For the least they can possibly do

For the least they can possibly do May 30, 2023

MAGA-world is a movement of people who tend to be older, wealthier than average, eager to believe without question, and massively susceptible to flattery. For con artists, these are the Glengarry leads — a field white unto harvest and ripe for the plucking.

NBC News’ Brandy Zadrozny and Corky Siemaszko report on on scam preying on this mass of volunteers: “‘Trump Bucks’ promise wealth for MAGA loyalty. Some lose thousands.

In the recesses of the internet where some of Donald Trump’s most fervent supporters stoke conspiracies and plot his return to the White House, suspected con artists have been mining their disappointment over the last presidential election for gold.

They’ve been peddling “Trump Bucks,” which are emblazoned with photos of the former president, and advertising them online as a kind of golden ticket that will help propel Trump’s 2024 bid and make the “real patriots” who support him rich when cashed in.

John Amann told NBC News he bought $2,200 worth of Trump Bucks and other items over the past year only to discover they were worthless when he tried to cash them in at his local bank.  So he’s gone on Twitter to warn other Trump supporters not to fall for this scam.

NBC News has identified the Colorado-based companies behind the Trump Bucks as Patriots Dynasty, Patriots Future and USA Patriots and reviewed dozens of social posts, online complaints and hundreds of misleading ads for the products. Additionally, NBC News has found at least a dozen people like Amann who say they invested thousands of dollars after watching the pitches on Telegram and other websites that strongly suggested that Trump himself was endorsing these products.

This is a kind of double fraud. Trump supporters are tricked into buying “Trump Bucks” through misleading ads that suggest their purchases will somehow go to help their hero’s re-election campaign. But none of the money goes there. It just goes into the pockets of the grifters running this scheme. That part is just plain-vanilla fraud.

The second-layer, though, is a more insidious get-rich-quick scam. The suckers buying “Trump Bucks” are misled into believing these knick-knacks are some kind of investment:

On social media and in promotional videos — many featuring faked celebrity endorsements — the sellers have tapped an audience that believes Trump’s ouster was part of a great conspiracy and that by investing in the Trump Rebate Banking System, or TRB for short, Trump will reward their loyalty by making them rich.

Those who buy these items, the ads from Patriots Dynasty, Patriots Future and USA Patriots suggest, will be rewarded when Trump unveils a new monetary system that will turn these products into legal tender worth far more than the purchase price.

NBC News (click photo for link to full story)

Invest in a TRB membership card “issued by Donald Trump,” the ads from Patriots Dynasty, Patriots Future and USA Patriots claim, and the purchaser who spent, say, $99.99 on a “$10,000 Diamond Trump Bucks” bill will be able to cash it in for $10,000 at major banks and retailers like Walmart, Costco and Home Depot.

“TRB system membership cards are official cards issued by Donald Trump to allow Trump Bucks holders to use Trump Bucks as legal tender and deposit them in banks such as JP Morgan Chase, the Bank of America and Wells Fargo,” a narrator identified only as “John” that appears to be a computer-generated voice says in one YouTube ad just moments after cautioning viewers that “Trump Bucks are not legal tender.”

The claim here is deliriously bonkers. It makes no sense to anyone who isn’t already deep, deep down some rabbit hole of QAnon-related conspiracy theories. I don’t think I’m fully able to parse the purported logic of how or why Trump’s return to the White House would involve a “new monetary system,” or how that relates to the prophesied “Storm.” Those cabalistic and contradictory details aren’t what matters here. What matters here is that “investing” in “Trump Bucks” requires these folks to align themselves with all of that.

That’s how the scammers get away with it.

See, the problem with plain-vanilla fraud is that your victims tend to get upset and go to the authorities to demand that you be forced to give them their money back. You can set up a fake charity and rake in the donations, but once your “donors” realize that you’re just pocketing their money you’re going to have to close up shop and skip town. Those duped donors will be angry and indignant. They have no reason not to be because they have nothing to be ashamed of. All they did was open their wallets to help “kids with cancer” or “homeless veterans” or whatever the scam charity supposedly was about. They’ve got no reason not to call the cops to demand justice.

But get-rich-quick schemes are usually constructed to ensure that the victims will be reluctant to call the cops. They appeal to recognizably ignoble motives (greed, laziness) and involve the hint of something illicit — a bending or breaking of the rules. That means your victims can’t report on you without also telling on themselves. Nobody wants to go to the police to say, “This guy promised to cut me in on his insider-trading scheme, but then he just took my money and skipped town.”

To be clear, these complicit victims are still victims. They were preyed on by criminals who stole from them. They may not be as sympathetic as that nice person who was just trying to help kids fight cancer, but they’re still victims. They tried to do Bad Things for Bad Reasons, but the fact that they’ve been greedy, shortcut-seeking, and eager to participate in screwing over other people doesn’t change the fact that they’re still the victims of fraud and theft.

Con artists are banking on those victims’ complicity and shameful behavior keeping them quiet. That shame, guilty, and embarrassment will prevent them from warning others about the con, and that’s what lets the grift continue.

So I have to respect John Amann for speaking up about getting swindled by this “Trump Bucks” scam. He swallowed his pride and took to Twitter to warn others. He understands that admitting he got swindled is embarrassing, but he’s not letting that stop him from doing what he can to keep others like him from getting swindled too.

Poor Mr. Amann still doesn’t seem to realize the full scope of his shame here, but perhaps that’s helpful. He’s able to accept that he was naive, that he didn’t do his homework, and maybe even that he was a bit greedy and grasping and over-eager to find and exploit shortcuts. But I don’t think he’s yet able to also recognize that he only fell prey to this scam because he was also eager to believe conspiracy nuttery based on believing the very worst about most of his neighbors, and that the scam would have had no appeal to him at all if he hadn’t also been a resentful bigot who was attracted to boot-licking authoritarianism and cruelty for cruelty’s sake.

“I’m questioning whether he is aware of this,” Amann said of Trump. And I wonder where that questioning will lead him. It’s possible that it may lead him to the realization that Trump would see these scammers as competitors threatening his market share. That may be unlikely — Amann is a 77-year-old Texan who seems, like most MAGA-world denizens, to have alienated any family members or friends who could help him escape the maze of conspiracy theories he’s trapped in — but it’s possible.

He’s already taken the first step. “I got scammed,” he said, out loud, and in public. And that might just help him realize that this scam goes deeper and wider than the $2,000 he spent on “Trump Bucks.”

When a hard-core MAGA true believer says “I can’t believe I fell for that scam” it may be tempting to dunk on them, pointing out all the ways it’s extremely easy for everyone else to understand how and why they fell for it. But remember that “I can’t believe I fell for that scam” is exactly what the rest of us want and need to hear those folks saying.

So let’s give them some space and some grace to allow them to say it.

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