Measuring the well-being of society is an imperfect science.
Some prefer financial measures, while others look toward education, access to housing and mental health. Certainly, gauging the temperature of our collective well-being is a subjective task. But there is one measure that seems to matter more than others: Trust.
According to scholar Timothy Levine, our relationships with friends, family, neighbors and professionals depend on clear communication. For society to function, Levine argues, we must trust each other. And when we don’t, everything collapses. Marriages fail. Markets implode. Nations dissolve.
Given this, it is troubling to learn that Americans are deceiving each other at historic rates. According to the Federal Trade Commission, losses attributed to fraud in the U.S. hit $8.8 billion in 2022 – up 30% from 2021. And while these trends may feel distant, they are closer to home, a fact I was recently reminded of when a friend reached out for advice.
“I found a place to rent on Craigslist,” he began. My friend had been in Durango for several months but unable to land an apartment, was still living in a hotel for $1,800 a month.
“I’m ready to sign the lease,” he said. “Can you make sure it checks out?”
“Sure,” I responded. “Send it over.”
At first glance, nothing stood out. The unit was a 1,200 square foot condo near Zia Taqueria on north Main Avenue. It was well-situated, included internet, washer/dryer and a recently remodeled interior. Then I saw the price: $1,200 per month. Everything included.
I called my friend back immediately.
“It’s too good to be true,” I said. “I’ll dig a little deeper, but don’t send the deposit.”
Upon closer examination, the signatures on the lease were clearly copied and pasted, and according to the county assessor’s website, the alleged landlord doesn’t own property in La Plata County. Then there was the e-mail correspondence with the purported property manager. The thread was rife with grammar and punctuation errors, and when my friend asked to see the unit, the man conveniently explained that the current tenants had asked for “complete privacy.”
But not to worry, the manager assured, the unit could be secured with a deposit of $2,200 to the owner’s Zelle account. The man added, “This is the kind of place everyone would love to call home and would jump at the chance to rent before anyone else.”
And indeed, it was. The only problem? The unit wasn’t for rent.
I tracked down the real owners, and they confirmed what I suspected, “It’s our property, but we don’t rent it.”
My friend was dumbfounded. “I feel so stupid,” he said. He’d recently been hired by a large medical provider. He’s in his 50s, has a family and is well-educated. Growing up in Latin America, he’s seen every scam in the book and yet, he was ready to send $2,200 to a stranger.
Because it’s what we do as humans. We trust others. Trust is what enables us to collaborate and live in communion. It is our superpower within the animal kingdom. Ultimately, faith in the common good of strangers is what has allowed humans to reach the heights of modern society. But in America, trust is evaporating.
Not all is lost, but our future may well depend on our nation’s ability to rekindle our trust in one another. This will mean different things in different places but in Durango, we can start by investing in living wages and dignified housing. Doing so will cost us but ultimately, it will be far cheaper than the alternative.
Ben Waddell is an associate professor of sociology at Fort Lewis College and serves on the board of Compañeros, a Durango-based immigration rights nonprofit.