Ponzinomics: MLM Fraud and the FTC

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Robert FitzPatrick, president of Pyramid Scheme Alert has written a new book about multi-level marketing and how the FTC allows these pyramid schemes to exist. In PONZINOMICS, the FTC’s Protection of Multi-Level Marketing, he discusses the political interests involved in MLM and the lack of action by FTC officials.

What is “Ponzinomics”? FitzPatrick uses the term to describe the scourge of multi-level marketing, which is nothing more than a pyramid scheme, but has been presented as a viable business opportunity. The government in the United States has gone so far as to protect these criminal enterprises which prey on millions of people each year, using cult-like tactics in furtherance of their pyramid schemes.

The book talks about the lure of the (false) income opportunity and the use of testimonials and the flaunting of wealth to draw people in.  FitzPatrick also discusses the tactics used to draw in new victims, as well as “blaming the victims” when the venture inevitably fails.

I’ll update you here when the book is available.

TelexFree: MLMs are Pyramid Schemes

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This week we heard news of $20 million (hidden in a box spring) being seized by the federal agents in its ongoing investigation of TelexFree, a multi-level marketing company that the government says was a massive Ponzi scheme. You can read all about the TelexFree case on Patrick Pretty’s blog.

News reports about TeleFree refer to it as a Ponzi scheme (also called pyramid scheme). What isn’t mentioned anymore is the fact that it operated as a multi-level marketing company, just like Amway, Mary Kay, Herbalife, LuLaRoe, and hundreds of other companies you hear about on a daily basis. While it is NOW acnowledged that TelexFree was a Ponzi scheme, there was a time when it operated exactly as these other MLMs do.

The FBI says the following about TelexFree: Continue reading

Unraveling Ponzi Schemes

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Ponzi Scheme Forensic AccountantIt has become commonplace to hear news stories of Ponzi schemes being uncovered. Investment scams and Ponzi schemes are all too common. Investors are lured in with promises of high returns. People in or nearing retirement find these investments enticing, especially as their retirement funds in the stock market have taken many hits in the last few years.

As I wrote in my book Expert Fraud Investigation: A Step-by-Step Guide, investors are becoming victims of these scams despite the proliferation of information available about phony investment schemes and the dire warnings given regularly by news reporters.  Perpetrators of investment schemes dream up stories explaining their unusually high rates of return on money, and get high net worth people to invest with them. Often these people are investing their entire savings with scammers.

These high investment returns typically amount to guarantees in excess of 10% per year. Often they are to the point of ridiculous, offering a 30% or 40% annual return. As a fraud investigator, it is clear to me that these offerings are bogus, because any investment that legitimately generated such returns would not be much of a secret to the rest of the world. But consumers, who are often eager to protect and grow their nest eggs, are all-too-willing to believe that this investment is the answer to their money problems. Continue reading

Finding Hidden Income and Assets

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Cases of financial fraud often focus on the core issue of where the money went. Successfully carrying out a fraud scheme involves not only taking the money, but covering up the fraud and hiding the money trail. Recent headlines have consumers wondering how someone like John Corzine of MF Global could have no idea where hundreds of millions of dollars went. But skilled financial investigators know there is always a trail, and while the money may or may not be recovered, it can be located.

Cases involving allegations of security fraud, money laundering, misappropriation of assets, income tax fraud, and Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) violations require investigators to follow a money trail. However, sometimes it is difficult to know where to start, or where to continue when you’ve come to an apparent dead end.

Third Party Records

Regardless of the type of case for which there is a need to trace the flow of funds, the most reliable source of information is third party records. The records of an alleged fraudster are always suspect. How are we to know if the accounting records have been manipulated?

In contrast, records from a disinterested third party are much more likely to be authentic and to tell the truth about the money. The most common and reliable sources of third party records are banks, brokerage houses, and credit card companies. Except in rare cases in which a secret relationship facilitates the manipulation of these records, they will tell us exactly where money came from and where it went.

Do you know where to start getting these records? It may be simple in the case of a bona fide business with one or two sets of books. Even if the accounting records are manipulated or altered in some way, the records will likely point to financial institutions that hold at least some of the company’s money. The first place to start is the accounts disclosed by the target of the investigation or the accounts documented in the target’s records.

