Other People’s Money

By Neil Forsyth with Elliot Castro

“It’s the lure of easy money, it’s got a very strong appeal.” Glenn Frey

Credit card fraud isn’t that hard. Using a variety of what appear to be fairly simple techniques, a young Scottish lad named Elliot Castro managed to live a jet-set lifestyle – first class air travel, five-star hotels, shopping safaris through the most expensive boutique stores, partying the night away at the trendiest (read: most expensive) night clubs – for several years before finally being “nicked” in 2004 almost by accident. When asked why he did it, Castro simply replied “Because it was easy.” And perhaps this was the truth.

What made it easy, one suspects, is our attitude toward such behaviour. Castro himself, though contrite, concludes the narrative of his misadventures by saying that he finds it all “hard to regret.” His more advanced schemes, after all, involved stealing from multi-billion dollar companies, and in the end “people got their money back and I went to prison.” No harm, no foul. Especially when you consider the fact that those companies are all making incredible profits charging what should be criminal rates of interest anyway. Even the lead detective on his case found something attractive in Castro’s escapades while having limited sympathy for the card companies:

I’m thinking, Why is he doing this?, not, I can’t wait to get the bastard. I’m looking forward to arresting him because he’ll be an interesting guy to meet. The banks aren’t quite so romantic about it. They’re seriously fucked off.

This isn’t to suggest Castro as a latter-day Robin Hood. Indeed, reading Other People’s Money one has to wonder if he was even an “interesting guy” at all. It’s certainly an interesting book, but that’s something else. Castro had intelligence and charm, but these were superficial virtues. He doesn’t seem to have been a great thinker or possessed of any intellectual interests, but instead was just someone good with numbers and blessed with a photographic memory. His charm was only useful as an expedient or disguise. He had no friends.

What makes the book interesting are other things. In the first place there is our old friend the unreliable narrator. A book that begins and ends with strained assertions of truthfulness may be protesting too much, especially when it’s coming from a con-man who appears to have been a pathological liar (that is, someone who lies even when there is no clear purpose in doing so). But, as Samuel Johnson observed, no man is a liar in his vices. Which brings us back to the question of Why? Ease is not a motive. What was Castro’s purpose?

In short: Buying things. Castro’s addictive personality took a perverse consumer-society form. He became a criminal shopaholic. He appears to have had no interest in money aside from the putting it in motion: “The money was for spending, nothing else.” His borrowed cash supply had, in the lingo of economists, a high velocity. His fetishization of first-class air travel seems almost symbolic in retrospect. Destinations were less important than enjoying the ride. The actual stuff he bought, which appears to have been mostly a lot of flashy junk, he didn’t care about. High-end shop owners learned to see him coming. He bought a platinum bracelet (£8,000) that he didn’t wear because he didn’t like it. Its purchase was the result of his Brewster’s Millions-style spending patterns. As, one imagines, was his disco coffee-table, complete with lights under its glass surface that flickered and changed colour in time with the music on his stereo (though he tells us that this item, while it “might sound a little ridiculous,” was really quite impressive). Money slipped through his fingers like water – or the champagne which he quaffed in Mobutu-esque volume – leaving him in the end without the proverbial pot to piss in. Or at least so he says. And perhaps this too is the truth.

So it wasn’t just because the money was easy. Nor was it primarily about class, though Castro’s heightened class consciousness is everywhere evident. His entire criminal career is cast as a kind of upward mobility, a quest for self-improvement. “The crime of fraud,” he tells us, “when conducted well, is a fascinating and rewarding pursuit. It’s a test of intellect, determination and stamina.” Contrast this with merely being a thief (which is how he gets his start): “Being a thief is everything fraud is not. It’s brutal and basic and horrible.” Frauds are the James Bonds of the crime world. Thieves belong in holes like Toronto’s Don Jail, a temporary accommodation that Castro finds somewhat beneath his usual standards, even for prisons. And, to be fair, his disgust in this case is justified. The Don is a pit.

But as we follow the shopaholic from Toronto (a city that, remarkably, offers him his first taste of the good life: “Canada . . . changed everything for me”) to other must-see destinations like Geneva, Dubai and Ibiza, conspicuous affluence grows stale. Castro’s consumption habit is only temporarily satisfied by his gaudy bouts of shopping tourism. The addiction to consume cannot be satisfied, it can only lead to a state of glutted (or drunken) exhaustion. The buzz diminishes and soon – oh cruel irony! – “My life became swamped and clouded by the money, which it had become easier to obtain than to spend.” And so he shops till he drops. Or is caught. Given the self-destructive nature of his later binges it’s unclear which comes first. In either case, the end comes as a relief.

The emptiness that sustained Castro’s addiction as long as it did finds expression in his questioning of the book’s title (though told in the first person, it was written by journalist Neil Forsyth):

I’m not sure about the title of this book. Other People’s Money. The money was for spending, nothing else, and I never saw it as other people’s money. I saw the money that I created as a route out of my life. I saw it for where it could take me and who it could make me. It turned me into someone else and put me next to people that I longed to belong with. Other People’s Lives. That’s what we might have gone for, but maybe it’s not so snappy.

There’s something sadly self-absorbed and unaware in this. Because he didn’t see the money as other people’s money that means it wasn’t? Who did he think it belonged to? More dramatically, however, this passage says something about the essence of the shopaholic’s condition: The belief that an authentic life, an identity, is something that can be purchased. But of course all it can really lead to is another role to play, that of a vague “someone else” with no relation to anyone beyond people occupying the same milieu.

Other People’s Money is a fun read, fast-paced and full of well-turned comic anecdotes. But one wonders how effective its message of moral caution will be. Elliot Castro wanted to be other people. At least some people reading this book will want to be Elliot Castro. Hardwired as we are for consumption, a true champion of the art of spending does have a romantic aura. And the lure of easy money has a very strong appeal.

Review first published online September 11, 2007.