Your twenties are for dicking about; when the clock strikes 30 you have to make your move in the 9-to-5 world. A way out: this is what Terence wanted when he was drawn into the realm of fraud, 419 stings, pyramid schemes and Black Dollar scams.
Original publication: SL, 1999.
1. Poison Sting
Fucked over! Bum-bashed! Taken for a cunt! This is how the salesman calling himself Terence still feels today, three months after the event. The curses roll out, unstoppable now that he’s broken the seal here on Muizenberg’s deserted beachfront. In the drizzle he lights one cigarette after another; seagulls swoop down whenever he flicks a butt onto the sand. He’s burning up faster than his smokes. He can’t eat, he can’t sleep. Jesus Christ, he’s out of his wits with fear. And no one knows his story. He’s hidden it from his family like the memory of a one-night stand. Fucked over! Cunted! Over and over the words come back, revisiting the scene of the crime: a seduction, a rape, a surrender to castration.
I'll find those cocksuckers who did this to me,’ he says, ‘and when I do, I’m hiring people to sever their Achilles’ tendons so they’ll never walk again. I’m gonna break kneecaps, cut off thumbs. I feel fuckall. They scammed me for R60,000. I borrowed that money, for Christ’s sake – I lied to people to get it. Now they’re asking, “Where’s my fucking money? You promised to return it in a week. It’s
taken months!” I’ve been numb, worrying what to do. Where do you pull 60K from the sky?’
His bobbed fringe, hanging like a bunch of grapes, is getting damp in the lunch hour mist. This guy called Terence – he’s an aging Eighties’ pretty boy, well into his dirty thirties. Your twenties are for dicking about; by the time the clock strikes 30 you have to have begun making your life-move in the nine-to-five world.
A way off the treadmill, an instant fortune: this is what everyone wants, and it’s what Terence wanted when a peripheral
‘I went with him to a hotel and met a guy who told me if I had 60K he’d double it in 24 hours. I saw it done! I saw somebody literally make money with R200 and US$100 notes in front of my eyes. Fuck, of course I asked questions, but it’s different when you see it happen before your eyes. When you see hard currency made in front of you, you get excited. You get a big hard-on.’acquaintance he believed he could trust drew him into the notorious Black Dollar scam.
This wasn’t a counterfeiting operation. The story went that the notes he saw were rands and dollars that the South African government was secretly transporting from the country to bankroll Laurent Kabila’s war in the Congo. The notes had been supposedly dyed with chemicals to render them unusable until they could be chemically processed on-site and paid to Kabila’s troops. However, the cash had been intercepted by corrupt officials who now required Terence’s help in ‘converting’ their haul of over R3-million from its ‘black dollar’ form into usable tender.
So far, so good. It’s a principle of scamming that the best lies are based on plausible truth, and allegations of government corruption never fail to ring true. Two further principles are that scams should seem legitimate, or at least morally justifiable, and that they should bolster targets’ particular vanities by suggesting that they’re socially important, deserving of windfalls, or charitable – like the feel-good souls who’re duped into supporting non-existent humane causes by the idea of seeing themselves someday winning the Nobel Award.
In Terence’s case, he saw himself as a hard-working tax payer who was entitled to exploit a situation that the state had apparently created through its clandestine activities. ‘China, I felt like James Bond,’ he remarks. Scams rely on the smoke and mirrors of sales technique, and scammers are renowned for their eloquence, impeccable grooming and continually ringing cell phones – here’s a Master of the Universe who unflinchingly settles the tab in the fanciest eateries, here’s a well-connected high-roller who’s in demand. You should feel honoured that this being’s drawn you into his or her power circle! One of the oldest sales adages says that you sell by shaping a product to a target’s fantasy self-image: tell them what they want to hear. The same in cons. As a detective says, ‘Scammers build you up as the star in a movie.’
So here’s Terence/James Bond taking centre stage in the Black Dollar intrigue. The hotel room tingles with urgency (another ploy: don’t give targets time to think, and pledge them to secrecy so they won’t consult others). What’s more, he’s confused by the complex details, but for scammers or salespeople that’s fine: most prospects are embarrassed to admit they’re not worldly-wise enough to fathom the fine print and just nod their heads. Terence, however, is no twot. He wants answers. How do they propose doubling his 60K? And why the fuck do they need it at all?
