Posted by: Mark Nielsen | March 2, 2012

Free Lunch – Sweepstakes, Justice, & the Scam of the Month Club

Publishers Clearing House

You are qualified to win $10 Million Dollars in this unique opportunity!

Act now to claim your prize!

My mother got a series of phone calls this week, implying that she had won 2.5 million dollars, or five million… they couldn’t decide how generous they wanted to be, apparently. To be fair, it was only a scammer company POSING as representatives of Publishers Clearing House (a mail sweepstakes Mom had in fact entered). But we did some homework. Then when they wanted us to put $399 onto a Green Dot Moneypak debit card in order to “activate” our multimillion dollar check, it was clear they were fishing. Next they’d be asking for that Moneypak card number (to put money into Mom’s account, they’d say), and in the end, they’d pull that $399 out as if she’d paid them in untraceable cash, and they’d be on their way… into the fog.

No thanks, scumbags! See you later!

When it was all over, Mom said with both amusement and a bit of sadness, “Well it was kind of fun to be a millionaire for a few hours.”

Coincidentally, I’ve been reading Chapter 2 of Tim Keller’s Generous Justice, in which he talks about some of the roots of poverty in the modern era, comparing those to biblical reasons for and safeguards against poverty.

On page 28, in discussing the concept of the Jubilee year and debt relief for the poor, he quoted Biblical scholar Craig Blomberg:

“On average, each person or family had at least a once-in-a-lifetime chance to start afresh, no matter how irresponsibly they had handled their finances or how far into debt they had fallen.” [Bold emphasis mine.]

In the margins next to this quote, I wrote “Ignorance is not a sin.”  So there’s the connection, for me. Many modern scammers are able to be both predatory and successful precisely because we are often and easily overwhelmed, due to our technological or legal ignorance. It is easier to manipulate greedy or desperate people anyway, and when they (we) are also ill-informed or poorly educated, it makes it easier still.And when we get taken, it’s embarrassing enough that it may or may not even come to light every time.

The ethos of economic independence, the glamorization of wealth, and the stigma of poverty as a sign of individual “failure” in the West are very strong. We partly go along with lotteries and sweepstakes because we sense that the path to wealth by any legitimate means is likely to be blocked by those with more knowledge or power than we ourselves feel we have access to. There is not room at the top, where the American Dream lives, for everybody.

On  an individual level, the growth of “expert” culture and specialization in the modern era –including in academia, in various professions, and even in ministry– has also not been kind to the prophet Micah’s “do justice, love mercy, walk humbly” brand of lifestyle choices and ethics. For example, to become a “professional”  is a life-consuming goal or status symbol for many people. (“I’m a _______, sir. And doggone proud of it… You’d better pay me for my years of preparation in this field, too!”)

Similarly, to appear economically and spiritually independent, to be strong and not the least bit needy or vulnerable, is a natural human temptation.  Fear and insecurity dictate many choices, especially in an era when the separation between the wealthy and the poor, or between the powerful and the vulnerable, is more severe than ever. We simply do not trust each other enough to be interdependent, transparent, non-competitive and ethical. Perhaps this paranoia is present for good reasons, as we’ve seen with my little sweepstakes example above. But the idealist within me says this:

“Where is the faith in that foxhole style, every-man-for-himself mentality? Have we let the economic “terrorists” win, after all, by getting us to harden our hearts?”

Then my inner cynic gives that inner idealist a firm beat-down, and we move forward, saying it’s just more realistic to be paranoid.

Finally, there is a strange conformity vs. rebellion dance that Americans and many other Westerners are prone to doing. For example, to “submit” to an authority is seemingly such an un-American concept nowadays, perhaps partly because of the important and necessary gains made by women and people of color in the middle part of the last century. One does not submit to oppression, I wholly agree. Yet given America’s democratic origins and reforms, we therefore also find it easier to discuss our rights with regard to others, thus leaving our responsibilities to them on the back burner, if we ever get to them at all.

Or how about this one: We’re okay with obeying the law in principle, but mostly those traffic and taxation laws are for other people. Don’t enforce them on me... or if you do, I’m going to find a loophole whenever I can.

‘scuse me whilst I slip out the back door, officer…

*  *  *


  1. Do you play the lottery, and if so, why do you REALLY do it? Examine your motives a bit, and examine the role our culture plays in determining your economic and lifestyle priorities? If not, then what are your thoughts on the state getting involved in lotteries, or gambling, and how “predatory” are these modern get-rich-quick schemes?
  2. Chapter 2 of Generous Justice mentions the Biblical book of Amos numerous times, including the sections that call nations other than Israel to account for their actions. I realized I don’t think I have read Amos, or not more than a paragraph or two. It’s a little “fire and brimstone-y”, but lots of good stuff there, too. Read Chapters 1-5 and see if it reminds you of any modern political activity?


  1. I tend to agree with the old adage that the lottery is just a tax on those who are bad at math. That said, there’s a group at my office who goes in as a group with the pot breaks $100 million, and I usually join.

  2. Wow, superb blog layout! How long have you been blogging for?

    you make blogging look easy. The overall look of your web site is
    great, as well as the content!

  3. Thank you, “branding strategies”. I’ve been blogging since about 2006. Started simple, and grew with the WordPress platform as it itself morphed into a more powerful tool. But the content, not the the look, has always been my primary purpose… anyone can play with technical toys and get a decent look, but without decent content, the blog is paper-thin and has no *lasting* value. Nevertheless, overall looks, variety and creating visual interest always helps.

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