A fool and his money are soon parted but these days most of us seem to be fools and there are easy and apparently legal ways to part fools from their money. The scams that seem to succeed best are those that concentrate on taking a small sliver of cash from hundred and thousands of people, rather than the big coup that parts a single person from millions.
It struck me when I was doing the research for “the Master Con Man” that there are many areas of business activity which are very close to illegal criminal conduct, but do not quite constitute a crime. In the United Kingdom there are many such activities which suck up the money of the poor unsuspecting individual who, used to straight dealing, expects the same with those with whom he deals.
I have already written about personal protection insurance – a racket conducted by eminent banks to get their customer’s money. It is astonishing that no one is being prosecuted for these scams, but our legislators clearly think that there are far more important things deserving of prosecution, such as putting your dustbin out on the wrong day.
The latest scam not to be prosecuted has been conducted by Castlechurch Limited and others in the business of running competitions in national publications. They have been getting in touch with some of the entrants to these competitions, suggesting that those entrants were close to winning a prize and asking them to ring a premium rate telephone number. Of course, having rung the number, listened to the message, held on for an average of nearly seven minutes at £1.53 a minute and so forth, the caller rarely won a prize, but did get a large phone much of which went to Castlechurch.
Now this activity, believe it or not, is not actually illegal. It looks like a scam, it smells like a scam and it walks like a scam but under the law it is not a scam. The regulator of premium line phone calls is PhonepayPlus and all that the regulator can do is fine Castlechurch £800,000. Apparently they will still be allowed to use premium rate phone lines and have been told to make the charges clearer to consumers by following a code of conduct more carefully.
That might be good advice but it avoids the question as to why such scams are legal in the first place and in particular why premium rate phone lines are legal.
The point goes beyond mere illegality and what I think of as fraud; taking money from people without providing a reasonable product or service is bad for our economy; it impoverishes the poor and enriches the rich, whereas a good economy should enrich everyone by a fair exchange of money, which is no more than a medium of measure, for services and goods. Unless we plug these loopholes we will continue to permit impoverishment of the poor.