Susan Mangiero is a newly minted MFA in Professional and Creative Writing from Western Connecticut State University. She is writing her first cozy mystery book about a financial advisor who disappears with his clients’ retirement money. Susan is the author of a seminal financial risk management book, half a dozen book chapters, and over fifty articles published in leading magazines and newspapers. Her award-winning investment blog, read by 1.4 million viewers, was a commonsense source of information about important economic issues. A big believer in positive messaging, Susan donated hundreds of copies of her book about kindness to a variety of non-profits. Susan’s insights about fraud and fiction draw from her experiences as a Wall Street trader, testifying investment expert, university professor, and avid reader. Susan is a member of the Connecticut chapter of Sisters in Crime.
Why do you write about trust? The topic of trust is important. We shape our behavior according to the level of trust we have in someone. We buy a book when we trust the writer to entertain or inform us. We donate our money to organizations we think will use it for charitable purposes. We transact with companies we believe will deliver quality products and services. We elect leaders we think will act in our best interests. Trust, including a belief in ourselves, is integral to nearly every decision we make. Broken trust is hard to repair. In real-life, misplaced trust can have disastrous consequences. In fiction, misplaced trust makes for thrilling stories. Agatha Christie quipped, “Where large sums of money are concerned, it is advisable to trust nobody.” Stephen King said, “The trust of the innocent is the liar’s most useful tool.” William Shakespeare said, “Love all, trust a few.”
What are your observations about the impact of fraud? When it exists (and not every fraud allegation equates to actual fraud), fraud creates victims. The fallout from crimes of fraud is heartbreaking for those who had nothing to do with breaking the law. I remember working on a financial reporting matter late at night with a team of accountants and other economists. As I made my way to the break room, I passed rows of unlit, empty desks adorned with family pictures. I feared innocent employees would lose their jobs when news of the fraud became public, and the company lost sales as a result. In another matter, I had to read dozens of victim statements, each describing the loss of savings, the loss of homes, and the loss of businesses due to the actions of the convicted swindler. Another fraud case had me reviewing documents about the significant loss of pension monies for people who had already retired. The result was a lowering of benefits for people on a fixed income. The face of fraud is human.
Is there a fraud personality? The answer is likely yes, but I leave the official diagnosis to psychologists. (My Ph.D. is in finance with a minor in math.) Based on my anecdotal experience, I characterize fraudsters as lacking empathy for others and holding themselves in high regard. You would be correct to think of fraudsters as narcissists. They rationalize their fraud as justifiable. They are risk-takers who are in denial about the adverse impact of their actions on others. Fraudsters typically start small. They boldly cheat on a larger scale if not caught early on. Fraudsters do not wear a sign that flashes, “Beware.” To the contrary, fraudsters are often leaders with positions of authority and influence. They exploit the trust placed in them by others. The best way to prevent fraud is to implement rigid controls that make it hard for someone to steal.
Do fraudsters make memorable literary villains? Yes and no. Deception drives the plot of a well-written mystery book. To the extent that fraud is a kind of deception, a fictional swindler is a natural villain, especially if their hoax seriously injures a likable protagonist. We feel great disdain for the arrogant insurance executives in The Rainmaker by John Grisham and pathos for Rudy, the leukemia victim who died due to the executives’ corrupt denials to pay for his treatment. In the film titled Sea Change, based on a novel by Robert B. Parker, we sympathize with the character who fraudulently assumed her dead sister’s identity and pocketed money stolen from the bank that employed her sister. We do not blame her since she uses the ill-gotten gains to care for her ailing mother. We barely acknowledge the bank’s faceless depositors and borrowers even though they are victims of her fraud.
A villainous fraudster is not always the figment of someone’s imagination. Nonfiction bookshelves are replete with accounts of con artists such as Bernie Madoff, Elizabeth Holmes, and Charles Ponzi. Deception drives the Top of Form – Bottom of Form plot of any good mystery book. To the extent that fraud is a kind of deception, a fictional swindler is a natural villain, especially if their hoax seriously injures a likable protagonist. We experience great disdain for the arrogant insurance executives in The Rainmaker by John Grisham and pathos for Rudy, the leukemia victim who died as of result of their corrupt denials to pay for his treatment. In the film titled Sea Change, based on a novel by Robert B. Parker, police chief Jesse Stone looks the other way when he discovers that a kindly woman fraudulently assumed her dead sister’s identity and pocketed money stolen from the bank that employed her sister, to help her ailing mother. We interpret Jesse Stone’s decision as an act of compassion even though the bank’s loss injures depositors and borrowers.
What are your recommendations for writing about fictional fraudsters? Focus on the emotional complexity of both the protagonist and the trickster. What are the circumstances that led the fraudster to act? Why does the main character trust the fraudster? How does the protagonist deal with the fraud once discovered? Is the fraudster vilified? Is the fraudster seeking redemption? Avoid technical jargon and onerous sub-plots. Fraudulent schemes typically take the form of complex business arrangements. The fraudster’s goal is to try to avoid detection. It is unrealistic to expect a lay reader to closely follow the intricacies of a complicated hoax, nor is it desired. If we must constantly look up the meaning of legal or financial terms or try to decipher a Rubik’s Cube of financial finagling, we might opt for a story by another author.
Fraud Awareness & Prevention, SAS Institute Inc.
Fraud Prevention Checklist, Bank of America
Occupational Fraud 2022: A Report to the Nations, Association of Certified Fraud Examiners
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