It’s raining scams in India. Hardly have we resigned ourselves to one scam when the next one rumbles on the horizon. Skeletons tumbling out from the Commonwealth Games cupboard queered the pitch for the games. The 2G spectrum scam taught us to grapple with numbers such as 1.76 trillion. Real estate was at the root of two other scams, one in Mumbai and another in Karnataka, implicating none other than the chief minister.

In using the word “scam" in these cases, we are departing from the traditional meaning of the word. In 1963, when the word came into use, it meant a confidence trick and was drawn from the language of carnivals. The con man or scam artist operates the scam by first winning the confidence of the victim, who is known as the “mark". There is often an accomplice or a “shill" who keeps the scam going.

A number of carnival scams are known. Popping a balloon with darts is one. The con man shows how easy it is. But the game is rigged: The balloon is under-inflated to make it thicker and the darts have blunt tips. It is virtually impossible to win. Tossing a ball into a basket looks easy, but when the player tosses it, it bounces out because the con man has furtively tilted the angle at which the basket rests.

Carnival scams have matching versions outside too. The lure of jobs in Dubai has sent many unemployed youth to scamsters who swindle them out of their savings. Almost everyone with an email address has been targeted by the Nigerian scam, also known as “419" scam. In India the corresponding clause of the penal code is 420, made famous by the movie Shree 420. In the scam, an exiled Nigerian billionaire wants your help in retrieving a huge pile of money locked up in his country. He invites you to share this fortune and asks for an advance to meet processing expenses. Once you pay, the scamster vanishes.

In the 1970s and 1980s, when the Bofors and Lockheed arms deals were in the news, the word scam was hardly ever used to refer to them. The preferred word was scandal. A scam can be a small, local affair, played at the individual level. But the kickback scandals involving Lockheed and Bofors had international ramifications. The former led to the resignation and arrest of Japan’s prime minister Kakuei Tanaka. Bofors led to the fall of the Rajiv Gandhi government.

Today the word scam is a catch-all word for large-scale corruption or embezzlement. The question of winning the victim’s confidence does not arise.

An officially sponsored scam was Abscam, which the FBI orchestrated in order to catch corrupt public figures in the US. In 1978, the FBI introduced a fictitious Arab sheikh, Kambir Abdul Rahman, who offered handsome rewards to those officials who could help him seek asylum in the US and to repatriate his money out of his country. He also wanted to invest in casinos, mines and port facilities. The sheikh, watched by the FBI, approached public officials and offered kickbacks for favours. Abscam led to the conviction of several public figures including a senator and five members of the House of Representatives.

A scam that grew to the dimensions of an egregious scandal was the Madoff hustle. It has been called the biggest financial fraud in history. The conman, Bernard Madoff, himself called it a giant Ponzi scheme. He collected funds that added up to $50 billion. Money from new entrants was paid to older investors, thus robbing Peter to pay Paul. When the scam imploded, the list of victims included Hollywood movie stars, corporate tycoons, leading banks and several charity foundations. Madoff has been sentenced to 150 years in prison.

VR Narayanaswami is a former professor of English, and has written several books and articles on the usage of language. He looks at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column

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