‘Common Swindles of India’ (Daly, 1931) is an impressionistic criminology where the author gathers together accounts from colonial Indian police on frequent cons they encounter. It is written with genteel disdain towards the Indian population who are portrayed as variously greedy and gullible, liable to fall for cheap and obvious tricks. Occasionally Daly admits that white Europeans might fall for an especially well developed scam delivered by one of their own. Just as there only seven or so basic stories to tell, so there are only a limited number of cons which are repeated through the ages. Several of Daly’s swindles have analogues in the digital world, such as the NFT pump and dump, and he includes a few cases of early cybercrime using the telegraph network.
He describes a plot to ‘double’ existing high value notes through a ‘copying device’. A simple demonstrating using a real low value note convinces the greedy mark to try his hand, and he gathers all the cash he can find:
‘The swindler pretends to fix them all into the magic frame and may actually leave one ten rupee note immediately under the glass to facilitate the deception. He leaves the frame with the dupe ordering him on no account to open it for three days … Complaint is rarely made of this form of the doubling trick, as the victim is given to understand that if the police get to hear of it he may be charged with abetting the forgery of government currency notes. In 1907 a man in Behar was cheated of ten one thousand rupee notes by this trick, the swindler being a member of the banking fraternity from Oudh.’
This con has some features common to crime writing about India of the period: the idea that there are defined castes likely to try their hand at crime, and a supply of cash-rich, wit-free, superstitious locals. Some elements might work as a short-con but it is not plausible as the epic, recurring swindle it is framed as. Well how do I know that? My scepticism got them thinking about how we reason using plausibility in the social sciences. It is always there in the background, and we dress it up nicely, but it come down to apply a smell test to the case being described.
There is a distinction to work with though. We actively misrepresent how we engage with the world. We sneakily talk about ‘accounts’ and ‘representations’, but then act like we obviously think some representations are more real than others. So we do think some are plausible and some are not. For example, I can say that 99% of crypto schemes are scams, and the best scams are ones where the people who think they are scammers are the ones being scammed. It is a beautiful thing.
In seeking to understand why scam markets continue happily for years we need a concept derived from ‘bigger idiot’ theory. Bigger idiocy is well known in economics when explaining apparently irrational action. People make irrational investments knowing they are buying assets worth much less than what they paid on the understanding that a bigger idiot is going to come along and pay even more for them. There’s always going to be money in tulips, my son. It is even better when one invests knowing that the government is likely to bail you out when the bill comes due. That explains why legal markets are often so much more given to irrationality than illegal ones.
I can say that because I do not take the accounts of crypt-boosters at face value. Their accounts tell us a lot about performance and such, but we know they are scams because they are so far at variance from how we know the world works, how we know economics works. It only appears to work for a while because you have more idiots coming through all the time. So the upshot is that I do not think India was ever like Daly’s representation of it, but I do think crypto is quite like what he thought India was, right down to the skilled castes of plausible swindlers.
Daly FC (1931) Common Swindles of India. The Police Journal 4(2). SAGE Publications Ltd: 250–262. DOI: 10.1177/0032258X3100400210.