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When Americans Stopped Driving

The recession that began in 2007 left lasting scars on the American economy. One seems to be that we are driving less.

A lot less, too. Total miles driven in the U.S. peaked in 2007 at a touch above 3 trillion a year. The latest figures from January put us at 2.95 trillion miles per year. That may seem like a trivial decline until you put it into historic context. It is, without doubt, the longest America has gone without growing our time on the road in at least four decades:

The decline is even larger when adjusted for the size of the population. Annual driving per capita has declined nearly 8% since 2005, or double the decline experienced during the recession of the early '80s.

What's going on? There are four standard explanations, some more convincing than others. 

The most obvious is the economy. Nine out of 10 workers drive to work, according to the Census Bureau. As employment fell by 9 million between 2008 and 2010, the roadways cleared up. One study by Texas A&M's Transportation Institute showed the amount of time the average commuter is stuck in traffic fell 13% from 2006 to 2010, with most of the decline taking place during the recession.

But that can't account for all of the decline. Employment has increased by 6 million since 2010, yet we are driving 10 billion fewer miles a year now than we were then. One study focusing on young drivers found: "The trend toward reduced driving ... has occurred even among young people who are employed and/or are doing well financially." And miles driven per capita peaked in 2005, nearly three years before the recession started. There is more to the driving story than a weak economy.

Gas prices are the other obvious culprit. Sticker shock at the pump likely caused most of the dip in miles driven in the '80s, but today it isn't as clear cut. Nationwide average gas prices are lower today than they were two years ago, yet miles driven continue to fall. Adjusted for average wages, gas prices today are nearly identical to prices that prevailed in late 2005, when vehicle miles traveled per capita peaked. The Congressional Budget Office parsed the data more carefully and concluded: "Recent empirical research suggests that total driving, or vehicle miles traveled (VMT), is not currently very responsive to the price of gasoline. A 10 percent increase in gasoline prices is estimated to reduce VMT by as little as 0.2 percent to 0.3 percent in the short run and by 1.1 percent to 1.5 percent eventually."

Rather than cutting back on miles driven, we have adapted to higher gas prices mostly through better fuel economy, which spiked around 2005 after plateauing for two decades.

Another explanation is a shift in where Americans live. Following decades of booming outward population growth from cities into suburbs, the past decade saw the return of urban living. As Reuters reports: "In 2010, a total of 80.7 percent of Americans lived in urban areas, up from 79 percent in 2000. Conversely, 19.3 percent of the U.S. population lived in rural areas in 2010, down from 21 percent in 2000."

Rural areas are more conducive to long drives, so the shift explains part of the decline in vehicle miles traveled.

Lastly, one of the more convincing factors fueling the decline in driving is demographics. This chart, from the Federal Highway Administration, shows how driving differs among age groups:

These rates are important because of an underappreciated demographic shift going on in the U.S. As the birth rate fell following the baby boom of the 1950s and 1960s, the population of Americans in their 30s and 40s began declining early last decade. Census data shows there are actually four million fewer "highly mobile" Americans age 34-43 today than there were in 2005, when miles driven per capita peaked. The population of Americans age 74 and up, who drive the least, grew by two million during that period.

All of these shifts create opportunities for Ford (NYSE: F  ) , General Motors (NYSE: GM  ) , and Toyota (NYSE: TM  ) , which have revamped their fleets to adapt to the new American driver. A decade ago, the manufacturer who could deliver the most headroom and horsepower per dollar won. Going forward, the fruits will go to whoever can deliver the most gas mileage and dependability per dollar. It is a new paradigm, for both drivers and car companies.

If you are interested in more on the auto industry, we've outlined Ford's opportunities in detail, in the Fool's premium Ford research service. Click here to get started now.

Read/Post Comments (23) | Recommend This Article (20)

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  • Report this Comment On March 28, 2013, at 8:18 AM, Estrogen wrote:

    Another plausible cause is the shift towards more telecommuting. At&t is attempting to shave $500 million/year in real estate costs by looking at certain jobs that have traditionally been done in an office environment, but could be done from a home base instead.

    With technology and bandwidth increasing at home and on the road, it is much easier to stay very connected at home, in a starbucks, or even on the road with LTE network.

    I'm sure many other companies are looking at this as well.

