Fool Me Once: Scams, Stories, and Secrets from the Trillion-Dollar Fraud Industry

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Release Date: 
March 21, 2023
Harvard Business Review Press
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“Pope’s apparent objectives—to illuminate fraud and celebrate whistleblowers—are well supported by her evidence and arguments.”

Forensic accounting professor Kelly Richmond Pope wants to demystify fraud. In Fool Me Once: Scams, Stories, and Secrets from the Trillion-Dollar Fraud Industry, Pope classifies fraudsters by category: intentional, accidental, and righteous. The latter two, she argues, deserve our understanding, if not our full sympathy.

Pope, a DePaul University professor, is best known for directing and producing the popular documentary All the Queen’s Horses about the largest municipal fraud case in U.S. history. She has made a niche for herself as someone who aims to understand fraud, not just condemn it, and has even befriended a number of white-collar criminals.

Based mostly on stories and a smattering of data, the recipe for fraud as Pope describes it is quite simple: a combination of pressure and opportunity. Most perpetrators have some unmet need or desire that can be resolved with a little extra cash. When the circumstances are right, some people choose to steal. Pope calls them “intentional perps.”

In some cases, the fraud begins unintentionally—a personal vacation accidentally charged to the company card, for example. The lack of repercussion makes the fraud too tempting to try again (and again). The people who fall into this category are “accidental perps.”

Pope’s final category, “righteous perps” are those who commit fraud for what they see as the greater good. Think Robin Hood. Though some will surely disagree with her, Pope places Edward Snowden in this category. Although he calls himself a whistleblower, Pope believes he perpetrated fraud in order to serve his country.

Most people probably can’t see themselves in a fraud mastermind like Bernie Madoff, but “they can relate to an ambitious person with big dreams,” Pope writes. She describes perpetrators of fraud like Rita Crundwell, the city comptroller in Illinois who embezzled a record-breaking $53 million, as “everyday people who find themselves entangled in a vicious lie.”

Pope believes that if people don’t acknowledge and examine the temptation to steal in themselves, they might stray more easily into unethical behavior. Using examples from her own life, like being sent two expensive designer purses when she only ordered one, and from the white-collar criminals she has interviewed, Pope highlights the ease with which otherwise upstanding people can become ensnared in financial deception.  

Unsurprisingly, the most successful perpetrators of fraud operate in settings where they are trusted and where oversight is lax. Pope stresses the importance of vigilance in the workplace: If you see something, say something.

She heaps praise on the whistleblowers who do speak up. She argues that they never deserve the backlash they sometimes receive within their companies and in the media. From a student who told on her cheating college classmates to a learning specialist at the University of North Carolina who exposed the corrupt grading system for student athletes, Pope sees whistleblowers as heroes. She scorns the words “snitch” and “tattletale.”

Coming forward with suspicions or accusations can stop a fraudulent act from escalating and causing catastrophic harm. Pope has firsthand knowledge of the fall-out from fraud: Her father was fired when one of his employees was caught embezzling money from a college in North Carolina, even though he was not involved in the crime.

She shows how fraud causes harm far beyond the financial. In the most egregious case, a compounding pharmacist in Missouri watered down his chemotherapy drugs to save money. In the case of Rita Crundwell, the comptroller in Illinois, an entire town suffered the consequences of her actions—their facilities, programs, and staff were underfunded for years.

Pope’s many stories liven up the material she presents, which can sometimes feel like a compilation of lectures and handouts from her college course on fraud. Pope’s relatable attitude makes the book an easy read. She is open about her own ethical quandaries and even an occasion when she was the victim of an Airbnb scam. 

Pope’s apparent objectives—to illuminate fraud and celebrate whistleblowers—are well supported by her evidence and arguments. It would be hard to come away from this book feeling immune from the temptation of fraud or ambiguous about reporting it, not to mention a bit more suspicious of one’s colleagues.