The Plague, Embalming in the Civil War, Detroit, and Internet Promises

He that maketh haste to be rich shall not be innocent. ~Proverbs 28:20


Four things occurred when the Black Plague arrived in London in 1665. Those who could afford it were allowed to flee the city for a fairly hefty fee; everyone else either got ill or endured unlivable conditions; doctors, nurses, and clergy made heroic efforts to heal those they could and comfort those they could not; scammers descended on the city and made their fortunes.

Virtually instantaneous with the onset of the plague London was overrun with charlatans armed with herbs, potions, mysterious amulets, and every manner of fake cure or deterrent creative minds could conjure up.   They posted and handed out flyers but, of course, their best advertisement was their own good health. Or, they could point to their ‘success stories’ – the so far unafflicted.

Who could argue that their next door neighbor, healthy in the midst of disease, wasn’t that way because of the rabbit leg charm they bought a week ago? In the absence of any clue about what caused bubonic plague, who would take that chance if they had the cash to pony up?

Embalming, not yet a science or even much of an art, came into vogue in the North during the Civil War. Embalmers offered the opportunity for families to have their dead sons and fathers transported back from Southern battlefields for a proper burial. The government neither regulated nor paid for embalming.

Embalming dead soldiers quickly became ‘commoditized’ as the 100newspapers of the day quickly began to complain. Competition for bodies was fierce, flip through any period newspaper of the era and you won’t be able to miss ads that bashed the competition and made increasingly outrageous claims. Outright fraud – and worse – quickly followed, some bodies were embalmed without authorization, then held ‘hostage’ until the family coughed up $100 or so to liberate the body.

By the last year of the war it was so bad Ulysses S. Grant banned embalmers and embalming from all Union armies.

It’s pretty clear that throughout human history when something bad occurs three things happen in fairly quick succession: people cope, people help, and some people cash in and get rich.

The mortgage crisis, of course, was and is not immune to this. If anything, it’s worse. The power of computers, the Internet, everything else we enjoy about the Information Age has also been used by the scammers to profit. And, even when they don’t manage to succeed and lure in a new ‘client’ they manage to disseminate clouds of bad information that just buries the good.

1200x-1I see it every day, warn people, spend an inordinate amount of time debunking newly minted myths. My assistant, Heidi, just forwarded me an article about a scam in Detroit that’s as audacious as it is heartbreaking: getting people to lease-to-own abandoned homes, fix them up, pay for years, only to find out that the company has never paid the real estate taxes. Or the mortgages. Or anything. The real estate management company, the leasing company, the company holding the mortgages, and the financing company all had slightly different ownerships and were completely, totally removed from any responsibility.

This scheme looked spectacular on paper – well, on the website. The scammers promised the city it could clean up Detroit’s blighted neighborhoods, Detroit funded the company with public pension funds, lost them. It promised citizens of Detroit a home, it delivered foreclosure notices.

So, just a note that the foreclosure crisis is not over and the charlatans are still out there. Every time someone runs a Google search for ‘foreclosure defense’, or ‘debt consolidation’, or ‘credit card help’ they’re there to hand out that flyer that will most assuredly cure you.