Jay Berkman pretends to be someone he's not.
Since December 2008, he has been blogging as Bernard Madoff. He tweets under the Twitter handle Bernie L. Madoff from the Butner Correctional Facility. His email address contains the Ponzi schemer's monogram, BLM. And the emails Berkman sent me were signed "Fake Bernie."
Some people like being Bernie for Halloween. Others buy up Bernie-branded products, such as toilet paper with his face on every sheet. Others have gone to auctions to buy up Bernie's yachts and mansions on down to Bernie's shoes.
Berkman has been outed at least twice as Fake Bernie: December 2008, in a trade publication called the Wall Street Letter, and January 2009, on TV. But since many people in America have tiny attention spans, and rarely deploy complicated research tools like Google, the fun of being Fake Bernie goes on.
"I can't tell you how many people, even today, think it's the real Bernie Madoff that's blogging from prison," Berkman said in a telephone interview.
Berkman is a business development and marketing consultant, who grew up on Long Island, went to George Washington University and worked in the financial industry as well as in stand-up comedy clubs. Many people he interacts with don't associate him with Fake Bernie.
"When the topic comes up: "Bernie blog? That's fake? I thought that was real." And those comments come from reasonably smart people who I thought would have immediately detected that it was nothing more than a parody," he said.
The first tip-off that bernard-madoff-scam.blogspot.com is a spoof is: "I'm Bernard Madoff. Trust Me."
"Some people say I'm not so popular," the blog intro continues. "But everybody on and off Wall Street is still talking about me. What? You think that just because I'm in jail, I shouldn't be blogging?"
Berkman said he started the blog two days after the news of Madoff's scheme broke, joining an online literary movement that has even included a "Fake Steve Jobs" blog.
Part of it was catharsis--or maybe a bit of Stockholm Syndrome. Berkman had learned his father, who was a floor specialist on the American Stock Exchange, was a Madoff investor, and didn't have near what he thought to retire.
"I was stupefied, like everyone else," Berkman said. "He lost a lot of 'Bernie dollars'...How much he invested versus how much was displayed in his account was significantly different. He was one of those select people who didn't actually take money out."
Berkman also had another motive: "I'll be the first to admit that I had a financial objective." The blog is loaded with ads for which he receives a quarterly check from Google. He says it's not enough to compensate him for his time.
Still, he blogs away, keeping readers up on the latest Madoff news and "channeling" Madoff messages to other people in the news:
To the wife of Mark Madoff, the son who killed himself: In "that ridiculous trailer promoting your interview with ABC News...I hear you say that you'd 'spit in my face' … If everything I did for you, Mark and my grandchildren makes you 'so sick,' why don't you … hand over the deed to that $6.5 million house in Nantucket that I paid for?"
To Occupy Wall Street protesters: "This...is the most misguided and misinformed movement since the SEC's findings on the 'Flash Crash.'...You occupiers have this bizarre sense of entitlement....Just because you took out a home-mortgage-sized loan to pay for college doesn't mean that you are entitled to getting a job when you graduate."
To U.S. Attorney General Preet Bharara: "Mazels for figuring out that online poker scheme. I can't tell you how many times I caught my son playing on Full Tilt (which was better than him trading options with my money!)."
To Raj Rajaratnam, the billionaire hedge fund manager recently sentenced to 11 years in prison: "Happy to include you in our bridge game."
Berkman tracks visitors to his blog and says they include people who work in government agencies, laws firms, accounting firms and hedge funds. He says he thinks Madoff family members have been there, too, and suspects the real Madoff knows about the site as well.
"He's probably flattered by it," Berkman said.
After nearly three long years, there's no reason to stop being Fake Bernie now. After the painful lessons that the real Madoff taught the world, Ponzi schemes live on.
"Greed is always going to supersede caution," Berkman said. "As long as there's human nature, and as long as there's someone that's clever, it's going to repeat itself time and time again."
(Al's Emporium, written by Dow Jones Newswires columnist Al Lewis, offers commentary and analysis on a wide range of business subjects through an unconventional perspective. Contact Al at firstname.lastname@example.org or tellittoal.com)