  • Report this Comment On April 02, 2013, at 7:39 AM, devoish wrote:

    CBO's report is based upon California data collected between 2003 and 2006 which were boomtimes

    I do not think it is accurate to suggest that data collected before the banks collapsed the economy supports this idea - "And miles driven per capita peaked in 2005, nearly three years before the recession started. There is more to the driving story than a weak economy."

    You also gave us this statement;

    "Total miles driven in the U.S. peaked in 2007 at a touch above 3 trillion a year."

    Basically you have used pre recession data to support conclusions of post recession driving habits.

    What you really have here is evidence that the investment industry (us) is destroying the health and well being of the vast majority of Americans for personal profit.

    In 2005 and again in 2007 you had an investment industry that spiked the price of gasoline 50% both years, and woke Americans up to the fact that they were poor and vulnerable to price manipulation by a financial industry that preys upon them.

    Now they are poor and driving less, forced to live in cities because they cannot afford gasoline or cars.

    Large investors have grown rich by investing first and then profiting by selling to small investors under guise of "advice" who support the larger investors by investing second with their 401k's and are either losing money or not seeing the gains their "advisors" get.

    Additionally they are supporting excessive CEO pay by spending their retirement hopes on supporting executive stock options.

    Unlike hedge funds, I believe the Gardners are well intentioned, but I would guess they have made a lot more money selling advice, than on stock appreciation.

    As long as investment can manipulate the price of commodities without adding value, the best investments right now are those which reduce your cost of living going forward because you are under attack and out gunned.

    Best wishes,


  • Report this Comment On April 02, 2013, at 8:47 AM, TMFDarwood11 wrote:

    I suspect that a long and deep recession, as this one has been, with higher gas prices, has provided both the motivation and a time duration sufficient for new habits to become normal.

    Here are the average gasoline prices I paid, per year for a total of 106,000 miles in one vehicle:

    2005 = $2.50 per gallon

    2006 = $2.74

    2007 = $3.04

    2008 = $3.24

    2009 = $2.82

    2010 = $2.98

    2011 = $3.99

    2012 = $4.08

  • Report this Comment On April 02, 2013, at 10:52 AM, Tinu wrote:

    Also, the young, highly mobile people I know are trying reduce their carbon footprint.

  • Report this Comment On April 02, 2013, at 11:27 AM, takemylife wrote:

    Until gas falls below $2/gallon, which likely will never happen again, this will be the norm. I bought a turbo diesel just because of this and now I only pay $0.08/mile versus the $0.23/mile I was paying in my sports sedan. I would much rather be driving a truck or sports car/sedan but that is no longer an option in America. Gone are the days you can buy a car because of your personal preference. I was only paying $1.65/gallon back in 2005 and bought a truck thinking surely the gas will be going down in price soon cause I had never seen it that high. How wrong I was! Even in 2007/2008 you could still see prices around $1.79/gallon. Either the gas has to go lower or the wages get a lot higher to offset what this has done to the average American.

  • Report this Comment On April 02, 2013, at 12:21 PM, TMFLomax wrote:

    This is really fascinating. Although I would definitely blame the high gas prices (which are still VERY high even if they've receded a bit - awesome breakdown Darwood11) and the employment/underemployment issues for much of this, I agree with Sherley106 that some people are literally choosing to drive less due to carbon footprint concerns -- truth is, for many decades Americans thought nothing of plenty of useless, even wasteful, trips. I know I have begun to think differently about my driving habits. (Not perfect, of course, but I do drive less than I did when I was younger. And drive a Prius.)

    Also telecommuting as Estrogen mentioned is a good thing for soo many reasons, money-saving, environment-saving, and otherwise.

    Thanks for this article Morgan. One could get a sense/suspect that there is less driving, but it's interesting to see statistics!


  • Report this Comment On April 02, 2013, at 12:25 PM, TMFDarwood11 wrote:

    I own a Subaru WRX. My cost per mile over the life of the vehicle has been $0.16 per mile, and that is with 93 octane gas.

    My spouse owns a "higher mileage" vehicle which gets peaks at 32mpg. I've paid a gasoline premium of about $500 a year to drive the WRX. My spouse loves the WRX. So the question is, how much enjoyment can one get for about $42 a month? Is it worth it? Are there other areas that one can "trade off?"

