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Tag Archives: Frauds

Can You Spot A Con Man?

journeysFrom my Journeys to the Edge of Reality site:

A review of The Man In The Rockefeller Suit, The Astonishing Rise And Spectacular Fall Of A Serial Imposter, by Mark Seal.

For more Engineering Thinking guidance on coping with scammers and frauds, please see “Relationships: ET Guidance on Improving Your Interactions with Others

 

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Shameful Behavior Award: Pushing Grandma Off A Cliff

The image to the left (from YouTube) is from an ad created by the Agenda Project. The ad states, “Now, Republicans want to privatize Medicare,” as it shows a man wheeling an elderly lady up a cliff, against her will, and then dumping her over the edge.

From an ET perspective, does the ad portray any empirical evidence to support its allegations? No. Does it provide any analysis to support its allegations? No.

The Republican plan, put forward by congressman Paul Ryan, does not affect anyone over 55, which rules out most elderly “Grandmas” as depicted in the ad. It also tries to responsibly address the fact that Medicare, as it presently exists, is broke, and a plan such as Ryan’s will be required to save Medicare. This is exactly the opposite of the message conveyed in the ad.

Creating and running an ad designed to scare the elderly, and doing so by blatantly lying, is despicable. Therefore ET awards its Shameful Behavior award to the Agenda Project, and its founder, Erica Payne.

 

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Correlations, Fraud, And Mediums

Humans are hard-wired for survival reasons to be alert to correlations, or apparent connections between events. For example, we observe Harry eat some red berries, following which Harry groans, falls down, and dies. Because of the observed correlation between red berries and death, we don’t eat red berries.

However, the consumption of red berries and death may have been just a coincidence, and not a true connection. Harry may have had a heart attack after consuming perfectly nutritious red berries. Or perhaps Harry washed down the berries with some tainted water. In fact, there are innumerable other possible explanations that do not lead to the conclusion that red berries = death.

To guard against faulty conclusions, engineers are careful in evaluating correlations. In other words, we have learned to be skeptical. But do we need to be so picky in everyday life? Yes, we do.

If we automatically assume that every correlation is indicative of a cause, we have closed our minds. And once our minds are closed, we close off the path to exploring alternatives, of gaining insights that may prove to be of great benefit.

In addition, the strong human tendency to interpret correlations as indicative of a true connection between events has another significant down-side: unscrupulous humans exploit this tendency in various schemes to enhance their wealth. As one who practiced magic for fun (and not much profit) as a youth, I can attest to the fact that there are dozens of methods by which a dishonest person, with knowledge of the magician’s art, can dupe the unwary.

For example, have you ever seen that show featuring a “medium,” someone with the supposed ability to hear messages from the dearly departed, who conveys the messages to a grieving relative? It is but one of many examples of immoral people exploiting our natural inborn tendency to accept correlations at face value. Fortunately, engineering thinking can be used to identify and squelch these scams.

If the medium were not a fraud, they could simply provide a specific verifiable message, such as, “Harry said to tell you to look for a key in his right middle desk drawer; it is for safe deposit box number 14764 at the First Third Bank. You’ll find $12,550 there; his winnings from a lottery ticket he never told you about.”

Of course, such specifics are never provided by the medium. Instead, the medium begins by talking in generalities, trying to elicit a response from the grieving person, and then builds to more specific comments based on what he learns. During this process the medium will often pause, and let the griever fill in the blanks:

“When you were first married, Sarah, I can feel a negative presence; it was your, … your, …”

“It was my mother-in-law.”

“Yes, it was your mother-in-law; and she was always, … always, …”

“Taking my husband’s side.”

“Yes, taking your husband’s side …”

And so on. At the end of this process, Sarah is not aware of all of the information she has provided, directly as illustrated above, or indirectly (by facial expressions or body language), that allows the medium to “read” her mind to the extent required to construct a plausible conversation with the deceased. The medium has thus deceptively constructed a false but believable connection between the medium’s “readings” and the facts presumably known only by the bereaved. (The same techniques are used by fortune tellers, mind readers, and other supposed psychics.)

