Ponzi Schemes Continue to Catch Investors
It's seemingly the oldest trick in the book - but it still works. The Ponzi Scheme, born in the early 20th Century, is alive and well in our technologically advanced 21st Century. The reason: as long as there are investors willing to believe that they can effectively get something for nothing, there will be swindlers out there eager to take their money.
In a recent Securities and Exchange Commission complaint, the SEC alleged that insurance broker James E. Hocker of Bellefont, Pennsylvania engaged in fraudulent investment scheme that lasted approximately seven years, from 2010 to 2017. According to the complaint, Hocker promised investors guaranteed returns of between 10% and 30% (!). Instead of investing the funds, Hocker converted them for his own purposes, including to pay out "returns" to other investors and to pay his own personal living expenses.
Pennsylvania Investors Duped by Promise of Guaranteed Investment Returns
Hocker's scheme successfully deceived approximately 25 investors out of approximately $1.27 million. The investors were primarily Pennsylvania retirees and widowers who came to rely on Hocker through his insurance sales. Indeed, Hocker would win the trust of many of his victims by first selling them life insurance. Once he built the relationship and earned their confidence, Hocker would present them with his "other investment opportunity" involving a selection of stock picks in the S&P 500, which sounded too good to be believed. As his victims found out the hard way, it certainly was.
Hocker often wrote his victims notes which explicitly promised them returns of 10%-30% guaranteed. Many of the notes also described "tax-free" gains. All of it was a lie. Instead, Hocker used some of the investments to pay off previous rounds of investors, and the rest to support his lifestyle. He went to restaurants and casinos, paid his credit card bills, and paid for spousal support.
Common Signs of a Ponzi Scheme
Once you're inside a Ponzi Scheme, it can look and feel a lot like a normal investment opportunity, especially if the scheme operator is adept at creating false investment documentation. The key is not to get draw into a Ponzi Scheme in the first place. The most common signs of these frauds are evident from the beginning - that's when you have the greatest chance of identifying them.
- Inflated investment returns
- Guaranteed investment returns
- Tax-free investment returns
- Vagueness about the actual investments
- Overly simplified investment documentation - or none at all
- Lack of true expertise or history in sophisticated investing