Overnight millionaire

I expect by next year I will retire a multi-millionaire. I will build a mansion on a hill in Craigmore, hire a full-time housekeeper, get myself some Blue Jays season tickets right behind the on-deck circle, keep an aesthetician on retainer for on-demand pedicures, and drive a BMW SUV.

All I have to do is flip houses, or condos, or vacant lots in up-and-coming neighbourhoods. Easy-peasy, if ads would have us believe their claims.

Experts in the business of house flipping are everywhere, and they are all too willing to share their knowledge – for a modest fee, of course. I just saw an ad for a free workshop that can get me started in wealth-building real estate techniques. It promises all kinds of “potentially life-changing information.”

“Don’t wait to board your flight to financial freedom,” said a thought bubble over the head of a man with very, very white teeth on the screen in front of me. “You don’t want to miss this exciting opportunity to start on the right financial path and build your own legacy.”

This isn’t the only offer I’ve come across in the past few weeks. Another “fix and flip” seminar ad tells the story of its leader, a man who went from being a homeless, jobless nobody, to a real estate powerhouse making millions. And if you don’t believe him, take a listen to the couple offering an opportunity to “purchase real estate at a discount using your self-directed retirement accounts.”

Or, using “other people’s money to fund and fix your real estate deals, allowing you to start to make money even if you don’t have the cash or credit.”

Sounds pretty enticing, right? Easy as pie!

Flipping houses is the latest in a long list of get rich schemes that share one extremely appealing, irresistible trait: a big return for a minimal investment. Traditional saving and asset allocation investing requires too much patience and discipline, at a time when our attention span has shrunk to the size of a kernel of corn. We like easy money, fast results with minimal efforts.

Of course there have always been temptations like these. Back in the day, ads convinced people they could earn big money from the comfort of their homes by stuffing envelopes. The “business” only required a “small” payment as a buy-in. Decades later this idea may come off as laughable, but it became well known because people fell for it.

Then there are the more elaborate Ponzi schemes, those shaky pyramids that promise early investors huge payouts by using money obtained from newer investors. And the on-line courses that, for a fee, will show people how to make thousands of dollars a week by selling on Amazon, or filling out surveys.

The most universal scam, however, is the Nigerian prince e-mail scam. It is such a flagrant example of too-good-to-be-true that it’s managed to achieve cult status. Anyone with an e-mail account has received some version of this scam, that a recipient (sometimes a Nigerian prince, sometimes a mysterious foreign diplomat of questionable authority, with an official-sounding title you don’t really understand) is due a huge sum of money but must first deliver a “nominal” good faith payment to claim it.

In some cases, the e-mail involves a sob story about a person who is kidnapped, or exiled, or stranded in some forsaken city, or a complication of some sort, with the withdrawal process that requires a payment to remedy. All you have to do is send the writer this nominal amount and they will share their forthcoming fortune with you as soon as it’s been received. And really, what’s $2500 when you have $2.5 million coming your way? (Or at least that’s what they’re hoping you’ll think.)

Sure, all these scams are suspect, but it’s only in hindsight that we recognize how greed and gullibility get the best of us. The promise of fast money and long-term security can lure even the most intelligent among us.

Still, flipping houses sounds so fun and sophisticated, doesn’t it? I can just envision myself posting before and after shots on Instagram. Posing for interviews with Martha Stewart Living. Waving to the crowd as I board my flight to financial freedom.

If only it were that simple.