The Moral Grey of Black Money
Technology has always shaped trends in crime, a phenomenon that falls under the theory of what’s called technological determinism. Take something as simple as the automobile. Henry Ford’s adoption of the moving assembly line in the 1920s transformed the automobile from a luxury item into a staple commodity and eventually a necessity of North American life. Through the reduction of overall production costs, and the mechanized streamlining of hand-craftmanship, by 1925 nearly 10,000 Ford Model T automobiles were being produced on a daily basis. By 1927, when production began on the Ford Model A, over fifteen million Model Ts had been sold or otherwise remained in existence in the United States alone—one car for roughly every eight people. This was more than a convenience; it reinvented how people travelled, socialized, and sought out their fortunes, whether legally or illegally. Soon every form of criminality—bootlegging, smuggling, drug trafficking, armed robberies, kidnappings—made use of an automobile. Further, the automobile not only allowed for the modification of existing crimes, but also engendered new forms of crime, from freeway cargo hijackings to an entire criminal industry dealing in stolen vehicles and parts. But the real irony of technological determinism in the context of cultural criminology would seem to be that as technologies get more complex, trends in crime come full circle, back to more simplistic designs.
New media, in particular the shift from Web 3.0 to Web 4.0, or what is sometimes called the Semantic Web, is one example. As the security of mobile devices and digital financial instruments has become more sophisticated as a result of smartphones, banking, and electronic commerce all being better integrated, scams that were designed for the early days of the Internet and wireless technologies like skimming, phishing, 419 frauds, and the like have become somewhat outdated. The most common of these was likely the advanced fee scam.
Everyone has at some point received an advanced fee scam email. They are much less frequent today because spam traps and firewalls are much better at identifying suspicious messages and blacklisting certain users and servers, but some still manage to get through. If you have ever posted an ad to Kijiji or similar sites advertising homes or apartments for rent, you will likely have seen some variation of the advanced fee scam as a response to that same ad from any number of the scammers who troll Internet classifieds and commerce sites whilst preying on vulnerable targets.
A typical advanced fee scam explains, usually in broken English replete with punctuation and grammatical errors, that you—by sheer luck—have been selected at random to be one of the beneficiaries of an unclaimed estate, inheritance, endowment, or some of other pile of loot that has been sitting idle or in escrow for years and now needs to be liquidated and dispersed internationally. The email’s author typically purports to be either a lawyer or some other executor of the estate in question, or in some cases a government or embassy employee representing some obscure country, republic, or kingdom. Regardless of the backstory (there are endless variations) and who the author claims to be, the scam is always the same: send money to get the money. Once the victim (or what scammers call a ‘mark’) is hooked and sends an initial deposit via wire or etransfer (believing it is required to pay for their share of the legal disbursements) the trap is sprung. From there, the scammers know that most victims will endlessly throw good money after bad rather than face the prospect that they have been duped. A flurry of follow-up emails are then sent, each one asking for “just one more” payment to get the funds released to their bank account. From international tariffs, back taxes, customs fees, escrow fees, and exchange rate commissions, the victim sends a few hundred or thousand dollars here and there, all with the belief that it is a required front-end investment (advanced fee) to get the millions they are actually convinced are waiting for them. Most victims—many of whom are actually high functioning and educated professionals—usually spend their life’s savings before they realize that there never was any money coming their way.
Over the last year or so, people have finally been catching on (albeit slowly) to this ruse and as technology has also improved to block how these scammers send out their bait messages, the con game has evolved. It might be more accurate to say that it has devolved to a more archaic scam, but it is one that is remarkable in terms of what it says about how the pliability of the human condition and how the mind can rationalize poor moral and logical decisions.
The latest incarnation of the advanced fee scam, and which has been rampant across Ontario—and Canada—in recent months is what is known as the “Black Money” scam. Like any advanced fee scam, it requires that the mark pay up front for the guarantee of a bigger return. Like the email scam before it, the Black Money scam also uses the intrigue of the cash being of a vague, somewhat mysterious foreign origin as part of its hook. In this scam, the mark is approached in person—usually through a referral—and shown a briefcase, safe, or trunk full of thousands of pieces of black paper. This “money” is usually nothing more than black construction paper cut to meet the dimensions of bank notes. The money, as is explained, has been intentionally dyed black to camouflage it, so as to not show up on x-ray, be detected by dogs, be identified by customs inspectors, or for some other nefarious purpose (again, the list is endless). The reason for this is that the money is inherently dirty; not only in appearance but in origin. The explanation typically provided is that the money is either the proceeds of crime, the profits of a collapsed drug trafficking operation, blood diamond payoffs, a Mafia money train, the remnants of some Nazi trust fund concealed in a Swiss bank, the sum of various ransom and extortion payments to bikers and gangsters, the haul from a high-end bank robbery, or is otherwise undeclared, pillaged, stolen or ill-gotten in nature. Regardless of where the money is purported to have originated, the explanation is that the funds need to be quickly unloaded to someone “low risk” who can launder it and get it back into circulation. This is in part why small business owners and service industry workers rank amongst the most coveted, and easiest marks.