He’s shown sealed packs of currency carrying Reserve Bank stampings. One of them is opened and a black dollar held to the light. He can see that the note inside is real. Now he’s told that when these packages of black dollars are chemically rinsed, normal notes have to be interleaved between them to ensure that the black ones come out right after the wash. What they want him to do is loan them some normal notes – the actual pieces of paper. And they need 60K because that’s the chemically exact number of notes they need to place inside the pre-packaged bundles as ‘templates’. Any less and the process won’t work.
After this explanation, a demonstration takes place. In sales, it’s known as ‘proving the benefits’. In scam lingo it’s called ‘sweetening the pot’ or, more directly, ‘the hook’ – the vital point at which a target’s focus is diverted from the haze of bullshit around the affair and concentrated on something – a status object, a parade of other beneficiaries waving cheques – that provides tangible proof of the scammer’s good faith. Terence watches amazed, sexually aroused, as the black dollars transform in a fuming Petri dish and are authenticated in a counting machine.
Miraculous! Worlds unfold before him. It’s sacred, taboo, like seeing the god-like powers at the source of creation. Mortals work and save for lifetimes without coming close to this golden light. Here money materialises of its own accord – within reach it just pours out from nowhere! The experience was so powerful that even today Terence struggles to disbelieve it. ‘I saw money being made,’ he insists.
The story ends on a predictable course: the sting, the disappearance. He arrived with the 60K, which was interleaved into a package of black dollars, coated with chemicals, then sealed. At some point the pack was switched with a dud one, and Terence was asked to return with it next day for the final conversion. But no one was there. Phone calls proved fruitless. He’d been instructed not to interfere with the package for fear of affecting the chemical processes inside it, and obeyed until his growing anxiety compelled him to open it: blank paper dyed with iodine, a pot of shit at the end of the rainbow.
‘That’s when I definitely knew I was fucked,’ he says. ‘Two weeks ago I contemplated suicide for the first time. I was planning to take them and their families out, then myself. Let me tell you – if you’d seen what I saw, I promise they’d’ve taken you for a cunt as well.’
He pats himself down. ‘Christ! And now I’m out of cigarettes.’
Welcome to the dirty thirties.
2. Murder by Numbers
How do you ensnare a monkey? An African proverb says you throw you some shiny object into the hollow of a tree. The monkey grabs it and can’t pull away because his fist is too big for the opening. He’s been conned, and his greed has turned against him. Unlike in-your-face theft, fraud depends on the victim’s unwitting collaboration to achieve its ends.
This perhaps also accounts for the fact that fraud is often regarded as a non-violent crime, although there are exceptions, such as the worldwide ‘419’ or ‘Nigerian letter’ scam, said to have originated in Nigeria in the early 1990s. It operates facelessly with blanket mailings to large numbers of companies and individuals; with each mailing, a handful will bite.
The letter-writer represents (for instance) the ‘Nigerian Petroleum Corporation’ and claims that, owing to ‘an undeclared windfall from oil sales during the Gulf War’, they have US$35-million which they want to stuff in an overseas account – yours. In exchange for sending them your banking particulars, you’ll receive a 30% commission. That’s about R40-million for doing sweet fuckall. Needless to say, your details will be used in fraudulent transactions, you’ll be asked to forward money for ‘bribes’, and your account will be cleaned out. But, hey – what’s R6,50 between friends?
If you’re wealthy enough, you’ll be invited to fly to Nigeria, only to have your passport confiscated, yourself shoved in a car boot, and threats of death made unless a ransom is paid (that’s even before the 419ers get hold of you). Operators exist locally, and in June this year the Sunday Times reported that a Japanese businessman had been kidnapped at Durban airport after the syndicate apparently lured him to sunny SA.
Although variations of the 419 game have a violent sting, brute force is not an essential element of confidence trickery, which derives its smoothness, its economy of effort, from the victim’s connivance. What’s more, the 419 and Black Dollar cons are merely prominent examples of what is reportedly South Africa’s most widespread crime. Fraud is defined as the making of intentional misrepresentations that are calculated to deceive victims into doing things that make them suffer – potentially or actually – the loss of property or intangibles like a reputation. Given this definition, fraud covers a spectrum of misdeeds.
