Let me say that I think of myself as a private person. Perhaps you might describe me as rather “dull”. Since I gave up skydiving, the most exciting things that happen in my life are taking the puppies to the dog park or trying out a new recipe. Pretty ho-hum stuff. Well, that’s me and I like it that way.
Now as you might expect from a person like myself who is pretty boring, there aren’t a lot of skeletons in my personal closet which would make a splash if they were uncovered. I think that’s probably true for a lot of Americans who try to be responsible adults, do the right things and keep their noses clean. After all, we can’t all be Kim Kardashians – thank you, Jesus.
Of course, part of the reason for writing this post has to do with recent disclosures about the snooping the NSA does on me and you and everyone else in the country. But I would like to put what that agency classifies as a mere case of 2700 “clerical errors” in the context of an experience I had about twenty years ago.
After I started my financial planning business, I was looking for a way to expand my client prospect base. Business was good and I was pleased at the progress I was making, but I knew that I had a lot more free time than I wanted and was actively looking for new clients.
One day when I arrived at my one person office I saw a newspaper in front of the door. It was “The Chicago Daily Law Bulletin”. I had never heard of this publication and had no idea why it had been delivered to me. I thought it was meant for another tenant, but there was no subscriber name on the paper. So then I thought that maybe the paper was trying to increase their circulation by offering some free copies to businesses they thought might be potential subscribers.
In any event, I brought it in, set it to the side of my desk, made a few phone calls and did some paperwork. A little later in the morning I picked up the paper and started to read through it.
There were a number of stories about recent court rulings and a list of cases that were upcoming in various courts. None of that interested me. But I kept looking through the paper, hoping that at least there would be a crossword puzzle or some cartoons. I was disappointed as there were neither. However, there was one section which caught my eye. That was a list of deceased people whose estates were being adjudicated in probate court.
If you have a “Last Will and Testament” your name will one day appear in a list of decedents in “The Chicago Daily Law Bulletin” or some similar publication. And a listing of your financial assets will be available to anyone who has the interest in looking at it. Not a big deal, you might say. After all, you’re dead. But consider how this might impact your heirs.
As I reviewed the list in the paper, I began thinking that those who were the beneficiaries of the deceased might be prospects for my services. But there weren’t any details listed as to the size or contents of these estates. So a few days later I walked over to the Cook County Building and found out which department held these records.
I brought the list from the newspaper with me, filled out the appropriate request form and ten minutes later I had thirty-five files of deceased people which included a complete list of assets, addresses, the names of their beneficiaries and their addresses (and in most cases telephone numbers). It occurred to me that I might have hit the mother lode in prospecting for new clients. And it turned out this was a highly profitable way of trying to build my business and provide a valuable service to my new clients.
I sifted through those thirty-five files and culled them down both by size and completeness of contact information and wound up with twenty new prospects. I wrote these heirs a letter, enclosed a brochure and from this first group developed three new clients – a fifteen percent conversion rate. (In direct mail, the average response is two percent).
As a result of my first success, I began subscribing to the newspaper and made visits twice a week to the county offices. As a result of these frequent visits, I became friendly with a number of the clerical staff who did the work of pulling the files. And one day, Susie who was the clerk whom I knew best, brought my files and said, “You’re not pulling a Wayne G.,” are you?
Since the only person I knew named Wayne had the surname of Newton, I asked, “Who’s Wayne G.?”
She went on to explain that about seven years earlier, Wayne G. had started coming into their office and requesting probate files. Apparently, he also had the idea of prospecting for customers. However, he was actually perpetrating a well-organized scam.
He had found a closeout on some pseudo-publication which promised a way to “beat the lottery” and promised anyone who read it the ability to hit it big by playing the daily game as well as Illinois’ weekly jackpot game. As it came out in his trial, he had apparently bought up hundreds of these books at twenty-five cents apiece but was selling them for $9.95.
Wayne G. would write a threatening letter to the deceased, which he knew would be forwarded to his or her heirs and read:
“We sent you ‘The Lottery Book’ on a good faith basis with the expectation that you would remit the nominal $9.95 cost after reviewing it. It has now been three months since you received this valuable information and, despite our two previous letters, we have still to receive your remittance or the return of the book. It we do not receive your remittance within ten business days, we will be forced to turn this over to our collection agency. We hope that you will honor your commitment and avoid our need to take legal action. Thank you for your prompt attention to this matter.”
Of course, the book had never been mailed out – but if someone wrote back and said they had no record of receiving such a publication, Wayne G. would quickly mail out a “second” copy. Most of these letters, however, were answered – with a check for $9.95. In fact, over 55,000 people sent Wayne G. checks – so his total retail “sales” were nearly $550,000 and this gave him a bottom line which was in excess of $500,000. This scam went on for three years before Wayne G. was brought to justice for mail fraud and was incarcerated for a five year term.
I assured Susie that I was not trying to follow in Wayne G.’s footsteps and explained what I was doing with my research. As a result, she asked me some questions about her personal finances which I happily took the time to answer. She seemed to appreciate that.
Now consider that when all this took place, both Wayne G. and I were doing our research manually. I’m not sure that at that time the Blackberry had yet been invented. Obviously, our technology has advanced one hundredfold and our ability both to access as well as analyze data has multiplied exponentially.
I suppose I should take some comfort in President Obama’s statement that “the government is not spying on ‘ordinary’ Americans.” There is probably no one roaming this country who is more “ordinary” than I am.
But, just to speculate, what if some bureaucrat decides that boring people like me fit the profile of individuals who are deep undercover terrorists? I mean these folks have to do something to justify their hefty salaries. Well, maybe they don’t.
If we have 2700 instances (and this is just from one program and in no way encompasses all NSA activities) where “clerical errors” are responsible for unintentional snooping, consider the possibilities if a government gone wild should actually target specific people who oppose their agenda. Does Lois Lerner and the IRS sound familiar?
I have very few aspirations. I guess I could summarize those as being the right to live my life freely, in a law-abiding way within a law-abiding society and the privacy to do what I want without oversight or intrusion. That probably isn’t a lot different from what other “ordinary” Americans want.
Well, that’s my side of the story. Apparently, however, the government has a different agenda for me – and you.