By Yinka Odumakin
Those who were in Lagos around 1991-2 would remember Forum Finance located on Allen Avenue in Ikeja, a company that employed a number of young men and women in flashy cars going about town duping the gullible of their hard earned money. Its famous advert was “Forum go double your money!”. It paid outrageous returns to its earlier investors and this made many fools to part with their money. By the time the bubble burst, it was sorrow and tears for thousands of unwary people who lost their fortunes to the Ponzi scheme.
Ponzi schemes are named after Charles Ponzi, an Italian immigrant who perpetrated a legendary scam. Actually, he wasn’t the inventor of this type of scams – it was called “Robbing Peter to pay Paul” schemes – but his was so large that his name became synonymous with it. Ponzi started a business buying and selling a type of postal coupon and promised investors a 50% return on their money within 45 days (compare this to an annual 5% interest for bank savings account at the time). Ponzi’s early investors did get their money doubled and even tripled in a short amount of time. This, and glowing newspaper reports at the time about his company, the Securities Exchange Company got him a lot of money from investors. At one point, Ponzi took in $1 million in a three-hour period from investors. All in all, about 40,000 investors invested about $15 million in Ponzi’s scheme in nine months between 1919 and 1920 (about $184 million in 2017 value). Failed Scheme: When it was discovered that Ponzi was paying old investors with money from new ones, his scheme collapsed and he was sent to jail … for five years!
After serving his federal sentence, Ponzi was sentenced by the State of Massachusetts for an additional nine years, but he skipped town. Ponzi ended up in Brazil, where he spent his last years in poverty and sickness. Before he died, Ponzi gave one last interview where he confessed to his crime. “My business is simple. It was the old game of robbing Peter to pay Paul. You would give me one hundred dollars and I would give you a note to pay you one-hundred-and-fifty dollars in three months. Usually I would redeem my note in 45 days. My notes became more valuable than American money … Then came trouble. The whole thing was broken.” (Zuckoff, Mitchell, Ponzi’s Scheme: The True Story of a Financial Legend, p. 313)
In the 1980s in San Diego, California, J. David & Company, a purported currency and commodity trading and investing operation named after its founder, J. David Dominelli, a withdrawn and shy currency and commodity trader, was revealed to be a Ponzi scheme which took in $200 million and returned $120 million to investors, leaving a net loss of $80 million. The scheme touched all levels of upper class business and professional life in San Diego and environs. One of those most closely involved was Nancy Hoover, the mayor of Del Mar, California, a cozy upscale beach town just north of La Jolla. Hoover was J. David’s assistant and live-in companion at the time. Also involved was the prominent New York law firm Rogers & Wells (now Clifford Chance), which had advised J. David (through a rogue partner) and others. When the fall came, J. David briefly escaped to Montserrat in the Caribbean, but was returned ultimately to plead guilty to federal charges and was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment, serving 10 before being paroled.
You should not have forgotten now that financier Bernard “Bernie” Madoff was arrested for running a Ponzi scheme. There are four notable facts about his operation: It was the largest (dollar-wise) and was also the longest-running (known) Ponzi scheme in history. Investigators sifting through the record found evidence of hanky panky since the 1970s. It was perpetrated by one of the pillars of Wall Street – Madoff, a former chairman of NASDAQ. His victims are some of the most financially savvy and rich people in the world (you need at least $20 million to “invest” with him), his website used to say before it was taken over by authorities:
In an era of faceless organizations owned by other equally faceless organizations, Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities LLC harks back to an earlier era in the financial world: The owner’s name is on the door. Clients know that Bernard Madoff has a personal interest in maintaining the unblemished record of value, fair-dealing, and high ethical standards that has always been the firm’s hallmark.
There was also Biletov or fractions of shares of the MMM Corp, bearing the likeness of Sergey Mavrodi. Just one million people? Meh, said Sergey Mavrodi. His scheme duped two million people! Mavrodi was a Russian scammer who along with his brother Vyacheslav Mavrodi and Vyacheslav’s future wife Marina Murayveya, founded the MMM company (the triple Ms came from the surnames of these three people). In the early 1990s, MMM promised dividends of 1,000%, promoted itself heavily in TV ads, and delivered on its promise. At its peak, Mavrodi’s company was taking in more than $11 million a day from the public! Within five years, Mavrodi took in $1.5 billion from at least two million people. When the whole thing unraveled and the police raided MMM offices for tax evasion, Mavrodi pulled another fast one: he convinced his “investors” that it was the government’s fault that they lost their investment. He even ran for the Russian State Duma (the lower house of parliament) to get the government to initiate a “payback” programme … and he was elected! That was a good thing because he got himself a parliamentary immunity. When his immunity was later revoked, Mavrodi went on the lam. In 2003, he was arrested, fined $390, and sent to a penal colony for four-and-a-half years. That translates to about $38,052 swindled per hour in the slammer.
MMM surfaced in Nigeria in 2016 with a promise of 30 per cent return on any money into the scheme in 30days! The House of Representatives did one good in its life by warning people against this scam. It asked the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, and the Central Bank of Nigeria to immediately go after the promoters of Mavrodi Mondial Moneybox, otherwise known as ‘MMM’ in Nigeria. Lawmakers strongly opposed the investment scheme, which lately gained popularity among Nigerians in the wake of the current economic recession in the country. The Chairman, House Committee on Telecommunications, Mr. Saheed Fijabi, had in a motion, drawn the attention of the House to the growing popularity of the scheme among Nigerians. “The scheme entered the Nigerian circle in 2016, capitalising on the high level of unemployment and poverty to deceive unwary Nigerians into falling prey to their antics”, Fijabi stated. He added that the fact that MMM was not regulated by law or approved by the CBN as a secure business venture, made Nigerians more vulnerable. Nobody did anything. By December 2016 when the company froze the accounts of its 3m “muguns’ it had raked billions of Naira unhindered .
The level of our ethical collapse was seen with images of worship places that should teach the right values about wealth creation organizing Ponzi seminars for MMM in their auditoria. How low can it get for a country . Our security agents who were raiding Bureau De Change operators months ago are not yet on record to have gone after the MMM operators who are not known to have been licensed by the CBN to carry out any financial operations in Nigeria.
My heart sank when I saw Nigerians in their hundreds dancing and holding a vigil on the eve of the January 14 promise by the Ponzi schemers to start another round of duping session. My conclusion was that these people are irretrievably damaged psychologically and it would take a major shock in the system to get them to reason like normal cognitive human beings on this side of eternity. Is their fault totally ? No, I think the wayward Nigerian system which places emphasis on “sharing” has turned them into playthings in the hands of scammers because of expectations of free money in the order of our allocation mentality .
Culled from www.vanguardngr.com
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