Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 12, 2019

Facebook: con games, incorporated

Filed under: crime,facebook — louisproyect @ 10:27 pm

Recently I heard about three different stories of people being victimized on Facebook by con artists. In the first case, you might see the con artist taking advantage of social media’s innate ability for deception. In the other two cases, it is obvious that FB was in cahoots with the con artist.

On July 28th, the NY Times reported on how a 56-year old woman named Renee Holland was swindled by someone pretending to be a GI in Iraq whose duty was to disarm bombs. On Facebook, there are numerous groups that were set up for just such a support network but they soon became hotbeds of Nigerian con men who had polished their skills over the years pretending to be a Prime Minister’s son seeking a partner in retrieving money in a trust fund, etc.

After she sent the con artist $5000 for various expenses, including a plane ticket home, she went out to the airport to greet him. So ashamed of being taken advantage of, she drove to a drug store, bought some sleeping pills, and washed them down with vodka.

When Holland woke up in a hospital bed, her husband was sitting next to her. Incredibly, she got suckered again by the scam artist who assured her that he was for real and just awaiting an insurance payment that would allow him to return home. All he need was plane fare and he’d reimburse her as soon as he arrived. By the end of his con, she and her husband had lost $26,000 to $30,000. In the aftermath, her husband was arrested twice for domestic abuse. Finally, her husband shot and killed Renee Holland and her father, then turned the gun on himself.

FB has terminated billions of such fake accounts but there are about 120 million still active. No wonder gullible people continue to be taken in. For this particular con to succeed, it requires the photo of a real GI. Renee Holland was deceived by the photo of Sgt. Daniel Anonsen, a Marine, one that was popular with other con artists. When he began receiving unsolicited messages from female strangers, he contacted FB, which acted only on some of the accounts. Others, they claimed, did not violate their rules. Attempts to contact FB and get the matter resolved resulted in automated responses.

The F.B.I. says it received nearly 18,500 complaints from victims of romance or similar internet scams last year, with reported losses exceeding $362 million, up 71 percent from 2017. One Nigerian con man the NY Times contacted told reporters that “Definitely there is always conscience but poverty will not make you feel the pain.” The poverty that motivates a Pakistani or Afghan grow opium poppies is also capable of convincing a Nigerian to cause pain to others out of a burning need for survival. The Times reports:

Three Nigerian men, age 25, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said they conned people on Facebook to pay for their education at Lagos State University.

They said they previously made $28 to $42 a month in administrative jobs or pressing shirts. With love hoaxes, the money was inconsistent but more plentiful. One estimated he made about $14,000 in two years; another took in $28,000 in three years.

The Times reporting is first-rate in terms of explaining the mechanics of the operation but woefully lacking on why a petroleum-exporting nation drives its young into becoming predatory sharks. (I suppose that this is an insult to a decent creature who only kills in order to feed itself.) Under president Goodluck Jonathan who was voted out of office in the last election and who was always seen in a cowboy hat, some $26 billion was pilfered out of national oil proceeds. American oil companies have continued to support people like Jonathan against attempts to do for Nigeria what Hugo Chavez did for Venezuela. If Nigeria had a living wage, all those fake accounts might finally begin to disappear. I suppose as long as FB is a private corporation enjoying huge profits just like the oil companies doing business in Nigeria, that’s just one of those tasks best left to a socialist revolution best described as a “clean break” from the system.

The other two cons benefited FB directly. Unlike the Nigerians driven by  poverty, the thieves in this instance were American companies that made game apps that could be run from FB. Not only did they not have to worry about being arrested, they were treated by Zuckerberg and company as key to their cash flow.

Both of these stories can be found on The Center for Investigative Reporting’s website and were originally aired on Reveal, the very best program on NPR and maybe all of radio. The shows are archived here, including the one on FB titled “Harpooned by Facebook”. The “whale” is a reference to people who come to Las Vegas intending to spend a fortune on roulette, blackjack, etc. On FB, the games people played in this instance were never intended to pay a penny.

In 2011, the 12-year old son of Glynnis Bohannon asked her to pay $20 so he could play Ninja Saga on FB. Like many middle-class mothers, she didn’t give it that much thought since what can go wrong on FB? It turned out that after she entered her credit card info, she expected this to be a permanent one-time fee. However, she soon learned from her next monthly statement that her son had run up more than a thousand dollars as he was prompted to explore various features of the game that did not come bundled with the $20 version. In a class-action suit over this deceptive practice, she learned that this was called “friendly fraud” by FB executives. In a 2013 discussion between two of the company’s employees, a 15-year-old Facebook user who had spent about $6,500 playing games was described as a “whale”.

