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Sadly, Bernie Madoff is no different than hundreds, if not thousands, of common thieves that today blight the American landscape and put you and your life savings in danger.
Yes, he stole and shifted around billions of dollars, perpetuating most likely the greatest fraud in American history. However, if one looks at his manner and methods, at how he actually did it, the conclusion is clear. Simply put, fraudsters like Bernie Madoff-we call them financial serial killers-won't be found only on Wall Street. In fact, they operate in towns large and small across the United States.
The seduction techniques used by Bernie Madoff to attract investors are the same well-worn tricks used over and over by financial schemers across the country. The financial con man always paints a picture of himself as someone who has a great deal of financial knowledge (certainly more than his victim) and a "proven" track record of having made a lot of money for others. He'll likely show some piece of paper acknowledging his outsized investment gains. He'll tell a tale of having spun riches for others. He'll convince you of how he alone has, through his hard work, devised a "can't fail" means of making money: be it some type of overlooked investment product, some type of hedging technique, or inside knowledge possessed by only him or his investment team.
Personal relations are imperative to the success of the financial con man. He is a master at building them. He will bond with his victim, emphasizing their common interests. Did you both attend the same high school or college? Do you share the same religion or ethnic background? Did you, perhaps, belong to the same club or have kids at the same school? Or, by coincidence, did you both grow up in the same neighborhood?
Maybe, if the con man is particularly lucky, you even know some of the same people. That is particularly wonderful, because people seem to believe that, if you and I know the same people then, well, we must share the same values and we can now trust one another. So what the financial serial killer eventually achieves is to cause you, the victim, to believe in him. To trust. To feel comfortable. To let down your guard. All this is done with such skill that even the smartest among us fails to do the most basic research into the man we will entrust to hold our life savings, our children's college money, and the money we will use to buy our food and our medicine when we near the end of our life and are too old to work.
It would be ridiculous for us to make blanket statements about a firm or an industry. This book is not saying that all stockbrokers lack ethics or are somehow evil. Our goal is to help investors separate the wheat from the chaff to help identify a broker or adviser who does have questionable business practices so you can find a good one.
In fact, there are hundreds-and perhaps even thousands-of such financial serial killers lurking in the financial landscape right now. One group of securities regulators-FINRA-recently estimated there are fifteen thousand ex-stockbrokers barred from the industry. Until late 2009, information about brokers, even those who have been banned from selling securities because of criminal and outrageous behavior, was removed from public viewing after they had been out of the securities business for two years. This was the norm even though FINRA encouraged investors to use public Web sites to check out brokers. The federal government had the good sense to address the issue, and the records of such bad brokers are now permanently public. However, many brokers banned from the securities business have surfaced in the spate of recent frauds and Ponzi schemes that have cost investors billions of dollars.
The FBI and Congress have finally taken notice. The 2008 stock market collapse exposed so many schemes that the FBI in 2009 began a new investment fraud investigation for every day of the year.
"High yield investment fraud schemes have many variations, all of which are characterized by offers of low risk investments, guaranteeing an unusually high rate of return," testified Kevin Perkins, assistant director of the FBI, before the Senate Judiciary Committee in December 2009. He explained that the crimes weren't complicated. "Victims are enticed by the prospect of easy money and a fast turnaround."
The financial serial killer's ability to make investors hand over their money is a key to fueling such frauds, Perkins noted: "The most common form of these frauds is the Ponzi scheme, which is named after early twentieth-century criminal Charles Ponzi. These schemes use money collected from new victims, rather than profits from an underlying business venture, to pay the high rates of return promised to earlier investors. This arrangement gives investors the impression there is a legitimate, money-making enterprise behind the fraudster's story; but in reality, unwitting investors are the only source of funding."
"As the financial crisis expanded, drying up investment funds and causing investors to begin seeking returns of their principal, investment fraud schemes began to unravel." The number of investment frauds was staggering, Perkins told Congress. In the fiscal year 2009, the FBI saw a 105 percent increase in new high-yield investment fraud investigations when compared to 2008 (314 versus 154, and many had losses exceeding $100 million). "Many of the Ponzi scheme investigations have an international nexus and have affected thousands of victims," Perkins said.
Yes, 2009 was indeed a rough year for Ponzi schemers. The recession unraveled nearly four times as many of the investment scams as fell apart in 2008, with "Ponzi" becoming a buzzword again thanks to the collapse of Madoff's $50 billion plot.
