Monday, December 18, 2006

In Praise of Conmen

It must be something to do with Christmas being round the corner but my email box has been flooded with emails from people offering me outrageous sums of money if I would only offer them my bank account details and a small sum of money to help them make the transaction comes true – after all what’s a couple of thousand if you’re being promised a couple of million.

Most of the emails are from obscure businesspeople from the Arabian Gulf and scions of African dictators promising to pass me a share of their family’s ill gotten gains.

Thankfully for me, I’ve received so many of these emails that I’m pretty immune to their promises of instant wealth. As good as the offer may be I believe that if something is too good to be true, it usually is. I don’t respond but the emails keep coming and I suspect the reason they do is because there are people who fall for this scam, in spite of official warnings by the Nigerian government and others. Why do people fall for these emails?

I suspect it’s because people are basically greedy and somehow the lure of instant millions has the ability to overcome common sense and intelligence. George Soros argues that we are now living in a ‘Feel-Good’ society that is dependent on instant gratification. Instant wealth promised by the conmen offers the same thing as instant coffee – the final product without having to work for it.

Instant promises are very appealing and in some cases they work. The 1990s was filled with stories of how young people made instant millions by floating their websites on the stock market. However, as proved by the crash of the ‘Dot Com’ bubble, instant wealth can disappear as quickly as it appears, especially if it’s not built on a ‘real’ business. Adam Khoo, Singapore’s most renowned ‘wealth expert’ once pointed out that ‘boring businesses’ are only boring because they’ve been proven to work.

Yet, in spite of these lessons, greed seems to overcome common sense and other life lessons. Singapore’s radio news recently reported a case of how 50-over people were trying to get a refund from the XL Foundation, lead by Roger Hamilton. This group of educated and experienced professionals had one chief complaint. They had bought membership to Mr Hamilton’s business club on the understanding that they could achieve instant access to worthwhile contacts across the globe and achieve instant fulfilment through Mr Hamilton’s promise that he’d donate money to charity. When they didn’t get any of this, they were upset.

Say what you like of Mr Hamilton’s behaviour but he should be commended for understanding the human desire for wanting all things instant. As long as he promised to provide something instant, nobody questioned him on what made him eligible to talk to them about achieving wealth. Here is a man who proudly declares that he has never held a real job in his life and proudly stands by the belief that, “Each day of hard work is a day further from wealth.” Does Mr Hamilton have a track record of producing wealth? And yet, this open declaration by Mr Hamilton is obviously far more appealing than that of Warren Buffet, the world’s second richest man and most canny investor, who planned to retire a mere 10-20 years after his death.

There are more than enough pressures to keep up with the Ah Sengs, Muthus and Ahmads these days. These pressures can make one vulnerable to attractive promises. However, haven’t enough people been conned for us to want to make a move to educate our children to the very principle that ‘There is no such thing as a free-lunch?’ Shouldn’t we remember that you can never get ahead of the Ah Sengs, Muthus and Ahmads through the promise of an instant fix?

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