In the Scheme of Things

You can hardly open a newspaper these days without reading about some scandal, corruption or fraud.

If it’s not politicians or auto manufacturers, it’s the banks. Only now the bankers are the bank robbers. (Where’s Jesse James when you really need him? Then again, outlaws became folk heroes because they robbed the banks and railroads — who were robbing the people.)

It almost makes you miss the good old days. Except that there never were any good old days. It’s always been this way. Humans have been dishonest since day-one. Present company excluded, of course.

I’m not talking about garden-variety burglars. Mark Twain knew how to deal with that species. He put up a sign in front of his house:

“NOTICE, To the Next Burglar: There is only plated ware in this house now and henceforth. You will find it in that brass thing in the dining room over in the corner by the basket of kittens. If you want the basket, put the kittens in the brass thing. Do not make noise — it disturbs the family. … Please close the door when you go away.”

(One night, a burglar tripped over Twain’s “brass thing.” He landed in prison for 10 years.)

I’m talking about grand schemers. The first big-league (adjective form of bigly?) dishonesty goes all the way back to Cain — with his Garden-of-Eden-variety whopper: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

Cain’s father, Adam, did blame “the woman You gave me.” But he didn’t deny what he did. In fact, the Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 19) points out that Adam didn’t say v’achalti — and I ate. He said “va’ochel — and I will eat.” Meaning, “Yes, I ate … and I will continue to eat.”

How could Adam have such chutzpah? The Kotzker Rebbe says it wasn’t chutzpah at all. Adam was really confessing, “I know I’m going to slip up and eat again.” His response was almost a prayer for help.

I want to tell you about a special breed of scoundrel: the confidence (or con) man. No petty thief, this operator first gets people to have confidence in him. Then he takes advantage of their trust.

The first confidence man arrived a few generations after Cain. Rabbi Yochanan Zweig, Rosh Yeshivah of Yeshivah Bais Moshe Chaim, in Miami Beach, has an interesting take on this: “The Torah describes [Yaakov’s father-in-law] Lavan as a ‘ramai — confidence man,’ rather than a thief.”

The region of Aram, where Lavan lived, was rampant with hustlers. So much so that the name “Aramean” is related to the word ramai. Rabbi Zweig explains that “a ramai preys upon the basic human desire to gain something for nothing; he takes advantage of his victims by leading them to believe that they are getting the better part of a deal. Once the victims realize that they have been fooled, it is too late and they have only themselves to blame.”

The confidence man uses mental jujitsu to turn the victim’s own cunning against him.

I’m going to beat the High Holiday rush now and confess my sins early. … I spent 13 years writing sweepstakes promotions for a mail-order company. How do you make money by giving away money? The secret is rooted in the same psychology as the confidence man. People buy the products sold with sweepstakes even though they could enter without buying. Why? The wily president of the company printed on each mailing: “No Purchase Necessary. But please order two products when responding.”

People thought they were manipulating the company. They were playing with loaded dice — buying products in an attempt to increase their chances of winning.

A book by James Walsh about the most infamous confidence man of all time played on this concept: You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man: How Ponzi Schemes and Pyramid Frauds Work.

In 1919, Carlo “Charles” Ponzi, a dreamer and schemer with $150 in his pocket, “began the business of borrowing money on promissory notes. He started out by inviting friends and relatives to get in on the ground floor of what he dubbed the ‘Ponzi Plan.’”

Ponzi claimed to be making 100 percent profit on his money within a few months. All he needed was more capital to get things rolling. He generously offered to invite other investors in on the ground floor.

In what became an egregious tradition for such schemes, Ponzi abused the trust of his community. He “targeted people with the same ethnic background as his own.”

So how do you protect yourself? There’s an old saying, if you’re not sure of someone’s intentions: “chabdeihu v’chashdeihu — Respect him; but suspect him.” (Don’t bother looking for it in the Talmud. It’s not there.)

So if anyone — even a friend or relative — tries to sell you a deal that’s too good to be true, just smile and nod your head politely.

But if he persists … reach for some hefty brass thing. And apply with confidence.


Please send smiles, sticks and stones to language@hamodia.com.