Fraud for a Cause

My personal hero Frank Abagnale taught me that you don’t sell the steak, you sell the sizzle. I also learned that people will believe almost anything if you say if you act like a big shot.

As a freelance reporter who never wanted to pay for the high school games I covered (I knew I’d lose all the receipts, and the volunteers selling the tickets thought asking for a receipt was an odd thing to do), I began posing as an assistant coach for the visiting team. I simply rushed past the sales counter like I belonged. If questioned, I’d just say I was late and they’d wave me through.

The smaller the stakes, the easier the con.

Of course, posing as a coach was easy for me because I am, in fact, a coach. What’s a little more disturbing is how easily people bow down to a perceived authority figure.

My old roommate Earl said he’d give me $20 if I could get his dream girl’s phone number and birthday so he could make a misguided grand gesture. (Yes, we were walking home from an establishment that made sure our judgment was bad). I knew that Sabrina worked at an all-hours grocery store, so I looked it up, made the call, and politely asked for the information. The guy who answered declined, stating that it was store policy.

Instead of hanging up, I yelled at him. “I’m Bob Bruininks with the University of Minnesota and I need that information to update our records.” The guy said he’d ask the shift manager. After a couple of minutes on hold, I received an apology, the prized personal information, and $20.

Apparently, no one thought it was weird that the U of M updates its records at 2 a.m. on a Friday – or that the university president himself would do such a menial task at any time of day. (Then again, I can’t be sure. Maybe Bruininks routinely harassed his students in a drunken rage).

Again, this level of identity theft was for the smallest of potatoes. The question is, how can I harness my innate duplicity for the greater good?

Outcomes Appear Preordained

The Yes Men seem to have done a good job of bringing attention to issues by posing as evildoers and representing them in a bad light. Their work exposing GATT at an academic conference (and having them promote slavery) was brilliant, as was getting on the BCC as a Dow Chemical representative.

But to what end?

Certainly they embarrassed GATT and the WTO. They forced Dow Chemical to state that they really don’t care about victims, which is great, BUT WE ALREADY KNEW THAT.

Not to discourage anyone, but when you’re on the side of the underdog, moving the dial a bit like the Yes Men do is a big victory. However, it loses its sheen when you realize how much work they put into it – the websites, the news releases, the whole coordinated campaign. It’s all great, but …

Look at what happens when you are bankrolled and have the blessing of Corporate America.

In 2009, filmmaker activist James O’Keefe set about taking down ACORN, the organization that President Barack Obama had worked for. One of his heavily edited videos went viral (with the help of FOX news and and resulted in ACORN’s demise.

Think about it. One half-assed video (after several tries) depicting a low-level employee giving questionable tax advice to a fake hooker and a fake pimp brought down an organization dedicated to helping minorities and disadvantaged people. (Ironically, ACORN had a history of hiring people for stipends well below the minimum wage to provide training opportunities – something conservatives have clamored for for years).

Compare that to the effect of a liberal activist who posed as David Koch and essentially exposed Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker as a robot beholden to their union busting agenda.


Walker, and the conservative media, explained it away as a prank and put the screws to the impersonator. Walker survived the recall election despite all of this – and maybe because of it. The narrative was that he stood up to those liberal shenanigans. While stupid, it not an unexpected turn of events.

My intent here is not to depress or discourage anyone, but to simply let everyone know that the deck is stacked and, like the Yes Men, you should enjoy your victories when they come.


One thought on “Fraud for a Cause

  1. The small victories are what make fighting against “the man” can be the most satisfying, in my experience.
    When I worked for Sears at the Mall of America, my coworkers and I would go out of our way to mess with the powers that be.
    Perhaps my most fond memory of working at Sears was during the Black Lives Matter protest that shut down the mall. While I was still on the clock, I sneaked out into the mall before the protest. I brought my nice camera with and told people I was a photo journalist. Everyone believed me, to the point where security threatened to take away my camera and was referring to me as “media.” All the while, I was still getting paid as if I were at Sears whetting the grindstone.

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