Several times a year (what timing!: a man called Ruben just called as I was writing the fourth paragraph of this piece) I receive a call, usually from Bangkok, and usually from a man trying earnestly to contrive a well-spoken English accent to mask his original cockney-sounding timbre, informing me that I am in need of insurance, financial advice, or that I am fortunate that he has called because he has a stock for me to invest in that cannot fail and whose roof is soon gonna blow. The man, whose crookedness is palpable down the phone line, explains to me in one way or another that he can pretty much save my life if only I take a little bit of what he has to offer. He doesn’t give up easily, so much so that in spite of his tendency towards taking advantage of people I always end up feeling sorry for him as his pitch peters out and his voice disintegrates like the shaky ground above a mercurial fault line (Reuben gave up easily after I told him I was actually writing about some aspects of his trade).
Life as an Expat: Rule One
If a stranger offers to help you, be skeptical, be very skeptical. Or recall Little Red Riding Hood’s fate after she uttered these lines:
“Oh, what big teeth you have.”
Perhaps there are some genuine financial advisors out there helping people in foreign lands. Perhaps these financial advisors aren’t working in boiler rooms or manning the decks of Thailand’s often uncritical local media. Perhaps they even have our best interests at heart. I’m sure people have done very well. However, my immediate response to anyone ever telling me they can make me lots of money, or save my life as it winds down, is one of devout suspicion. For instance, if these guys that call me a few times a year would change their sales pitch, and perhaps invoke a modicum of truth into their lubricious narrative, I might listen to them. The fact they don’t even mention the reason why they are truly calling (I WANT YOUR MONEY!) makes me run to the hills. If a pledge is based on a lie, should you really put your trust in someone?
This is how any sales pitch should start: “Hi, I want your money.” If it doesn’t, then excuse my skepticism.
It came to my attention recently that quite a few Chiang Mai expats have lost nest-eggs due to sketchy investments their FA allegedly worked their money into. The independent advisors (quite a few of them), some of whom were not registered with Securities Exchange Commission, allegedly invested people’s money into something called the Australian LM Managed Performance Fund, which is now apparently doomed. I’d know more if any of these people who have lost money would actually talk to me. I have tried.
I can’t mention his name because I don’t even know if what they say is true – so far only one person has been willing to come forward to me and she hasn’t shown me any solid proof. So far, the allegations have traveled to me by word of mouth (if not many mouths), and so I will not put his reputation at risk, nor taint the people who worked with him on various projects. If it is true what they say, it doesn’t mean the man was a gangster, although he may have shown a degree of incompetence that proved absolutely ruinous to his clients.
Life as an Expat: Rule Two
Perhaps even people with your best intentions might not be insured against their own incompetence and future calamity. Remember if things go wrong in Thailand a safety net might not exist, or even worse, it may be a web, not a net, in which something nasty will come and drain what’s left of your blood.
People in Chiang Mai who listened to a certain FA’s advice and entrusted him with their money, I have been told, had saved all their lives to retire in Thailand. They believed in the goose that lays a golden egg, only for the golden egg to be nothing more than a shit-stained empty shell. Getting on in years, almost broke, and stuck in a foreign land, and worst of all, seemingly having little recourse to getting their money back.
Life as an Expat: Rule Three
Don’t fall for grammar tricks, cheap adjectives, expensive suits in summer, the spectacular Curriculum Vitae.
Smokescreens and fancy garlands are the scammers’ apparel.
If you know how to wear a suit – aren’t we just suckers for nice suits? – and talk right, then a decent enough sales pitch and a couple of iPad graphs might suffice to fool some ill-starred folks whose current pension doesn’t quite cut the rest of their days. It’s also come to my attention, after a recent discussion with investigative journalist Andrew Drummond, that many of these dandies tend to hover around places of trust, such as gatherings of expatriates. Or perhaps they may even offer advice in local media – as a front.
Life as an Expat: Rule Four
Safe places are often the hunting grounds of unsavory characters.
Drummond pointed out that one such advisor in the south of Thailand was a pimp in his country of birth before he became a stand-up citizen in Thailand offering expats all the advice they need to stay afloat in the rather murky expat pond. The pond attracts predators, ones with tenacious evil-spirits and fast reflexes, ones that can whip away your savings before you can say ‘lawyer’. If, I have been informed, you do lose some of your savings to a geezer whose promises weren’t exactly exact in a country such as Thailand, you may struggle to get your cash back. Some of the advisors, I have been informed, play by their own rules, and local lawyers might even be as dodgy as the men who answered your SOS call. And to kick a pensioner while he’s down, Thailand has very strict defamation laws, which means you could find your posts being taken down from web forums, or you might get sued for saying the wrong thing, even if it’s true.
What kind of a person would willingly steal someone’s life savings, or invest those savings (in their entirety) in an unreliable stock? What kind of person would pose as a pillar of the community and take advantage of the people he or she was designated to protect?
Well, it’s proven (a good book: the Psychopath Test) that finance attracts a fair amount of folk who it seems were not endowed with feelings, or a conscience. This could be problematic. The next time someone tells you they want to save your life, but to do that they require your life-savings, perhaps you might want to consult the Hare Psychopathy Checklist.
There may well be some astute, kind, wise, financial advisers out there in the world, and to those of you who are saving lives with your indefatigable spirit and almost magical acumen for picking the right stocks and keeping people away from harm, then I salute you, and I apologise for besmirching your vocational integrity and its occupational largesse. Perhaps the ethical FAs all over Thailand can take part in some kind of amnesty in which all the bullshit is laid out on a massive table, and then maybe services can be rendered in a more chaste, honest way. Maybe the goodies can even tell us who the baddies are?
I do know a lot of people in this city who spend much of their time offering help and services to expats, often with no financial gain. Just beware of people who want your money; a little, if not a lot of skepticism, won’t harm you. As expats we all know the considerable risks of investing in a country whose laws at times might seem lax, bendable, unethical, lawless. If I can offer any advice then it would be: beware of wolves in a sheep’s clothing.
James Austin Farrell