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The day is grey, cold and rainy. I’m shivering in my light summer dress while waiting our turn to dance during the May Day parade in Minsk. As we waltz by the grandstand full of top state officials, I notice that they are bundled up in hats, gloves and coats. At the end of the huge square, my grandmother is waiting for me. Usually smiling, she looks worried as she wraps me in a warm jacket. As soon as we are home, she rushes me into the shower and vigorously scrubs me with soap. It is May 1, 1986, five days after the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. There is still no official news about the disaster and the government is hiding the truth, but everybody whispers that something terrible has happened.
This childhood flashback came to me as I watched the surrealistic streams from this year’s May 9 Victory Day parade that took place despite the coronavirus pandemic. Belarus’ permanent president Lukashenka in his military uniform, surrounded with elderly veterans – none of them wearing a mask – proudly oversaw hundreds of soldiers and students marching by a live crowd in Minsk. In his address he claimed: “We had no other choice, and if we had, we would have done the same.” He suggested that we owe our lives to those who died in the war.
The parade and Lukashenka’s speech caused an outcry. Unlike 1986, Belarusians today are well-informed about the danger and scale of the Covid crisis in Belarus and elsewhere thanks to the internet and smartphones. The public’s response was that our grandparents who suffered for us wouldn’t want to see us die from a virus helped to spread by a parade.
The authoritarian regime can still force citizens to attend and march in parades, but it has lost control over the information space. In the Soviet tradition, the state first tried to squelch news about the virus. But people started sharing their stories online and reports spread like wildfire through social networks, messengers, and online outlets. Independent journalists published the Covid stories of ordinary people and exposed the poor state of the healthcare system and its lack of means to protect patients and staff.
By making endless inquiries to state institutions and asking uncomfortable questions to state officials they succeeded in breaking the government’s information blockade and forcing the authorities to provide regular updates. However, the state continues to obfuscate, avoid responsibility, and try to silence critical voices. People here know all too well that, when the state TV promises the situation is under control, it means things are really bad. They have learned from this regime that, at such times, they have no choice but to take the initiative themselves. And they have.
While Lukashenka issued hollow orders – shaking the air with empty words, as my grandmother used to say – for protective gear nobody had and blamed frontline doctors for getting infected, volunteers urgently launched a crowdfunding campaign, purchased thousands of respirators, safety masks with filters, and delivered them to hospitals across the country in just a few days. Several of the capital’s trendy restaurants, whose clients were mainly hipsters, switched to making free meals and delivering lunchboxes for medical workers.
The Minsk Hackerspace tech club designed and manufactured plastic face shields for healthcare staff using 3D-printer technology. A popular local clothing brand made reusable protective wear. A tech startup working on a VR suit produced masks. Hundreds of private companies and thousands of citizens donated money to support healthcare institutions and victims. Different civic initiatives joined forces in the national #BYCOVID19 campaign and raised 250,000 dollars in 45 days in one of Europe’s poorest countries.
For more than two decades, the regime has tried to suppress freedom of association and expression by staging fake elections, building a propaganda machine, controlling the private sector, and employing pervasive repression. And yet today we see that it has failed. The remarkable response of citizens to the Covid crisis shows that civil society is rising in Belarus, despite adverse conditions. The so-called “strong state” is, in fact, a bully who is confused and cowardly in the face of a real threat. Committed and courageous citizens, who have self-organized and mobilized so quickly and on such a large scale, are proving more effective than the state’s bumbling bureaucracy. In Belarus, authoritarianism doesn’t seem to be the answer.
Unfortunately, arrogant rulers rarely admit mistakes or back down. On the contrary, they often become even more aggressive. Rather than words of compassion and gratitude, Belarusians hear angry and threatening speeches from our head of state. Transparency and accountability remain alien concepts for government institutions. The virus has exposed the inability of the authorities to act responsively and responsibly. Accordingly, public trust has fallen.
