You want a coronavirus vaccine?

Be careful. Those who buy into con artists’ tricks do much more damage than con artists themselves

Con artist Bernard Madoff in 2009.
Con artist Bernard Madoff in 2009.Getty Images

Recently, US televangelist Jim Bakker interviewed Sherrill Sellman, a “naturopathic doctor,” who explained the extraordinary properties of the “Silver Solution,” a product that Bakker sells on his show’s website.

“This influenza, that is now circling the globe, you’re saying that Silver Solution would be effective?” Bakker asked his guest while showing a bottle of the precious liquid. “Well, let’s say [Silver Solution] hasn’t been tested against this strain of the coronavirus,” Sellman replied, “but it’s been tested on other strains of the coronavirus and has been able to eliminate it within 12 hours. Totally eliminate it. Kills it, deactivates it. And then it boosts your immune system.”

If you think that sounds good, you can order a package of two bottles of the magical potion, and, as a special bonus, you’ll get two Silver Solution gel tubes. But that’s not all! Bakker also reminds us that this stuff cures all (all!) venereal diseases. “It’s a miracle in a tube,” he says enthusiastically. “It’s like God created it in Heaven to help us.” And can you believe it can be yours for a “donation” of a mere $100 (€90)?

Bakker has had a long and lucrative career betting on the unsuspecting, the naive, and the desperate. In the 1980s, he became one of the most popular televangelists in the United States, and millions of followers donated hundreds of millions of dollars to his church. But that phase of the con man’s career ended in both a sex scandal and a financial scandal, earning him a long prison term.

In announcing the sentence, Judge Robert Potter said: “Those of us who do have a religion are sick of being saps for money-grubbing preachers and priests.” But Judge Potter was mistaken. Bakker’s followers apparently weren’t sick of it at all. As soon as Bakker got out of jail, he launched another church and continued to preach God’s message and sell miracle cures.

Con artists always surprise us with the audacity of their lies. But even more surprising is that they manage to find believers who trust them. That leads us to expect that most of their victims are naive and uninformed. But that’s not the case.

You cannot call the former US secretaries of state, Henry Kissinger and George Schultz; or former secretaries of defense, Bill Perry and General Jim Mattis; or the business mogul Rupert Murdoch naive or uninformed.

These are just some of the prestigious group of backers who were taken in by Elizabeth Holmes, a 19-year-old woman, who founded and led a company called Theranos. According to her, the company would revolutionize blood testing and healthcare, and fill its shareholders’ pockets along the way.

While Jim Bakker relies on alleged divine influence to persuade his followers, Elizabeth Holmes bet on the greed that clouds the judgment of even savvy, seasoned leaders. When a journalist asked General Mattis what words came to mind when he thought of Holmes, the military leader replied: “integrity” and “competence ... She is really a revolutionary in the truest sense.” Holmes raised $700 million (€630 million) from an initial group of investors. Holmes continued to fundraise and a decade later the company’s value reached $10 billion (€9 billion).

It was all a lie. Holmes didn’t have the technology she claimed to have. She kept Theranos afloat by lying to investors, clients, employees, government agencies, and journalists. When the real, fraudulent situation became known, Holmes lost everything and now faces several lawsuits that could land her in jail.

The other iconic example of a con man that used his clients’ greed to swindle them is Bernie Madoff, who offered juicy returns to those who gave him their money to invest. Upon discovery, Madoff was fined more than $17 billion (€15 billion) and is now serving a 150-year prison term.

However, it’s not religious con men or financial fraudsters that are the most dangerous. The greatest threat comes from the political con artists who come to power by cheating their voters with promises they can’t fulfill, false claims, and policies that end up hurting everyone. Unfortunately, we are living in a golden age for scammers who, aided by the internet, are feeding a confused and anxious society the hope people desperately want to hear. Rapid change – in climate, technology, the workplace, the economy, politics, our values, and security – creates a plethora of opportunities for demagogues.

Con artists offer their followers a safer and more predictable world in which they will be protected from foreigners and from those who look or think differently. The followers who empower the political charlatans harm us all more than the charlatans themselves.

@moisesnaim