The other whale referred to in the Reveal show was named Suzie Kelly who was almost as sad as Renee Holland. Kelly was not killed by her husband but their marriage was put to the test when she became addicted to Big Fish Casino, a suite of Las Vegas type games that—believe it or not—were never intended to pay cash to winners. Instead, playing blackjack, etc. was supposed to be “fun”. You paid into the game with real money but never got anything back except credits to play again, just like the pinball games I used to play for five cents back in the fifties. When you ran out of credits, you had to pony up some more cash. In her case, this came to $400,000 over the years.

In a letter to the Washington State Gambling Commission, Kelly wrote:

After spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, I surpassed the supposedly-top-tier VIP 15 rank to the “mystery” VIP 16 rank, achieving Big Fish Casino’s “you are royalty to us” status. Big Fish Casino assigned me a personal VIP host, Byron Scott. Byron personally called me; sent me his direct email address; responded to all of my emails (in the beginning) within minutes; took the time to get to know me personally; knew more about me than most of my friends did; even had flowers sent to my home when my mother passed away in 2016. He sent me free chips regularly, although sometimes he and other VIP hosts told me that I hadn’t spent enough money recently for them to be allowed to send me any. All in all, I have hundreds of emails and messages from Byron.

I had literally lost sense of reality. My reality became the app. My reality became withdrawing funds from my husband’s 401(k), and taking two home equity loans on our residence to pay off the credit card charges for the chip purchases. More importantly, I almost lost my husband due to this addiction. I finally told him about everything last month, and I am unbelievably lucky that my addiction to Big Fish Casino didn’t cost me my marriage. But financially, we’ve lost everything and don’t know how we’re ever going to recover.

FB got 30 percent of the cut “whales” like Suzie Kelly paid into these con games. Reveal provides chilling accounts of how FB management clearly knew what they were doing and justified it as providing “entertainment”, in their words they are providing a “social casino”.

In an article posted to Reveal’s website titled “Facebook’s fraud policies raised red flags. It still hasn’t changed them”, we learn about Zuckerberg’s resistance to measures that would prevent children from playing games like Ninja Saga that could cost their parents thousands. Their bottom line is more important to FB then the welfare of people it supposedly cares about. When someone complains about a bogus credit card charge, demanding a refund, it is called a chargeback. Most corporations fall within a two percent rate. Anything above that indicates shady practices. FB’s chargeback rate is 5 percent.

In 1857, Herman Melville, whose 200th birthday we celebrated on August 1, wrote a novel titled “The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade” that depicted an America where conning was pervasive. Melville, the sharpest critic of capitalism in literature, described a world that has many similarities to the one we live in now. This was what I wrote about it in 2002:

Herman Melville’s “The Confidence Man”

If you really want to understand the heart of darkness that defines American society, it is necessary to read Herman Melville. While Melville has the reputation of being a combination yarn-spinner and serious novelist, he is above all a profound social critic who sympathized with the downtrodden in American society. In his final novel, “The Confidence Man,” there are several chapters that deal with the “Metaphysic of Indian-Hating” that, as far as I know, are the first in American literature that attack the prevailing exterminationist policy.

“The Confidence Man” is set on a riverboat called the “Fidèle,” that is sailing down the Mississippi. As the title implies, the boat is loaded with con men who are either selling stock in failing companies, selling herbal “medicine” that can cure everything from cancer to the common cold, raising money for a fraudulent Seminole Widows and Orphans Society or simply convincing people to give them money outright as a sign that they have “confidence” in their fellow man. The word “confidence” appears in every chapter, as some sort of leitmotif to remind the reader what Melville is preoccupied with: the meanness and exploitation of his contemporary America. Because for all of the references to the need for people to have confidence in one another, the only type of confidence on the riverboat is that associated with scams.

For Melville, the act of scamming represents everything that is wrong in American society in the decade preceding the outbreak of the Civil War. It is a time when the power of capital is transforming the American landscape, turning everything into a commodity. In Chapter 9, titled “Two business  men transact a little business,” shares in something called the Black Rapids Coal Company are proffered. The man who is being enticed to buy the shares is a bit worried because there was a “downward tendency” in the price of the stock recently, just as there has been in vast numbers of securities on the global exchanges in 1998.

The stock seller tries to reassure his customer:  “Yes, there was a depression. But how came it? who devised it? The bears,’ sir. The depression of our stock was solely owing to the growling, the hypocritical growling, of the bears.”

When the potential buyer asks him “How, hypocritical?,” the stock seller answers:

“Why, the most monstrous of all hypocrites are these bears: hypocrites by inversion; hypocrites in the simulation of things dark instead of bright; souls that thrive, less upon depression, than the fiction of depression; professors of the wicked art of manufacturing depressions; spurious Jeremiahs; sham Heraclituses, who, the lugubrious day done, return, like sham Lazaruses among the beggars, to make merry over the gains got by their pretended sore heads — scoundrelly bears!”

Scoundrelly bears? I suppose that’s as good an explanation for recent woes on Wall Street as any.

