Monday, July 1, 2013

My Brush with Charles Ponzi

Everyone has heard of Bernie Madoff by now.  His crime was the most heinous in the history of finance. The fact is there are still thousands of Ponzi schemes happening around us and most victims do not even know what to look for.

I was introduced to an "investment opportunity" back in 2010.  A man from Detroit, living in Italy married to a famous actress, got in touch with me through some mutual acquaintances. 

I took his call, partly because he was from Detroit and I like to connect with people from my hood, and partly because I like to look at all sorts of ideas. I admit I probably donate too much of my time listening to would-be entrepreneurs but occasionally I meet great people that way. Something felt off about this guy and his partners so I indicated the investment opportunity was going to have to set sail without me.

Last week, I found out that the man I spoke with was sentenced to jail for 10 years for wire fraud and stealing money from investors in a Ponzi scheme (article).  

It motivated me to look back at my interactions with him to see what clues made me uncomfortable. Maybe some of these observations will help other targets avoid future Madoff-wannabees.

I have made plenty of bad investments in my life and the list will surely not be comprehensive, nor does it guarantee to be able to detect a fraud. These are just a few smell tests any fool can use to avoid parting with their money too quickly.  

1) Returns are not guaranteed. Promising financial benefit is not something any professional investment manager will do.  Especially in writing. He sent me this in one of his emails:      

"...if we can raise more funds we can really see the financial benefits from the product.  Let me know what you think..."  

2.) Outsized returns are LESS guaranteed.  The best and brightest in the finance space have averaged mid-single digit returns for investors over the past few years. Anyone who purports 10% returns per month should immediately get the Larry David squinty-eyed stare. 

3.) Look for "intense domain expertise." This guy was raising money for investment vehicles that were going to purchase raw emeralds in Africa, invest in gold mines in Laos, trade foreign currency markets through a Swiss entity, and buy Hong Kong stocks on the cheap. Sounds exciting, right? Sounds like bullshit to me. You cannot be a jack-of-all-trades in this industry anymore. 

4.) Investment managers cannot court you. Regulations prohibit investment managers from excessive spending on prospective investors. These guys offered to fly me out on a private jet to meet them in Rome or Switzerland (whichever was easier for me, of course). Come on! Even if it were legal, the amount of money in fees they were hoping to generate on my piddly investment wouldn't cover the cost of a trip to Europe. 

5.) "WHY ME?"  This is the most important question of all. You have to ask yourself "why is this  opportunity being presented to me?"  "How did I get so lucky to have stumbled across this brilliant idea that no one thought of before this shiny salesman brought it to me?"  You might be hearing the pitch because you don't and won't understand the investment.  It's the old "if you don't know who the sucker is, it's probably you" test.  

Through all the dumb things I have done in my life, I could have saved myself a lot of dough had I simply asked "why me?"  I knew little about the business or the industry I was being asked to invest in, but got involved anyway. Every time the outcome was identical:  a big fat doughnut.      


  1. Very good article, Justin! If you don't understand what you are investing in or the model cannot be properly explained - stay away from it. Also if the financal numbers don't match and don't make rhyme or reason - donut!

  2. "Every time the outcome was identical: a big fat doughnut."