The underappreciated damage of fraud

The Huffington Post reports on a con man named Jim McCormick who took a joke golf ball finder (basically a modified dowsing rod) and converted it into an equally effective Bomb Detection Device, named it the ADE 651, and then somehow convinced the military and police forces of 20 nations (including Britain and Iraq who attempted to use the device in the global war on terror) that it would be such an effective tool in keeping troops alive that he was able to charge them up to $42k per unit.

He sold tens of thousands of these units, and netted a profit of over $78 million. Thousands of people were injured and killed when these useless devices failed to detect bombs at various checkpoints. 

And now the sentence for this has been handed down – 10 years in prison.

This story reminded me of a conversation I once had on the Objectivist Living forum. I was irritated by the story of psychic Sylvia Browne‘s “reading” that Amanda Berry was dead. As a result, Ms. Berry’s mother Louwana Miller went to her grave filled with anguish that her daughter had been murdered.

If Ms. Miller really believed that her daughter was dead, it isn’t a far stretch to imagine that her motivation to maintain the search for her daughter abated as well. It’s impossible to know if this resulted in a prolonged period of being kidnapped for Ms. Berry, but it is certainly not out of the realm of possibility. This would be another unintended consequence of the fraudulent reading provided by Ms. Browne.

I tried making the point that fraud is illegal, and that it ought to be treated as such, even if the results aren’t immediate and obvious. In doing so, I was accused of advocating nanny-state politics by my friends (and trolls) on the OL forum.

Steve Novella over at SkepticBlog makes some good points that speak to the overall principle, as well as why McCormick should be held responsible for each and every death caused by his fraud.

My question is – why didn’t the “cavalier disregard” for killing people with his fraudulent scheme warrant more than just 10 years? This seems to be a hole in the law. (I’m sure this varies widely from country to country.) There should be a separate charge when fraud predictably leads to horrific outcomes, such as death. I know that if someone dies in the course of committing a crime, even though the death was not intended, it’s still felony murder. Why doesn’t this also apply to fraud?

As I attempted to point out over at OL, damage is damage, whether caused directly by force, or caused indirectly by fooling someone into injuring themselves. Novella makes a valiant attempt at sharing responsibility by pointing out that victims of fraud do have a responsibility to conduct due diligence, and that is similar to the point that my friends at OL were trying to make.

And it’s true – due diligence is the responsibility of each and every person who endeavors to invest real, social, or emotional capital. But there is also the responsibility of those who would profit from that investment to be honest brokers. This is why the term “due diligence” has the word “due” in it – it draws that line of demarcation between the diligent work that is “due” from the investor, and the expectation from the profiteer that he or she will be an honest broker.

As I pointed out on OL, I am happy to debate where that line of demarcation should be – but I will not debate whether or not that line ought to exist.

My contention is that psychics ought to be required to inform their clientele that the have no powers that ordinary people do not possess. To claim to have the power to provide a service that you do not have the power to provide is fraudulent, and ought to be illegal.

I also believe that McCormick should be held responsible for all who died as a result of his deliberate fraud.

And I think that legislators need to rethink the effect that ordinary frauds, snake-oil salesmen, and shysters have on ordinary citizens. Defrauding people is not a right, it’s not harmless, and it should be treated with no less gravity than the direct use of force.

It’s no less destructive to trick someone into putting a gun to their head and pulling the trigger than it is to put that gun to their head and pull the trigger yourself.

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