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If your guidelines fail, try entrapment
February 7, 2002
A few months ago, our local police ran a sting operation on parole violators.
"We told them, and told them they had to check in, but they wouldn't," said one Bernalillo County deputy.
So the cops mailed out letters to all these ex-cons, saying "You've won a 20-pound frozen turkey. Come on down to the Albuquerque Hilton, Room 232, to pick it up."
Dozens of guys showed up and got busted.
As one poor fool was being led out to the jail bus, he asked, "But do I still get the turkey?"
The Securities and Exchange Commission, surely a sober center of rectitude and accountancy, has posted warnings about stock fraud on their Web site for years. Nobody was paying much attention. Was there a problem with the guidelines?
In their Investor Alert: Stock Market Fraud "Survivor" Checklist,the writers followed our advice, and kept the checklist short, using six bulleted points, with boldface leadins highlighting unobjectionable phrases such as "Be Skeptical." But how? For example? What exactly does that mean?
The details were missing. Also, the emotional punch. The language was clean, but a little too cautious. For instance look at the phrasing inside the dashes:
The tone is that of a prissy high school teacher. Remember the safe-sex lecture in health class?
Sure, their checklist tries to make a joke once and a while. But how professorial! Here's the lead sentence:
You can hear the audience explode in laughter at that zinger.
And the longer pieces posted by the SEC do make sense. We learn, for instance, that newsletter editors take bribes to tout stocks, junk mail often makes exaggerated claims, and some dubious companies fail to register their stock offerings with the SEC (a real shocker). Most fun: their anatomy of scams, from off-shore schemes to Pump and Dump ("Buy Now!"). Best PR for the SEC: the list of stock fraudsters convicted and sent to jail for fake web sites, false press releases, and imaginary ethanol plants. Good stuff. But a little tedious, like those success stories at corporate sites.
So none of this advice caught people's attention. Recently, the SEC Chairman, Harvey Pitt whined to CBS:
So the lovable pranksters at the SEC played an enlightened practical joke on those suckers. The SEC set up a fake web site, touting an imaginary company that was claiming to sell a supposed Personal Bio-Hazard Detector, offering a chance to buy into their soon-to-be launched Initial Public Offering, also a fake. If you click to buy, you go to an SEC page warning you that you are pretty darn gullible, and ought to watch out.
"There's clearly no intent here to do anything but educate the public in a way that might actually catch people's attention and make them realize they were that close to being scammed," Barbara Roper of the Consumer Federation of America told CBS. "You need to make the risk real to people."
The most convincing part of the scam is an audio purporting to be the boss, Thomas McWhortle III (I love the III) being interviewed on TV. As you might expect, he said, "I'm extremely excited about our prospects."
Whoever was writing the fake site had a good time parodying the worst of press releases, testimonials, and even investment pitches. You can tell that the writers really soaked up the atmosphere, and satirists like Jonathan Swift and Mark Twain would get a kick out of the perfection with which the team announces a news conference for "Credentialed media only. Cameras may begin setting up at 9:00 am." Who's the supposed author, here? Kelly Green, the Investor Relations Manager. A real leprechaun she is.
The SEC claims that more than 100,000 visitors to the site got trapped, and sent to the cautionary pages with the heading, "If you responded to an investment idea like this...you could get scammed!" Some folks, we are asked to believe, even wrote emails saying, essentially, "Thanks so much for fooling me. You really showed me how my greed can get the better of common sense. I will never be scammed again."
Well, who knows if this will work any better than the original guidelines? But at least the SEC had fun putting up all the fake trappings of a scam site. And, in the press, the joke got much bigger play than the advice.
Lord knows, the most common lament from tech support people is that customers should, but don't "Read the Fine Manual." And doctors report that only about half their patients actually take prescriptions as directed. In fact, most people don't like reading instructions, or listening to verbal advice. So the SEC's practical joke takes the message beyond text.
Matt Bivens ridicules the press for accepting the SEC's claim of 150,000 visitors, when he thinks there may just be 150K page views. Moscow Times.
The AP and CNN agree that the site is educational.
CBS digs deep with comments from the major players.
Writing that Works!