Fraud wears many faces—but perhaps the most unusual is that of Jeanne Louise Calment. For years, the French-born Calment, who claimed to have been born in 1875, was celebrated as the world’s oldest person. By the time she died in 1997, she would have been 122— if she had been telling the truth, that is. New research, however, casts doubt on Calment’s claim.
The real story, it turns out, may be that Calment actually died many decades earlier—in the 1930s. Her daughter, Yvonne, then faked her own death and simultaneously assumed her mother’s identity in order to avoid inheritance taxes. From a motive point of view, this does make sense. The Calments were wealthy land owners, and inheritance taxes in France at the time were quite steep.
It’s an odd story, and we may never know the truth. But it does serve as a reminder that there is often more than meets the eye. When it comes to managing your finances, here are three ideas to help avoid missteps when truth seems to be blurred with fiction:
Be skeptical: When it comes to financial fraudsters, there are often visible red flags. But because they offer the allure of profits, investors often ignore these warning signs. In the case of Bernard Madoff, for example, many in the financial community were skeptical of his purported track record. One individual even presented evidence to the SEC, proving that Madoff had to be lying about his investment strategy because it was mathematically impossible. But you didn’t even need to understand the math to be suspicious of someone who claimed steady profits, month after month, year after year, without ever incurring any losses. The lesson, in short: If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. When someone claims to be 122 years old but looks decades younger, you should trust your eyes, rather than someone else’s fantastical claims.
Verify: In the early days of the Internet, there was a famous cartoon in which a dog is sitting at a desk, typing on a computer. Looking at a fellow dog by his side, the first dog comments, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” That was more than twenty years ago. Today, it’s even harder to know who is behind the information you read online, especially with ubiquitous “share” buttons that facilitate the spread of information. This isn’t limited to intentional misinformation. Today, anyone with a computer and a website can publish information online. While this has many benefits, it also means that, in these cases, the valuable roles of editor and fact checker are no longer part of the process. For that reason, it’s more important than ever to double check information you read before using it to make financial decisions.
Avoid comparisons: When it comes to financial standing, it can be awfully hard to avoid comparing one’s self to friends, neighbors or peers. When I was in my 20s, for example, I remember a friend asking me why I was still living in an apartment and hadn’t yet purchased a “big boy house” (as he called it). It was an insulting question at the time, but also revealing. The reality is that people judge other people based on simplistic, outward appearances—what type of car one drives, or the size of one’s house. And yet, as research has shown, there is little correlation between these outward appearances and one’s actual financial health. In fact, there is sometimes a negative correlation. Your friend driving that new Mercedes might indeed be a multi-millionaire—or he might just be playing the part. Without question, it is difficult to avoid comparisons. But the case of Ms. Calment serves as a useful reminder that outward appearances often are not what they appear to be.