Where Have We Gone Wrong?

Oped: “Get a 500k Credit Limit! No Credit or Financial Statements Needed!” was the advertisement I received today on a popular Whatsapp Group. Immediately, I thought: “Where have we gone wrong?”

By @Craftsmanbob

“Get a 500k Credit Limit! No Credit or Financial Statements Needed!” was the advertisement I received today on a popular Whatsapp Group. Immediately, I thought: “Where have we gone wrong?”

Allow me to backtrack:

When I was a bochur, shortly before I got married, the infamous Sterling Electronics and Toner Inc scandals came to light. Many of my friends and other members of the frum community across all ages allowed a stranger to swipe tens of thousands of dollars, some well into six figures, of their money, money they did not even have, to earn credit card points and airline miles. When they were told that they weren’t being paid back, they were stuck with the debt. Many are still feeling the repercussions today. They are in court, in debt, fighting bankruptcy, have destroyed credit, and spend their time chasing away creditors. They are unfortunate victims of an evil scheme. 

Yes, perpetrators of financial fraud exist in every community, but somehow, in our communities, so many more “regular” people seem to get caught up in them.

So I ask again: “Where have we gone wrong?”

Another example: A number of years ago a well-meaning friend of mine recommended to me a popular “accountant”.

It was my first time ever filing taxes and I did not know much about the process, pricing, etc. He called himself a “tax filer” (which I later discovered is not an actual accountant) and told me he charges a percentage of the refund. My taxes that year necessitated something a little more complex than the standard filing, and he did not know how to do it.

He assured me that he is still able to make my refund larger than if I were to go to someone else who does it “properly.” He told me all sorts of “tricks” he can do. Was I actually eligible for these “tricks” he suggested? Was I truly eligible to make certain deductions? But then again: I am not the expert; he knows what he’s doing. But something told me to do some more digging. He says he charges a percentage of the refund so that he is incentivized to get me the largest refund possible. But the flip side of that is that he is incentivized to lie in my name with no risk to himself so that he can make the most money. I also realized that the 10% fee can very quickly become exorbitant. 

On the IRS website, it says: “Taxpayers should avoid tax return preparers who base their fees on a percentage of the refund or who offer to deposit all or part of the refund into their own financial accounts. Be wary of tax return preparers who claim they can get larger refunds than their competitors.”

Wise advice.

After doing some more digging and asking around I discovered that this same individual, who has many kollel yungeleit as clients, will utilize certain tax credits for them, sometimes even to their own detriment, by taking advantage of limited tax credits that are not best utilized in kollel.

“My clients only get audited about 5% of the time,” he told me. At least he was honest about that.

In truth, a large part of why this seems to affect us so much is actually due to one of the frum community’s most enviable qualities. The close-knit community and high level of trust we have for one another allows cunning people to take advantage of this and prey on members of the community. Something good will always be taken advantage of by bad actors.

In fact, Chazal tells us that even our holy Torah, an elixir and our source of life, can be an elixir of death when weaponized.

I fully understand the financial challenges we as a community face. However, we still need to be vigilant about who we trust.

But it’s more than that. It’s not only corrupt people taking advantage of the vulnerable.

It’s also us. The regular folk. The everyday person. Well-meaning people who find excuses why they don’t need to be fully honest in this scenario or another.

I will not go into specifics, instead, I will simply quote a Gemara in Yoma: “…One who reads Torah, and learns Mishna, and serves Torah scholars, but his business practices are not done faithfully, and he does not speak pleasantly with other people, what do people say about him? Woe to so-and-so who studied Torah, woe to his father who taught him Torah, woe to his teacher who taught him Torah. So-and-so who studied Torah, see how destructive are his deeds, and how ugly are his ways.”

The Torah is meant to elevate us to be upright and honest in everything we do. If we have become desensitized to the opposite, to the point that no one bats an eyelash, then it is truly, “Woe onto us.”

This takes me back to the advertisement I saw today on WhatsApp. 

I saw this ad soon after a frum influencer was paid to publish ads in frum magazines and run a social media campaign encouraging people to give their money to an investment firm that was later discovered to have not been fully honest. (I wonder why they didn’t advertise in the Wall Street Journal …) This was immediately followed by a story of a “frum” fraudster pardoned by Trump who was caught again allegedly swindling people. So when I see this ad, I’m sure now you can understand my reaction.

We are supposed to be an Am Chochom v’Novon, and an honest and upright people, commanded by Hashem to engage with others and our government honestly.

Where have we gone wrong? What is wrong with us?

Tanna Debei Eliyahu Rabbah:

“Hashem Said to Bnei Yisroel: My Beloved Children, All I ask is that you love one another, honor and be reverent of one another. Don’t sin, don’t steal, and don’t do anything objectionable that will lead you to be blemished forever.”

Part 2 to follow.

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