As those Obama mortgage pitches suggest, political tribalism provides another potent opportunity for connection—and thus fraud—in a polarized nation. Right-wing talk radio, for example, features an array of advertising for dubious financial products, whose sales pitch conveniently matches the programs’ scaremongering regarding economic policy.
Glenn Beck’s connection with Goldline was one notorious example of such products. Beck’s program relentlessly depicted an American economy on the verge of hyperinflation and collapse—an apocalypse naturally hastened by Barack Obama and other liberal political leaders. During commercial breaks, Beck’s audience was then conveniently exposed to Goldline, a purveyor of dicey gold investments.
Perpetrators of affinity fraud seeking to win our trust do the most lasting damage when they recruit community leaders as explicit or implicit endorsers. Some seek to provide a sense of status or peer pressure through nominally exclusive opportunities to join them. Madoff wouldn’t let just anyone invest in his closed funds. Many practitioners of affinity fraud imply that they have secret and timely information, which can turn into serious money if one acts quickly and discreetly.
Practitioners of affinity fraud subtly exploit a community’s distrust of outsiders to discredit alternative sources of information. It becomes a mark of collective identity to spurn conflicting information and advice. Of course the lame-stream liberal media looks down on us for putting so much of our retirement savings into gold. Of course the same Washington experts trying to cut Social Security and Medicare look down on this variable annuity which might plug the holes in your retirement plan. It’s ironic: The most cynical and distrustful among us are often the easiest marks.
The weird information economics of herding also matter. You entrust your money with someone. Many people you know are doing the same thing. Each of you hopes and believes that someone has done the due diligence regarding these investments. If no one actually has, how would you know? After a while, it’s embarrassing to even ask.
Whatever public policymakers do to address these problems, individuals should be especially skeptical of any financial product embraced by influential people in their religious, cultural, or political communities. Given such realities, it’s a mistake to allow personal familiarity, community affiliation, or time pressure to become a substitute for proper written contracts and the same due diligence one would apply to any stranger selling investment products or advice.
In the end, any person's best protection against affinity fraud is to avoid complex or speculative investment products offered by anyone, since even the honestly-offered fancy investment products very rarely provide much benefit. Following a simple investment plan is pretty boring. It remains the best bet.
Once Americans internalize the reality that vanilla stock-and-bond index funds basically outperform everything else, and that vanilla fixed-rate mortgages are the safest way to get a loan, they’ll save themselves a lot of time. They just might save themselves a lot of heartache, too.