True Crime: An Intriguing First-hand Tale of Bernie Madoff's Victims

Release Date: November 13, 2012 This content is archived.


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A new book by UB sociologist Lionel Lewis looks at the experiences of the victims of the Ponzi scheme perpetrated by Bernard Madoff.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- In a new book about the uber con perpetrated by Bernard Madoff, Lionel Lewis, professor emeritus of sociology, University at Buffalo, presents an absorbing first-hand account, not of Madoff's behavior, but of the experiences of victims caught up in his ferociously destructive Ponzi scheme.

Most books on what may be the largest financial fraud in American history focus primarily on Madoff himself and the hearings and interviews conducted with him. Not this one.

Lewis' "Con Game: Bernard Madoff and his Victims" (2012, Transaction Publishers) is the first book to focus in detail on his victims and to tell the story of how they became involved in the scheme; their financial contributions, expectations and actual losses (now estimated at $18 billion); the Ponzi artists they encountered (including those who roped them in), and what this disaster has meant for their lives and their trust in others.

Lewis draws on Erving Goffman's famous study of fraud victims or "marks" to analyze Madoff's prey and presents them in their own words using material taken from court statements, congressional hearings and his own interviews with them.

The investors, he found, were older (most in their 60s), wealthy, sophisticated and eager to take advantage of a sure thing that promised higher returns than did insured investments.

There are many terms commonly employed to describe a con victim -- stooge, pigeon, sucker, dupe, gull, fool, fish, patsy, pushover, sitting duck, easy mark, gudgeon -- all of which speak implicitly to self-deception grounded in the marks' naïve belief that they are going to get something for nothing. Lewis says Madoff exploited both trusting souls and victims of their own powerful urge to make a fast buck.

He points to Goffman's findings that some cons are facilitated by the fact that "the capacity for high finance comes near to being a sign of masculinity and a test of fulfilling the male role." That factor was in play here, he says, not only among men, but among women who prided themselves on their investment acuity.

Madoff's marks gambled on what they were assured was a legit, if improbably lucrative, business venture. They "earned" a little money (or so they thought) and, believing themselves pretty shrewd, were persuaded to invest more -- in some cases, millions upon millions of dollars -- and often brought friends and family members into the scheme, according to Lewis' account.

In a standard con operation, the investors would be were advised of a financial "accident" or "mistake" that caused their entire investment to fail. Thus blown off or "cooled out," the marks typically go their way, wiser but poorer -- often much poorer.

In this case, however, Madoff was caught, arrested and his "investment house" publicly and disastrously imploded. Because of this, Lewis says, many of the marks realized they'd been duped and were not cooled out. Unlike "ideal" victims who, embarrassed or even mortified, typically disappear with their tails tucked between their legs, Madoff's patsies did not.

Instead, outraged, they continued to "squawk," demanding from government investigators the money they thought they had earned from investments that were, in reality, never made. They did so even after the exposed Ponzi scheme was explained to them in detail, perhaps unable to absorb the extent of the deception or their own gullibility.

Some of them publicly denounced the court-appointed trustee charged with scraping together as much of the $18 billion in actual losses as possible so as to return as much of the initial investments as he could. Some even filed suit against him.

"The uncooled marks not only wanted their initial investments back," says Lewis, "they wanted all the money Madoff had told them they had made, even after it was clear that he was lying and that the 'investments' had earned nothing at all."

In fact, Madoff himself claimed to have lost $50 billion, a grossly inflated number that investigators say included investment 'earnings' that in fact, never existed. Either Madoff the con duped himself or, even in captivity, his grandiosity knew no bounds.

Lewis has published extensively on issues in higher education, as well as on economic and social class and rational behavior. A long time advisory editor of the Sociological Quarterly, he also was associate editor of The American Sociologist and on the advisory boards of other journals in his field. His books include "When Power Corrupts" (2000, Transaction Publishers), an analysis of the sordid mid-1990s institutional implosion at Adelphi University that was named the 1994 Outstanding Book on the Subject of Human Rights by the Myers Center for the Study of Human Rights.

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