Tens of thousands of investors, some of them losing their life savings, watched more than $16.5 billion disappear like smoke in 2009, according to an Associated Press analysis of scams in all fifty states.
While the dollar figure was lower than in 2008, that's only because Madoff-who pleaded guilty in 2009 and is serving a 150-year prison sentence-was arrested in December 2008 and didn't count toward 2009's total.
While enforcement efforts have ramped up in large part because of the discovery of Madoff's fraud, the main reason so many Ponzi schemes have come to light is clear.
"The financial meltdown has resulted in the exposure of numerous fraudulent schemes that otherwise might have gone undetected for a longer period of time," said Lanny Breuer, assistant attorney general for the U.S. Justice Department's criminal division, in an interview with the Associated Press.
The financial serial killers pose as financial whizzes, sell investors bogus or unnecessary products that they claim are safe, or simply gin up investment returns. Like Madoff, the financial serial killer lives a swell life on stolen money.
Investors are routinely left with their life savings wiped out and no way to get it back.
Financial serial killers are smart.
They exude confidence and credibility.
They speak with self-assurance, hold themselves confidently, and seem to know their stuff. They are believable. Their credibility is often enhanced by their references. Getting the first "sucker" is the most difficult task, but once they have a respectable chump in their pack, it's easier to get the others.
They are often seen as "pillars of the community."
They are charming.
They have the aura of success. A plush office, expensive home, and nice car are essential.
Like Madoff, regarded by many industry veterans as a "broker's broker," financial serial killers operate and pose under any number of familiar guises. They have familiar or trust-invoking titles such as insurance agent or financial consultant. They sell themselves as the investor's trusted financial adviser. Unlike Madoff, financial serial killers usually steal tens or hundreds of millions rather than billions of dollars. But the toll on or damage to a life cannot be counted in coin.
According to the FBI in 2009, American investors were getting ripped off at a prodigious rate, often by people they consider dear, true friends or advisers. These dear "true friends" include investment advisers who kneel and pray with their clients, mortgage brokers who promise financial salvation with a fancy yet fake new product, and businessmen who seemingly rain money on their clients.
Madoff's scam should come as no surprise. Before Madoff confessed his crimes to his sons in December 2008, stories of financial serial killers who robbed investors of their life savings seemed more prevalent than ever. Even members of law enforcement were not immune to the scamsters' charms.
One recent victim of investment fraud was the police chief of Birdsboro, Pennsylvania, a town of about 5,000 citizens, where kids attend the public schools of the Daniel Boone School District. The chief, Theodore R. Roth, was one of 800 clients whose local mortgage broker had bamboozled clients into taking out loans for sums greater than they needed to borrow. The broker, Wesley A. Snyder, promised to invest that extra cash and pay off their mortgages through a complex proprietary system that no one but he could understand-just like Madoff.
In the end, Snyder's promise was a sham, and his clients lost more than $29 million. Snyder couldn't put an end to the pain as he lost control of his plan. In fact, he made it worse. As the system failed, he, like Madoff, wound up creating a Ponzi scheme, using money from new investors to pay off the loans of other clients. "I feel like a schmuck," the local police chief Roth said in September 2007, days after the collapse of Snyder's companies. "All these years in law enforcement, and I fall victim to this." (In certain instances in this book, the names of the players have been changed, but the stories are accurate and true.)
Looking for a safe haven in times of economic turmoil, investors may be more prone than ever to trust in potential scams. It could be giving money to a member of their church who promises fabulous guaranteed returns or finally taking the plunge and investing with their best friend's stock guru who claims to have a foolproof way of making money.
Such beliefs could lead you into the hands of a financial serial killer. Such investment thieves proliferate in dark times, when some investors become more desperate than ever to increase their money.
The danger to investors from financial serial killers won't disappear anytime soon.
Human gullibility is a burgeoning area of psychological research.
"There are few areas where skepticism is more important than how one invests one's life savings," wrote Stephen Greenspan, a psychologist, in the Wall Street Journal. "Yet intelligent and educated people, some of them naïve about finance and others quite knowledgeable, have been ruined by schemes that turned out to be highly dubious and quite often fraudulent."
Greenspan should know. He invested with Bernie Madoff.