The conman will then, like some Avon rep, infomercial shill, or the ShamWow guy, demonstrate how the custom “cleaning kit” can restore the cash to its original condition so the bills can be spent or saved as the buyer’s heart desires. Upon being prompted, the mark then selects a “bill” from the pile at random and, using a timeless slight-of-hand trick, the scammer then switches the random piece of construction paper selected for a real $100 bill that has been coated in wood glue and charcoal, or some other crude concoction that mimics the blackness of the other papers. Then, employing a “secret solvent” that in some cases has proven to be nothing more than soda water mixed with food colouring, the scammer dissolves the black coating in a matter of seconds to reveal the genuine bank note. The mark, believing that this same elementary process can convert the thousands of other pieces of paper into $100 bills, then agrees to pay the up-front fee—usually a few thousand dollars—for the pile of black money and the conversion kit containing the solvent. Once the scammer is in the wind, the mark realizes that the black money is nothing more than useless scraps of paper and that the “secret solvent” is little more than the modern equivalent of the magic bean fraud of the Middle Ages. The premise sounds truly absurd but, remarkably, it works time and again – and there is a reason why. There is also a reason why more and more of these conmen are getting away with it.
The conventional advanced fee scam targeted victims at random, with fraudsters sending out mass spam emails hoping for a handful of replies from gullible, naïve, or idealistic respondents. The scam worked for a brief period because it appealed to people’s sense of good fortune—their belief in luck, fate, serendipity, and other pseudo-spiritual concepts that people like to cling to in the face of uncertainty. People were willing to believe that, as strange and unlikely as it seemed, the Fates were smiling upon them, the stars had aligned, and that because they had the same surname as someone named in a wealthy magistrate’s will, or because their Yahoo email address was selected by a random number generator in sub-Saharan Africa, that they would be rich. Some believed this with such zeal that they re-mortgaged their homes or borrowed money from relatives—who also believed the same thing—to pay the advanced fee to get “their” money.
Black Money is much different. Not only is the scam analogue as opposed to digital, but it involves a much riskier personal interaction complete with rehearsed demonstration, much like in the tradition of the travelling snake oil or elixir salesmen of the Old West. Most importantly, the moral character of the mark and their ability to rationalize what they are buying is much different and, like the money they are acquiring, much darker. While victims duped by the advanced fee email scam are inarguably naïve and trusting, the Black Money victims are, even if unknowingly, entering into a criminal enterprise through their willingness to receive and “clean” the tainted cash – even if the cash and story that comes with it are pure fiction. The fact that money has an illegal and even murderous history, as well as a covert global itinerary, is part of what makes the story so believable and exciting, and part of what gets the mark to take the bait. If the money was blackened from soot, rot, or paint, and it had occurred by accident, the ruse would not have the same imaginative traction and romanticism. The fact that the money has been disguised to avoid detection and seizure by authorities makes the story more plausible, the conman more convincing, and the investment seem more promising. There are fewer and fewer people who believe in luck and good fortune, but people will always believe that crime pays—and most want in.
Criminologists and psychologists call it the 10/10/80 rule: 10% of people, when presented with an opportunity to steal something with no risk of being caught, will steal every time; 10% of people will never steal under any circumstance; the other 80% – m’eh… depends on their mood. The Black Money scam taps into this fickle morality of most everyday people with fascinating results and startling efficiancy, exposing the opportunistic impulses and contradictory moral nature of humanity better than any clinical researcher could ever hope to. Most of the victims of this scam are not overtly “bad” people, yet their ethics, sense of fairness, and moral compass all seem to very quickly cave under the weight of their own greed. Not only greed mind you, but also their sweet tooth for impulsivity, the desire for attention and notoriety, the convenience of easy money, and the enthrallment of being connected to something bigger than they are, even if it’s a transcontinental criminal syndicate with dead bodies left in its wake. It is for this same reason that people hosed by the Black Money scam seldom come forward to the police report it; they quickly realize that they have incriminated themselves by agreeing to acquire the cash in the first place – cash they were aware was illegal to possess from the outset. They know that even if they are not locked up for doing this, they will have zero credibility as genuine “victims” in the eyes of the law. This is a detail not lost on the architects of the scam, with the more gory, dramatic, and illegal the story behind the money, the quicker the ensuing hook and subsequent payment. This is not only a key element of the sales pitch, but also a failsafe that the conmen know will inevitably keep a victim’s mouth shut. Indeed, shame is typically a more powerful deterrent to going to the authorities than intimidation.
The last Black Money scammers to be arrested here got busted because they failed to keep one thing in mind. Sometimes the second set of that 10% of people—the ones who will never steal—can turn out to be as calculating as the conmen themselves – perhaps more so. After agreeing to a demonstration of the so-called cleaning kit at his workplace, the mark scammed the scammers into entering a rear stock room with only one way out. Once inside and the staged demonstration began, the mark locked the conmen and their black money in the freezer after barricading the only door. He then called police who found them and all the necessary evidence preserved inside. The human conscience is predictably frail and impressionable, neither wholly black nor white, but somewhere in the ether, somewhere in the grey. Often, it takes something as ridiculous as the premise of black money, like fool’s gold before it, to remind us of such inevitabilities, such inconvenient truths. That said, sometimes people – even a mark looking to verify that crime does really pay, only to then opt out – can surprise you.