A Fool and His Money

By DAVID MOON, Moon Capital Management
July 30, 2006

I always assumed the Nigerian Internet scam was a waste of bandwidth. No one could be so desperate, ignorant or shortsighted as to think that a high-ranking African government official specifically chose him or her from the 6,525,486,603 people on earth to help launder a few dozen million dollars.

That was, until I read of the west Tennessee minister's wife, Mary Winkler, who apparently fell for the ruse before allegedly shooting her husband and then taking a Gulf Coast beach vacation.

(If you live without Internet access or have an unusually effective spam filter, one version of the Nigerian scam involves an email informing the recipient that a sweepstakes prize or some other bonanza is waiting if the 'lucky winner' sends some money to cover the processing expense. In some versions of the scam, con artists send their victims checks for what they are told are partial winnings. The dupe deposits the worthless check, then writes a check for a lesser amount to cover the supposed processing fee. Only later does he discover that the original check was worthless ' after overdrawing his own bank account.)

In Winkler's case, authorities say she deposited several bogus checks from Canada and Nigeria for a total of $17,500. The accused Selmer killer then sent the perpetrators real money.

I've never known anyone who's fallen for the Nigerian scam, but then, I've never known anyone who's actually killed his or her spouse, either.

But that doesn't mean I've never known anyone to fall for unrealistic promises of easy money.

Many swindles and misleading promises are packaged to look much more legitimate than a hokey spam email composed in all caps.

A recent full-page advertisement in Newsweek suggests that investors should eschew investments in the stock market in favor of buying foreclosed real estate in the Atlanta area: '25% return within 60 days with a minimum $5k investment. Call today for your free investment kit or visit us on the web at...'

Notice the ad's language carefully doesn't quite promise a 25 percent return. The first 'sentence' of the paragraph isn't even a complete sentence; it's a lawyered-up come-on aimed at desperate or ignorant Newsweek readers.

Why would someone spend the money to buy a full-page ad in a major magazine for a scheme that appears, to reasonable people, to dangle easy, extraordinary and unsustainable returns?

For the same reason someone keeps sending the Nigerian scam emails. The ads and emails must work.

I know people who've made significant profits investing in both foreclosed real estate and international opportunities. But none of those folks did it by responding to email spam or a magazine ad. They did it the old-fashioned way, through an educated, logical thought and research process followed by effective implementation.

Getting rich isn't terribly complicated, but it's a process that usually requires patience ' along with a healthy dose of realism, persistence and work.

David Moon is president of Moon Capital Management, a Knoxville-based investment management firm. This article originally appeared in the News Sentinel (Knoxville, TN).

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