Regulator: It's 'Ponzimonium'
Commodity Futures Trading Commission commissioner says 19 Ponzi schemes uncovered so far this year.
March 20, 2009: 3:45 PM ET
BOSTON (Reuters) -- Hundreds of people in the United States are under investigation for financial scams, many involving Ponzi schemes, a U.S. regulator said, calling the phenomenon "rampant Ponzimonium."
While none are as mammoth as disgraced financier Bernard Madoff's $65 billion fraud, multimillion-dollar "mini Madoffs" are proliferating from New York to Hawaii, the head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission said.
So far this year, the agency has uncovered 19 Ponzi schemes, which depend on an influx of new capital instead of investment profits to pay existing investors.
That compares with just 13 for all of 2008.
"Because of the economy, people are seeking redemptions more than they ever have and that's making a lot of these scams go belly up," Bart Chilton, commissioner of the Washington-based Commodity Futures Trading Commission, said in a telephone interview.
In the last month, his agency has pursued investment fraud in Pennsylvania, New York, North Carolina, Iowa, Idaho, Texas and Hawaii.
Chilton called the problem "rampant Ponzimonium" and "Ponzipalooza" - a play on the word "Lollapalooza," an American music festival featuring a long list of acts.
Many of the financial scams are small but grew fast to support lavish lifestyles, like the suspected $40 million, five-year Ponzi scheme that came to light last month when a North Carolina man, Bruce Kramer, committed suicide.
Claiming he was an expert mathematician, Kramer is accused of persuading 79 people to invest in what he said was a foreign currency trading operation, Barki LLC. He promised monthly returns of at least 3% to 4%, the CFTC said.
Instead, he funneled money into a Maserati sports car, a $1 million horse farm and artwork while holding "extravagant" parties, according to a CFTC complaint released on Wednesday.
As the economy soured, Kramer struggled to find new clients to keep the scheme going. In the days before his suicide, his investors demanded their money back and grew suspicious when they couldn't access their own funds, said Chilton.
The Commodity Futures Trading Commission shares oversight of financial markets with the Securities and Exchange Commission, which also faces a swelling casebook of Ponzi schemes, including charges against Texas billionaire Allen Stanford, who is accused of bilking investors of $8.8 billion.
Those accused of the scams used the money for cars, boats, clothing, jewelry, homes and ranches, said Chilton. One bought his own island in Belize in Central America, he added.
"Some are easier to catch now because people are more vigilant than they have been," he said.
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