In more advanced frauds, the medium will research the “mark” (usually a wealthy grieving person) well in advance of the seance, and be able to provide details of the mark’s prior life sufficient to overcome their hardiest skepticism. “How could you possibly know that he died from eating berries?” she will think. “You must indeed be talking to my dear departed Harry.” The medium, of course, will have scoured the public records prior to the seance, including Harry’s obituary.

The great magician Harry Houdini spent much time and effort exposing mediums of his day for the frauds that they were. For a somewhat more modern-day account, The Psychic Mafia provides a fascinating look at the inside of the seedy business of mediums and psychics.

I should point out that it is my belief that not all self-proclaimed psychics are deliberate frauds. Some of them, I think, have sincerely come to the conclusion that they are psychic because they have experienced one or more significant correlations (e.g. “I dreamed my friend would get into a car accident, and she did”), and do not have a science background sufficient to immunize them to the beguiling yet misleading power of coincidence.

Yet, even among this group, I have severe misgivings. Those who believe they are simply offering comfort to the grieving, or providing other forms of psychological advice, may inadvertently do great damage.

While on a vacation out west, my wife Barbara and I attended a session at the resort that was presented by a “life coach.” A grieving issue was posed by another lady in attendance, to which the life coach advised, in essence, “Get over it.” Barb tactfully intervened (Barb is a mental health counselor with appropriate training and credentials for such issues), and provided a compassionate but science-based response. After the meeting, Barb was approached by the lady who had asked the question and was profusely thanked, saying how upset she had been by the life coach’s remarks.

The Engineering Thinking bottom line: If you want advice on grieving, or any of the myriad psychological issues which afflict the human race, your odds of obtaining useful guidance are much better if you avoid the psychics, and go to a pro.

Next post: An engineer writes a novel.

-Ed Walker

 

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ET EXTRA: Protecting Your Pocketbook: Globaloney Warming

The scientific facts concerning “global warming” may be in dispute, but what is not in dispute is that there has been an explosion of fraud committed by its proponents. New revelations are reported on this scandal almost daily. Here are some interesting samples that provide an overview:

Researcher: NASA hiding climate data
Stephen Dinan

Climategate: the final nail in the coffin of ‘Anthropogenic Global Warming’?
James Delingpole

Treemometers: A new scientific scandal (If a peer review fails in the woods…)
Andrew Orlowski

The fact that scientists and engineers, who are supposed to be guardians of the truth, are complicit in this sordid affair is particularly appalling, and indeed reaches a pinnacle of shameful behavior. In fact, the icon that I had originally selected to tag such behavior — the unscrupulous Jack — seems wholly inadequate for such a betrayal of the public trust. If you have a suggestion for a more fitting icon, please let me know.

-Ed Walker

 

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ET EXTRA: Fraud And The Global Warming Debate

Engineering Thinking Extra Is A Short Review Of A Current Hot Topic

It is now becoming apparent that a massive fraud has been underway regarding the debate over global warming. (For a good summary see this article by James Delingpole in the Telegraph.co.uk.)

As a result, Engineering Extra is sad but compelled to assign its highest Five Jacks Shameful Behavior rating to those scientists and engineers who have been involved in such a monumental betrayal of the public trust. If not exposed, this betrayal may have led to unscientifically-sound legislation (“cap and trade”) and EPA regulations, which could cost billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of jobs.

As pointed out in an earlier post (see Scientific Sins in “Advice From Professionals: Who Do You Trust? (Part 2)“), engineers and scientists are not immune to corruption. Normally, however, such corruption tends to be weeded out over time by the scientific method.

But what about the Global Warming fraud? How did this happen? It happened because the work of these renegade scientists was funded by the government, which is not subject to the scientific method.

By contrast, engineers and scientists who work in the private sector are disciplined by the competitive nature of the marketplace. False data or exaggerated claims will be gleefully exposed by competitors, appropriately causing the fraudulent firm to lose profits and possibly face bankruptcy. In the private sector, therefore, there is a strong and ongoing survival incentive to root out junk science.

But scientific organizations that receive all or most of their funding from the government have no competition, ergo they have no long-term concerns about market competitiveness. To the contrary, some employees of such firms — in order to maintain their jobs and secure promotions — provide their political masters whatever it is that those masters wish to hear, regardless of whether or not it drifts from the truth.

