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Who’s To Blame For Fraud?

by Steven Novella, Jun 24 2013

By now most readers have probably heard that Jim McCormick, the maker of the fake bomb detectors, was convicted on three counts of fraud and was sentenced to a maximum of 10 years in jail. My reaction to this, echoed by many other skeptics, was – only 10 years?

To recap – McCormick repurposed fake golf ball detectors, which were basically fancy dowsing rods, as bomb detectors. He sold the $20 novelty items for thousands of dollars. He then made his own version of the devices, still worthless dowsing rods, but made to look fancy. He sold them for tens of thousands of dollars each as bomb detectors. They were used at Iraq checkpoints, among others. At checkpoints where his fake devices were used, undetected bombs exploded, killing and injuring hundreds to thousands of people.

This has raised several questions. The first is the appropriateness of the sentence – just 10 years. Apparently that is all the law allowed for. The judge in his decision, in fact, felt the need to justify giving him the maximum sentence. He is quoted as saying:

Judge Richard Hone at the Old Bailey court said he was taking the rare step of passing the maximum possible sentence because of McCormick’s “cavalier disregard for the potentially fatal consequences of his fraudulent activity.”

My question is – why didn’t the “cavalier disregard” for killing people with his fraudulent scheme warrant more than just 10 years? This seems to be a hole in the law. (I’m sure this varies widely from country to country.) There should be a separate charge when fraud predictably leads to horrific outcomes, such as death. I know that if someone dies in the course of committing a crime, even though the death was not intended, it’s still felony murder. Why doesn’t this also apply to fraud?

If you read the comments to the above article and others like it you will also see vigorous discussion about who, exactly, is to blame. After discussing this issue on the SGU we also received similar feedback. There are those who believe that the governments who purchased and used the devices are to blame.

My conclusion is that everyone involved in the chain carries some amount of blame. McCormick I grant the largest share – the whole thing was his evil plan. But right behind him are those government officials who apparently accepted bribes in exchange for purchases the fraudulent bomb detectors. They are additionally guilty of betraying their public trust.

Even those officials who were not bribed still made horrifically irresponsible decisions. There did not appear to be proper due diligence – how about testing the devices, or consulting an expert before making the purchase and using the devices? These devices are obvious frauds that cannot possibly work. Believing that they do work, in my opinion, requires profound scientific illiteracy.

The final step in the chain were the soldiers and others who used the devices. They are the least to blame, as it is not necessarily their job to authenticate equipment that is given them. I have to wonder, however, how many of them suspected the bomb detectors were bogus, and how much of a stink did they make about it to their superiors.

This gets close to blaming the victim – we can’t necessarily expect every soldier to recognize a dowsing rod when they see one, and to have seen through the scam. They were likely convinced that it worked because of the ideomotor effect.

It seems statistically likely, however, that some of the people handed the device to use had serious reservations, or flat out knew they were bogus, but failed to act due to complacency or a “not my problem” attitude.

In order for these devices to have been used as bomb detector there had to be massive failure along the entire chain, and everyone involved deserves some measure of blame.

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13 Responses to “Who’s To Blame For Fraud?”

  1. Archie Clebberdale says:

    The reason that nobody was tried for felony murder is probably simply one of jurisdiction: nobody died under the jurisdiction of the court and there it stops.
    I do agree though that the judicial system could have done a much more thorough cleansing than it did.

  2. Bolan Meek says:

    Another reason is that the crime of fraud occurred at the sale of the dowsing rods as genuine bomb detectors, not at the time of the use of said dowsing rods. The deaths occurred at the time of use of the dowsing rods, not at the time of the crime of fraud. For this to change, felony murder must have added that someone died as a result of the crime, and that should be so far-reaching and hard to prove, that it is not likely to happen.

    Jim McCormick, is, of course, probably in an actionable position for civil wrongful death suites, since his product was trusted, resulting in the victims being in danger of death.

  3. Other Paul says:

    You cannot pass a law making fraud illegal. It’s already illegal. And, regardless, such behaviour seems quite common, but unsurprising.

    As far as I know, it’s not illegal to buy into woo, and thus betray those who have given you authority to act on their behalf. And such behaviour seems more common than it ought, and surprising to all but the cynical.

    Doesn’t it all come down to something like that?

    • Archie Clebberdale says:

      ‘it’s not illegal to buy into woo’
      That is not universally true under all circumstances everywhere.

  4. Old Rockin' Dave says:

    “It seems statistically likely, however, that some of the people handed the device to use had serious reservations, or flat out knew they were bogus, but failed to act due to complacency or a “not my problem” attitude.”
    Given what we know about the way armies and corrupt governments, not to mention corrupt armies, work, it is highly likely that some of the people handed the device had serious reservations. Those with serious reservations were likely told by those farther up the chain of command that they should keep their doubts to themselves in order to continue to enjoy such daily activities as breathing and circulating blood.

  5. sailor says:

    To the soldiers using these it was clearly not a not-my-problem situation, they were as likely to get blown up as anyone. However making complaints about equipment that has been issued to you by a corrupt superior who is profiting from it is probably as effective as a female in the US forces bringing a rape complaint against a superior officer. So I presume what a lot of them did was wave it around knowing it was no good, and then do the best search they could in the regular way.

  6. Max says:

    Bernie Madoff was sentenced to 150 years.

    What’s the difference between the felony-murder rule and manslaughter?

    • Max says:

      “Prosecutors said Mr. Madoff deserved the maximum term for carrying out one of the biggest investment frauds in Wall Street history. Mr. Madoff’s lawyers said he should receive only 12 years.”
      “In remarks before announcing his decision, Judge Chin acknowledged that any sentence beyond a dozen years or so would be largely symbolic for Mr. Madoff, who is 71 and has a life expectancy of about 13 years. But ‘symbolism is important for at least three reasons,’ he said, citing the need for retribution, deterrence and a measure of justice for the victims.”

  7. madscientist says:

    “Why doesn’t this also apply to fraud?”

    Oh, there are any number of things:
    1. as already pointed out, any deaths were not within the jurisdiction of the court
    2. different legal system, different legal tradition
    3. he was tried for fraud, not for any deaths caused by his fraud. Perhaps the outcome would be different if the families of the victims could somehow come to the UK and have him prosecuted for the deaths – however, I doubt they have the resources.

    Is there any mention of the pecuniary damages? The guy should be made to pay back more than 100% of what he got from his scam.

  8. panama says:

    It would, I suppose, be possible that another government might wish to extradite McCormick to face other charges in their jurisdictions.

  9. Trimegistus says:

    He’s obviously guilty of fraud — and given the circumstances deserves the maximum penalty. But murder . . . no. For one thing, anyone who dies from using a bogus mine detector is getting killed by a _mine_, which was planted by some fanatic specifically to kill people. If anyone is the murderer, it’s the one who plants the murder device.

  10. personontheinternet says:

    He isn’t American, and wasn’t tried in America. Please don’t expect American attitudes to crime and punishment. The US has a very high crime rate and an extremely high reoffending rate, along with very long prison sentences and harsh prison conditions. The US typically has terrible instincts when it comes to law and order, please don’t expect the rest of the western world to adopt them.

    • Brainmatters says:

      Thanks. I was thinking the same thing and hoping someone from UK would comment. Ten years is a long time and 150 years is just silly. People can be rehabilitated, with effort, although I’d bet on a better rate for a crime of passion murder than a fraudster or true believer quack!

      Dr. N, is there any EVIDENCE that grotesquely long sentences lower crime rates?