These range from opening accounts with a false ID to the lodging of false insurance claims, from hijinks at the ATM to the writing of rubber cheques – one bloke, for instance, will come to buy goods you’ve advertised in the paper and, after giving (false) proof of his credentials, he’ll pay by (stolen) cheque because he’s afraid to carry cash. ‘There are criminals out there,’ he explains, which ironically is the only trustworthy thing he says.
Pyramid schemes are also old familiars in this rogues’ gallery, although they’re renowned as shape-shifters and loophole specialists that keep mutating under new guises. Their modus operandi, however, stays the same in principle. You pay an entrance fee to join an investment club and begin at the bottom of the pyramid; as more investors buy in, you rise upwards and your investment grows proportionate to the influx of new money.
Initial investors earn fortunes, and at euphoric marketing presentations their returns are used to bait new prospects (the hook, sweetening the pot). But since prospects come from an ever-diminishing pool, latecomers won’t see the same returns as first arrivals. They’ve been scammed of their ‘entrance fee’, and perhaps their entire ‘investment’, because no one else can be enticed into joining.
These are examples of common scams, all of them ‘non-violently’ relying on the co-operation or acquiescence of other people and institutions to get what they want. After all, fraud is famously a ‘white-collar crime’, violence a ‘blue-collar’ affair, and the most sophisticated fraudsters often come from the ranks of high-echelon professionals, who possess the know-how and trustworthiness to fuck a system for all it’s worth. Scams need not conform to the Black Dollar type, where independent operators create illusions in which to entrap targets one-on-one; scammers can also be faceless drones exploiting legitimate set-ups and harming faceless victims.
But despite its bourgeois connotations, fraud is a polymorphous crime rampant in every social stratum, even though it works on the basic principles of capitalism: something is offered in exchange for something else. Wilder scams merely take the principle to extremes and offer something for next to nothing. Maximal gain! Minimal expense! As in sales, you overplay benefits, downplay drawbacks. Sting them with the profit motive!
Yet what drives scammers? According to Malcolm McHenry of Wynberg Fraud Unit, for many it’s a matter of economic necessity. ‘After they get away with fraud once or twice or more, it becomes ingrained and they see it as good way to make a living. It’s easy to get away with it. It’s a non-violent crime, so they feel less guilty about it – it’s a signature, a stroke of a pen.’
For Phyllis Atkinson of the Investigating Directorate: Serious Economic Offences, the prevalence of fraud can be ascribed not only to economic factors but also to a worldwide crisis in ethics. ‘It’s a breakdown in what’s right and wrong,’ she says. ‘People justify themselves by saying ‘everyone’s doing it’ – a case of people jumping on a gravy train and thinking, ‘If he can get away with it, why can’t I?’’
Her directorate investigates high profile financial crimes, where she and Tommy Prins, her fellow Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions, pit their wits against fraudsters who’re convinced of their own invincibility. It’s easy to say that the boardroom bullshitters Phyllis and Tommy investigate can’t possibly be driven by economic necessity, but when’s enough really enough? Greed is hunger, but hunger stops when your stomach’s full: greed is like a fire inside you, burning everything up faster than you can swallow it.
Greed is also like envy, a resentment that another person has something you don’t, something they don’t deserve because they’re inferior to you. Scams are assertions of power, Phyllis speculates – ‘it’s the thrill of being one up on someone without their knowledge.’ Tommy agrees. ‘It’s a mindset you get with computer hackers. One youngster said he did it because he wanted to see if he could. It’s the satisfaction of getting into somebody else’s domain.’
You trap the monkey and exalt: I’ve got you! I’m going inside your life to take away the things that sustain it. You’re nothing to me! This is the bliss of scams according to Andy*. Unlike the professional swindler he once knew, fifty-something Andy lives in poverty in a countryside shed. ‘This chap enjoyed the cut and thrust of shafting other people,’ he recalls. ‘The money wasn’t the issue, it was the lifestyle, moving from town to town and getting his kicks from what he did. He had obviously lacked something in his moral values, and felt contemptuous of people with scruples, because there was nothing he wouldn’t stoop to. The more difficult people were to take, the more he respected them – the ones who fell into his lap like plums, he spoke of with absolute contempt.’
For all its appearance of non-violence, fraud is a violent crime, not simply because its consequences are harmful, but because it’s informed by rapacious desires to invade others and demonstrate their inferiority, which is proved all the more conclusively by the fact that it is their animal natures – their avarice, their trustingness – that lets them get baited in the first place. The dickheads!
