In the Current Pandemic

(Caution: Graphic content)
(By Daven Morrison, MD) Recently, an alert about a local fraud threat landed in my inbox. Tied to the pandemic and contact tracing, it triggered a memory of another ignoble health- related fraud.

The fraud in my inbox was straightforward. Under the guise of tracking COVID-19 cases, residents were being asked for personal information such as social security numbers. In contact tracing, the purpose is straightforward: Follow and track the spread of an infection to limit the effects of an epidemic. Because of the broad awareness, the fraudsters had a large population to try to ensnare—basically everyone.

In this case, even though it was a local alert, for those of you who follow B4G and are interested in fraud, it makes sense to pass along the precautions. And then we can discuss a relevant, even worse story and how it all works psychologically.

Here is the alert’s guidance on what to avoid.
A contact tracer will never:
• Ask for your Social Security number;
• Ask for money, bank account or credit card numbers, or any other form of payment;
• Ask for your immigration status; or
• Threaten consequences of not participating or answering questions.

Because it was health related, the swindle could leverage another emotion commonly used when manipulating people around their health, fear. Many are scared about becoming infected and want to help limit the spread. So, as the fraudsters work to earn trust in their victims, they highlight these two factors. In the context of a genuine medical threat, the inherent cruelty and even sadism saddens me.

Why does this happen with fear? As discussed in our text, The A.B.C.’s of Behavioral Forensics, basic human emotions play a role in all human behavior. Therefore, they play a role in both the perpetrator and the victim. As a novel tactic, our text explored the role of emotions in the victims of fraud. Using their experience we can “reverse engineer” the tactics of the fraudster. They are ancient tactics.

With the Coronavirus threat, one of the core emotions (and what the fraudsters are preying on) is fear of contagion. Take a moment and think about this. A year ago at this time, a fraud scheme of this sort would not have had a chance. But in the current environment, the threat, or rather the odds of success of being a victim of a fraud scheme are high. What is cruel about it is the idea of preying upon vulnerable people. Vulnerable, and the fraudsters know this, because the vulnerable are:
• lonely – this county in Illinois has been sheltering in place for over three months,
• likely not sophisticated enough to be able to recognize the deception, and even worse,
• quite possibly are part of the demographic who are most at risk and thus more scared than others.

This reminds me of another moment when being sick and scared overlapped. At that time as well, fraud blossomed like the corpse flower. The story is an incredible one of a con artist and the growth in power of the American Medical Association (AMA). It lies at the intersection of virility, goats, and the dawn of AM radio conglomerates. Intrigued? Read on.

In Charlatan [1] (Three Rivers Press 2008), Brock Pope outlines how John R. Brinkley was able to create a thriving industry of surgeries, hospitals, and even, near the end of his crime spree, a massive communications network. He was a malignant entrepreneur, and his final steps outlined a pathway for future multimedia organizations.

What “Dr.” Brinkley preyed on was the vanity and the fear of aging that comes to men when their virility wanes. It is similar to the emotions behind the modern financial success of Viagra. But unlike with Viagra, which came about because of an unanticipated side effect of a medicine designed for another illness and became an industry leader in another, the science for this treatment was horrible.

“Dr.” Brinkley was a conman, first and foremost, and seemed to skip along outside of detection just a step ahead of the law and of regulations. He figured out men’s capacity to have sex, or maintain an erection, which for many begins to decline in their 40s and 50s and they will be desperate not to lose it. Sexuality, and virility is an important aspect generally in both genders, and this charlatan claimed to have a cure. His cure is the graphic/gruesome part of the story. (Caution, this story is medically graphic.)

“Dr. Brinkley” learned early in his conman days that this vulnerability in men could become quite lucrative for him. Through a series of poor decisions and illogical conclusions, he “discovered” that if he cut open the scrotal sack of a man, and inserted an entire (or part of) a goat testicle, virility would return. He had one success. Then he promoted the heck out of it.

Was it a legitimate treatment?

Yeah, right.

And “No” it doesn’t work and never would. Kind of like malaria drugs for the Pandemic never will work.

My next blog posting will explore more on how Brinkley did what he did, how it ties to victims, a regulatory organization (the AMA), and fear.

[1] The full title of the book is Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam. It is a delightful book to read for those who are interested in con men, their victims and medical history. The book was adapted into a documentary featured at Sundance entitled Nuts!


The Behavioral Forensics GroupTM LLC is a team of professionals with vast experience in detecting fraud, understanding why it occurs, and in recommending steps to mitigate fraud incidence within the corporate workplace, particularly within higher-level (and therefore more costly to the enterprise) executives.  The fields of investigation, organizational psychiatry, accounting and behavioral forensics, and law enforcement are represented within the Behavioral Forensics GroupTM LLC.  Acting in synergy to help organizations prevent, find, and/or reduce fraud, B4GTM is a premier, pioneering practice in this field.

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