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Jay Evensen: Why Utahns are so susceptible to fraud

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The Salt Lake City Council on Tuesday approved an ordinance to allow accessory dwelling units, also known as mother-in-law apartments, citywide.

Many people in Utah, conditioned to look for the divinity in others, want to avoid having their inclination to love “wax cold” because of “iniquity,” to use Biblical language.

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SALT LAKE — Research shows that the more intelligent a person is, the more trusting he or she is of other people.

Oh my, Utahns must be awfully smart.

Forty-five years ago, the Wall Street Journal reported that Salt Lake City was gaining a reputation as the stock fraud capital of the country. That story (I retrieved it using Proquest) said securities regulators and SEC staffers referred to the place as the “sewer of the securities industry.”

I can’t know for sure whether this was the first time Utah’s capital city was identified in connection with fraud, but the city (and really the entire state) has done little to lose its reputation since the age of bell bottoms and shag haircuts.

And now we know that the billowing smoke of that bad reputation comes from something that looks a lot like a fire.

Jordan Maglich, an attorney in Florida, has compiled a database of fraud cases nationwide, using news accounts over a 10-year period. In it, Utah ranked sixth in terms of Ponzi schemes overall, with only the much more populous states of California, Florida, New York, Texas and Illinois recording more.

But then, as the Deseret News reported earlier this week, Utah attorney Mark Pugsley took that data another step, analyzing it on a per-capita basis, and Utah came out on top. It wasn’t close.

He found Utah had a rate of 1.35 Ponzi schemes per 100,000 people. The next highest state, Florida, came in at 0.51.

A Ponzi scheme, named for con man Charles Ponzi, involves luring investors with the promise of large returns. Early investors actually see results, which come from the money invested by later investors. This fuels belief in the promises, which attracts even more investors. Eventually, it all falls apart, because there are no actual investments, and the charismatic person behind the scheme disappears with pockets full of money.

Think Bernie Madoff, only in Utah it’s on a smaller, more intimate scale. The perpetrator gains the trust of victims by living and socializing among them, often attending the same church.

I started this by talking about research. Here’s why: In 2014, the website plos.org published a study conducted in the United States by University of Oxford professors. They compared intelligence tests with answers to the question, “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people?”

The results showed that the more intelligent people were, the more likely they were to trust other people.

Writing about this at the time, The Atlantic cited other research that found general trust to be a good thing for society, as well as for individual health and happiness. Institutions operate better in an atmosphere of trust, and economies have a greater chance of thriving.

Unless, of course, we trust the wrong people.

A razor-fine line exists between having a belief in the basic goodness of others and leaving yourself too vulnerable. Many religious people in Utah, struggling to look for the divinity in others, want to avoid having their inclination to love “wax cold” because of “iniquity,” to use Biblical language.

Frankly, that’s not a bad thing, either.

It’s worth noting here that Utahns are hardly alone. Facebook memes may not equate to affinity fraud, but they often commit intellectual fraud, spreading false rumors as fact. Russia’s entire scheme to attack U.S. elections — one that apparently is alive and well and focused on 2020 — counts on us all being gullible.

But forming political opinions based on lies is one thing. Losing one’s life savings is another.

As for those study results, the Oxford professors speculated that intelligent people may be “better at evaluating others’ trustworthiness …”

Or perhaps, they said, “intelligent individuals have a greater chance of interacting with people who are materially better-off, and who therefore have less to gain from acting untrustworthily.”

Which could explain a lot about Utah. Churches are open to all comers. People who form associations there do not necessarily self-select their friends because they are materially better off.

That’s a good thing, too.

There is a charm about a place where many people trust one another. But charm disappears quickly when all the money is gone.

Trust can be savvy and skeptical. Those terms don’t have to be contradictory. If fact, they also sound like great attributes for a healthy place to live.