Susan Erasmus did not buy a Power Balance bracelet, but she has lots of sympathy with people who did.

It's a horrible feeling: you listen to the sales talk, you fall for it, you pay lots of money – and all you get in return is to be made fun of by your friends.

I've been scammed twice in my life: once by people offering to plant grass on my front lawn and once by one of those professional auction scams in Soho. Boy, can those touts spot an innocent young tourist at 50 metres!.

It took me a few days to realise that Buffalo grass doesn't grow from seeds (the cheque had been cashed almost before the ink on the signature was dry) and the Soho answering machine had so passed its sell-by-date – if it ever had one. It made all messages sound as if the callers were high on something definitely illegal..

It's so easy to get scammed. And the scammers are so good at parting people from their money. It all comes down to one basic thing: we want to believe there is an easy shortcut to achieving something we really want (perfect health, fitness, financial security, freedom from pain, a wrinkle-free face). Usually these things take time, money and effort to achieve, but if you're prepared to part with a small sum, there may be an easier way. Enter the scammer.

But the shortcut is never cheap. Oh no. It's because of the special ingredient  it contains (retrieved from shark-infested waters by skilled pearl divers, or taken from the Garden of Gethsemane, or whatever). But it's never manufactured cheaply in Parow Industria, or so you are led to believe. The special ingredient is the thing that takes away the wrinkles, gives you fabulous muscles, or whatever you want.

There are seven phases to being scammed:

  • This is too good to be true (it is)
  • But it's been scientifically proven (by "Dr" Bonzo in his laboratory in Cloud Cuckooland)
  • If this works, it's cheap for the money (life can be such  a series of disappointments)
  • Let's try this out now. (Ouch!)
  • It hasn't worked, but I'm still hoping (this so was not cheap)
  • I want my money back (I hope the scammer goes to prison for 500 years)
  • My friends are laughing at me (live with it)

You haven't really lived until you've been scammed. It's good to learn in the primary school that you shouldn't believe everything you're told. At least then the worst things you can lose are your dignity, your marbles, and your lunch money. But fall for a scam when you're 65, and you could lose your pension.

The scammers themselves interest me. You find them in every society, in every social class, just like lice. These are people who are prepared to do a huge amount of work in order not to have to earn an honest living. They appear to have no conscience and seem to live by the mantra "a fool and his money are soon parted". They must have planning sessions, meetings, send e-mails to each other, have AGMs and so on. The mind boggles.

They know they are dishonest, except for the pathological liars among them. The latter group is dangerous: they are so convincing because they believe their own lies. And that is why honest people like you and me fall for them every now and then.

Scammers have managed to 'sell' the Eiffel Tower twice. In the Middle Ages, thousands of pieces of the 'cross' were sold for huge amounts of money and alchemists made fortunes from pretending that they could turn base metals into gold. As long as there have been people, there have been scammers.

Many scammers also rely on the so-called placebo effect, which Dr Ross Tucker, Health24's FitnessDoc describes as follows: "The placebo effect is a phenomenon where even an "ineffective" intervention (like a sugar tablet in a medicine trial, for example) will have an effect because of the subject's belief that it will work." 

And the human mind is a very powerful thing. Never forget that under hypnosis, a block of ice can make your skin blister if you are told it is a red-hot coal. In short, if you've paid good money for something, you really want it to work.

The alternative is to accept that you've been duped into paying hundreds of rands for something that probably cost less than a rand or two to make. No one likes to be made a fool of. So of course people will swear by something they fell for. You only need to check the comment box on Health24's first article on the Power Balance bracelet to see this in action.

OK, so what to do now with your Power Balance bracelet now that you're too shy to wear it in public anymore? Here's a suggestion: stuff it into the cupboard together with the three vuvuzelas so they can keep each other company.

(Susan Erasmus, Health24, January 2011)


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