After more than sixty years of a happy and stable marriage, Lillian Wentz lost her husband, Luke, in 1997. This sad change came with an incredible burden. At the age of eighty-nine, Lillian was suddenly responsible for a treasure that she and her husband had owned for more than fifty years: Berkshire Hathaway stock that was worth $24 million.
This is a story about financial serial killers sniffing out a family's money and then disguising a scam as a financial transaction that appeared legitimate to its victims.
Like many women of her generation who have lost their husbands, Lillian for the first time ever was in charge of the family finances. These new responsibilities ranged from simple tasks such as balancing a checkbook and paying the bills to the burden of safely guarding-and passing along-the family fortune. That's a staggering responsibility for a woman who came of age during the Great Depression.
This burden must have weighed heavily on Lillian's mind. The fact that she was as rich as a duchess would very likely have been a shock to her. Lillian and Luke were the offspring of pioneers. Luke was born in Independence, Oklahoma, in 1907, and Lillian was born in Essex, Iowa, the same year.
They worked hard their entire lives. After graduating from college in 1929-the eve of the Great Depression-Lillian returned home to work with her family picking cotton in the fields. She then landed a teaching job by chance: two teachers who had been hired by the local school were in a car accident and resigned. Lillian was offered the job. As a young schoolteacher she earned $100 per month and worked in a two-story red brick schoolhouse. When it rained, she rode the family horse, Lulu, to the school house to work.
Despite their increasing wealth, Lillian and Luke never lived it up, but continued working the family farm where they settled early in their marriage. Luke's dedication to the family business was acknowledged by his farming peers, and as he neared retirement he was honored as "Cotton Farmer of the Year."
By a stroke of good fortune they had grown to be wealthy. The Berkshire stock had been bought in 1946, when the company didn't even exist but its forerunner did: Lillian and her husband Luke had paid $6,600 for 500 shares of the Hathaway Manufacturing Co., a textile company based in New Bedford, Massachusetts.
In an age when families typically carry thousands of dollars of credit card debt, the balance sheet of Lillian's assets and liabilities after Luke's death is almost beyond belief. She was about as far in the black as any individual could be. She owed nothing on her home or car, and she never applied for a credit card. Her investment assets and personal assets had grown to more than $27 million. The eighty-nine-year-old Lillian was set to live comfortably, with absolutely no financial worries for the rest of her days.
Yet, despite her incredible wealth-or perhaps because of it-Lillian was vulnerable. It would prove impossible for her to guard the family treasure alone. This is where family dynamics can cause people like Lillian to be vulnerable to attacks by financial con artists. Lillian's son, Luke Jr., his wife, and their three sons respected her privacy. They believed they had no right to interfere with her business decisions, including that mountain of Berkshire Hathaway stock.
In the months after her husband Luke's death, Lillian began having difficulties. She was showing signs of senile dementia. She was losing track of things; she began storing her mail in the dishwasher. Her immediate family, out of respect, weren't about to stick their noses into her business-even when it came to her savings.
Many older women who lose their husbands or partners are overwhelmed by the responsibilities they must face alone for the first time, including the responsibility of the family's wealth or estate, large or small. It's only natural to turn to members of the extended family or community to help carry that load. Lillian, after her husband's death, looked for that help. She turned to a distant cousin, who was a lawyer near the small Texas town where she and Luke had lived for over sixty years.
Lillian wanted Cousin Bill to answer a simple question: what was the best way to protect and preserve this family fortune so she could hand that stock over some day to her son, his wife, and her three grandsons?
This is a simple but extremely important lesson for investors to learn. They often fall prey to scams at a vulnerable point in their lives. So investors must be vigilant and watchful at times of grief or personal upheaval.
Enter Cousin Bill, the lawyer. Lillian's husband Luke had trusted Bill so much that Luke had engaged Bill to write his will five years earlier. It was a simple, three-page will. At that time Bill learned how truly rich his Cousin Luke was. Perhaps greed got the better of him, as this was the beginning of Bill's plot to get a piece of that fortune.
Excerpted from FINANCIAL SERIAL KILLERS by TOM AJAMIE BRUCE KELLY Copyright © 2010 by Tom Ajamie and Bruce Kelly. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted August 23, 2010
This book provides great examples of what not to do with your money. Easy to understand with checklists for proper investing.
An important read for someone who has not handled the investing in their family, but now has to make those decisions.
Interesting chapters for any level investor on the types of people who will do and say anything to get our money and how to protect it from them.