Annals of white-collar crime, James Altucher edition

By Felix Salmon
February 28, 2011
phone hacking in the UK, and Roger Ailes allegedly suborning perjury in the US.

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Rupert Murdoch is one of the most successful businessmen in the world. But his company is being buffetted hard by ethics scandals — phone hacking in the UK, and Roger Ailes allegedly suborning perjury in the US. It’s right and proper this should be the case: the allegations are extremely serious, and involve people very high up in the corporate structure. News Corp might still carry its founder’s aggressive and entrepreneurial DNA, but that’s no excuse, and in any case there are lots of aggressive entrepreneurs who never commit these kind of crimes.

James Altucher isn’t one of them. An admitted criminal, he posted “10 Confessions” yesterday, including these:

6) In a year I won’t specify but more than five years ago I had a surefire technique for breaking into just about anyone’s email. Anyone who was potentially a threat to my business at the time had their emails read by me. And if they were really disruptive to my business I would disrupt their emails enough that they never bothered me again.

8 ) I had a car accident when I was 18 years old. I ran a redlight and almost killed someone. In the court case the lawyer encouraged me to lie and say the brakes didn’t work. So I did.

9) When I was at HBO I was helping to decide which companies would do which websites within the company. I had started a company on the side that was making websites for entertainment companies. I hired my own company in almost every instance.

These crimes are just as serious as those being alleged at News Corp. Hacking email is worse than hacking voicemail: Altucher didn’t just read his rivals’ email but also “disrupted” it, whatever that means. Perjury is worse than suborning perjury. As for self-dealing, it turns out that Murdoch has been accused of that, too, again in a less egregious manner.

If I were ever found to have hacked someone else’s email in an attempt to gain an advantage over the competition, Reuters would quite rightly fire me on the spot. And my crime would in no way be absolved if Reuters found out through me confessing to such a thing in public. Someone who’s honest about his criminal behavior is still a criminal.

In the comments to his post, Altucher says that his crimes “helped me ultimately to look forward and be a better person,” whatever that’s supposed to mean. His readers are lapping it up: one of them writes that “Your blog has skyrocketed to among my top 10 within 3 weeks of subscribing. Mostly because of how insanely honest you are.” Altucher replies, without any visible sense of irony, “thanks. I’m afraid that honesty is a scarce quality in the financial community.”

Oh, and he helpfully informs another commenter what the statute of limitations is “for most federal crimes.”

It’s common to see people like Altucher fall back on the “everybody does it” argument in cases like this — Altucher’s basically saying that all entrepreneurs behave this way, and he’s just being more honest about it. I don’t believe him.

There’s also the “let he who is without sin” defense — essentially saying that no one can criticize what Altucher did unless they have never committed any kind of crime themselves. That’s just silly — but I do feel comfortable saying I’ve never done anything like this. Run a red light on my bike? Yes, I’ve done that from time to time. Lied under oath? Hacked into e-mail? No. Maybe that helps explain why I’ve never started a company, but I wouldn’t want to ever start a company if such flexible morals were in any way necessary.

The fact is that white-collar criminals are, in general, incredibly good at deluding themselves that they’re good people, even when they clearly aren’t. The classic example being Bernie Madoff:

He can’t bear the thought that people think he’s evil. “I’m not the kind of person I’m being portrayed as,” he told me…

He said to me, “I am a good person.” …

“Does anybody want to hear that I had a successful business and did all these wonderful things for the industry?” he continued. “And got all these awards? And so did my family? I did all of this during the legitimate years. No. You don’t read any of that.” …

He sees himself at this stage as a kind of truth-teller…

Bernie Madoff is still keeping his own moral ledger, adding things up in his own way, telling himself that someday, he’ll come out ahead.

The point here is that self-forgiveness is incredibly close to self-delusion. Altucher is currently basking in the attention of people who are reading his confessional blog entries in a fascinated manner, much as they might read a crime-filled memoir. But that doesn’t mean he’s forgiven.

In one of Altucher’s last FT columns, he wrote this:

My friend told me: “Sometimes you confuse friendships and business. You need to stop that.” Then he added: “Look into the mirror and ask yourself if you are a trustworthy person. If you can do that three days in a row then let me know and we’ll get together.”

We haven’t spoken since.

The obvious message here is that Altucher isn’t trustworthy. But the subtler message is that so long as you’re trustworthy in friendship, you don’t need to be trustworthy in business. I will never believe that to be true. And I certainly wouldn’t ever trust Altucher if he proposed doing business with me.

Update: Altucher responds in the comments. After calling this post “grossly inappropriate and unprofessional”, he adds:

All of these things I wrote about, mentioned in Felix’s article, are 15-35 years ago or more. Not sure where your anger is at, Felix. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone professionally or personally who has a single complaint against me.

Update 2: As a tipster reminds me, Altucher reckons that maybe insider trading should be legal. Which would be handy indeed for anybody with the ability to hack into others’ email accounts.

