My Word's

an occasional column by
Marylaine Block
vol. 6, #7,
March 25, 2001


"If I listen long enough to you
I'll find a way to believe that it's true."
Rod Stewart

"The people like to be humbugged."
P.T. Barnum

Each morning when I check my e-mail, I spend 5 minutes trashing every e-mail headed: "Get paid to do nothing!". "Make $50,000 in 90 Days!", $3,000 per day plus vacations!", "100% clean credit," "Grow younger -- anti-aging breakthrough!" Really, now, what kind of fools do they think we are?

Maybe the kind of fools who, according to a North Carolina state survey, bought a product or service they didn't need in order to receive a prize (15% of respondents), gave their credit card number or bank account number to a salesperson who called them on the phone (14% of respondents), or bought a trip or vacation from an unknown person who contacted them (7 % or respondents). Internet Fraud Watch has reported steady increases over the past 3 years in complaints of losses from phony work-from-home schemes, advance-fee loans, Nigerian money offers, credit card and travel deals, surefire stock deals, and sweepstakes offers. The Federal Trade Commission says telemarketing fraud robs Americans of at least forty billion dollars a year.

And that's not even counting all the people who bought Yahoo! when it was trading at $240, convinced somehow that the stock price would always keep going up.

Why are so many of us so willing to be deceived, so willing to deceive ourselves? Why do we think somebody SHOULD pay us for doing nothing? What talents of ours would warrant us making thousands of dollars a week at home? Why SHOULD we get a college degree without doing any college level work? Where are our crap detectors, the little voice inside our heads that keeps muttering, "What's the catch?"

Some of us, especially the elderly who so many scams are pitched at, may not have a crap detector; we grew up believing people could be trusted. When I teach seniors to watch out for health fraud on the Internet, I always ask them, "How many of you grew up in a house where the doors were never locked?" Most of them did, including me. We thought most people were honest, but even if they weren't, we knew our neighbors would be looking out for us. The elderly are also susceptible because so many live on modest fixed incomes; making greater returns on their investments or winning a sweepstakes would make the difference between barely meeting the bills and having enough left over for a little fun.

But I think the scam artists also appeal to a sense of entitlement, a sense that somehow we got shortchanged. We grew up believing that people got ahead by playing by the rules, so we did all the right things: worked hard, paid our taxes, raised our children, deferred gratification, put our money into savings accounts paying 3% interest. But polling data suggests that the older we get, the less likely we think it is that we will ever become wealthy by our hard work or investments. Sixty-nine percent of us worry that we won't even have enough money to live in modest comfort -- we are haunted by the specter of eating catfood, of having to choose between buying food and buying medicine .

It's even worse if we think we were cheated. Sometimes promises made to us were broken. Perhaps the new CEO of the company we worked for all our lives has reduced the health and pension benefits we were promised, and gotten a twenty million dollar bonus for saving the company money. Maybe savings and loan wheeler-dealers made off with our life savings. Or maybe we made wage concessions to keep the company solvent, and now that it's making money hand over fist, its executives want to turn all the profits over to shareholders instead of repaying us for what we gave up (which is why we're going to have airline strikes this summer).

And we've worked hard, dammit. In 1973, we told pollsters we were working 40 hours a week, counting commuting time, and had 26 hours of leisure; in 1999 we reported working over 50 hours a week and having only 19 hours of leisure. Most Americans also say they now only get six hours sleep a night. Our lives may seem even more harried because over the same period of time so many women entered the workforce; with nobody at home doing the chores and childcare, that work still has to be done when people finally get home ready to relax and enjoy life.

And then we look at the people who HAVE made it, who have both time and money to spare. We've worked just as hard as these people; we're just as good at our jobs. We look at their expensive SUVs and 4,000 square foot homes, and can't understand why our own cars and houses should be so much smaller, so much less luxurious. It just doesn't seem fair. Where is our reward for hard work and virtuous living?

At least I think those are some of the thoughts in the back of our minds when somebody makes us an offer that seems too good to be true. Why NOT us? Just once, why SHOULDN'T we snag the gold ring when our merry-go-round horses pass beneath?

And if we get snookered, maybe it's easier to take our lumps than give up the American dream, our longest-held, most deeply-felt belief that we will some day get what we're entitled to. It may be that what keeps us going is the dream of justice.

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