Category Archives: Ponzi Schemes

Just Like Me

During a joint training seminar between our Chapter and the Virginia State Police held a number of years ago, I took the opportunity to ask the attendees (many of whom are practicing CFE’s) to name the most common fraud type they’d individually investigated in the past year. Turned out that one form or another of affinity fraud won hands down, at least here in Central Virginia.

This most common type of fraud targets specific sectors of society such as religious affiliates, the fraudster’s own relatives or acquaintances, retirees, racial groups, or professional organizations of which the fraudster is a member. Our Chapter members indicate that when a scammer ingratiates himself within a group and gains trust, an affinity fraud of some kind can almost always be expected to be the result.

Regulators and other law enforcement personnel typically attempt to identify instances of affinity fraud in order to prosecute the perpetrator and return the fraudulently obtained goods to the victims. However, affinity fraud tends to be an under reported crime since victims may be embarrassed that they so easily fell prey to the fraudster in the first place or they may remain connected to the offender because of emotional bonding and/or cultivated trust. Reluctance to report the crime also frequently stems from a misplaced belief that the fraudster is fundamentally a good guy or gal and will ultimately do the right thing and return any funds taken. In order to stop affinity fraud, regulators and law enforcement must obviously first be able to detect and identify the crime, caution potential investors, and prevent future frauds by taking appropriate legal actions against the perpetrators.

The poster boy for affinity fraud is, of course, Bernard Madoff.   The Madoff tragedy is considered an affinity fraud because the vast majority of his clientele shared Madoff’s religion, Judaism. Over the years, Madoff’s list of victims grew to include prominent persons in the finance, retail and entertainment industries. This particular affinity fraud was unprecedented because it was perpetrated by Madoff over several decades, and his customers were defrauded of approximately twenty billion dollars. It can be debated whether the poor economy, lack of investor education, or ready access to diverse persons over the internet has led to an increase in affinity fraud but there can be no doubt that the internet makes it increasingly easy for fraudsters to pose as members of any community they target. And, it’s clear that affinity frauds have dramatically increased in recent years. In fact, affinity fraud has been identified by the ACFE as one of the top five investment schemes each year since 1998.

Affinity frauds assume different forms, e.g. information phishing expeditions, investment scams, or charity cons. However, most affinity frauds have a common element and entail a pyramid-type of Ponzi scheme. In these types of frauds, the offender uses new funds from fresh victims as payment to initial investors. This creates the illusion that the scam is profitable and additional victims would be wise to immediately invest. These types of scams inevitably collapse when it either becomes clear to investors or to law enforcement that the fraudster is not legitimate or that there are no more financial backers for the fraud. Although most fraud examiners may be familiar with the Madoff scandal, there are other large scale affinity frauds perpetrated across the United States almost on a daily basis that continue to shape how regulators and other law enforcement approach these frauds.

Perpetrators of affinity frauds work hard, sometime over whole years, to make their scams appealing to their targeted victims. Once the offenders have targeted a community or group, they seek out respected community leaders to vouch for them to potential investors. By having an esteemed figurehead who appears to be knowledgeable about the investment and endorses it, the offender creates legitimacy for the con. Additionally, others in the community are less likely to ask questions about a venture or investment if a community leader recommends or endorses the fraudster. In the Madoff case, Madoff himself was an esteemed member of the community. As a former chair of the National Association of Securities Dealers (NASD) and owner of a company ranked sixth largest market maker on the National Association of Securities Dealers Automated Quotations (NASDAQ), Madoff’s reputation in the financial services industry was impeccable and people were eager to invest with him.

The ACFE indicates that projection bias is yet another reason why affinity fraudsters are able to continually perpetrate these types of crimes. Psychological projection is a concept introduced by Sigmund Freud to explain the unconscious transference of a person’s own characteristics onto another person. The victims in affinity fraud cases project their own morals onto the fraudsters, presuming that the criminals are honest and trustworthy. However, the similarities are almost certainly the reason why the fraudster targeted the victims in the first place. In some cases when victims are interviewed after the fact, they indicate to law enforcement that they trusted the fraudster as if they were a family member because they believed that they shared the same value system.

Success of affinity fraud stems from the higher degree of trust and reliance associated with many of the groups targeted for such conduct. Because of the victim’s trust in the offender, the targeted persons are less likely to fully investigate the investment scheme presented to them. The underlying rationale of affinity fraud is that victims tend to be more trusting, and, thus, more likely to invest with individuals they have a connection with – family, religious, ethnic, social, or professional. Affinity frauds are often difficult to detect because of the tight-knit nature common to some groups targeted for these schemes. Victims of these frauds are less likely to inform appropriate law enforcement of their problems and the frauds tend to continue until an investor or outsider to the target group finally starts to ask questions.