Update 3: Altucher has now taken the post down.

Update 4: Commenter Bill Andivey presents the James Altucher rap.

Comments
26 comments so far

I guess we won’t be playing backgammon again.
-James

Posted by jaltucher | Report as abusive

@jaltucher: so are you sorry for what you did, or only regretful?

“Sometimes you can’t always make up for the past.”

And sometime you don’t even try. What have you done to make right the people you’ve wronged?

Your confessions would mean more if you confessed to the person you harmed, and asked for THEIR forgiveness, not your own.

Posted by SteveHamlin | Report as abusive

This is why there are laws, codes of ethics, prosecutors and judges in civil societies. One of the biggest problems coming out of the 2000s is the increasing belief among white collar criminals that they are actually fine, upstanding citizens who are doing society a favor by becoming obscenely wealthy using illegal or unethical means.

We now have a win at all cost with winner take all attitude similar to the late 1800s with the robber barons. Many laws were put in place then to prevent that behavior, but they have either been weakened or ignored over the past couple of decades.

Posted by ErnieD | Report as abusive

“If I were ever found to have hacked someone else’s email”

That’s the key right there, isn’t it: “ever found out.”

In the eyes of most of these machiavellian morally-lipless wonders, the crime is getting found out. Don’t embarrass the company.

Posted by Uncle_Billy | Report as abusive

To be clear, Felix did not ask me for a comment before he wrote this. He claimed later that he did. Then he apologized to me that his DM on twitter apparently never reached me.

This article is grossly inappropriate and unprofessional.

All of these things I wrote about, mentioned in Felix’s article, are 15-35 years ago or more. Not sure where your anger is at, Felix. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone professionally or personally who has a single complaint against me.

Posted by jaltucher | Report as abusive

At first I didn’t even believe Altucher did all those things (except maybe have two Chryslers, he seems like that kind of guy), but since he is sticking with that story, I have to ask: Is a crime not a crime just because you didn’t get caught? And if you admit you did something wrong 15-35 later, does it mean you don’t even have to apologize for it, or acknowledge it was wrong? Are you able to brag about your behavior because you got away with it?

I don’t see what part of this article is inappropriate or unprofessional – Felix commented on the behavior of a confessed criminal and ethically challenged person, which is completely appropriate and professional (do you mean your parents were never upset that you stole from them? Maybe they have forgiven you by now, but you’re saying they didn’t care? And is he not supposed to comment just because you’re in the same profession? Is that like cops ratting out corrupt cops?)

Just how do you access anybody’s e-mail? That statement makes me think you made up most of this for entertainment, in which case you really should admit it’s a joke.

Posted by KenG_CA | Report as abusive

I dunno… I’m far from perfect myself, but I’ve never engaged in the kind of persistent fraudulent behavior that Altucher admits to. Perhaps because I don’t love money THAT much?

Of course those who work on Wall Street almost by definition love money more than anything else. So I wouldn’t be surprised if their sins were typically tinged green.

It is not for me to judge another. Hopefully he is truly repentant, in which case his honesty is laudable.

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive

@TFF, I didn’t read any sign of Altucher being repentant in his article, which has since been removed. Quite the opposite, he said all that matters is how you live your life now. There were no signs that he thought what he did was wrong, nor any remorse.

Posted by KenG_CA | Report as abusive

I applaud you, Felix.

James is a fine writer. But when he says the sorts of things he said in that article and no one says anything, it sends a horrible signal in about 20 different ways. We all look to others in the community to form an idea as to where to draw the lines. And when the decent people in the community go silent, those of us who are unsure of where the lines are (there always are some in that situation) become dangerously confused.

Rob

Posted by RobBennett | Report as abusive

James,

I think that it might be a difference of perspective. For example, you probably agree that you can’t say “I once sexually assaulted someone” but you feel that it is acceptable to say “I once violated someone’s email”. I’d suggest thinking of the two as both deplorable.

Or maybe you’re just being an entertainer and promoting page views? You should clarify if this is the case.

Posted by DoubleDeuce | Report as abusive

It sounds as though James is a self serving narcissist, who believes everyone around him has to act in a certain way (you will never again play with him, boo hoo AND you have acted inappropriately and unprofessionally simply because you are to praise if you want yo keep playing backgammon)

I liked the comparison to Bernie Madoff, because criminals, banksters and the James of this world have their own code of ethics. Being able to blog and have people AGREE with your code of ethics, even better. You get to bear your soul and not pay the hourly pshchologists fee as well!

Any “friends” (in a narcissist’s case, remember they are the yes men in their circle who agree, heap praise or kiss derrière’s) read this and wonder which of those 3 they really are… and whether they are still friends because he hasn’t hacked their account to see what they truly think of him…

Posted by hsvkitty | Report as abusive

If you want to see the old article, go here: http://feeds.feedburner.com/jamesaltuche r

Also, just fact-checking, I looked and saw that a Chrysler Pacifica first sold in 2004, which, if I did my math right, is a lot more recent than 15-35 years ago.

