admiration for the scammers who have made themselves so wealthy. Do you have a favorite scammer, one whom you most wish to be like?

  29. Monocle Smile says

    @27
    See, now you’re foaming at the mouth so badly I can’t even decipher that comment. Seriously, what’s going on?

  30. Narf says

    @L. Long
    I don’t think that MS is arguing against the content of your posts, but rather the incoherency of your thoughts and the difficulty for us to understand the points you’re trying to make.  Take a breath, slow down, and try again from the beginning to express yourself more clearly.

  31. L.Long says

    @above …Deep breath.
    Point…No sympathy for them, people make choices based on something.Now they live or die by the choice.What is difficult there?
    My choice? Get good reasoned treatments, if they are not working …suicide rather then needless suffering…Seems clear.
    Favorite scammer? None!
    Be like them? NO! I tried lie-cheat-steal at an early age and am no good at it, my morals are too high or skill level too low. But I admire high levels of skills & ability in all people, even con men, and do not have any sympathy for those who refuse to think and analyze the situation to avoid scams.

  32. Narf says

    You keep speaking of their refusal  to do things, L.  This is preposterous.  Gullible people don’t generally make a conscious decision to make irrational choices.  It’s often a matter of poor education combined with the workings of a master manipulator.  Our educational system is pretty shitty in many parts of this country.  We sure as hell don’t teach critical thinking at a high school level, in most schools, and a lot of conservatives are trying to strip out what little we have and dismantle our science curriculum.

    Your suggestion of suicide as a solution is also kind off fucked up and makes you look like a bit of a sociopath.

  33. Narf says

    And not to be mean, but lots of people don’t have the raw brain power to properly evaluate this sort of thing. There are a lot of stupid people out there.

  34. tecolata says

    doublereed, you say people are not blamed for getting sick? When my good friend died of lung cancer, 100% of the people I told asked if she smoked (she did); nearly always followed by how could anyone these days be stupid enough to smoke?

    Ever hear of AIDS? To this day people are being told it’s their fault. In fact I had a HUGE argument on the subject at my brother’s Seder last spring. I finally asked people in the room to raise their hands if they never had unprotected sex. My 14 year old niece was the only one; I’m pretty sure she was a virgin.

    I had a friend who had an ectopic pregnancy and needed an emergency abortion. Another friend (male), supposedly progressive and non-sexist, criticized her “irresponsibility” in becoming pregnant. The ectopic was not her fault, just chance, but clearly she (not her male partner, of course) must have been “irresponsible” because responsible women never have accidental pregnancies.

  35. Narf says

    The ectopic was not her fault, just chance, but clearly she (not her male partner, of course) must have been “irresponsible” because responsible women never have accidental pregnancies.

    But if it’s a legitimate rape …

  36. Tim H. says

    @L. Long

    If you have no sympathy for scam victims, from where comes your moral objection to what scammers do?

  37. corwyn says

    I really don’t think either intelligence or desperation are the hallmarks of a mark. If anything is, Greed is.

    None of that matters about whether we ought to feel sympathy. Nor whether we should ridicule their choices. Perhaps we should do both.

  38. Narf says

    I think it’s a complex mix of possibilities.  Reducing it to one factor is a bit simplistic.