    Here's a couple of questions for readers. How much energy do you spend each year on gasoline, electricity, natural gas, water and sewer treatment? How much energy does it take for that wide screen TV, those tablet PCs, laptops and so on? What about the X-Box, Home Theater sound system, the stereo and all of the other entertainment appliances your family uses?

    Here's a trick question: How much energy does it take to get to Starbucks for that cup of coffee or that latte, and that includes driving, brewing and then the energy to make that cup.

    There are a lot of assumptions built into the way we live. One of them is that a throw away Styrofoam cup is really energy inefficient. Really? How much energy does it take to make an earthenware mug, That includes mining or quarrying, grinding the raw materials to a fine powder, adding water to form (it has to be pumped and purified), then producing those colorful paints and glazes, firing at extremely high temperatures, and then shipping it all over the planet? How long does that mug last, and how many Styrofoam cups does it really replace? How much energy did it take to make that "designer kitchen" and fill it with appliances, fancy tile, a granite counter-top and all of those dishes, silverware, stainless and crystal and cups, etc.?

    Our family practices "living below your means" (LBY) and are debt free. That means, we practice energy efficiency and carbon reduction in all aspects of our lives. The WRX is probably the glaring example of the opposite. Yet, based on our bills, we seem to be using a lot less energy!

    To reduce one's costs, if one is to live in a modern American city means that we have to do so while on the grid. We deal with the problems most other Americans deal with. But LBY is our secret weapon. Why? Just about everything we do is designed to support a LBY lifestyle. We drive automobiles that are 8 years old and impeccably maintained mechanically. (How much energy does it take to produce a single automobile?) We do combine driving trips. We have a better than normal insulated home, a setback thermostat, insulated hot water heater and short, insulated piping. Our home has a lot of other passive features, including orientation to take advantage of morning sun and thermal radiation and heating. Active features include heavy drapes which are closed at night (to retain heat), very efficient appliances (including a $750 extremely efficient low water dishwasher), minimal use of energy eating "toys" and even turning off everything that doesn't need to consume energy when it is not necessary for use.

    Our home is a condo. That means, our unit is not exposed to the elements on all outside walls. Yes, we live in an association and therefore our exposed surface area/living area is lower than the usual home. Yet, we have a view of a waterfall and stream, can just about touch the tree from our deck and so on. Condominiums house one in five households in America. That's a good thing.

    Most of what needs to be done is really, really simple stuff. All it take is the knowledge and the will to accomplish it.

  • Report this Comment On April 02, 2013, at 12:32 PM, TheDumbMoney wrote:

    Nice piece.

    Apropos of this, something like 6% of all workers in Portland bike to work now. That is a huge number. "Put a bird on it!"

    Also, Alyce, take note that when you drive a Prius, you are still emitting plenty of carbon. Our family has a Prius, but also an SUV. We pay money every year to Terrapass to offset our carbon emissions on all of our cars, including the SUV. So from a carbon perspective, my SUV is vastly greener than your Prius.

    And to the extent you drive little in your Prius, as you say, you separately decrease the likelihood that you will ever recover the hybrid premium via decreased gas costs. (Even if you do, you will not have zeroed out your carbon emissions, unless you pay extra.) For me to zero out the carbon emissions on my SUV costs about $110/year. I can keep zeroing that out for the entire lifetime of my SUV without paying an equivalent amount to what you paid as a hybrid premium to the Toyota motor company for your Prius.

    You're a green lady. Go to and write something up about carbon offsets. They are quite reputable. And also consider offsetting the still-considerable carbon emissions from your Prius.

    Here is my piece on this from a couple of months ago:

    In short, while I value what companies are trying to accomplish with the Prius and the Volt, I think there is a sense in which they are greenwashing. Essentially you are paying a huge premium to a private company, when you could be spending that money to actually offset all of your carbon emissions, and still have plenty left over to pay for your higher gas costs.



  • Report this Comment On April 02, 2013, at 12:33 PM, TMFBlacknGold wrote:

    ^^Gas prices today are $0.30 cheaper than they were a year ago. Not a trend (yet), but the EIA sees prices sliding for the next few years.

    Also, if you look at domestic gasoline consumption charts over the same period they nearly mirror the chart for miles driven presented above. Chicken or the egg?


  • Report this Comment On April 02, 2013, at 12:48 PM, TMFDarwood11 wrote:


    Your personal note on carbon credits and SUVs is interesting.

