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The Scam

May 9, 2009 | by Miriam Katz

In a culture where skepticism is the norm, I'm a sucker.

You know those email scams that use some flimsy excuse to ask you for your credit card number? Did you ever wonder who would be stupid enough to actually provide the requested information? Well, I have a confession to make…

Last week, I received an email message asking that I update my internet account information in order to prevent my email address from being deactivated. Ever the dutiful consumer, I clicked on the attached link and filled out the form completely: name, address, date of birth, PIN, credit card number. I pressed SEND and felt pleased that I had dealt with the issue so promptly.

It was only several moments later that the first doubt crossed my mind. Had that email message really come from my internet provider? Why did they need so much information, anyway? A closer examination of the sender's address confirmed my suspicions.

The people who fall for these things, apparently, are me. Dismayed, I went straight to the phone and cancelled my credit card.

I've always been naive. As a child, when my babysitter claimed that the word “gullible” wasn't in the dictionary, I went to the bookshelf and triumphantly proved her wrong before I got the joke. (Really). This time, however, my cluelessness could have had far more drastic consequences. How could I have failed to spot the warning signs – especially when these scams are so prevalent? What planet do I live on?

In my community of rampant kindness, suspicion is hard to come by.

It's difficult for me to be distrustful of others – and the neighborhood that I recently moved into doesn't help, either. My community is plagued by such rampant, uncontrolled kindness that suspicion is hard to come by.

My neighbors cook for women who have just given birth and happily allow strangers to stay in their apartments when they go away for Shabbat. Many people run free loan societies out of their homes, where chairs, pacifiers, Torah tapes, medical equipment, and moving boxes are lent out to people in need. A nearby family leaves the front door of their ground-floor apartment unlocked – even when no one is home – because they expect a stream of people to come by at all hours: returning pots and pans, borrowing books, and picking up keys.

In this neighborhood it doesn't take a disaster to get us to drop our defenses and join together. It is actually expected that people will offer support on a daily basis and help each other out.

Western Ways

The status quo in today's world is decidedly different. More often than not, suspicion is the norm, and we term "naive" those people who display less than the accepted level of distrust. We listen skeptically to sales people; we pore over the fine print before signing on the dotted line; and we teach our children not to accept candy from strangers. We assume others are primarily concerned with their own self-interests – and unfortunately, our suspicions are often justified.

In college, my roommate was once intrigued by an advertisement that promised to pay good money for work done at home. The exact nature of this work was unclear, and when my friend called for more information, she was told to send a $20 fee in order to receive introductory materials. This sounded fishy to me, and I told her so; nevertheless, she mailed off her check.

The letter she received in return stunned us both. It said, unabashedly, "This was a scam. But don't feel bad. Here are instructions for how you can create your own scam and cheat other people."

I recognize the need to take precautions and to cultivate a certain degree of skepticism. But there is a cost to spending our lives second-guessing the motives of everyone we encounter. It is all too easy to slip from an attitude of basic distrust into a pervasive outlook of cynicism and bitterness. When we expect the worst from any situation, we are surprised by good. We think: How remarkable! That child got up so that an elderly lady could sit down! How shocking; he drove miles out of his way to direct me to my destination! Even small acts of kindness have become so unexpected that they startle us.

Respect and generosity ought to be the norm, not the exception.

We don't realize that this is entirely backwards. Treating each other with respect and generosity ought to be the norm, not the exception. We should be shocked by scams, not by kindness.

We pray that God sees how we yearn to improve ourselves, and that He'll help us move toward the good we desire. But we can't evaluate ourselves honestly if we're used to seeing the worst. Our habitual distrust focuses our attention on our negative motivations and denies our essential point of good within. We can't truly believe in a merciful God if we are out of touch with our own attribute of mercy. We can't have faith in our ability to improve if we don't remember what it feels like to have faith in anything.

Shared Values

After sending off my credit card information to those internet crooks, instead of getting angry at myself for being so trusting, I had a moment of honest confusion. Why would someone want to swindle another person? How could a human being put so much effort into stealing someone else's money? My bewilderment at the deception lasted much longer than the frustration about my own foolishness. For the first time, I felt a clear sense of What Should Be – not as indignance or outrage, but as simple fact. I can't remember ever feeling so innocent.

It took my internet naivete to help me recognize what I value about living among religious Jews. I remember how a friend of mine, perplexed at my move towards greater Jewish observance, questioned me frankly before I left for Israel. "I don't understand," she said, "why do you want to go live around people who are all exactly like you?"

I did not choose to live in this neighborhood because of the superficial similarities between myself and my neighbors. The people in my community are not all like me – but they are in many ways exactly the way I'd like to be. My neighbors tend to be trusting and trustworthy. They manifest the values that I hold dear. Living here, I am gradually starting to expect the best from others, and that is reawakening my moral sensitivity. What more could I ask for?

I do not yet lend out medical equipment or baby supplies from my home, and when I run errands, I still lock the door. But, in a strange way, I am proud that I fell for that internet scam. Of course, I'll be more cautious next time; I've learned my lesson. But I'm glad that my instinctive response is to trust the sincere intentions of others, even when it makes me look foolish. In a culture where skepticism is the norm, I'd much rather be bewildered by corruption than compassion.

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