It seems to me that there is greater dissent in society now, across more groups, than ever before. With a presidential election scheduled for August, protests are starting to break out. These are led by bloggers who have been trying to hold the government accountable and speak truth to power. Medical workers, disappointed by the inability of the state to protect and support them, have joined demonstrations and spoke openly online for the first time. Some have been arrested and lost their jobs.
We’ve seen this story before. The police break up the protests and persecute activists, journalists and bloggers, even those diagnosed with the virus and already in hospitals. And our servile courts continue to sentence them to prison terms. But somehow this feels different.
At the moment, Belarusians are focused on surviving the virus. But as uncertain as post-pandemic life might look like, people are already questioning if they want to see the existing state order in their tomorrow. Three decades ago, it took a tragedy at Chernobyl to shock people into perceiving a different future and launching the changes that led to a new and independent Belarus. Like then, the changes will not come fast or easy this time. But at this strange and challenging moment, I feel very proud of my compatriots and hopeful about my country’s future.
This piece is dedicated to the life and work of Yuri Zisser, a pioneer of internet media in Belarus, founder of the country’s largest independent portal TUT.by, philanthropist, and renaissance man, who passed away on 18 May 17.
This article is part of the Debates Digital project, a series of digitally published content including texts and live discussions by some of the outstanding writers, scholars and public intellectuals who are part of the Debates on Europe network. An online discussion with the authors will take place on 9 June at 7 PM CEST, and will be streamed on YouTube.
The telephone rang just past three o’clock on an April morning, piercing the silence of the darkened Long Island home where James McGlone and his wife slept. When he picked up the phone, McGlone was drowsy and disoriented, but the voice on the line made his stomach drop, jolting him awake.
The late-night caller said McGlone’s nephew was in legal trouble and needed immediate financial assistance. He’d been in a car accident that had caused the other driver — a pregnant woman — to lose her baby. Thinking his nephew’s future was on the line, McGlone didn’t hesitate to send the cash requested.
“If he was in trouble, we were going to try to do what we can,” McGlone said. “And it’s a weakness. I guess we just weren’t thinking clearly.”Across the nation, crimes of fraud targeting senior citizens are on the rise, and many of the attempts have become more advanced through the use of new technologies. In 2019, the Federal Trade Commission reported that imposter scams, which involve impersonating a person or an entity, were the most common type of fraud in the United States. Reports have almost doubled since 2016, according to the FTC, reaching a new high this year of more than 512,000.
Older citizens and retirees are particularly at risk — they’re often explicitly targeted and tend to be swindled out of much higher amounts than other age groups. Almost $149 million was reported in imposter scam losses by those over the age of 60 this year, FTC data shows. With little or no way to work to earn back their money, victims are often left with few options after being conned out of their life savings.
This is exactly what happened to McGlone. After reaching out to his nephew directly, he soon learned there had been no accident, no victim, no danger at all. Instead, he had sent $22,000 — nearly all of his life savings — to someone running what’s known as a grandpa or grandma scam.
Though he filed a police report that week, they have yet to catch the culprit or recover any of his money.
“They’re retired, you know, they lost everything,” said Sharon McGlone, McGlone’s daughter, who set up a GoFundMe page for her parents after the scam. “And so they’re still struggling with paying the bills and everything.”
A global problem
In June, the U.S. Department of Justice announced the creation of the Transnational Elder Fraud Strike Force, tasked with “investigating and prosecuting individuals and entities associated with foreign-based fraud schemes that disproportionately affect American seniors.” The team is a coordinated effort of the FBI, Department of Justice, Secret Service and numerous other organizations.
But finding these offenders is no easy task. They operate in organized groups and have developed sophisticated methods to avoid being caught.
“Historically, this type of crime was sort of small groups operating and using the limited skill sets that they have,” Matt O’Neill, a Secret Service agent who manages the Global Investigative Operations Center, said. “Those days are over because cybercrime is a service now.”
In the past few years, fraudsters have started to use “money mules,” people used to trafficking money overseas, according to the Department of Justice.