    However, most Americans who drive an SUV or other large vehicle, don't pay a carbon credit, as far as I know.

    Yes, a Prius has batteries and so on (which have to be manufactured and disposed of), and an all electric vehicle that's charged east of the Mississippi does, on average, get 40% of it's energy from coal fired electrical generating plants (and nuclear and natural gas!)

    However, Americans drive billions of miles each year and in the process we use a lot of energy. I think automobiles are a great way to measure habits and consumption.

  • Report this Comment On April 02, 2013, at 2:08 PM, TheDumbMoney wrote:

    Darwood11, your points are valid, but not relevant. Many drive SUVs and do no offset because they do not know they can, or because they are selfish. Nor was my point at all about the environmental imprint of the batteries, though that would be an additional point in my favor. My point is that Alyce should do her part to expand awareness of carbon offsets, and should be aware of the extent to which her Pruis purchase is both less virtuous and less cost-efficient than she may believe it is. Hybrids have hit a point of cultural critical mass, and there are many good things about them, but that should not blind us to their deficiencies. Arguably most of those concerned about global CO2 emissions would be better off simply paying for carbon offsets and buying an equivalent car, offsetting CO2, and using the remainder of what is saved by not paying the hybrid premium to cover some or all of the increased gas costs.

    The counterargument is that by buying Priuses, the hybrid premium will eventually somewhat disappear, thus making a better cost-benefit tradeoff in the future, and ultimately doing good. This is one of the reasons we also do own a Prius. It is a form of hedging on my ideology/ideas.



  • Report this Comment On April 02, 2013, at 3:01 PM, TMFDarwood11 wrote:


    Here's my perspective, in brief. It takes energy to propel all forms of four wheeled, ground based transportation. Individual means include gasoline powered automobiles or diesel, electric and hybrids.

    All of these forms of transportation require carbon based fuels, with the exception of electric cars, which "only" require 67% directly from carbon, (this is based upon total sources as 43% from coal-fired electrical generating plants, 24% from natural gas, 19% form nuclear, 8% from hydro-electric and 2.8% from wind power. Solar is, as I have previously stated in other posts, "a drop in the bucket.").

    I think the greatest contribution of good hybrids or electrical automobiles is the capture, via regeneration, of much of that "braking energy" normally lost to friction brake pads and dispersed as heat.

    However, the EIA has published average energy consumption per household in the U.S. It was 101.5 million BTUs per household unit in 1997 and has been reduced to 89.6 million BTU's in 2009.

    You can go to this website to see how you compare:

    The national average is $2,024 per housing unit.

    My household spends 55.4% of the average. That's the only statistic that really matters. Of course, i don't know about how much energy it took to manufacture all of the stuff we have.

  • Report this Comment On April 02, 2013, at 3:07 PM, TheDumbMoney wrote:

    I'm aware of all of those facts in rough form. I'm not meaning to be obtuse, but I'm also totally unable to see why they are relevant to what I'm talking about in my responses to Alyce' comment. Regenerative braking is great, but in the end it all comes down to 1) cost of gas to run hybrid vs. standard car, given the "hybrid premium" extra cost of buying a hybrid over an equivalent car; and 2) comparative effectiveness of hybrid and simply paying for CO2 offsetting, in reducing CO2 emissions. On both of those counts, at this point in time, in is my conclusion that hybrids lose the comparison, regenerative breaking or not.

  • Report this Comment On April 02, 2013, at 3:31 PM, TMFDarwood11 wrote:

    My perspective is based on "total carbon emissions." Saying "my automobile is efficient" is not going to get the job done. Even if one pays a "carbon credit."

    It's like Bill Gates, who lives in a 66,000 square foot mansion saying "It's energy efficient." Yes, that is true, but is still consumes far. far more energy than my humble abode does.

    Total consumption is what is relevant. The rest is, in my opinion, obfuscation.

    Paying to use more carbon has yet to be proved to reduce total carbon emissions. We can agree that "A carbon offset represents a reduction in emissions somewhere else" but does it really reduce carbon emissions on the planet?

    Conservation is the only proven method. Period.

