2017-01-13 / Opinion

The con is on

Jeff Lagasse

Most people, at some point in their lives, have dreamt of falling into oodles of money. I have no statistics to back this up and I’m basically pulling this assertion out of a deep cave that knows no sunlight. My butt. I’m talking about my butt. It seems like a pretty safe assumption though, because with few exceptions -- priests who take a vow of poverty, people in comas -- folks need cash. They crave it. The more of it they have, the more they can indulge in frivolous things, and frivolous things are exciting precisely because they’re so unnecessary. A gold-plated pocket watch with GPS tracking and a pre-installed app that remotely activates your pasta machine? Oh, the extravagance!

That’s where get-rich-quick schemes come in. The evil masterminds who concoct these scams know that people are greedy, and they prey on that greed because they’re bursting with greed themselves, practically exploding with it. They’re also opportunistic. You see some of these varmints on late-night infomercials, promising riches in exchange for simple actions. Signing up for their websites, buying their books, filling out some paperwork. They’d have you believe that raking in a fortune requires no more than a click of your mouse or a flick of your pen. If that were true I’d be lying on a beach right now, sipping piña coladas with the U.S. women’s Olympic volleyball team. I’d also have one of those pocket watches. Admit it, they sound pretty cool.

What strikes me is how ridiculous a lot of these schemes tend to be. Each is more outlandish than the last.

Exhibit A is the so-called “Greatest Vitamin in the World.” An annoying little hobbit named Don Lapre runs this particular scam. Lapre is about as subtle as a baseball bat to the groin, and claims that this miracle vitamin can cure all sorts of things, from heart disease to cancer. Cancer! Holy crap! Someone alert Johns Hopkins!

Too bad the pills can’t cure gullibility. Lapre invites you to pay him $35, and for that initial investment he claims you’ll have the opportunity to make millions, because that cash buys you one of his websites -- so you, too, can sell the vitamins. If 20 people buy vitamins from the website in a given month, he pays you $1,000 for that month, or so he says. In reality, you get a crummy website that no one visits, selling pills the Food and Drug Administration has publicly derided as being fraudulent. But not to worry! Lapre will sell you marketing assistance for just a few thousand dollars, and … yeah, you can see where this one is going.

It’s crafty, you have to give him that. It’s devious and deceptive and lots of other bad D-words, but it’s crafty. Not like Matthew Lesko, who’s downright lazy.

If you were watching television in the early-to-mid-2000s you probably saw Lesko bouncing across your screen in his sparkling question-mark suit, screaming about how the U.S. government is giving away free money (“And you, too, can get in on the action!”). All you had to do, he shouted, was buy his book, which contained troves of secret government programs that could be leveraged by simply filling out a few basic forms. When you’re watching basic cable at 1 a.m. I suppose a man like Lesko can be persuasive, especially when all else is quiet and he’s hollering at a volume that could crack plastic. But, as is usually the case with hucksters, the only person who stands to get rich is Lesko himself.

The book, you see, can be divided into two main categories: “This Doesn’t Apply To Me,” and “Duh.” In the “Duh” category are well-known public assistance programs like unemployment insurance and food stamps -- not exactly the sort of programs that’ll have you diving headfirst into a solid gold money bin. Not exactly secret, either. In the “This Doesn’t Apply To Me” category are a bunch of obscure programs that apply primarily to other government agencies, not individuals. And there’s a kicker. Lesko admits that he just copied and pasted a book he ordered from the government and then sold it to the unwitting masses.

It’s not surprising that his product would be a massive ripoff. Even his appearance is stolen; everyone knows that a brightly-colored suit dotted with question marks is the uniform of comic book supervillian The Riddler. At least he and The Riddler actually share something in common -- both are begging for an epic beatdown at the hands of Batman. I’d pay Lesko’s asking price for his book just to see the Dark Knight pound him into dust.

People fall for this stuff, obviously, because whenever one of these scams fades away, another crawls out of the sewer to replace it. And it’s not just greed that these con men exploit. It’s desperation. Folks are hurting, there will always be folks who are hurting, and it’s a black eye on human nature that there will always be people ready to take advantage of that. It’s fun to laugh at a Lapre or a Lesko because, let’s face it, they’re cartoon characters with schemes that would make a Bond villain blush. But they make their living by duping others. Not cool. The sparkliest suit can’t make that look good.

Luckily, there’s a way to address this -- to put an end to these evil plots once and for all. I’d tell you what it is, but the space I have here is far too limiting, so I’ll tell you what. I’ve got this book, see -- it’s called “Great Expectations,” and totally wasn’t written by some other dude -- and all of the answers are contained within. Send me a check for $100 and I’ll send you a copy of the book, and then you, too, can be free from all dishonesty and deception. It’s easy! The benefits will last you a lifetime!

While we’re at it, I’ll throw in one of those GPS pasta watches, free of charge. You’ll love it, truly. I promise.

-- Jeff Lagasse is an editor at a Portland media company, a bassoon player for the Boston Philharmonic, and the star of “Game of Thrones.” Send him your money by contacting him at jelagasse@gmail.com.

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