Money mules can be broken down into several categories. Most often, they are either knowing co-conspirators who have been recruited to collect and send money, or they are unwitting victims who have been tricked into moving money under false pretenses, according to the Secret Service. Unwitting mules can fall prey to con artists posing as businesses hiring people to work from home or they’re told they’ve won the lottery and just need to send the fees to receive their winnings.
In early December, the Department of Justice and Europol announced a “landmark” international effort that halted a major network of fraudsters. Six-hundred money mules were stopped during the September to November operation, compared to 400 in a similar effort last year. Multiple law enforcement agencies were involved, including members of the Transnational Elder Fraud Strike Force that was formed in June.
“There were law enforcement authorities in 31 countries that stepped up to crack down on money mule schemes, which is pretty significant,” O’Neill said. “You don’t see that all that often, which goes to the heart of the problem: that it is a worldwide problem.”
Older victims, newer tech
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In America, older citizens are hit particularly hard. In family or friend imposter scams targeting seniors over 80, as was the case with McGlone, the median amount lost so far this year has been $6,500.
Associate Deputy Attorney General Antoinette T. Bacon said one reason older citizens are targeted is, “that’s where the money is.”
Retirees like McGlone tend to have much more put away than younger people, Bacon said.
“I think a second is they’re not as technologically savvy as millennials or generations who grew up with computers,” Bacon said, citing social isolation and loneliness as reasons seniors are more susceptible to engaging with scammers.
Such criminals are constantly evolving their tactics.
“We have to almost keep ahead of the curve on these technologies and these approaches that they’re using so that we can educate the public on them,” the commissioner of New York City’s Department for the Aging, Lorraine Cortés-Vázquez, said.
Cash scams, like what McGlone experienced, have been replaced with less traceable forms of extortion. In recent months, gift cards have taken over as a popular form of payment, according to the New York State Attorney General’s office. They request the serial numbers on the back to be sent to them, allowing for the money to be transferred without a trace.
Fraudsters are also using increasingly sophisticated technology. Robocalls have exploded because they require less time, effort and money, according to Lois Greisman, associate director of the FTC’s division of marketing practices. Spoofing technology has rendered caller ID untrustworthy, while malware opens a slew of options to criminals.
Dangers in popups and webcams
Merri Berg, 70, is a retiree living in Federal Way, Washington, and was the target of one of these tech support scams. While playing an online game, a screen popped up telling her to call Apple immediately or risk being blocked.
“I get the number and I get an agent who sounds like an Apple agent,” Berg said. “I mean he’s asking me all the right questions.”
Posing as a customer service agent, he instructed her to drive to a store and buy an Apple gift card.
“I went down there and I ended up taking a picture of the back of that card, which has the number on it for $200 and sending it to him,” Berg said. When the scammer called back and asked for $500 more to fix a new problem, she realized that it had all been a trick.
But such grifters can use malware for much more than faking pop-up windows.
“Being able to remotely and maliciously access webcams is part of the toolkit of hackers who are looking to scam people,” Sandy Silverberg, president of the technology consulting firm TEConsult, said. According to Silverberg, hackers do this using software called a Remote Access Trojan, which can be accidentally installed through infected email links and internet downloads. Once in, these programs can also be used to remotely access and control your computer.
Silverberg was a consultant to FirstLight, a home care company in New York, when one of the company’s clients was spied on through her webcam. The scammer had tried to use details about the interior of the client’s home to convince her that he was her nephew. FirstLight owner David Martin knew his client didn’t have a nephew and reached out to Silverberg.
Silverberg told Martin that his client was likely being spied on through her laptop camera.
“He actually told me now that they’re spying on her and this is very common with the elderly,” Martin said. “It’s growing.”
Martin’s solution to prevent any of his clients from falling victim to such a con was low-tech: He made it a policy to give them all webcam covers.
According to the FBI, fraudsters can use malware to gain full access to computers, including webcams.
