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.