Elliot Castro was a telemarketer who dreamed of better things. He told journalist Jon Ronson that he “always wanted to be better.” He discovered while working his loathed job cold-calling strangers that he could tell the person on the phone that their card had been referred to the credit card company, put them on hold, come back to them and say he had the credit card company on the phone and that they needed details. He ended up with a notebook full of details: mother’s maiden names, and card numbers.
Elliot was fired, but he still had his notebook. He could then call the bank and make changes to the account like changing the address, and having a new card sent to him loaded with someone else’s credit. Elliot apparently asked his mum what would happen if someone stole your credit card and used it and she told him that the bank would cover it. His mum says, “If I’d known why he was asking me that, I would have maybe elaborated a bit more. I didn’t go into all the stress that someone would have if someone stole their credit card.”
Elliot travelled first-class all around the world, living a fantasy lifestyle of shopping, dining and drinking, and all on other people’s money. He sent his mum perfume and massive bouquets of flowers. By the age of 21 Elliot had defrauded the credit card companies out of around a million pounds. He lied to everyone he met about where he got his money, saying he was a doctor, a secret service agent, a naval officer and a hotel consultant. He couldn’t make real friends because he couldn’t reveal who he actually was. Elliott was eventually stopped in a clothing store where he was buying clothes with his personal shopper. He was sentenced to two years in prison, of which he served one year.
The more distance we have between physical cash and our personal transactions, the more likely we are to be dishonest. Behavioural economist Dan Ariely uses the example of how you feel about taking a pen home from work and taking 70c out of the till (or whatever the pen’s value is). Most people would have no qualms about the former but cringe at the latter, because one feels like theft and the other seems like nothing important. Elliot felt enough distance in his mind between his actions and going into someone’s wallet and taking their cash to keep his conscience at bay.