Scammers will then extort victims, saying, “I collected all your private data and I recorded you pleasuring yourself, or doing something terrible, or whatever it is through your webcam,” FBI special agent Mike Braconi said. “And you pay the X amount of Bitcoin.”
Catching the con
For the authorities, it’s like whack-a-mole, trying to catch the criminals swindling billions from the nation’s elderly.
“We’re making a concerted effort to go after the networks to try to take down the networks, and not in a piecemeal approach,” O’Neill said about the tactics that the Secret Service is currently employing. “Because what we’ve found is, if we just take one individual out, somebody else will fill in that role. We have seen a change in the bad actor operations knowing how we are targeting them, which is good because it continues to make them uncomfortable.”
According to Bacon, sometimes the only hope of financial recourse lies in the fraudster being caught and charged by authorities. But even when they are, in many cases, “the money is long gone,” Bacon said.
Timely reporting is the crucial first step in that process. Unfortunately, only one in 44 victims even files a report, according to the New York State Attorney General’s office.
“Law enforcement is definitely still losing the fight because the problem is the speed in which it needs to be brought to the attention of law enforcement has to be no later than 72 hours,” O’Neill said. “But typically to have any success, it’s within the first 24 hours.”
Unfortunately, shame frequently stops victims from reporting at all.
For McGlone, the ordeal resulted in serious financial loss and it also damaged the faith he had in himself.
“I’m embarrassed to talk about it,” J.M said. “I’m sure it upsets my family, as well.”
Bacon said that one of the major challenges her agency faces is that older victims are reluctant to report the crimes out of fear of losing their autonomy.
“They are afraid that their children are going to take away the car keys, take away the checkbook, move them in,” Bacon said. “They’re also concerned because they’re a proud generation and don’t want to be a burden to their family.”
Mike Kush punches the gas on a golf cart, the wind tousling his grizzled ponytail. “You look hot,” he says, waving a disapproving hand at my trousers. “Feel free to take your clothes off.”
A husky man, Kush takes up most of the seat, leaving only a few hallowed centimeters between me and his naked body. We’re speeding through the residential streets of the Lake Como Family Nudist Resort in Pasco county, Florida. It’s a Saturday morning and families are sunbathing around the community pool and clubhouse. The air is thick with the languid warmth of summer camp.
Lake Como is one of 13 nudist resorts and neighborhoods that pepper a 15-mile stretch of US 41 running through the rural heart of Pasco county, just inland of Tampa Bay, Florida. (Clothing is required by law everywhere outside the confines of each resort or neighborhood.)
Some “resorts” are nothing more than a cluster of trailer parks, others are primly landscaped and lined with stucco mansions. “But Lake Como was the original,” Kush says.
In 1941, Ava Weaver Brubaker, a tax lawyer from Tampa, bought this plot of land, then a 350-acre orange grove, after his doctor had prescribed nude sunbathing to treat a rare skin disease. He and his wife, Dorothy, grew fond of the practice and started inviting their friends. Within a few years they were taking out classified ads in nudist journals and selling memberships.
Pasco county is now considered to be the nudist capital of the world – nowhere else has a larger year-round population of nudists (or “naturists”, the preferred term). They have played an integral role in the local economy for decades. The bed and sales tax revenue generated from the 10,000 permanent residents and nearly 1 million annual tourists helps fund everything from school districts to law enforcement.
There’s a neighborhood or resort for every flavor: couples, singles, swingers, multigenerational families, LGBTQ people, retirees. But as different varieties of nudists decamped to Pasco county over the years, an ideological gulf has formed. On one side there’s Lake Como, the oldest and surely the most staid, which upholds traditional nudist values (no PDA, no sexual overtones) and where children are welcome.
Then there’s the Caliente Club and Resort, a natural adversary just up the road, known for its wild swinger parties and bawdy social media campaigns. Both represent the profile of naturism in America today. Both struggle with being misunderstood by the outside world and share the common goal of normalizing naturism, but they spend a considerable amount of time grappling with each other.
