February 13, 2020

Scam America: We All Attend Trump University Now

The Federal Trade Commission announced Wednesday that it had reached a settlement with the New Jersey-based operators of a website called LendEDU, which falsely claimed to offer “unbiased” advice about student loans, personal loans, and credit cards. In fact, LendEDU gave higher ratings to companies that paid for the placement. LendEDU also touted positive reviews of their website on other sites,  reviews that were actually written by LendEDU employees or family members.

The FTC uncovers and penalizes scams like LendEDU on a regular basis. But the penalties imposed by the FTC, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and other law enforcers are often pitifully weak, with small or no cash fines, as understaffed agencies get overwhelmed by powerful corporate lawyers representing the abusers, or succumb to lobbyist-driven political pressures. And many more cons go unpunished entirely.

Indeed, a good chunk of our economy involves scam artists separating Americans from their hard-earned dollars through dishonesty and boiler-room aggressiveness. And I don’t just mean sleazy websites, foreign inheritance email scams, and those endless phone calls peddling pharmaceuticals and low-cost health insurance.

Many mainstream corporations participate in the scamming — using misleading claims, high-pressure tactics, and outright fraud to sell bad deals to unsuspecting customers.

One of the companies that showed up high in scam LendEDU’s rankings was online lender SoFi. On Wednesday, the District of Columbia bar emailed its lawyer members (including me) saying it is “excited” to announce its latest “Member Benefits partnership”: We can refinance our student loans or get personal loans from Sofi. Never mind that many experts, such as former U.S. deputy under secretary of education Bob Shireman, believe that student loan refinancing is often a bad deal. Shireman asked aloud yesterday whether SoFi is providing the DC Bar with compensation for peddling this dubious “benefit.”

Similarly, many big companies offer their employees, as a benefit, supposedly discounted tuition rates at high-priced, low-quality for-profit colleges, schools that have a record of deceptive practices and leaving graduates deep in debt, without the career advancement they sought.

One of the nation’s biggest banks, Wells Fargo, recently engaged for at least five years in a massive systematic fraud — creating millions of unauthorized bank and credit card accounts for customers without telling them.

Many of us have friends or relatives miserably locked into perpetual fees for timeshare properties they don’t visit, purchased based on deceptive, relentless sales pitches.  Worse, many of the companies aggressively seeking to get you out of a timeshare are also a ripoff.

When you visit a department store, or fly on a plane, it’s clear that the main thing employees want you to do is sign up for their company’s credit card — with the hope that you will start running up debts, borrowing money from them at an exorbitant 20 or 25 percent interest rate.

Perhaps the biggest business con has been perpetuated by the oil, gas, and coal industries, which have spent decades actively concealing, and seeking to discredit scientific findings about, what they knew to be the truth: that burning fossil fuels is heating up the planet, endangering life on earth.

Given that Americans have proven so susceptible to blatant cons, perhaps it was only a matter of time before we voted a con man into the highest office in the land.

Donald Trump has profited from a wide array of blatant scams.

His Trump University was a predatory operation that, for starters, told prospective students that all instructors were hand-picked by Trump, when they were not. Trump University used high-pressure tactics to sell overpriced seminars. One of Trump University’s own sales managers testified, “I believe that Trump University was a fraudulent scheme, and that it preyed upon the elderly and uneducated to separate them from their money.”  Trump paid $25 million to settle fraud charges brought by former students and New York’s attorney general.

Trump also fleeced people through the multilevel marketing schemes ACN and The Trump Network, which sold dreams and left would-be entrepreneurs worse off than when they started.

In addition to multiple business bankruptcies from his construction projects, Trump has ignored mountains of unpaid bills owed to contractors. There’s also much evidence that Trump properties have been used for money laundering schemes.

Trump promised the village of Balmedie, Scotland, that he would build “the world’s greatest golf course,” then proceeded to break every promise, cutting a touted $1.25 billion investment in the community to $50 million and a promised 6000 jobs to just 95, while bullying those who complained of environmental harms.

In December 2019, Trump agreed to pay $2 million to settle charges that he used the Donald J. Trump Foundation as a personal piggy bank, fraudulently using money raised from others for charitable purpose to pay personal expenses, business debts, and presidential campaign bills.

And experts reviewing Trump tax documents that have leaked out, despite his attempts to conceal them, have concluded that the returns suggest a pattern of fraud — a con that has denied the U.S. Treasury millions in revenues otherwise owed.

As president, Trump has governed like a con man, persisting with false promises, telling blatant lies, and padding his wallet with taxpayer dollars.

On Tuesday, Trump bragged that a New Hampshire rally the night before drew “probably had 40 to 50,000 people” — at a venue that holds 12,000. Washington Post researchers found that Trump made 16,241 false or misleading claims in his first three years. He continues to insist that Mexico is paying for a border wall, even though he keeps asking Congress for the money.

Trump has now been caught red-handed committing blatant abuses, including: leaning on FBI director James Comey to ease off a criminal investigation of Trump aide Michael Flynn’s dealings with Russia; pressing staff to fire Russia probe counsel Robert Mueller; conspiring with his lawyer to pay hush money to a porn star in order to boost his election chances; trying to extort Ukraine’s president into announcing a bogus investigation of political rivals; and today, expressly linking resolution of policy disputes between his White House and New York state to New York ending “all of its unnecessary lawsuits & harrassment,” presumably referencing the state’s investigations of Trump.] But with all the evidence of corruption and abuse of power out in the open, Trump simply insists it’s not true.

Trump also falsely asserted that Hurricane Dorian was headed to Alabama, used a Sharpie on a weather map to further his dangerous hoax, and then falsely denied making the alteration.

Trump has repeatedly sought to use his presidential powers to bring revenues to his businesses. He tried to hold the G-7 summit at his sweltering, starved-for-business Doral Resort in. Florida, until public outrage forced him to back down.  Meanwhile Trump has quietly forced taxpayers to spend as much as $650 a night per room to house Secret Service and other government employees at his properties while he takes endless vacation time there, even as his Trump Organization has claimed they are charging little or nothing. We’re also paying Trump to house federal employees at his hotels when Trump sons Don Jr. And Eric go on business trips overseas.

Trump has advanced his con on the nation by training tens of millions of supporters into unthinking bots who respond to cold hard facts about Trump abuses with the Trump mantra: fake news. His data-driven re-election operation is aimed at deepening this manipulation, and it’s backed up by millions in pro-Trump Super PAC funds from corporations and the wealthy, available after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision opened the floodgates to unlimited spending.

President Donald Trump is the ultimate outcome of an America that has become a nation of suckers, where big-money lobbying and lawyering, and the Trump administration’s trashing of reasonable regulations, hamper government from effectively countering business scams, health and safety risks, and environmental destruction; where tech giants like Facebook and Google refuse to take responsibility for the fraud business and political operations that provide much of their ad revenues; where right-wing Super PACs spend millions to run ads seeking to bolster perceived weak candidates in Democratic primaries.

The price we are paying for our scam culture is immense, as hard-working families devote much of their paychecks to paying debts for products they never should have bought in the first place, and the White House is occupied by a president who attacks the rule of law and does little to advance policies and protections that help every day Americans.

We need to educate ourselves about the difference between a good deal and a bad one, and how to see through frauds. And we need a government that will effectively take on all these con artists, whether they hail from dark corners of the Internet or from big offices on Wall Street, and hold them accountable. But that won’t happen as long as a Scammer-in-Chief occupies the Oval Office.