September 15, 2010

How to spot a scam artist

We’ve always known that Lorraine Collins had great credentials.   And now we learn that she’s also been selected for an online “Who’s Who” registry.  Of course, her discerning ways will quickly elevate her to the head of the class of folks who know “what’s what” and can size-up a scam artist just a mouse click away.   Lorraine has been a regular contributor to the Black Hills Pioneer newspaper for quite some time, and we’re delighted to offer you her latest column here on Black Hills Monitor.

The other day I got a letter informing me that I had been "appointed as a biographical candidate to represent Spearfish, SD" for an online Who's Who registry for "executive and professional women." This was the biggest thrill I've had since I received word a couple years ago that I had been selected for membership in the Handyman Club of America.

Now, I knew that the Handyman Club was suffering from a serious case of mistaken identity when they said they wanted me to try out their chain saw, and I'm no less certain that this outfit is also laboring under some misapprehension. The misapprehension might be that any woman who receives this letter will be flattered and pleased and will immediately send the necessary biographical information to this organization for them to use as they see fit. But I thought the letterhead might as well have read SCAM instead of WHO'S WHO.

Yet it did sound awfully nice. They were pleased to inform me that my candidacy was already approved. They just wanted me to visit my personal website (one they had set up in my behalf) to verify my biographical information. The letter went on to explain that candidates are selected based on "researched executive and professional listings." Frankly, I couldn't think of any executive or professional listing I might be on and furthermore, I'd have been more impressed if the letter had been sent with a real 44 cent stamp instead of one of those indicating a mass mailing.

The letter indicated getting listed in their online directory would be free, which I sincerely doubted. I was not surprised when I did a bit of research online to find that the Better Business Bureau in several states had received complaints about the company. I guess everything is free for the first few minutes of a phone call.  But then honorees are expected to purchase lifetime membership for several hundred dollars, or buy a hardcover book with their listing, or pay to have their skimpy biography enlarged. Some people have actually made the mistake of giving the outfit their credit card number.

Moseying around their website I found that many Who's Who members (they have several different categories) were self-published authors hawking their books as well as the occasional person who seemed to be either deranged or a con artist or both. One woman claimed that "Social Security checks will begin to shrink by September 30th this year" so she suggested a website where we could "discover sound alternate investing." I was not tempted to go there.

It's puzzling, really. I wondered how people could be so vulnerable to scam artists but then I realized that in a sense we are conditioned to believe whatever unproven allegation anybody tells us. Often we are told what we want to believe and sometimes we're told what somebody else wants us to believe for their own purposes. Just think of all the lies and distortions that circulate on the Internet and land in our email inboxes. Outrageous and untrue statements are made all the time, often by people who want to spread fear and anxiety to further their political agenda.

The best defense against scam artists in either commerce or politics is a healthy dose of skepticism which I think one can develop without becoming totally cynical. When we are offered something wonderful for nothing, we have a pretty good indication that it's going to cost quite a bit. When someone appeals to our ego, or to our fear, there's a good chance that the truth may be bent just a little. Some folks can spot a snake oil salesman a mile away and still fall for a smooth talking fellow who assures us that he knows just what ails the country and how to fix it.   

The thing is, it's easier to spot a scam artist if he's not masquerading as a patriot. 

Lorraine Collins is a writer who lives in Spearfish. She can be contacted at

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