Say you’re out shopping one day, and in the parking lot of the shopping center two well-dressed guys approach you and take you to a van or pickup truck parked nearby. They have a great deal for you, they say. In the truck they have boxes full of top-of-the-line stereo speakers. I mean, these are heavy duty. They show you the glossy box and maybe even some brochures showing you that the MSRP (Manufacturers Suggested Retail Price) of these puppies is $2500. But because of a computer glitch, the guys’ company is suddenly overstocked and they have to unload them in a hurry. They’re yours for $200. It’s a steal! I mean, these are awesome speakers, man!

Of course, the speakers, cheaply manufactured in China, are total garbage. When you plug them in they may not even work at all. Sometimes the speaker cases have bricks in them to increase the apparent weight because the components are barely more than cardboard and tinfoil. Not only are they not worth $2500, they’re not worth the $200 you paid. You’ve been scammed by the White Van Speaker guys. It’s not limited to speakers; various other kinds of electronics are also sold.

Why would anyone fall for this? But people do, and they have for a long time. I’ve always been fascinated by how scams and confidence tricks work, and I remember reading about the White Van Speaker scam years ago. While it seems to have peaked in the early-to-mid 2000s, I found reports of White Van Speaker scams going back to the 1980s. As with most scams, its history and organization is very hard to discern. It seems to be a loosely organized confederation of independent operators, some very sophisticated with central offices, phones, sales teams and the usual accouterments of a business, while others are just a couple of shady guys with a truck and some merch. There are obviously highly-organized importers who bring the shoddy speakers into the country, and manufacturers in China who build and package them. But who is really behind these operations–organized crime, small-scale hoods, or legitimate companies that either don’t care about the fraud or find a way to rationalize looking the other way–is very difficult to understand.

Here is a rare view of a White Van Speaker sales pitch captured on video. Contains NSFW language.

The heyday of the White Van Speaker seems to have been about 2001-04. This was probably due to an increasing influx of consumer goods from China, and the fact that the Internet was still in the process of spreading its tendrils deep into Western society. Most anti-scam warnings spread via the Internet, so at this time there were still people who hadn’t heard of it. Scams and confidence tricks have flourished in the Information Age, but the same forces that make them easier to disseminate to a wider net of potential victims are also its antidote. Who, today in late 2014, has never heard of the “Nigerian next-of-kin” (419) email scam? White Van Speakers aren’t quite as famous, but it was easier to find people who didn’t know about in in 2001 than nearly a decade and a half later.

Yet the scam persists even today. Evidently it’s still hot in Australia, which seems to have been the hotbed of this particular scam market; the Perth consumer protection agency warned about it in late 2013. If you do an Internet search you can often find recent postings, usually in the comments section of products retailers like Amazon, of people who have been scammed. Like a virus, the scam has also mutated to protect itself against its antibodies. In many cases the “white van” part of the scam has been eliminated and shoddy speakers are being sold directly by online retailers and on Ebay. (Ebay, in fact, has a warning page dedicated to this scam). You can easily find lists of the brands that are generally regarded as White Van Speakers. Lies and deception are notoriously hard to stamp out; the Nigerian 419 scam has literally been going on since the 1950s with no end in sight. Thus, White Van Speakers persist.

Here’s another White Van Speaker experience caught on video, this one in Victoria, Australia.

Studying scams and other forms of organized deception is a touchy and shadowy thing. It’s easy to dismiss people who fall for them as gullible dupes. But it’s much more complicated than that. There’s a certain element of mass psychology involved, as well as the cunning and cleverness that all successful criminals must employ in order to make money and avoid capture–though in the case of White Van Speakers that’s not a very big risk, because, believe it or not, this scam is not illegal in most jurisdictions. There’s something morally repugnant about it, but isn’t that also true of many “legitimate” business enterprises? White Van Speakers illustrates how difficult it often is to draw a line, in a capitalist economic system, between what is permissible and what shouldn’t be. I think White Van Speakers is one of those things that operates in a sort of gray zone of the business world where concepts like legality, morality and fairness are difficult to define and impossible to enforce even if they could be defined.

Nevertheless, if you think about it, it’s truly a fascinating phenomenon. I wonder how much longer White Van Speakers will be around. Given the persistence of other forms of connery, I’d say, probably a long time.

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