When the stock market was becoming the big craze in the 1850s, much of the speculation was fueled by prospects of American business penetrating into the heartlands west of the Mississippi. In order to facilitate this penetration, it was necessary to remove the indigenous peoples who had inconveniently come to dwell on these lands over the past ten thousand years. The founding fathers of the United States endorsed their removal wholeheartedly. As David Stannard has written in “American Holocaust,” the slave-owning “democrat” Thomas Jefferson wanted to show the Indian no mercy:

“…in 1812, Jefferson again concluded that white Americans were ‘obliged’ to drive the ‘backward’ Indians ‘with the beasts of the forests into the Stony Mountains’; and one year later still, he added that the American government had no other choice before it than ‘to pursue [the Indians] to extermination, or drive them to new seats beyond our reach.’ Indeed, Jefferson’s writings on Indians are filled with the straightforward assertion that the natives are to be given a simple choice–to be ‘extirpate[d] from the earth’ or to remove themselves out of the Americans’ way.”

Agreement with Jefferson’s sentiments were practically universal in American society. I would hazard a guess that moral objection to slavery ran stronger than defense of indigenous rights. Given the overall support for what amounts to a policy of genocide against the Indian, Melville’s thoughts on the subject appear strikingly at odds with the mainstream.

The subject appears in the course of a discussion between two men on the deck of the riverboat about the infamous “Indian-hater” John Moredock. Moredock was the son of a woman who was killed by a small band of Indians, who, according to the narrative, “proved to belong to a band of twenty renegades from various tribes, outlaws even among Indians, and who had formed themselves into a maurauding crew.” Moredock eventually tracked down this band and killed them all. But he became consumed with hatred for all Indians in the course of his vendetta. This is what Melville calls the “metaphysics of Indian-hating.” It took over Moredock’s life. He proved so adept at Indian killing that he eventually joined the army, where he rose rapidly in the ranks on the basis of his exterminationist skills. However, after he became a colonel, his Indian hating became an obstacle to further career growth in government, because other skills besides blind aggression are necessary. Melville writes:

“At one time the colonel was a member of the territorial council of Illinois, ends at the formation of the state government, was pressed to become candidate for governor, but begged to be excused. And, though he declined to give his reasons for declining, yet by those who best knew him the cause was not wholly unsurmised. In his official capacity he might be called upon to enter into friendly treaties with Indian tribes, a thing not to be thought of. And even did no such contingency arise, yet he felt there would be an impropriety in the Governor of Illinois stealing out now and then, during a recess of the legislative bodies, for a few days’ shooting at human beings, within the limits of his paternal chief-magistracy. If the governorship offered large honors, from Moredock it demanded larger sacrifices. These were incompatibles. In short, he was not unaware that to be a consistent Indian-hater involves the renunciation of ambition, with its objects — the pomps and glories of the world; and since religion, pronouncing  such things vanities, accounts it merit to renounce them, therefore, so far as this goes, Indian-hating, whatever may be thought of it in other respects, may be regarded as not wholly without the efficacy of a devout sentiment.'”

Now does this portrait of a man totally consumed in hatred remind you of any other in literature? It should because John Moredock is almost identical in motivation to Captain Ahab who wants to murder whales instead of Indians. While Moredock is ready to abandon election to higher office, Ahab is willing to destroy a ship and her crew, including himself, in order to kill Moby Dick. This monomaniacal drive to exterminate Indians and whales is very much symbolic of mid-19th century America.

In a powerfully ironic fashion, hatred of Indians and obsessions with whales is still very much part of our national psyche as the Makah get ready to go out and hunt for a gray whale. All of the Indian haters in the United States have decided to put the Makah in their gunsights as the Makah themselves get ready to put one gray whale in their own. What would Melville have made of this drama?

I will attempt to answer this question in an extended essay on Melville, whales and indigenous peoples that will be a chapter in the book on I am working on, titled “Marxism and the American Indian.” I will go on record at this point to state that Melville would have been a supporter of the Makah and an enemy of industrial whaling. My arguments are in part based on my interpretation of “The Confidence Man” and “Moby Dick.” They are also based on other writings, where Melville makes his solidarity with the American Indian explicit.

In a review of Francis Parkman’s “The California and Oregon Trail,” written in 1846, Melville takes note of Parkman’s hatred of the Indian:

“…when in the body of the book we are informed that is difficult for any white man, after a domestication among the Indians, to hold them much better than brutes; we are told too, that to such a person, the slaughter of an Indian is indifferent as the slaughter of a buffalo; with all deference, we beg leave to dissent.”

And what is the dissent based on?

It is based on our belonging to one race, the human race. Melville says, “We are all of us–Anglo-Saxons, Dyaks and Indians–sprung from one head and made in one image. And if we reject this brotherhood now, we shall be forced to join hands hereafter.”

(The “Confidence Man” is online at http://www.melville.org/)


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