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Bonuses, the Wolf of Wall Street, and Canadian Scammer Jesse Willms

fraud1New Orleans   It’s hard not to wonder about the mixed messages of popular culture about the huge divides between rich and poor when all of the happy endings seem to go the other way for the rich, including the amoral rip-off artists and scammers. 

            The new movie by Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street, features some amazing acting by Leonardo DiCaprio in the role of penny stock huckster and conman, Jordan Belfort.  It’s pretty much a wild ride of a film filled with sex, drugs, rock and roll, and of course goo-gobs of money.  What’s missing is any real sense of the victims who lose their life savings.  Of course this is Jordan Belfort’s story, so who he stole from is less important to him than how he amassed millions.  If we are made to feel sorry for anyone, it’s for the desperate salespeople who are clutching so hard for the golden ring that it hurts to watch both their joy at the top and their pain as they prepare to fall to the bottom.

            Then there’s almost an equally startling piece in The Atlantic called “The Dark Lord of the Internet” about an Edmonton, Canada based scammer named Jesse Willms, which we can almost bet will be a movie coming to a theater near you soon.  Willms’ specializes in those pill popping internet ads and websites about losing weight, getting rich quick, or whatever.  His real art is signaling that something, almost anything is FREE, and then hitting the sucker’s credit card as many times as possible for $5, $10, $100, and on up until they are able to loose the noose. 

            What’s the moral here?  It’s all “let the good times roll” with a clear takeaway that all of them get away with it.  Oh, yeah, Belfort, the “wolf,” does 3 years in minimum security in Nevada, but he’s now a motivational speaker promoting his sales techniques.  Willms did no time.  The FTC put him out of business a couple of times, wiping out his fortune, but those are civil penalties, not criminal, so, less than 25 years old, he just crawls back on the internet with a new scheme for another round, and the story ends with him buying another Lamborghini. 

            The moral is not just from popular culture.  These are real life stories and the message is that these guys suck, but all of us are suckers so who cares, and the merry-go-round keeps rolling. 

            But, it’s not just them, the message is pervasive.  My daughter loaned me her car and the radio is set to NPR.  The other evening something called, “Marketplace” was on, and the entire story, believe it or not, was meant to flesh out the “trickle down” theory to rationalize the obscene billions of dollars paid in Wall Street bonuses to the brokers, sales folks, and hustlers there.  They interviewed shoeshine guys, waiters and restaurant owners about the fact that they counted on these guys and their bonuses for their living.  WTF?!?  Now, public radio is going to shill for the millions in the pockets of the rich, because a few dollars and cents end up in some service workers pockets from time to time. 

            It’s not just Mayor Bill DeBlasio’s challenge to have folks understand there is a tale of two cities or President Obama’s new advocacy for higher wages for workers to blunt inequality. With the message being sent everywhere from all channels that the rich rock in a world of no limits, while the rest of us try to make the money make the month.