  • Report this Comment On April 02, 2013, at 4:59 PM, TheDumbMoney wrote:

    Here some math:

    My SUV emits 9,248 lbs CO2 per year, if I drive it 10,000 miles per year. I pay to offset (reduce by that amount) 9,248 lbs CO2 per year. Thus, my net CO2 emission, contrary to your comment above, is zero.

    Alyce's Prius emits 3,884 lbs CO2 per year, if she drives it 10,000 miles per year. She pays to offset 0 lbs per year. Her net C02 emissions are 3,884 lbs of CO2 more than mine.

    That is the math.

    What you are really trying to talk about, but failing to articulate at all, is opportunity costs. You would like to say, I think, that if I ALSO owned the Prius in place of my SUV, I could pay the same amount, and offset even more. But the fact is, I'm offsetting 100% of my CO2 emissions, period. Alyce is not. At a certain point, offsetting of CO2 emissions would not be effective, because there is only so much offsetting to be done (you can't offset below zero), but we as a society are nowhere near that point.

    I support conservation. But your inability to accept the validity of my arguments, which are not really assailable, tells me you are somewhat blinded by passing fads of what is an "acceptable" response to environmental concerns and global warming. It also ignores the fact that multiple countries, and California, have enacted carbon trading schemes precisely to coerce the type of carbon offsetting I am choosing to do on an individual basis because I'm a nice guy.

    Also, I don't want to waste my time getting into it too much, but your final assertion is simultaneously a nice example of multiple logical fallacies: denying the antecedent, the continuum fallacy, ignoratio elenchi, the Nirvana Fallacy, and probably false authority too, since you provide no citations.

  • Report this Comment On April 02, 2013, at 7:27 PM, devoish wrote:

    "Here some math:

    My SUV emits 9,248 lbs CO2 per year, if I drive it 10,000 miles per year. I pay to offset (reduce by that amount) 9,248 lbs CO2 per year. Thus, my net CO2 emission, contrary to your comment above, is zero.

    Alyce's Prius emits 3,884 lbs CO2 per year, if she drives it 10,000 miles per year. She pays to offset 0 lbs per year. Her net C02 emissions are 3,884 lbs of CO2 more than mine.

    That is the math."

    Couldn't you also drive a Prius, 3884 lbs co2/ year and still buy offsets for 9248 lbs co2/year?

    Best wishes


  • Report this Comment On April 02, 2013, at 8:08 PM, TheDumbMoney wrote:

    Steven, I addressed that in my fifth paragraph of that same comment, about opportunity costs. It seems you did not get that far, and then you repeated a portion of my own comment back to me in your comment as if it was a new idea, which is always fun.

    The fact is that by offsetting 100% of my own CO2 emissions I'm doing more for the environment than anyone who merely buys a Prius is doing.

    But a Prius has become a totem, a shorthand, an "article of faith," a can-do-no-wrong unimpeachable symbol of virtue. It is a sacred cow now, as evidenced by the responses to my original comment. I hate sacred cows. No cows are sacred.

    People, pay to offset your darn emissions, even if it doesn't have the pseudo-luxury-car snob appeal of a Prius. And stop pretending you're saving the world just by buying a Prius. If you're worried about making sure you project your virtuous enviro-consciousness to strangers as you drive down the road, Terrapass even has a bumper sticker you can put on your car.


  • Report this Comment On April 03, 2013, at 7:53 AM, devoish wrote:


    Make no doubt about it.

    Prius buyers, Volt buyers, etc. are not "pseudo luxury car snobs", acting on "faith". They are taking the reduction of their own carbon emissions into their own hands, responsibility and control.

    That really was not a very nice thing to say about anyone, but I will tell you, most people see others as reflection of their own character.

    If you can show me that the carbon trading scheme you are promoting actually gets 100%, dollar for dollar and does not lose co2 reductions to salarys, monitoring and corruption then you can claim you are doing as much as Alyce.

    I am sure terrapass openly publishes their income and payroll information and does not exist to provide someone with a six figure salary which you are asking Alyce to provide.

    Best wishes,


  • Report this Comment On April 03, 2013, at 9:17 AM, catoismymotor wrote:

    I tried to make it through all the above comments but I was not able to. So if what I offer is repetitive I apologize in advance.