“It’s sad how the outside world looks down on us,” Karyn McMullen, president of the Lake Como co-op, tells me inside a screened-in porch bar called the Butt Hutt. She has a helmet of lank, straw-colored hair, its tone enhanced by the contrast of her chestnutty brown skin.
The greatest misconception about their lifestyle, McMullen says, is that it’s sexual in nature. “It has absolutely nothing to do with sex,” she says. “It’s much deeper than that.”
Whether they were raised in nudist families or introduced to it as adults, Pasco county is filled with people who have eschewed conventional lives in favor of this enclave. They say stripping one’s clothes leads to an immediate dissolution of ego – once they are no longer obscured, bodies and any perceived differences, are rendered invisible. It’s the only way to achieve authentic social parity.
“We took off our fears and inhibitions when we got here,” McMullen, who’s lived at the resort since 2012, says. “We just trust one another.”
Contemporary naturism began in Germany in the early 20th century as a folk medicine panacea, and then transformed during the postwar years into a manner of dissent from the authoritarian rule of the German Democratic Republic. Conversely, the origins of American naturism are socialistic. Lee Baxandall, a prominent figure of the new left, dedicated the second act of his life to nudist advocacy in America. (A nude statue of Karl Marx stands in the lobby of the American Nudist Research Library in nearby Kissimmee.)
The fact that Lake Como is a co-op is further reification. All the money from daily passes for tourists or annual membership dues from residents is cycled back into property maintenance and improvements. Roughly half of the resorts in the area function as not-for-profits. If the principle stands that gender, race and sexuality are immaterial, then wealth and class are too.
These are reasons why nude recreation is gaining popularity in America and abroad, particularly with demographics other than white people of a certain vintage. According to the American Association for Nude Recreation (AANR) – the oldest naturist advocacy group in North America, which offers legal counseling and a lobbying arm – the Black Naturists Association (BNA) is the fastest growing nudist organization in the country. Membership skews younger, and has increased tenfold in the last year.
Conversations I overhear among residents at Lake Como recall those halcyon days of childhood, before we found significance in skin color, or sneakers or the type of car our parents drove. That return to innocence is the argument for Pasco county being a utopian experiment worth preserving, though they feel it’s undermined by Caliente. Residents of Lake Como and other traditional resorts where children are raised and recreate have spent decades trying to divorce the association of nudism with sexual deviancy, whereas Caliente wholly embraces it.
As I make my way to leave the Butt Hutt, a man with mussed white hair, an imposing frame and an all-over tan corners me. He introduces himself as Rich Pasco. “I was hoping I’d get a chance to talk to you about Caliente,” he says, peering down from double-bridge eyeglasses. “I live there.”
We arrange to meet later at Caliente, a few miles north on Highway 41. In parting, he reaches out for a handshake and I have an instant flash of all the moments throughout the afternoon I’d seen him use that hand to gather his inert scrotum and clear a space so he could cross his legs.
Royal palms and a high wall of mildewed sandstone conceal Caliente’s thousands of members from the highway. At the entrance to the palatial country club, I’m made to empty my pockets and walk through a metal detector. The resort felt it had to ratchet up security since the 2016 shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, being that it hosts large queer crowds.
I hear this is the most “upscale” nudist resort in the world, with it’s full-service spa, fitness center, thatched chickee huts, five pools, eight bars, restaurants and on-site sex shop. The grand lobby bar is furnished with ersatz-gold accents and plaster replicas of Renaissance statues. I follow a stream of foot traffic out the back door and find dozens if not hundreds, of nudists luxuriating below – a field of bare buttocks slathered with coconut tanning oil and spread across neat rows of lounge chairs, like country hams basting under heat lamps. Though Caliente has hundreds of permanent residents, it’s equally popular (as are all resorts in the area) for selling day passes, weekend memberships and vacation rentals.
A part-time employee and air force veteran named Kevin greets me. He asks that his last name be withheld, reminding me that outsiders often take a dim view of his lifestyle choice. He says that Caliente is “lifestyle friendly”, a euphemism for sexually open and experimental. “The line between nudity and sex is very thin,” he says. “We don’t allow anyone under 21 because we feel that nudity, booze and children don’t really mix.”
