Monday, August 24, 2009

How I nearly became a sucker

I am sharing this story not out of revenge or anger, but rather because nearly everyone I've told it to has said 'Thank goodness it happened to you and not somebody else'. For me, it wasted 4 hours of my life in a room with bullshitters but I can totally understand why people who aren't financially trained or don't constantly have the BS radar on could get conned.

I don't think I was ever really in danger of it given how amateur these con artists were. But I was suckered into believing that a nice old man was genuinely in it to help people. That I feel foolish for.

So the story goes like this.

Back in February, I was at a business marketing seminar and met business owners trying to find ways to get the word out about themselves. This very nice elderly gentleman (I'll say he's in his 60s) started talking about this charity of his whose mission it is to help disabled people enable themselves. (A great concept of what they were trying to do could be embodied in this tricycle story. A man with down's syndrome can't reliably do anything except ride his tricycle around town. His neighbour decided to tack on a wagon and get local businesses to advertise. Soon enough he's so popular that the advertising revenue from his tricycling around town is enough for him to come off disability... sounds good right?)

So I call him up telling him how much I loved the concept and if I could lend my services, I would. He's all enthusiastic and calls me from time to time updating me about his progress. Around May, he rings me up to tell me he's putting all the pieces together and probed more about my background. After hearing my story about my work, my last job etc, he went on and on about what a Godsend I was since he EXACTLY needed someone with my background. (At this point I'm wondering what kind of weaksauce contacts he has because I do NOT consider myself a financial powerhouse).

He asked me if I would be willing to sit on his board and I'm thinking "well, I did say I wanted to help but really I'm not qualified to sit on a board". So after agreeing to do so (but nothing is on paper yet), some more time goes by where he periodically calls me with more updates and I continually ask him "What tasks do you have for me to do"? I have yet to actually lift a finger (beyond meeting with a disabled person, his EA, and himself in a coffee shop near my place. It provided a warm fuzzy feeling about what he was trying to accomplish). And he kept saying "nothing yet, I'm putting the pieces together but you're an important part of this team". A part of the team that has yet to do a thing?

Anyways, he seems like a very genuine person and the bullshit meter wasn't turned on as much as the incompetent meter. He complained about health issues and I figured there's not a lot you can do when you're spending half your time in emergency so I should cut him some slack.

Finally, he calls me and says "I have all this wonderful stuff in place, can you meet with the team this week and I want to introduce you and really get this thing off the ground". Well, after months of phone calls and stuff where really nothing has happened, I was more than happy to help him out.

I will skip details about the meeting itself that set off my bullshit radar, but the crux of it is this. He wanted to involve a financial services company that promised 20% ROI, Guaranteed 6-36% returns, and 90% refunds on taxes paid.

The financial services company is clearly a fraud, its pretty black and white. Another board member tried to calm my fears by telling me how wonderful a person "Pam" was (the lady who owns the firm).

I was trying to be nice about it all but really, I could not see any shades of grey. These people are either B rate scammers, or A rate idiots. They were hoping since I was such a strong supporter of their cause, that somehow I would not notice?

He kept on saying "Give Pam a chance to explain herself, maybe this isn't what it seems". As though a claim of stupidity was better than a claim of fraud. He even went so far as to accuse me of being a judgmental and unfair person for concluding so quickly that this company couldn't be legit.

I fought back hard and basically said "I have no interest in sharing personal financial liability with people who are either fraudsters or fools. I frankly don't care which you are because either is a huge liability to me". I outlined how holding a directorship was more than a cushy title and it implied PERSONAL liability. A point I think they were hoping I wouldn't know. They were hoping I would simply think I got to help make a few decisions and feel good about myself. I told them as much as I wanted to support their cause, risking my home in a lawsuit over stupidity was not in the cards.

Anyways, my aggressive response obviously didn't go over well and they knew they were done with me at that point. I did find out along the way that this isn't the first charity fraud that these people have been involved with and the "nice old man" I thought was trying to help people in his retirement actually spent time as an escort driver - read: exploiting young girls for money.

PS. The reason I never had to do anything, he never so much as asked me to come help lift a box, was that there was never any plan to actually do anything related to a charity. His first project was supposed to be getting disabled people to redistribute old computers... I was never asked to do anything like even source old computers or anything like that!

The lesson

This is his schtick. He gets people to trust him, take on personal financial liability, and uses their good names to run his tax scams.

He exploited my weakness. I have a very soft spot for people who want to do things that help other people.

His mistake. He ran into a financially trained person. Someone who has worked in a financial services industry and isn't afraid to call a scam a scam. I have alerted CRA through a friend working there and through their leads hotline. If he found someone a little less skeptical, he might have had another victim.


No harm was really done other than a few hours on the phone with him (basically listening to him ramble on enthusiastically (or so I thought) about the nuts and bolts of how we would help disabled people, a 4 hour Bullshit radar meeting, and 2 very unpleasant emails. I do believe that there were other people in that room who, like me, were there for genuine purposes.

Now mind you there's still a SMALL chance that this guy is still that nice old grandpa I first thought he was and is genuinely trying to help people but is just an idiot. Either way, helping people really isn't in the cards. The failure point is either through fraud, or through ineptness.

So there's my story. Never be afraid to say 'no'. Don't get guilted into feeling like you're a bad person for asking tough questions (which he tried to do!)

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home