Concept of the Month -- January/February 2009

The "Conscience" of the Perpetrator of Fraud or,
How a Beloved and Trusted Person Preys Upon Friends, Closest Associates, and Long Time Acquaintances

The news of Bernard Madoff's alleged $50 billion ponzzi scheme is no longer news. I have had people, including a writer for a prominent publication, ask me how a person could possibly do what Mr. Madoff is alleged to have done to so many people who seemed to matter so deeply to him. Apparently, Mr. Madoff cultivated relationships over many many years and was highly trusted and respected. Then, allegedly, he defrauded them -- individuals, charities, and other organizations.

What is wrong with a person who commits such betrayal? How can a man who is known for his decency and wisdom be so indecent?

For over thirty years, I have evaluated psychologically individuals who are family men, officers of companies, and pillars of the community. They are entrusted with enormous responsibilities and are beloved by many. One must become very familiar with the criminal mind to comprehend how an individual can inflict devastating injury on those whom he says he loves and who love him.

The supposition by some is that such an individual is totally lacking in conscience. Others think that the person functioning in such a manner is mentally ill. With respect to the latter, it depends on how one wants to torture the definition of mental illness. I have not found such individuals to suffer from a mental illness.

What I have found is that the swindler (thief) can experience pangs of conscience. But he is able to shut those off from awareness in order to accomplish his objectives. The offender insinuates himself into the lives of others, eventually may know them intimately or at least well enough for them to trust him with their money. Having earned their trust, he then can prey upon them. The relationships may be cultivated over a period of days, weeks, months, or even many years. The perpetrator may appear to be a sympathetic, empathic person as well as extremely perceptive and capable.. He is a master at establishing himself in this way. And so he is in a superb position to execute whatever scheme he concocts!

For an excellent book read Professor Terry Leap's book Dishonest Dollars: The Dynamics of White-Collar Crime (Cornell University Press, 2007).

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