Let me tell you, I absolutely love to laugh. I love memes, I love funny twitter threads, I love funny facial expressions, and one of my favorite things is watching people trip. Idk what it is, but that gets me EVERY time (as long as the person is ok).
But tonight, I realized something that really makes me laugh. The absolute audacity of scammers and fraudsters. Like…their utter and complete gall just really gives me a good chuckle. But not like an “omg that’s so funny” chuckle. But more like “omg is this person really delusional enough to do this?” and “omg are people really buying this??” chuckle.
I love a good scam story. Not because I love scams, but the make-up of the scammer, the personality traits that leads people to fall for scams, and of course, the trail of events that leads to the scammer being caught…I just love it all! American Greed is my favorite show, and I’m obsessed with cults…which for me, is just another scam.
I’ve been a victim of a white collar crime, and luckily for me, things worked out ok. I was in college, and this was back in the 90s when I was young and naive, from a small town but went to school in the big city, and I had no idea that people like this even existed. Someone passed me a stolen check for a couple thousand dollars, and I cashed it when the bank made the money available. A few days later, I was being sat down by the police. Shocked, confused, overwhelmed…my naivetee diminished. Now as an adult, I know how easy it is to be sucked in when you don’t know better. And I know how horrible people can be when they prey on those that don’t know better. And it’s disgusting. And yet still very fascinating.
I had been hearing Elizabeth Holmes’ name for a while. But never in a way that interested me enough to actually pay attention to what she was in the news for. Until this week when the story broke that she was found guilty of four counts of fraud. I had some time to kill and decided to read up on what this was all about.
If you’re like me, you intentionally select what news stories you allow into your life, and maybe this story has not made the cut. So let me tell you about Ms. Holmes.
Elizabeth Holmes is a Stanford drop-out who went on to found a revolutionary company, Theranos, which boasted having the technology to prick a finger, obtain a small vial of blood, and then analyze these small amounts of blood for over 200 diseases by way of a small box called Edison. This small box, Edison, would be the analytical powerhouse that conducted all of these tests, taking up only a small amount of counter space. The vision was that this tiny vial of blood and small box would then result in these blood tests being made affordable and accessible for any and everyone, and it would ultimately give people more control over their health and life, which would, as she always said it, “change the world.”
I’m not mad at this vision. Anything that gives people more tools for life-saving health screenings at an affordable price…what’s not to love?? The affordability, the accessibility, the innovation could save lives which WOULD change the world! This could be awesome!
The next layer to this story is that Ms. Holmes aligned herself with some of the most powerful men on the planet, convincing them to invest and be ambassadors for her vision and for her company, Theranos. We are not talking famous actors or social media influencers or athletes. We are talking literally presidents, secretaries of state, presidential cabinet members, and billionaires. Bill Clinton, George Schultz, Henry Kissinger, Rupert Murdoch, The Walton Family (aka the Walmart dynasty), Carlos Slim…I mean…these people sat on the board, touted her achievements, and heavily invested in her company.
So now she’s got the vision, she’s got the media attention, she’s got the funds, and she has tremendous support for something that could be absolutely amazing! As she repeatedly says, Theranos could change the world! When all was said and done, this company was valued at $9 billion! She was a Stanford dropout in her 30’s doing the damn thing!
Ms. Holmes modeled herself after other great visionaries such as Thomas Edison and her clear idol, Steve Jobs. She even wore a modified version of his black turtleneck uniform.
Ms. Holmes was featured in Forbes, gave Ted Talks, and had her own security detail. She was living the dream. She was a dropout to billionaire success story.
However…things were not what they seemed. Long story short, the technology was faulty, inadequate, and it just did not do what she promised. And the reality was that it probably never was going to do what she promised. Ever. The results of her company’s labwork was at best, right about 50% of the time. But patients were being given the results as if they were guaranteed correct, and people’s lives were at stake. Because Theranos was a private company, she did not have to divulge certain information to government agencies regarding its technology, she did not have to have audited financial statements, and she basically could control the narrative under the privilege of keeping trade secrets.
Companies like Walgreens were starting to try out her technologies in their stores and inaccurate and unreliable test results could result in a potential nightmare for patients.
Employees, terrified by threatening lawyers and cease and decist letters, finally started speaking out and jumping ship. They spoke to reporters and they whistleblew about what was actually happening at Theranos. And Ms. Holmes’ house of cards crumbled.
I love reading and learning about white collar crimes. I just cannot believe that that kind of audacity exists. I’m always intrigued by the narcissism that leads to the crime, and the investigations that eventually bring the whole enterprise down. And this story is right there on my list. It checks all of my boxes.
- Charismatic and odd leader that somehow convinces people to get on board with a big-vision plan (and don’t get me started on how this is extremely similar to my other fascination, cult leaders) – CHECK!
- A following of people totally drinking the charismatic leader’s kool-aid – CHECK!
- A fraud scheme that just makes me shake my head – CHECK!
- Lots of money being thrown at said fraud scheme – CHECK!
- All of the red flags that the charismatic leader is a fraud that people should be picking up on but aren’t – CHECK! CHECK!
- The slip-up that leads to the subsequent downfall – And CHECK!
While there are so many white collar criminals and huxters that are just plain evil, I feel like this at least was a well-intentioned plan. At least initially. Life changing healthcare being made accessible to all–honestly this is what society needs. But most successful scams play on the vulnerable and the weak, and provide hope to those that truly need it.
But Ms. Holmes didn’t double down on her fraudster ways by preying on the elderly or vulnerable people that couldn’t afford to invest in her company. So at least there’s that. She sought out the ultra rich and ultra powerful. Those that could invest tens of millions and not even miss it.
But everything crumbled and at the end of it, I’m doing my “omg did people really buy this??” chuckle.
Do you love true crime and white collar crime stories? Why do you think people believe they will get away with scams like this? Do you have any favorite shows or stories that intrigue you?