If we’re tracking down a fraudster with no disclosed or confirmed accounts, we will have to be creative. It’s not practical to subpoena every bank in existence, so some precision is required in our investigation. We must look to parties other than the target for information on accounts and activities of the scammer.

For example, an investor in a Ponzi scheme may have canceled checks relating to his investment, and the information on the back of the checks can go a long way in telling us what banks the target was using. Gather together the documentation of multiple victims of the Ponzi scheme, and suddenly several financial institutions used by the fraudster may be revealed. We can then get those records and dig through them to find evidence of other accounts used.

Detailed Analysis

A skilled fraudster is going to tangle a very intricate web of accounts, transactions, people, and entities. Money is intentionally bounced from bank to bank, account to account, and entity to entity in varying amounts with seemingly random timing. These things make it difficult to trace the flow of money and to tie funds to any particular act or scheme.

A capable investigator is going to be able to unravel the mess and make sense of the money movements. This isn’t easy, especially when the number of involved bank or brokerage accounts climbs. Cataloging individual transactions is simple. The more institutions, accounts, and entities involved, the greater the complexity of the analysis.

The difficulty is in ensuring that all accounts and all time periods have been analyzed, and all transactions between these accounts are properly documented. It is easy to get so caught up in the details of individual transactions, that the investigator could lose sight of the big picture. This could result in a failure to analyze all transactions, a missed link between accounts, an overlooked payment to an outside party that be a smoking gun, or a failure to have a complete and accurate tracing of money through the web of accounts.

Don’t think of this as simply a data entry exercise. It is much more than that, and it is a critical part of prosecuting or defending a fraud case. It’s easy for just about anyone to look at one bank statement or check copy and tell me where the money went. It is another thing entirely to look at 100 bank accounts over a period of three or five years and get a complete picture of the flow of funds over time.

Dead End?

What happens when you seem to have come to a dead end in the money trail? There is usually no such thing as a dead end unless you’ve come to a piece of real estate, a boat, an airplane, or a sizable bank account that can be seized (or at least tied up in the legal system for the foreseeable future). Whether a case is civil or criminal, part of the endgame will be recovering the proceeds of the fraud. In many cases, it is the most critical thing, especially for the victims.

If frequent small transactions are all you are seeing, and there is no apparent pot of gold, you just haven’t found the right information yet. Somewhere within all this evidence is a clue to a piece of real estate that was purchased with illicit funds. A payment to a municipality, a utility company, a real estate attorney, or a construction company may hint to the existence of real estate. A payment for a registration fee, to a fuel company, or to an insurance company might lead us to the existence of a luxury yacht.

Again, the key will be to dig deep into the details of the financial transactions without losing sight of the big picture. As questions are raised regarding certain transactions, the investigation still must continue through the remaining transactions. Although one lead may look promising, it should not be the reason to stop going down other roads that may lead to the discovery of other valuable information.

Pulling It All Together

Equally as important as wading through a financial labyrinth skillfully is presenting the findings in a way in which non-accountants can understand it. Attorneys, judges, and juries may need to understand the flow of money in the scheme, so telling a story about the money is critical.

The best way to communicate results to people with varying levels of accounting and financial sophistication is with three approaches: words, numbers, and pictures. The financial investigator should start with an explanation of the work completed and the findings and conclusions. Then set forth summary tables of the most important numbers that are discussed, followed by charts and graphs that further demonstrate the findings. This gives the user an opportunity to see a picture of what has been explained about the disposition of funds or relationships between entities.

When these three approaches are combined, it is much easier for a reader to understand the conclusions that have been drawn after an exhaustive financial analysis. After all, a complex analysis and conclusion that is helpful to your case is not worth anything if the important people can’t understand the opinions and how they were reached.

Tracy L. Coenen, CPA, CFF is a forensic accountant and fraud investigator with Sequence Inc. in Milwaukee and Chicago. She has conducted hundreds of high-stakes investigations involving financial statement fraud, securities fraud, investment fraud, tax fraud, and criminal defense. Tracy is the author of Expert Fraud Investigation: A Step-by-Step Guide and Essentials of Corporate Fraud, and has been qualified as an expert witness in both state and federal courts. She can be reached at [email protected] or 312.498.3661.

