Years ago, I did a stint where I worked on the Nigeria desk at the State Department. One of the stranger duties I had during that time was occasionally fielding calls from American citizens who had been ensnared in what became known as “Nigerian fraud” schemes, due to the fact that many of them originated in Nigeria. I encountered more of these schemes when I served at an embassy in Africa myself.
You know the ones I’m talking about. The ones where an African prince needs help getting his money out of the country and all he needs is your bank account information to complete the scheme, promising you a percentage of easy money. Or the beautiful young woman (or handsome young man) who falls for you online and desperately wants to meet you but just needs money for airline tickets or visas or to pay off debts/fines or whatever before she/he will be in your arms. Or the can’t miss business scheme with an inside track to guaranteed millions that just needs a little seed money.
Most of us laugh these schemes off as obviously fraudulent and don’t think much further about them. But many people do indeed fall for them. They are cleverly designed to play on human weaknesses like greed or loneliness, and many people, even among those you think should know better, fall for them every year. Executing these schemes became an industry all its own. I recall seeing some of its practitioners in Internet cafes in Africa, working several potential victims at the same time on a collection of monitors.
When I first started fielding calls from those who had been ensnared, I thought that some self-protective instinct had been triggered and they had become suspicious and were calling the State Department to report the schemes in anger or to confirm their suspicions. There were a few calls like that, indeed.
But that wasn’t most of them. Most of the people were calling to confirm the best way to send the money, or to appeal for USG help for their poor, imperiled sweetheart with a visa or legal difficulties. And usually they could not be made to see the truth. To see that they had been conned. The more you told them they had been conned, the more they dug in and insisted they hadn’t.
They dug in when I told them it was a likely scam. Even deeper when I described to them, virtually word for word, the well-worn communication scripts used to ensnare them. When told how common it was and how many people had been ensnared in similar schemes, they insisted they were different. That they were far too smart and savvy to be snared.
In one particularly sad case, the man not only refused to listen to us when we talked to him by phone, but insisted on coming to Africa to meet the person who had offered him a spectacular business opportunity, which he was utterly confident was legitimate and his big break in life. He didn’t lose faith when he was met at the airport and robbed. He didn’t lose faith when he couldn’t find the person who had corresponded with him and none of the company names that had been discussed were known to the embassy. He didn’t lose faith when he emptied his bank account and drained his entire savings in pursuit of his dreams of wealth. He didn’t even lose faith when his wife left him and filed for divorce, taking his kids.
The last time we had contact with him, he still adamantly maintained that we were all wrong and that as soon as he could establish contact with his “business partners” he was going to be rich. But in the meantime, he needed a loan to pay his hotel bills. He was most distressed to learn all we would pay for was a ticket back to the U.S., which he would have to pay the USG back for.
He couldn’t admit that he had been conned, no matter how much evidence was laid in front of him. Admitting that he had been conned would have forced him to change his core image of himself. To admit that he wasn’t as smart and savvy as he thought he was. Basically, to admit that he had been a fool.
None of us want to admit that.
I think of that time often these days as I watch various people I know who voted for Trump squirm uncomfortably at each new revelation or outrage, but then double down on their support. If doing so forces them to ignore facts or our history, they do. If it forces them to change their political views, they do. If it forces them to be hypocritical or to abandon their moral positions, they do.
In fact, they will do anything other than admit the truth.
The truth that they were fooled by the biggest and most successful confidence man in American history.
And I don’t believe they will ever admit it.
No one likes to admit they’ve been a fool.