As we round a tiki bar, he launches into a soliloquy about Caliente’s openness to all comers, its popularity with LGTBQ and younger crowds. “Tell me who’s gay and who isn’t,” he says, pointing at the “conversation pool”, naked bodies poking out, aged 21 to 81, various shapes and shades, drowning in Malibu rum and growing tender as the afternoon wanes.
Eventually, I find Rich Pasco on the balcony of a sports bar. He orders a pitcher full of Diet Coke and tells me about how he sees himself as a global ambassador of nudism – with multiple advocacy groups and a political action committee dedicated to destigmatizing nude recreation. As a kind of stump speech, he offers the quixotic story of his first experience with public nudity. At a New Jersey YMCA, a lifeguard told a group of preteen boys that they had to get naked before jumping in the pool. “We all dropped our trunks right there and jumped in,” he says. “We swam all afternoon.”
I have an internal reaction: the thought of stripping naked at a public pool is a boyhood trauma that would be difficult for me to survive without permanent psychological damage, but Pasco says he’s been hooked ever since.
He explains that when he bought his house in Caliente – one of the first built in 2004 – the place still welcomed families, and held the same rules as Lake Como. “Adults and children were naked in the pool, and there’s nothing untoward going on.”
That changed when the resort started losing money. A steep overhead made it incapable of surviving on a lean diet of membership dues. New management started selling sex instead of naked family outings to attract outsiders.
Rich is surprisingly gentle in his criticism of the resort, considering he’s spent most of his life trying to convince the world that nudity is not inherently sexual, and now he has to walk by flyers for the “naughty schoolgirl party” in the Caliente clubhouse. But most classic naturists are less tolerant of Caliente. Five years ago, the resort was dismissed from the AANR for damaging the reputation of “social family nudism”.
With all the fuss surrounding Caliente, I ask why he doesn’t just move to another neighborhood.
“Look at this place.” He unfolds his arms to the lavish playground below, as if to say, How could Peter Pan yield his dominion? For now, he balances, or perhaps tempers, his enchantment in Caliente with the homely environs of Como, keeping a bare foot in both worlds.
Sunday morning back at Lake Como bears a steady breeze and mild humidity: naturist’s delight, by the looks of it. They are mooning about, in smocks or muumuus, but the majority wear only Birkenstocks. Seeing them walk around this thinly forested area, unhurried, a bit lost and listless – there’s something prehistoric, evolutionarily backwards in it.
Rich Pasco unfolds himself from his Prius, steps out of his ratty cargo shorts and walks bare-assed into the Garden of Eden church, a squat asylum-white building next to a cypress grove. Inside, Pastor Norm arranges Bibles on the plastic tables. He has spiky, salt-and-pepper hair. Instead of vestments he wears rubber-toe shoes and a T-shirt that reads “Free Hugs”, his wattle and business end poking out from under the hem. Jayson McMullen, Karyn’s husband, strums a few chords on his acoustic guitar as 15 or so parishioners file in.
Garden of Eden is nondenominational. A small but faithful bunch, most live at Como, or in the area, but some drive from hours away to make the Sunday service. There’s no communion, no theatrics, just fellowshipping that connects them to the biblically tinged, living-as-God-intended ethos which fed early strains of nudism.
We open with a hymn, Lord I Lift Your Name on High, and Pastor Norm drums softly on the table. His following sermon is a paean for positive body image, “To affirm the goodness of our bodies exactly how God created them,” he says, “that’s what naturism is all about.” The group nods serenely; the appeal was universal.
Jayson gently massages his wife’s shoulders. Karyn closes her eyes and lolls her head. I felt like I was watching a scene from the early days, before the community grew big enough that the clothed world stepped in to admonish, and before a title like “nudist capital” preceded them. Back when it was just a few guys and girls hanging out with their clothes off, with nothing to fight about.