07/20/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Fool and His Money Are Soon Parted (Because) There's a Sucker Born Every Minute

Ever since Bernie Madoff ceased being the Philanthropic Saint and became Bernie Made-off-With-My-Money, I've been thinking about why so many of us gleefully be conned.

There are, of course, many reasons for our eager plunge into stupidity. Arguably, the most obvious was immortalized by Willie Sutton who, when asked, "Why do you rob banks?" succinctly replied, "Because that's where the money is," (stupid). Why do we plunge into scams? Because we think that's where the money is.

But sometimes "money" isn't money. Our friend Mr. Made-Off added a deliciously malicious ingredient to his particular stew: snobbery. He made taking your money a privilege given only (supposedly) to a favored few. His genius was creating the illusion that because he allowed you to "invest" with him you had become a member of an exquisitely elite club.

What's particularly interesting in the Madoff case is the great majority of those who ended up scammed and damned were already very rich and well connected. Why, then, were they still so eager to join Bernie's insider clique? Oh, dear...there's always someone who has more money, more status, more influence...So Bernie's club came to be seen, by those to whom it mattered, as the most exclusive of clubs because access was limited by the steel gates of Bernie's scrutiny and Bernie was above needing any more money or status. So acceptance by Bernie became the you-can't-buy-it platinum-sign that you were In. (It's a wry observation that they were, in fact, buying their membership).

Speaking of invitations to buy your way in...several days ago I received a phone call from a man who said he was the Editor in Chief of Premiere International Who's Who, a registry of outstanding professionals. Many thousands of people have been honored by being selected for Inclusion in this most selective Who's Who he said, and he was calling just to do some final checking to be sure I qualified. If I did, and he was already almost certain that I would, I would be featured on their website which would be a great honor as well as a cool marketing opportunity.

He told me their preliminary investigation had already started and included sending letters of inquiry to many people who know me through work. (How could he know who they were?). The letters they received back, he went on, strongly convinced him that I was not just a candidate; I was an ideal candidate. Some of the letters, he said, were up to three pages long and filled with praise. In addition, he continued, many who wrote asked how they could contact me. (That's strange. On my website, of course. Everyone has a web site now).

I started out pretty skeptical. But -- he went on to say in the letters many people described me as very passionate about my work. Bingo! That's true! It's so right that it momentarily deflected my skepticism. (Only later did I realize lots of people would say, "That's me!")!!

The conversation was very flattering and he was extremely charming -- until he started asking questions he should have known the answers to, if there had been any initial checking. "What is your web site?" he asked. "What are the titles of your books?"...stuff like that. My skepticism returned.

Now came the part the skeptic (me) had been waiting for: it started with a description of the elaborate wood and brass Plaque of Recognition from Premiere International Who's Who which I would receive which was perfect to display. I didn't have the opportunity to express my underwhelming gratitude as he was in full voice, racing toward the goal. He was certain, certain my status was so elevated that I would be accepted into the very highest of their ranks: The Platinum Program. My achievements -- (about which he clearly knew nothing) -- had earned this highest of statuses which only cost $899 and was good for a lifetime.

My silence was loud. (The real Who's Who never charges for an entry). After a minute or two passed with no response from me, he suggested the Gold Program at $599 for five years...a two year program for $299...a one year program for $99. Silence.

I broke the silence and said How about you send me one of those letters you got about me. He replied, I can't do that for people who aren't members!

What can we learn from this brief exploration of one particular kind of scam?

People who are unlikely to be taken in combine healthy skepticism and a realistic view of their accomplishments. While they enjoyed the flattery and invitation to be In a very elite club, they have the safeguard of really knowing themselves and being comfortable with who they are. Those qualities, combined with a mocking sense of humor about the human frailties of vanity protected these people from being dazzled, losing their mooring and becoming prey. In other words, the people who are not likely to fall for flattery are not desperate for it.

Factually, some of those people were simply not into an ambitious achieving lifestyle when they were contacted. As a result, they found the whole invitation scene pretty funny. Others were protected by their sense of caution. They refused to be hurried or pinned down and insisted on time to think and research the company. And some people were protected from flattery simply because they were loath to open their wallets. To all, I say, good job!

The people who joined were dying to be recognized and thrilled to be invited. The clincher for them was entrance into the Platinum or VIP or Honor Registry. These people are seriously hungry for affirmation which makes them vulnerable to any come-on that promises to elevate them to an elite status.

Who, then, is a sucker? A sucker is someone who wants something so badly that they lose all critical judgment.

Most of these people were just starting out and were simply trying to become successful. Sadly, they are the people most likely to list their membership in a Registry on their resume - an "achievement" very likely to boomerang. How poignant that is...