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Why Products Offered by Multi-Level Marketing Companies Are So Expensive

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usana-health-sciences-chinaMulti-level marketing companies (MLMs) are nothing but legalized scams. Make no mistake… they are pyramid schemes, but the government allows them to operate. Why are these obvious Ponzi schemes (which, by the way, the MLMs will swear up and down they are not… thou doth protest too much) allowed to operate? Who knows why the government will not crack down on this massive consumer fraud. The best thing we can do is educate consumers about the evils of multi-level marketing so they can avoid these companies… that means NOT becoming a distributor and NOT buying any of their products.

MLMs use products to make their companies look legitimate. They can’t be a scam if they are selling an actual product, right? WRONG. They absolutely can be a scam, because the product is simply a “front” for the scheme they are running. The product is meant to make the company look legitimate and hide the fraud.

The products from nearly every MLM are overpriced. That is, they cost more than comparable products available through legitimate channels (i.e. real retailers). The distributors will tell you it is because the products are very high quality!!! The magic juice has vitamins that are more bio-available! The make-up has better ingredients! The clothes are made better! The pills have super secret magical powers that cure all illnesses! These are all lies. The products are not better. Continue reading

Google Your Financial Advisor BEFORE Investing

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jimmy-sodhi-investment-fraud

Jimmy Sodhi / Jimmy Singh

Investors are nearly $2.4 million poorer and Janamjot Singh Sodhi has earned himself an almost 5 year stay at Club Fed, thanks to a Ponzi scheme carried out through a company called Elite Financial Inc.  The fraudster also used the names Jimmy Singh or Jimmy Sodhi.

The scheme ran from 2005 through September 2011, Like any typical Ponzi scheme, Sodhi solicited investors with the promise of high rates of return, and used new investor money to pay “returns” to old investors. At the same time, Sodhi siphoned off money for himself.

Here’s where it gets interesting… Sodhi previously had a license to sell investments, but it was revoked in 2005. In 2006, he was permanently debarred by the New York Stock Exchange. And in 2009, Jimmy Sodhi was ordered to cease and desist all investment advisor activity in California. Continue reading

Bank Liability for Ponzi Schemes

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An article in a recent edition of the Bloomberg BNS Banking Report on Ponzi Schemes and bank liability referred to an article I wrote on recognizing red flags of Ponzi schemes:

Under each, a plaintiff must account for both the plaintiff’s failure to investigate the would-be fiduciary before investing with the fiduciary and the plaintiff’s failure to monitor the fiduciary’s activities subsequent to the investment. As to the first, there are often many red flags to alert an investor to a Ponzi scheme that reasonable investors should notice and that many investors choose to ignore in pursuit of high returns. Fraud detection expert Tracy Coenen has noted more than fifteen red flags signaling a Ponzi scheme that any investor could spot with a reasonably diligent (and fairly simple) investigation. These items include: Continue reading

Ponzi Scheme and Investment Fraud Red Flags

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Charles Ponzi

How do you know if you’re considering investing in a Ponzi scheme? The promoters will never come out and tell you they are running a pyramid scheme, so the investors have to be smart enough to recognize them on their own. The good news is it is easy to spot a Ponzi scheme.

Now I don’t mean that it’s easy to prove in a court of law that something is a Ponzi scheme. In a civil or criminal case, there are certain standards of proof that need to be met. But you’re not a court. You’re simply an investor. Whether you have $10,000 to invest or $10 million to invest, your money is probably pretty important to you.

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What Do You Do With Mountains of Data in a Financial Investigation?

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From my Thought Leadership series at Securities Docket:


A couple of months ago I presented a webcast for Securities Docket which focused on how my firm is using new tools and techniques to better analyze financial data in forensic accounting engagements. This topic is of interest to many attorneys who find themselves involved in cases with mountains of financial data. Getting the data is great, but your results in the case are directly related to how well you can put that data to work and make it mean something to your case.

Getting the Data
The process of discovery can be long and agonizing for everyone.  There is often a push and pull between the parties in the discovery process, as opposing counsel rarely wants to voluntarily give up damaging financial data.  It often takes several rounds of requests to get the information we seek. Continue reading