By Nate Hendley
Years ago as a journalist, I covered a seminar in Toronto by a group that claimed Canadians weren’t legally obliged to pay income tax.
The group outlined various unconvincing ways to evade Revenue Canada and offered convoluted explanations as to why citizens need not give the taxman his due. These explanations largely rested on cockeyed readings of obscure court cases and constitutional documents.
What struck me was the way the group framed its message. The speakers acknowledged their methods were odd and their evidence shaky. But that didn’t matter, because they had The Truth on their side. Everyone else—mainstream tax lawyers, bankers and journalists—was lying. Trust us, don’t trust the experts, insisted the organizers.
I’m not sure how many people in attendance actually tried to use the group’s tax evasion techniques, but the underlying message was Con Artistry 101. As every skillful scammer knows, to rob a “mark” it’s vital to limit their access or appreciation of reliable information.
Skip forward a few years and “don’t trust the experts” is the reigning mantra of the day. Large numbers of people think the mainstream media peddles “fake news” and depend on conspiracy websites, angry TV hosts, blogs and social media for information. The medical wisdom of celebrities is valued over learned opinions from experienced doctors. Get-rich-quick schemes flourish, despite dubious legality and slim-to-zero success rates.
People can believe any foolishness they want. Anyone who ignores reliable information, however, is setting themselves up to be fleeced.
Take the tax meeting. While I got in for free as a journalist, everyone else had to pay. And what they paid for was a coming attractions trailer for the main feature. If you were really serious, you had to sign up for pricey follow-up seminars, books and brochures outlining various shady tax avoidance tactics that were sure to fail. Anyone who gets cute with their return can expect intense scrutiny or worse. “In some cases the CRA will act to have individuals prosecuted for tax evasion. The CRA targets and deals with the people who promote tax schemes,” warns the Canada Revenue Agency website.
On another assignment, I met some individuals who belonged to a “business” program that guaranteed “freedom” and wealth, or so they claimed. I did some digging and discovered the program was actually a pyramid scheme (which are illegal in Canada, and involve duping other people to join a “sales team” to sell a product or service). This scheme involved selling taped anti-government lectures instead of Tupperware. I can’t imagine a less enticing product to hawk.
None of this is to suggest the mainstream press is perfect, that tax lawyers sometimes get things wrong and financial advisors occasionally offer bad advice. History is replete with cases where banks refused to fund a brilliant invention that went on to conquer its field. But history is also full of cases where banks turned down projects that were stupid or downright illegal.
As biased as the Wall Street Journal might be, it’s vastly more trustworthy than a conspiracy blog ranting about Jewish financial cabals. Any decent bank will warn against transferring $10,000 to a Prince from Nigeria who emailed you about a fantastic business opportunity. A good accountant will find legal deductions for their clients instead of feeding them nonsense about how the British North America Act forbids income tax.
Rule of thumb: when someone tells you, “Trust me. Don’t trust the experts” it’s a good sign they’re deluded or trying to con you.
(Nate Hendley is a Toronto based reporter and author of several true-crime books, including The Big Con: Great Great Hoaxes, Frauds, Grifts, and Swindles in American History . His website is located at www.natehendley.com)