Because victims in affinity frauds are less likely to question or go outside of the group for assistance, information or tips regarding the fraud may not ever reach regulators or law enforcement. In religious cases, there is often an unwritten rule that what happens in church stays there, with disputes handled by the church elders or the minister. Once the victims place their trust in the fraudster, they are less likely to believe they have been defrauded and also unlikely to investigate the con. Regulators and other law enforcement personnel can also learn from prior failures in identifying or stopping affinity frauds. Because the Madoff fraud is one of the largest frauds in history, many studies have been conducted to determine how this fraud could have been stopped sooner. In hindsight, there were numerous red flags that indicated Madoff’s activity was fraudulent; however, appropriate actions were not taken to halt the scheme. The United States Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) received several complaints against Madoff as early as 1992, including several official complaints filed by Harry Markopolos, a former securities industry professional and fraud investigator. Every step of the way, Madoff appeared to use his charm and manipulative ways to explain away his dealings to the SEC inspection teams. The complaints were not properly investigated and subsequent to Madoff’s arrest, the SEC was the target of a great deal of criticism. The regulators obviously did not apply appropriate professional skepticism while doing their jobs and relied on Madoff’s reputation and representations rather than evidence to the contrary. In the wake of this scandal, regulatory reforms were deemed a priority by the SEC and other similar agencies.

Education is needed for the investing public and the regulators and law enforcement personnel alike to ensure that they all have the proper knowledge and tools to be able to understand, detect, stop, and prevent these types of frauds. This is where CFEs and forensic accountants are uniquely qualified to offer their communities much needed assistance. Affinity frauds are not easily anticipated by the victims. Madoff whistleblower Markopolos asserted that “nobody thinks one of their own is going to cheat them”.  Affinity frauds will not be curtailed unless the public, we, the auditing and fraud examination communities, and regulators and other law enforcement personnel are all involved.

In Plain Sight

By Rumbi Petrozzello, CPA/CFF, CFE
2017 Vice-President – Central Virginia Chapter ACFE

Recently, I was listening to one my favorite podcasts, Radiolab, and they were discussing a series on Audible called “Ponzi Supernova”. Reporter Steve Fishman hounded infamous Ponzi schemer, Bernie Madoff, for several years. One day, Bernie called Steve, collect, and thus began the conversations between Madoff and Fishman that makes this telling of the Madoff Ponzi scheme like none other.

The tale is certainly compelling (how can a story of the largest known Ponzi scheme not be fascinating) and hearing Bernie Madoff talking about what he did and hearing what he says motivated him makes this series something I listened to from beginning to end, almost without taking a break. Through it all, as had happened just about every time I read or heard about Madoff, I was amazed that he was able to perpetrate his fraud for as long as he did, which, depending on who you believe, started somewhere between the early 1960s and 1992 (even Madoff gives different dates for when he started). This is no surprise. All too often, when fraudsters are caught, they try to minimize the extent of their wrongdoing. If they know that you’ve found $1,000, they’ll tell you that $1,000 was all they took. If you go on to find more, then the story will change a little to include what you’ve found. It’s very rare that a fraudster will confess to the full extent of her crime at the first go around (or even at the second or third).

As I listened to the series, something became very apparent. Often when people discuss the Madoff Ponzi scheme, one tends to get the feeling that, for decades, he took money from new investors to pay off old investors and carried on his multi-billion-dollar scheme without a single soul blowing the whistle on him. But that’s not the case. In a 477-page report from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission Office of Investigations (OIG) entitled “Investigation of Failure of the SEC to Uncover Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi Scheme – Public Version”, between June 1992 and December 2008, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) received “six substantive complaints” regarding Madoff’s company and some of these complaints were submitted more than once.

One complaint mentioned in the report was received three times, with versions submitted in 2000, 2001 and 2005; the 2005 version was even entitled “The World’s Largest Hedge Fund is a Fraud”. This complaint series was submitted by Madoff’s most well-known nemesis, the whistleblower, Harry Markopolos. But, there were at least five other individuals who shared their concerns and suspicions about Madoff with the SEC. Three of these specifically used the words “Ponzi scheme”, including the first complaint, in 1992. Based on these complaints, the SEC conducted two investigations and three examinations and, even though the complaints explicitly stated that they suspected that Madoff Investments was a Ponzi scheme, none of the investigations or examinations concluded that Madoff was operating a Ponzi scheme. To add to this, the SEC was aware of two articles that questioned Madoff’s returns. Over the years, several investment companies performed their own due diligence and decided that Madoff’s company did not make sense and they believed that investing with Madoff would be a violation of their fiduciary duty to their clients. Despite all of this, none of these investigations or exams contained a finding of fraud.