And if everyone’s scamming, why shouldn’t you? Why should you be the only arsehole standing in line and obeying the rules when everyone else is jumping the queue to get at the cash. You’re sharper than them, and with your winning ways no one will suspect you. You’ll be a being in disguise, inhabiting a system without subscribing to its codes; your final disappearance will only prove that you were never really there at all.
Don’t you resent other people? They’ll revolt you even more when you flash them the baited hook and you see them go hard, go wet. Fuck ‘em! You’ll get away with it. The constraints you feel around you – they’re non-existent. You’re in darkness, hallucinating walls around yourself. Reach out and see if they’re there. Write that bum cheque. Nothing happens: no wall. Wasn’t that an adrenaline rush? Try bigger rushes, bolder tests of the limits, until you see you can be free as a god in a world without frontiers, only targets.
‘There’s a path a guy follows to become that successful con artist,’ says Jaco Verkuil, a police detective who’s investigated nearly 5,000 cases of fraud since 1991. ‘He starts off small but if he does it once, he’ll do it twice; and if he does it twice, he’ll do it again and again, getting better every time till he thinks he’s so good he can’t be caught.’ Even a prison term is no deterrent; in fact it’s a valuable networking opportunity. Once released he puts his new expertise to use, in the process attracting interest from scam kingpins and working his way up the underworld ladder.
‘It’s like being a car salesman,’ Jaco explains. ‘For the one guy it doesn’t matter if he only sells five cars a month. He’s doing his bit, he doesn’t wanna go up in life. He’s like a runner in a criminal scheme: he’s doing the dirty jobs, but everybody on top’s looking after him. With the other salesman, he sells 10 cars one month, the next he wants to sell 15 – people talk, he gets promoted. In business and crime it’s exactly the same: you work up the ranks! Whenever a new tendency in fraud comes out, the same big boys will be involved because they’ve travelled that path to the top.’
A surreal vision, indeed: a parallel world superimposed on the ordinary one, feeding off it and mirroring it with bosses and runners, corporate ladders and nine-to-five routines.
3. Runner on the Wheel
Terence stops in a café to buy cigarettes. He pays with a fistful of coppers. His asset base is crumbling, disintegrating into coinage. Outside the rain’s pouring in from the sea.
If fraud is the most virulent of crimes, it’s also arguably the oldest. The bible tells how the serpent deceived Adam and Eve into eating the forbidden fruit. Swallow this, he promised, and ye shall be as gods. The ploy has never changed in essence. Maximal gain, minimal cost: be a god with the freedom and power to shape your life as you want it.
‘Everyday you’re in a cage,’ Terence says. ‘Bonds, cars, groceries, rates, commitments: all that crap’s your cage. The bank’s your gaoler and you’re a hamster in a cage, spinning on a wheel, trying to pay everything off so you can be free. When you see gold fall from the sky and all you’ve gotta do is bite, you think you can escape the treadwheel. But what you don’t know is that there’s a big meat hook inside the bait, and when you bite, it’s too late.
‘You’re always hearing about government corruption and now you get a chance to fight back with black dollars you didn’t give them permission to use for war. You can stop being a hamster. That’s why you bite – why everybody bites. But I got in over my head. I’ll never do that shit again.
‘Those junkies in Trainspotting did illegal things to beat the system. But at the end of the movie the guy chose life – cars, babies, bonds – and went back to the system. You can’t escape.’
(* Name has been changed. Content was fabricated. Article ghost-written. Magazine is a money-laundering front.)
Dark Arts of the Silver Screen
We're steeped in the lives of actors, and we've thrilled to documentaries about film-making. But with a gun to your head, could you explain what a producer actually does? Ross Garland and Brad Logan, the producers of Spud: The Movie, tell all.
Jacob Zuma courted controversy with his fondness for singing the Struggle-era song 'Bring Me My Machine-Gun'. Perhaps it's just a song, and just a metaphor, but in the logic of that metaphor politics is simplified as a winner-take-all battle royale.
Taking Charge of the Tax Nightmare
The taxman has become a whole lot leaner and meaner, and while there are some breaks for small businesses, the admin burden on them alone could be crippling. A tax practitioner tells you in plain English how to survive the night of the undead tax return.