A Bit More on Madoff and Wiesel

by Chris Sturr | March 17, 2009

In my earlier post expanding on Joe Nocera’s column on Madoff’s victims, I’d meant to include an excerpt from this article from a while back in the New Yorker. The article was compelling for going at least some of the way toward answering a question that many of us have asked ourselves, but maybe never expected to get an answer: Who falls for those Nigerian scam emails? I mean, if they keep sending them, the scammers must be finding victims. But who? The article profiles an ordained minister and Christian psychotherapist from the suburbs of Boston who got drawn in, and was victimized, by some Nigerian email scammers in a check fraud scheme—and was prosecuted for his role in the scheme. Part of the burden of the article—besides answering that question we thought no one ever would—is to assess the victim’s culpability. He was victimized, but he did also participate in fraud. There’s a paragraph early in the article that struck me, and that I’ve been thinking about in recent weeks as the Madoff victims have their say (including especially Elie Wiesel’s public expressions of scorn and retributive sentiment for Madoff):

Robert B. Reich, the former Labor Secretary, who has studied the psychology of market behavior, says, “American culture is uniquely prone to the ‘too good to miss’ fallacy. ‘Opportunity’ is our favorite word. What may seem reckless and feckless and hapless to people in many parts of the world seems a justifiable risk to Americans.” But appetite for risk is only part of it. A mark must be willing to pursue a fortune of questionable origin. The mind-set was best explained by the linguist David W. Maurer in his classic 1940 book, “The Big Con”: “As the lust for large and easy profits is fanned into a hot flame, the mark puts all his scruples behind him. He closes out his bank account, liquidates his property, borrows from his friends, embezzles from his employer or his clients. In the mad frenzy of cheating someone else, he is unaware of the fact that he is the real victim, carefully selected and fatted for the kill. Thus arises the trite but none the less sage maxim: ‘You can’t cheat an honest man.’”

The whole article is definitely worth a read.

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