Posted by jamesagain | Report as abusive

@TFF Your comments on this blog are normally very lucid and add much to the discussion, but did you just claim that “Of course those who work on Wall Street almost by definition love money more than anything else.” And then in the very next sentence state that it is not for you to judge? Regroup, my friend, regroup.

Posted by CavelCap | Report as abusive

For a guy who is making a living out of being so “honest” he sure has lied a lot. Half the things on the complete list of 10 sound like BS. If he did in fact do half of the other half [2.5?] ;-) — he likely suffers from antisocial personality disorder. So again, why should anyone believe him?

Posted by Rsharak | Report as abusive

LOL :) Good call, CavelCap.

Maybe there are other reasons besides self-enrichment for working on Wall Street? I don’t know, I’m not there, so I shouldn’t jump to conclusions. There’s nothing wrong with liking money, though, at least as long as you approach it ethically.

Of course, Altucher seems to have stepped over the line MANY times in the pursuit of wealth. That doesn’t necessarily make his sins worse than mine, just motivated differently.

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive

I agree with the criticisms, while also applauding his honesty in bringing this type of behavior to light.

So how common is this type of unethical behavior?

What does it mean for the future evolution of the species if the unscrupulous among us enjoy the most business success?

Basically, we live in a crony capitalism world steeped in corruption… We’re doomed.

Posted by ReginaLovejoy | Report as abusive

Since when was e-mail private ?

Posted by jimmycabo | Report as abusive

As far as I can tell (particularly the lack of empathy he shows to others), Altucher seems to be a successful sociopath with narcissistic tendencies. An entertaining character to observe, but I’d stay well away from engaging with him, business or personal or otherwise.

Posted by BarryKelly | Report as abusive

Wow! Either you people have led very sheltered lives or you need to develop some sense of perspective before judging others.

Posted by wpw | Report as abusive

@jimmycabo: I’m pretty sure that numerous courts have agreed that email is private. People have gone to jail for email hacking.

Posted by spectre855 | Report as abusive

I had a lot of reactions to this, but the one thing that really makes Altucher’s original post so unselfconsciously revealing is how he seems not to have any awareness that “us regular folks” are routinely subjected to pre-employment screening and background checks looking for mere proxies of potential dishonesty — arrest, banruptcy, long-term unemployment, poor credit history — and here he is freely admitting to criminal and dishonest behavior that defines him as not much more than a cheat and he expects no consequences to flow from this despicable course of conduct whatsoever. A fine example of how privilege works, and how it is utterly transparent to those who possess it.

Posted by rb6 | Report as abusive

@wpw, I didn’t realize that making it to middle age without emptying your parents’ bank account, without defrauding your employer by awarding contracts to your own secretly held company, without breaking into email accounts, and without shoplifting, qualified as “living a sheltered life”. What percentage of the population do you think has done at least a couple of those things?

Posted by KenG_CA | Report as abusive

I am not saying anyone is sheltered because they have not done any of these things. I am saying you are sheltered if you are shocked that many successful and powerful people have done these things, do these things on a regular basis, and think there is nothing wrong with people of their standing doing these things. I have had my emails hacked and my privacy intruded by very successful and respectable people. That is how some of them work. Dont be shocked that Prime Minister Cameron’s communications man would be approve of hacking private phone conversations. It is because he would do that sort of thing that he is suitable for the job.

Posted by wpw | Report as abusive

It’s obvious why he’s doing this — he’s been listening to rap. The parallels are striking. An underground criminal enterprise that everyone in the neighborhood knows about. Not all participate, but enough have family members – or receive paltry income from — the criminality, that no one rats to the cops. The cops are seen as the enemy. Regular society is portrayed as “square” and undesirable, to be avoided at all costs. Those at the top achieve incredible wealth, and fame. The leaders’ biggest worries are protecting themselves from their underlings. I could go on and on. Question is: Am I talking about a crack gang or a major investment bank? Thanks, James “Fitty Dollar” Altucher.

Posted by BillAndivey | Report as abusive

“Just Enough” by Fitty Dollar J:

I’m Fitty Dollar J, gonna teach ya how to rap my way,
I don’t sling no rock, I just push a bunch o’ crock,
Been a crook from the get go, though I took down my say so,
I’m a master self dealer, not so good a self squealer.

Stevie Cohen changed my life, mind if I ring up yo wife?
Hit ya wiff a Pacifi-ca, now I wield a hedge fund, duh!
Don’t need no skillz ya jerk, got tole how da cell fone work,
‘Course I’m contro-versial, you let me hold the purse, y’all.

Runnin’ red lights, sleeping good at nights
Cuz, I read your email, popo knows I’m a big whale
Laughing at my large pay, I’m gonna save a life today,
I’m rappin’ bout the small stuff, to ease my conscience just enough.

Posted by BillAndivey | Report as abusive

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Posted by traducator daneza | Report as abusive
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