The Run for Your Money
IK anybody feels disposed to argue against the thesis that ‘we are a nation of actual and prospective dupes,’ let him take the stand before Messrs. Ellison and Brock. In The Run for Your Money they have presented a colorful and illuminating compendium of some of the forms of racketeering supported by the American public. Their book is an indictment, not of the gunman, but of the shady merchants and salesmen living on the fringe of legitimate trade, many of whom are guiltless in the eyes of the law.
‘ Generally speaking,’ the authors point out, ‘a racket is more profitable, on a strictly business, year-in-and-year-out basis, if it keeps within the letter of the law, or at least covers the points at which the law is broken so carefully that it is difficult or impossible to prove an infraction in court.’ Having thus defined the credo of the racketeer, we are free to examine how he proceeds, often through fraudulent promotion, to reap his profits, running into figures of which there is no knowledge — except that they are staggering. The Federal Trade Commission estimated that a single racket, involving money spent on worthless securities sold by deliberate misrepresentation and fraud, brought operators twenty-five billion dollars in ten years. This, it is claimed, represents but one branch of an amazingly diversified industry, which extends to real estate, advertising, insurance, automobiles, charities, clothing, employment agencies, undertakers, furniture, lotteries, diamonds, and auctions, to mention a few of the swindles ‘testing our mass gullibility.’
To consider the sorry stream of victimizations here related, compiled from actual experiences recorded in police records, court reports, and files of Federal Agencies and Better Business Bureaus from coast to coast, is to ponder ways and means of protecting the average citizen from the inroads of sharpers. The authors’ only answer is that ’the ultimate protection lies in availing oneself of facilities for investigating the reputation of the stranger who would sell something.’
The rackets cited range all the way from ingenious devices designed to lure inhabitants of small towns into parting with small amounts of cash, to the ‘switch and sell’ technique of the stock-market racketeer, which has usually proved one of the most lucrative forms of ‘business’ if handled by a master salesman. The entertainment value of such cases as that of the lady who paid a fancy price for a ‘pedigreed police pup,’receiving a beribboned diploma which, on later examination, revealed that either the pedigree was a deliberate forgery or the pup’s mother and father were both females, is more than offset, however, by the overwhelming array of instances in which there were far-reaching and disastrous consequences.
Take insurance, for example. In most states, assert the authors, social and fraternal organizations are permitted under their lawful charters to collect voluntary contributions from their membership to aid the widows or dependents of deceased members. All that the insurance faker has to do is to devise a setup which will be a ‘fraternal organization’ in the eyes of the law, and dress it up with printed matter to look like an insurance company in the eyes of the public. Then he is more or less free to market a service which is practically worthless, at rates far below the legal minimum. There are at the present moment, we are assured, at least eighty companies bootlegging insurance, under titles which include such sterling words as ‘Indemnity,’ ‘Fidelity,’ ‘Casualty,’ ‘Guaranty’ — and ‘American.’
As for real-estate rackets, the reader is assured — with ample evidence — that these are not confined ‘to selling deserts, swamps, and lake bottoms to wealthy dupes.’ An outstanding instance where direct presidential action probably saved potential suckers from real-estate sharping on a gigantic scale was in the case of the Muscle Shoals development. Operators bought up farmland, divided it into lots, and sent high-pressure salesmen throughout the country to tell prospective customers how they could become financially independent. A solemn warning by the Chief Executive that ‘the small investor should not allow himself to he caught in the clutches of conscienceless land speculators’ was given nation-wide publicity and squelched what promised to become a national scandal. Such intervention is, however, the exception, and protection against rackets continues largely a matter of self-protection.
It is of prime importance to bear in mind that in the past five years the ranking rackets have been aimed, not at persons who might be induced to buy, but at those who want to sell — debt-ridden suburbanites, farmers, merchants, widows, old men, and harassed landlords.
It is the avowed intent of Messrs. Ellison and Brock to direct public attention to loopholes in the law which enable crooks to operate ‘within the law.’ If public opinion and energetic action finally sweep away some of these abuses, the authors of this book should consider their joint effort well worth-while.
JOSEPH BARBER, JR.
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