One of the main headlines in world financial news this August has been the fate of ZeekRewards.com, an online company that offered investors the chance to get rich quick. Interestingly enough, I heard about ZeekRewards before this company hit the headlines, when one of its salespeople contacted me and asked me to represent them. The very pushy salesman nagged me to set up a meeting, but the more he pushed me, the more uneasy I felt. So I decided to follow my mother’s adage of, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is,” and I didn’t meet him.
Reading the headlines, I’m very relieved with my decision. ZeekRewards offered promises of returns such as 1.5% of the investment at the end of each day and shares of 50% of the daily profits. Wouldn’t everyone want that kind of deal? However, this August, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filed an emergency action in a North Carolina federal court because this investment project was yet another Ponzi scheme.
The owners of ZeekRewards must have realized that many of these potential investors were going to ask questions. So, in a bid to protect themselves they added a clause for new users stating that they were not purchasing stock or any kind of “investment or equity,” and they even labeled the whole thing as an “e-commerce subscription.” The SEC saw through their ruse and said that this was not the case and in fact the company was offering its subscribers false securities. However, the average investor did not have the knowledge to understand what they were getting into, and the abovementioned clause probably sounded fair enough.
As people kept subscribing and playing the company’s game, investing and reinvesting, the company’s cash outflows began to exceed its total revenue, leading to a collapse and many unhappy subscribers who were left with nothing.
This time, there are more than 1 million victims of the scheme, making this the largest such bankruptcy case, with around $600 million at stake.
Interestingly, many observant Jews, both in Israel and America, have fallen prey to this scheme. It’s not the first time that Jews have been hit hard by Ponzi schemes (think Madoff).
This raises the question of why Ponzi schemes such as ZeekRewards are tempting to the religious Jewish community. One possible answer is that many religious Jews have large families and in this economic climate finances may be tight. Offer a person who is trying to find legitimate ways to support his family a way to make some extra money, and it’s tempting to find out more.
Sadly, as stated above, ZeekRewards is not a one-off story. Apart from desperation to make more money, another possible reason people fall for these schemes is that the scammers may have gotten smarter.
However, there are three basic measures that you could follow to protect yourself from falling victim in a financial scheme:
1. Remember my mother’s rule: “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” ZeekRewards offered high gains for pressing a few buttons and looking at some ads. This is the first sign of something suspicious. When something sounds too good to be true, ask yourself, “What’s the catch?”
2. Do your research. One potential investor who decided against investing with ZeekRewards said that when he heard about it, he did his homework. He discovered that the company’s securities offerings were not registered with the SEC as required by U.S. federal law. Recognized authorities monitor investments for a reason; their absence speaks volumes.
3. Don’t feel pressured. If the company/salesman/friend keeps nagging you, saying that the investment opportunity will be gone if you don’t “buy now,” it may be wise to let the opportunity pass.
While there are no guarantees in the world of finance, taking these three steps will provide a basic level of protection against becoming a victim of the next Ponzi scheme that rears its ugly head.
If you are interested in hearing more about the biggest investment fraud in history, watch this TV interview that I did on the subject of Bernie Madoff. Although this was four years ago, the points remain the same. If anything, there are more frauds out there and we need to be more careful than ever. So be wary and tread with caution.Doug Goldstein, CFP®