To Minimize Corruption,
Science and Engineering Should Be Performed
By Competitive Enterprises,
Not By The Government

Corollary:

Scientific Advice To The Government Should Be Provided
By Private Firms Through Competitive Bidding,
Not By Government Employees

-Ed Walker

 

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ET EXTRA: Protecting Your Pocketbook: No, Your Car Will Not Run On Water

Engineering Thinking Extra Is A Short Review Of A Current Hot Topic

ET Extra is proud to announce the presentation of its highest-rated Five Baloney Award to web sites (e.g. Extreme Fuel Savings) that sell books or kits that supposedly will allow you to convert water into hydrogen and oxygen that is then used as added fuel for your car.

Is extracting fuel from water plausible? The basic science is this: it takes more energy to separate oxygen and hydrogen out of water than can be obtained by recombining those elements to release energy for fuel. Furthermore, if some hitherto undiscovered principle of science were involved, there would be an uproar in the scientific community, likely involving a Nobel Prize. But this has not occurred, plus these sites provide no independent objective evidence to support their claims.

Can A Company Be Trusted?
If It Doesn’t Provide Independent Test Data To Support Its Claims,
Then Probably Not

When extravagant claims are made by those who are trying to sell you something, it will typically be found that they are either (a) outright frauds, or (b) self-deluded, stemming from a poor understanding of science.

“On the whole, scientific discoveries, even accidental ones, are most likely to be made, investigated, and exploited by folks who have a very good understanding of the relevant principles of existing science. Ignorance of well-established science causes many sincere and dedicated people to waste lives and careers chasing moonbeams.”

-Donald E. Simanek, The Museum of Unworkable Devices

-Ed Walker

 

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ET EXTRA: Fraud And The Health Care Debate

Engineering Thinking Extra Is A Short Review Of A Current Hot Topic


A Five Jacks Shameful Behavior Rating (Our Highest)
for a
GALLERY of FRAUDS

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL)
Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA)
Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI)
HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius
White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel
Yale professor Jacob Hacker
Ezra Klein from the Washington Post
NY Times columnist Paul Krugman

As asserted in “We Interrupt This Blog…”, a major problem with the governmental system is that it tends to become corrupt. A striking example is today’s health care debate over the so-called “public option.” Please see the following link for clear evidence that our elected officials, and their like-minded supporters, are actively lying to us: “The Public Option Deception” by Morgen Richmond (biggovernment.com).

 

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Books, Magazines, and Seminars: Who Do You Trust?

The value of what you learn is dependent on the character and competence of those from whom you learn. If the articles and books you read are written by truly reputable authors, then the odds are good that you will absorb some valuable knowledge. But how does one verify character and competence?

Competence

A background check, using a reputable person or organization as your guide, is a good way to identify those who are less competent at what they do. Well-intentioned and honest but unqualified folks may perform poorly, but they do it without guile, creating a paper trail of unflattering reviews that allow us to adjust our expectations. You may even want to hire Joe the painter because of his rock-bottom price, even though you’ve learned from his past customers that when Joe is done you’ll find your windows painted shut.

Character

On the other hand, those with low moral character tend to be less visible, because they are adept at escaping detection. Performing competently is not their real goal, so their offerings may be completely wrong and even dangerous: seminars on why you should invest in their business; books on losing weight without reducing calories or exercising; and articles on how to win the lottery or find the perfect mate.

Smiling Faces Sometimes Tell Lies

Low-character predators convey an engaging personality, adopt honorable professions (sometimes obtained with fraudulent mail-order degrees), and are fluent with phrases that may sound scientific to a non-scientist, but are actually gibberish. They have an excellent understanding of human nature and you want to believe them. You want to make them your best friend, trust them with your life’s savings, even marry them. You’ll find these charming frauds throughout society, and their intent is to make you part with whatever you have that they want. Many of them have a favorite saying:

Trust Me

Therefore, although an article, book, or seminar may have the trappings of authenticity, beware that it could easily be bogus, because fraudsters are master mimics of respectability. Before you order that weight-loss product touted in an article by a celebrity author, or sign up for that “ten simple steps to great wealth” seminar, insist on proof of past performance to confirm that the author or lecturer is truly worthy of your time and money.

