At the recommendation of someone I don’t know and will never meet, but who I follow on Instagram, I just finished reading You’re Just Too Good To Be True. It’s a novella by Sofija Stefanovic about internet money scams and focuses on one case in particular, an older man named Bill who lives in Queensland and has been completely fleeced by a person or group of people he met online. Bill fell in love with an American soldier who died in Afghanistan but left two packages for Bill in his will. These packages have always been slightly out of Bill’s reach and between death duties, funeral costs, customs, bribery of officials to get the packages and many other transactions Bill has lost all of his money, some hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The book outlined Bill’s history and the nature of his scam. It tried to present a range of perspectives – Bill’s own, the journalist who wrote the novella (who attempted to be impartial and non judgemental but who inevitably was the opposite), the police, and other scam victims. (One of the other scam victims had fallen prey to the ‘you’ve inherited a Nigerian fortune’ scam, otherwise known as the 419. Really? People fall for that one still?) It attempted to explain how the scam occurred, to reveal the loneliness of people, their capacity for self-delusion, and draw parallels to gambling addictions.
There was a simplicity, a surface skimming, that was perhaps related to it being a novella or maybe because not enough is known or divulged about the scam specifics. I felt that the complex scenario wasn’t explored sufficiently; while emotions and underlying motivations were hinted at, the book glossed over them, threw them away in passing. Of course it wasn’t fiction – although the subject matter had all the potential ache of a Thea Astley or Tim Winton novel complete with lonely protagonist – but to me its presentation left something lacking.
As it happens, I know something about being hoodwinked. If not delusion exactly, I am certainly across blindness. Not in a financial sense, but a romantic one; as Bill’s story shows there is a thin line, mere stepping stones, between the two.
There’s a certain shock value to this story that I get a fair bit of pleasure from, although I certainly didn’t at the time: I was in a relationship with someone for several years and had no idea that he had a son. Or a heavy drinking problem, which sort of explains the former. It’s a longish story, and (somewhat ironically) best told over a few wines, but the upshot is that I know how easy it is to be lied to consistently, and to want to believe what you’re told. It can be easier to push away any niggling doubts you might have and believe something that’s slightly preposterous because you really, really want it to be true. Not because the actual truth is bad as such, but because it means that the other person, and your whole relationship, isn’t what you’ve thought it is. It’s not what you’ve built on and not what you’ve presented to the world. Facing up to the fact that something else might be going on is hard and unpleasant and sometimes it is simply easier to tell yourself that what you’re being told must be true.
In my experience effective liars not only grab and play off your emotions but they give you so many alternatives that it’s easier to settle on the one they subtly push the most, which of course isn’t true either. I couldn’t tell you, even in hindsight, what was true and what wasn’t – béarnaise sauce may not actually have been his favourite, he may never have gone on childhood holidays to the coast, the son I eventually found out existed could have had numerous different upbringings and maybe even a different name. Lying was simply such a part of his every day life – it had to be from his perspective – that it was simply easier to invent everything.
It’s the side of the liar, not the deceived, that I find more fascinating. Possibly because of my experience, but also because I think a certain level of trust and credulity is quite normal; to lie endlessly and intricately is not. (It must also be exhausting, but that’s another matter.) To be fair to the author, she attempted to contact the scammers and understand their motivations (other than money), but they were quite understandably not interested in revealing their stories to a journalist. I mean, that’s got to be Master Liar Studies 101, right?
It’s also not a new phenomenon. People have been lied to, and believed those lies, since Mr Caveman pretended he was out all day hunting things when in reality he was at the neighbouring village pulling another woman along by her hair. The internet and globalism add a new perspective and possibly new targets, but it’s part of the vulnerability and complexity of humanity. These are extreme cases, and they’ve thrown greed into the mix (all the scammed were allegedly going to receive large amounts of money), but nonetheless not a new notion. It would have been interesting to explore this further, the unchanging fallibility of people over time despite changing environments and technologies which theoretically should assist us to have greater clarity and transparency.