Thursday, October 18, 2012

How They Made Their Money

If you're dull-witted enough to believe you can make a million dollars a year by working only two hours a week, do you deserve to be protected from ads and companies that exploit your gullibility?

Regular readers know that I've written frequently about deceptive advertising, and I generally think government has a role in making sure ads and products are reasonably honest. In my many posts about the Universal Media Syndicate, though, I've had comments from a few folks who think suckers who fall for their ads pretty much deserve what they get.

Sometimes I'm not sure myself what level of sympathy to muster, and yesterday's news in Mother Jones that a Romney/Ryan fundraiser would be hosted by Mike and Irene Milin made me think about this once more. The Milins have been investigated by more than two-thirds of our state attorneys general for their get-rich-quick schemes. According to MoJo, the couple has
amassed millions of dollars in personal wealth by pitching schemes to consumers on how to make bundles of money through real estate and via government grants and loans.... The Milins' companies promised quick and easy fortunes in real estate and "free" government money to anyone. But to pocket that windfall, customers had to attend the Milins' seminars and buy their instructional materials.
Real estate... well, I suppose it's possible you could make money at that without a lot of work if you were really lucky, so maybe dupes who fell for that scenario were not completely at fault, but it's hard not to lose some sympathy when the offer is based on outright stupidity:
In the 1990s, the Milins unveiled [their] National Grants Conferences. NGC claimed there were hundreds of billions of dollars in "free" government grants and no-interest loans. NGC's scheme worked like this: Customers were invited to attend a free seminar where an NGC pitchman hyped the wonders of free government money. But only with NGC's materials—which cost $999—could customers unlock the secrets to accessing this cash.
For the record, there are no pools of government money sitting around waiting to be handed out, and why anyone would think there are is beyond me.

Who are the people who believed this obvious fabrication enough to fork over a thousand dollars to get the list and instructions? Are they vulnerable adults who shouldn't be making their own financial decisions, like the young woman who was selling her personal injury settlement money to sharks for pennies on the dollar? Like my elderly relative who wired money to someone who called, pretending to be a young-adult grandchild in distress, even though Western Union warned him not to? Are there that many vulnerable adults with cash lying around to pay predators like the Milins, who seem to have amassed enough money to be able to spew it in chunks at every Republican candidate in sight?

But then again, how different is this, really, from Bernie Madoff's pyramid scheme, which took in hordes of supposedly sophisticated investors? Should there be no prohibition on that kind of activity, either, since his victims should have known better?

A long time ago, a friend who went to law school told me about a case he'd read that involved a drunk guy suing his city because he (the drunkard) had fallen into an open manhole. The judge found for the drunk guy, and his decision included these words: "A drunken man is as much entitled to a safe street as a sober one, and much more in need of it."

There are limits on how far we can push that analogy, but I think requiring honesty in advertising doesn't create a nanny state; it's part of creating a civil society. Any politician who takes money from fraudsters like the Milins (or money they helped to raise) is tainted, as far as I'm concerned.

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