One question I am asked virtually every time I am interviewed about the purveyors of dubious health products is – is this person sincere? Do they believe their own sales pitch, or are they a heartless con artist? While this is a fascinating question, the answer is, I don’t know, and it doesn’t matter.
I cannot read people’s minds (I know, you’re shocked), and so there is no way to know for sure how much someone believes their own BS. I suspect that most people who sell pseudoscience are somewhere in between true believer and con artist. They believe their own claims to some degree, and may be convinced by the placebo effect of their customers. They also know they are cutting corners, not being entirely candid about the evidence, and are contorting logic as necessary.
Further, they likely justify this as “pious fraud” – doing what’s necessary to convince people of what they know to be true.
But there are certain individuals who are engaged in activity that must be conscious fraud. Psychic surgery requires deliberate slight-of-hand. You have to palm chicken parts and pretend to pull them from your marks. There is no self-deception here.
But my go-to example of someone that I think is a clear example of a pure con artist is Kevin Trudeau. He has been convicted of fraud, so by definition he is a con. His career is an example how a con artist without any evidence of remorse or empathy can exploit the current alternative medicine fad to exploit the public.
Kevin Trudeau has had quite a career. He was convicted of fraud in the early 1990s. From petty fraud he went on to work with a multi-level marketing firm. This was shut down for running an illegal pyramid scheme.
Trudeau then graduated to infomercials, selling his coral calcium and other dietary supplements. The FTC eventually caught up with him, fined him 2 million dollars, and shut down his supplement business.
Well, if he couldn’t sell supplement, then he could sell information. So he started writing books, conspiracy-mongering tomes about “what your doctor won’t tell you.” He sold books on natural therapies, weight-loss schemes, and then get-rich-quick investing schemes – each wrapped in conspiracies about how the elite were keeping these secrets from ordinary people.
Each step of the way he went onto bigger scams and more money. Each step of the way the authorities underestimated his dedication to the con. But he was on the radar. His latest legal problems have arisen out of his weight loss book, which made unsubstantiated claims. He was found guilty of fraud and fined 37.6 million dollars.
Trudeau has not paid this fine. Instead he moved to Zurich. According to this ABC investigation, the FTC has good reason to believe that Trudeau simply hid all his wealth, moved to Zurich, and has been living the high life off his ill-gotten gains. Trudeau claims that he is broke. Meanwhile he is spending millions on luxuries – all through corporations in his wife’s name.
Fortunately (in a way) Trudeau’s fraud is so audacious that he cannot slither way from justice. Judge Robert Gettleman was unimpressed with Trudeau’s cries of poverty (while paying for $180 haircuts and walking around in expensive clothes and diamond rings).
The jail time is only temporary, however, to give Trudeau time to come up with some of the money he owes in fines. Personally, I would like to see him rot in jail for the rest of this life – and have every cent he made from fraud confiscated.
While I am glad to see that the authorities are keeping tabs on Trudeau, it is amazing that he has been able to live the life of luxury for as long as he has off of money earned from blatant cons. Even being a repeat offender does not seem to be enough. At some point career cons just need to be put out of business.
Perhaps we need laws specifically to deal with career con artists, something akin to the RICO laws that were created to deal with career organized criminals.
What is sad is that for every Kevin Trudeau out there, who is high-profile enough to get the attention of the FTC, there are thousands of low level con artists living off dubious claims, conspiracy theories, science-bashing, and false hope. Worse still this has all been “legitimized” by the alternative medicine movement.
To quote Randi – “It’s a very dangerous thing to believe in nonsense.”
Steven Novella, M.D. is the JREF's Senior Fellow and Director of the JREF’s Science-Based Medicine project.