Whether you’re a Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE) or a CPA, Certified in Financial Forensics (CFF), the work that you do is governed by a set of professional standards that help establish a performance baseline. This begins with competence. This means that those taking on an assignment should be able to complete the assignment successfully. This does not necessarily mean that whoever is leading the job needs to know how to do everything. It does mean that they should ensure that there is the right skill set working on the job, even if it means the use of referrals or consultation. Too many times, while reading the OIG report, the reader confronts the mention of a lack of experience. Listening to Ponzi Supernova, I learnt that at least one examiner was only three weeks out of school. The OIG report stated that, for one examination, because the person leading the investigation had no knowledge of how to investigate a suspected Ponzi scheme, they decided to just not investigate that claim; they decided instead to investigate what they knew, and that was front running (though even that investigation was carried out poorly).

Another ACFE professional standard is that of due professional care. Due professional care “requires diligence, critical analysis and professional skepticism”. It also means that any conclusion that a CFE reaches, must be supported by evidence that is relevant, sufficient and competent. Several times during the various investigations and examinations, SEC staff would ask Madoff or his employees questions and then accept any answers they were given without seeking any third-party confirmation. Sometimes, even when third-party confirmation was sought, the questions asked of those third parties were not the correct ones. Madoff himself tells the story of how, in 2006, Madoff testified that he settled trades for his advisory clients through his personal Depository Trust Company (DTC) account and he even gave the SEC his DTC account information. At this point Madoff was sure that, once the SEC checked this out, his fraud would be discovered. Instead, the SEC merely asked the DTC if Madoff had an account, and nothing more. Had they asked about account activity, they would have then discovered that Madoff’s account, even though it existed, did not trade anywhere near the volume purported by his statements. This brings up other aspects of due professional care; adequate planning and supervision. With proper supervision, the less experienced can be trained not just to ask questions, but to ask, and get adequate answers to, the correct questions. The person reviewing their work would be able to ask them, “did the answer that you got from the DTC answer the question that we are asking? Can we now confirm not that Madoff has an account with the DTC but, instead, that he is trading billions of dollars through these accounts?”

Time and time again, in the OIG report, the SEC stated that they did not have experienced and adequate staff for their examinations and investigations of Madoff. This was an excuse that was used to explain why, for instance, they did not send out requests for third-party confirmations, even after drafting them. In one case, staff stated that they did not send out a request to the National Association of Securities Dealers (NASD) because it would have been too time-consuming to review the data received. Adequate planning would have made sure that there was sufficient, qualified staffing to review the data. Adequate supervision would have ensured that this excuse for not sending out the request was squashed. However, it is not the case that no third-party confirmation requests were sent out. Some were and some of those sent out received responses. Responses were received from the NASD and other financial institutions These entities all claimed that there was no activity with Madoff on the dates that the examiners were asking about. Even with that information, there was no follow-up on the part of the examiners. At every turn, there seemed to be a lot of trust and just about no verification. This is even more surprising when you hear that the examiners would write notes about how Madoff was obviously lying and how many people had reported to the SEC that Madoff was running a dishonest business. Even with so much distrust, and so many whistleblowers, it turned out that those sent to shine a light on Madoff’s operations all seemed to be looking in all the wrong places.

Part of planning an investigation is determining what is being investigated and how the investigation is going to be executed. A very important part of the process is determining, beforehand, what will be done with negative results. When third-party responses were received and they all stated Madoff had not done business with them as claimed, the responses appear to have been filed and no further action taken. When responses were not received, the SEC did not follow up to find out why nothing had been returned. They likely would have found that the institution had not responded to the inquiry because there was nothing to respond about. There does not appear to have been a defined protocol on what to do when the answer to the question, “did this happen” was “No.”

I urge you to, at the very least, read the executive summary of the OIG report. For me at least, what Madoff could get away with, time and time again, with each subsequent SEC examination or investigation, is jaw-dropping. The fact that 1) several whistleblowers shared their concerns and even accompanied them with a great deal of detail and 2) that articles were written and yet, 3) those with access to the information that could prove, with very little effort, that Madoff was not doing what he claimed to be doing, found nothing of concern is something I struggle to comprehend. This whole sad history does underline the importance of referring to, and abiding by, our professional standards, to minimize the risk of missing a fraud like this one. Most importantly, it reduces the risk that someone might get an aneurism trying to wrap their mind around how, even when so many others could see that something was amiss, the watchdog missed it all!