It may seem obvious to an outsider that most people aren't going to become rich by selling things on Amazon. But that's the thing about gold rushes: Some people do find gold, and it is sometimes hard to tell what distinguishes the people who make it from those who don't. Travis Tolman, the travel-product seller, is about to launch his second product on Amazon, and said he thinks he'll be able to make about $8,000 a month. When I asked him why he succeeded while so many others at the seminar failed, he said he wasn't quite sure. "I think I just did a really good job of following directions," he told me.

There's something uniquely American about believing that with a little bit of hard work, anybody can make money fast. In the 19th century, advertisements promised people exclusive selling rights to a certain product, for a fee. They'd pay the money, and then find out that the product didn't exist, or that dozens of other people were selling it. "In the U.S., the depth of commitment to social mobility and uplift seems to give some degree of distinctiveness to how fraud operates," said Edward J. Balleisen, a professor at Duke University who has written a book on the history of fraud in America.

The success of the Amazon-coaching market says something about the current state of the economy. As the American middle class disappears, many people feel as if they've lost their financial footing and are seeking an easy shortcut back to stability. "The best indicator of whether someone will be amenable to being defrauded has to do with financial insecurity," David Vladeck, the former director of the Federal Trade Commission's Bureau of Consumer Protection, who is now a professor at Georgetown, told me.


It's not low-income people who fall victim to online frauds, Vladeck said--they don't have the thousands of dollars needed to pay scammers in the first place. It's people who have a little bit of extra money, and want to invest it to get more breathing room. When, during the Great Recession, millions of families lost jobs or saw their income reduced, business-opportunity scams proliferated, he said. Many of the people I talked to at the seminar said they just wanted a little bit more money than they had--to build a bigger retirement fund, work less, buy a vacation home.

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