Sometimes it only takes a few civil well-placed questions to weed out the lower-level ripoff artists. Here are some examples from personal experience:

1. The “Too Good To Be True” Scam:

While researching a dubious claim for a product, I asked a sales rep, “Can you provide a report from an independent testing company that proves the effectiveness of your all-electronic water purifier?” After some attempts to deflect me to the company’s own test results, it was admitted that the answer was no.

2. The “You Can Trust Me Because I Know Your Neighbor” Scam, Version 1:

I answered a knock on our door to find a scruffy man in workman’s clothes who said, “Hi, I can give you a good price for trimming your trees. I’m going to do the same for your neighbor next door, um, um…” He was obviously stalling, waiting for me to say “Mrs. Gibbons?” so he could then say, “Yeah, Mrs. Gibbons,” but I just waited. He finally stuttered some more, “Um, um…” and then laughed and walked away.

3. The “You Can Trust Me Because I Know Your Neighbor” Scam, Version 2:

The smiling collegiate-looking young man at the door said he was collecting money for a neighborhood student’s field trip to Europe. “How nice,” I said. “Please give me the student’s name and phone number so I can call to make arrangements to give them a donation.” He walked away.

4. The “I’m Well-Dressed And Articulate So You Can Trust Me” Scam:

A professionally-garbed man approached us in the early evening on a street in St. Augustine. With polished grammar, he politely requested a short-term loan to get his car out of a garage. “I’m so stupid;” he said, “I left my wallet at home.” I sympathized and then asked, “What’s the name of the garage?; I’ll call and give them my credit card number.” He tried a few more gambits but I insisted on dealing directly with the garage. He finally smiled and walked away.

For another example of the audaciousness of frauds, reprinted below is a true story from a prior issue of The Design/Analysis Newsletter:

SIGHTINGS: I DON’T WANT TO HEAR IT! bag head

Sightings is a collection of true experiences as reported by credible sources

Charlie the Consultant was advised that he was to start reporting to Pat, the new Director of Manufacturing who had been hired to launch the product Charlie had designed. Charlie attended the initial one-on-one meeting with Pat, and half an hour later left, feeling puzzled — very puzzled. Pat had not asked Charlie any pertinent questions concerning the product, and in fact seemed to be in a hurry to get rid of Charlie.

Charlie returned to the office and dug out a resume of Pat’s that had been circulated earlier. Although Charlie had been asked to review the resume, Pat had been quickly hired before Charlie had the opportunity, so Charlie had just filed it away. But now he gave it a good look, and frowned. The resume was one of the worst he’d ever seen (and he’d seen quite a few), and did not appear at all to reflect the background of someone who claimed to have been head of manufacturing for an electronics firm.

Charlie asked an associate — someone who possessed particularly good investigative skills — to check out Pat’s claims. It soon became apparent that Pat had never been a Director of Manufacturing, nor for that matter director of anything. Pat was a fraud.

Although Charlie had not yet confirmed some of the details, such as the bona fides of Pat’s supposed BSEE degree from the Southwestern University in Arizona, Charlie had more than enough evidence to alert his client, which is what he did. But to Charlie’s surprise, rather than being congratulated for helping avoid a terrible mistake, Charlie was instead chastised. “We’ve checked him out and he’s okay,” said the client, blithely ignoring the results of the investigation. Charlie replied, “Did you even check out his academic background?” ”Of course,” said the client angrily, “He showed us his diploma.”

After a few more terse comments, Charlie decided that, for whatever reason, his client was not capable of looking at the situation rationally. Perhaps it was because the client had earlier released an announcement in the company newsletter informing the shareholders of the great new manufacturing director that had just been hired. In any event, Charlie resigned.

Shortly thereafter, Charlie received confirmation that Southwestern University had been a scam, a diploma mill that federal agents had investigated and shut down back in the eighties. It was basically a post office drop where you could mail in a couple hundred bucks and they would mail you back a degree. Charlie wondered why Pat didn’t spring for fifty dollars more and get a doctorate.

Some months later Charlie heard that the locks on the doors of his ex-client’s facility had been changed, at about the same time that Pat was fired.

Next Post:

Advice From Professionals: Who Do You Trust? (Part 2)

-Ed Walker

 

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