A new fraudster has just turned himself into the police for defrauding investors out of millions of dollars (or shekels, actually, as this guy was in Israel). But the story is the same as when Mr. Ponzi himself was inventing the Ponzi scheme.
Want to blame the government or the regulators? As they say, all that blame and five bucks will get you a cup of coffee. I would not want to blame the victim, but let’s look at some of the facts in the case. In fact, these points are the same in almost all of the fraud cases I have read about in my two decades on Wall Street:
The clients gave money directly to the investment advisor.
The clients did not get statements from a bank or brokerage account.
The clients believed the investment advisor who said he could make totally unrealistic gains … guaranteed!
The clients believed there was little or no risk.
If these clients were children or severely mentally incompetent, I would agree with the argument that we need stronger regulations and better government oversight. But in the most recent case in Israel, and if we look at the biggest scandal ever – Madoff – we see that the clients were often very sophisticated professionals who were very experienced in all aspects of business.
Rather than going into the behavioral finance explanations for why even top-tier investors let greed trump caution, let’s get practical. (If you do want to learn about the psychological aspects of what makes people do the wrong thing, you can listen to my interview with Nobel Prize Laureate Daniel Kahneman on my radio show. You can see that interview on YouTube.)
In this blog post, I want to make only one basic point, and if you finish reading this article with this one take-away, you can feel pretty confident that you won’t get suckered into a fraudulent investment scheme. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. This idea came from my mother (also a Wall Street veteran, and author of a book for children about how the stock market works).
If Ponzi scam victims considered this core concept before getting involved, this is what they might have thought: “You’re promising me 1.5% profit every month. What do you think I am? Stupid? Not even Warren Buffet can do that.”
They would have continued to think: “You are guaranteeing my principal? Who do you think you are? A government guaranteeing its bonds? Germany guaranteeing the Greeks? You couldn’t possibly have enough money.”
Finally, they would have considered who custodies the money: “You are saving me the trouble of opening my own bank account and putting my money into your own account? And then you will just print up statements on your own laser printer? Come on, buddy, I wasn’t born yesterday.”
Which investment scammer has you in his sights? Who knows? But one thing is for sure – if you start by asking the most basic questions and not believing the unbelievable, you’re well on your way to protecting yourself. The scammer will just move on to his next victim.