    When it comes to reducing your carbon footprint, or whatever your concern may be in terms of an automobile you need to do the following: Buy a used efficient vehicle and keep it until the wheels fall off. Then repeat the process. I will offer my situation as a example: My car is a simple four door, four cylinder sedan I bought in 2001 when it was two years old. The car has been paid off since 2005. It has been super reliable over its 155,000 mile life. I plan on keeping it for at least four more years, or 45,000 miles, if not longer. Most typical consumers in that same period of time would have gone through three cars, financed each, and would have wasted a ton of money in the process. Now just think of all the time and expense on the part of a car company to bring a new car to market. Over the past twelve years the cost of raw materials and shipping costs have increased. The number of luxury items, or perceived necessities, on even the most basic of cars has increased too. How much, in resources, did it cost to make, ship and install all the touch screens, blue tooths, dual climate controls and sat navs? And think of all the weight that adds to a car? How much more fuel efficient would a new car be if it did not have to haul around an additional 400 pounds of smug-inducing twaddle? How much less of a carbon footprint would have been produced if that same 400 pounds of twaddle had not been produced for the car?

    So, in closing I have kept two to three additional, excessively expensive to produce, twaddle-mobiles off the road. At the same time I have saved tens of thousands of dollars in finance charges and don't have to worry about missing a payment.

    - Cato

    P.S. - I think electric cars are awesome and look forward to the day when one will be within my grasp.

  • Report this Comment On April 03, 2013, at 12:09 PM, TMFDarwood11 wrote:


    I agree with several caveats:

    1) Keep that vehicle well maintained.

    2) Newer vehicles incorporate some serious mechanical advances.

    3) Driving the vehicle as long as possible while it is maintained is the best way to lower total emissions, unless it's a Lincoln Navigator, a Chevy Suburban, or a Hummer, for example (sorry Ford, I forgot to include your gas guzzling pickups!).

    Electric vehicles are interesting. Tesla opened a sales room nearby and I've been there several times. I won't be buying one anytime soon. 1) lifespan considerations. 2) cost per mile considerations. 3) I live in Illinois, so a good percentage of the electrical power for re-charging comes from nuclear generating plants. However, nationally, it's a so called "dirty" CO2 emitting coal fired plant that is the major source of that electricity. In other words, I view an electric car as a "feel good" smoke and mirrors vehicle. 4) The number one reason to buy a Tesla S is high performance. The "feel good" crowd would give me a slap on the back (Just as they did for Al Gore when he won the Oscar).

  • Report this Comment On April 03, 2013, at 1:04 PM, TheDumbMoney wrote:


    You obviously don't live in LA, where tons of Priuses are sold! In fact probably a majority of all Priuses are sold in California. They absolutely are a way for Angelenos to say to people "I could afford a BMW 3, but I'm a good person, so I got this Prius with leather and a solar moonroom instead that costs as much as a 3-series." And the Prius plug in with options touches $40K. Please don't give me psychobabble. I have had the conversation with peopple.

    Also, in addition to your repeating back to me part of my own comment in your first comment, your second comment indicates you have also missed the fact that I also own a Prius. Which is funny.

    Finally, in your second comment you too have engaged in an informal logical fallacy, called burden shifting. I don't have to show you anything. Why is it my burden to show you why CO2 offsetting is a better idea than a Prius? Show me that buying a Prius is a better idea than CO2 offsetting! :-) Better yet, make a actual objective analysis of both yourself, as I have done, and you have not.



  • Report this Comment On April 03, 2013, at 3:28 PM, catoismymotor wrote:

    To loosely quote Jay Leno regarding the popularity of the Toyota Prius in Hollywood: "In America we like everyone to know about the good work we are doing anonymously."

    I mean no offense, I just love the snarky quote.

  • Report this Comment On May 07, 2013, at 10:26 PM, devoish wrote:


    I repeated a portion of your comment so it would be clear what I was commenting on.

    Here's an example:

    "Why is it my burden to show you why CO2 offsetting is a better idea than a Prius?"

    Because you tried to convince Alyce that buying offsets is better than simply less fossil fuel. And because I do not think spending money on a financier in the hope that the offsets he is claiming to buy are real, or even 1/4 of what is claimed. I think they are worth snot compared to just buying a fuel efficient vehicle and driving less and being personally responsible as opposed to pretending that paying someone to assuage your guilt makes any sense at all. Seems to me it is just promoting an opportunity to get robbed by a scam artist

    Best wishes,


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