Pyramid Schemes and Securities Fraud

fraud, illegal schemes

A pyramid scheme is an illegal investment scam based on a hierarchical setup. New recruits make up the base of the pyramid and provide the funding, or so-called returns, the earlier investors/recruits above them receive. A pyramid scheme does not involve the selling of products. Rather, it relies on the constant inflow of money from additional investors that works its way to the top of the pyramid.

An individual or a company initiates a pyramid scheme by recruiting investors with an offer of guaranteed high returns. As the scheme begins, the earliest investors do receive a high rate of return, but these gains are paid for by new recruits and are not a return on any real investment. From the moment the scam is initiated, a pyramid scheme’s liabilities begin to exceed its assets. The only way it can generate wealth is by promising extraordinary returns to new recruits; the only way these returns receive payment is by getting additional investors. Invariably these schemes lose steam and the pyramid collapses.

Basic Pyramid Scheme

A pyramid scheme is a variation of the Ponzi scheme, which offers a promise of high investment returns that are not available from traditional types of investment. In practice, the structure of pyramid schemes induces others to recruit victims and collect money that eventually makes its way to the top of the pyramid. In a typical setup, one person recruits a second person to invest a certain amount of money. The second person recovers his investment by recruiting people under him to invest in the scheme. The more people he can recruit under him, the greater his profit and a certain percentage of the profits of all recruiters work their way up the pyramid to enrich the recruiters before him. Each person must recruit a certain number of people. The process continues until there are fewer people at the bottom of pyramid, and it collapses under its own weight. Generally, only the people near the top of the pyramid make any significant profits, and people near the bottom never recover their investments.

Business Pyramids

On their face, multi-level marketing companies are structured like a pyramid. Individuals have the opportunity to invest in their own businesses, which, ostensibly, distribute a product. However, with some companies, the real profit opportunity comes not from selling products but from inducing others into buying into their own business, with a percentage of the investment moving up the hierarchy of recruiters. Among the more high-profile multi-level marketing companies to be investigated as a pyramid scheme is Herbalife Ltd. Herbalife distributors can make money just by selling the company’s products, but they must purchase and sell thousands of dollars’ worth of the products before they realize a profit. Critics allege that the company’s top recruiters receive the vast majority of profits.

Ponzi Scheme

A Ponzi scheme is financial crime, a fraudulent investing scam promising high rates of return with little risk to investors. The Ponzi scheme generates returns for older investors by acquiring new investors. This is similar to a pyramid scheme in that both are based on using new investors’ funds to pay the earlier backers. For both Ponzi schemes and pyramid schemes, eventually there isn’t enough money to go around, and the schemes unravel.

A Ponzi scheme is an investment fraud where clients are promised a large profit at little to no risk. Companies that engage in a Ponzi scheme focus all of their energy into attracting new clients to make investments. This new income is used to pay original investors their returns, marked as a profit from a legitimate transaction. Ponzi schemes rely on a constant flow of new investments to continue to provide returns to older investors. When this flow runs out, the scheme falls apart.

Ponzi Scheme Red Flags

The concept of the Ponzi scheme did not end in 1920. As technology changed, so did the Ponzi scheme. In 2008, Bernard Madoff was convicted of running a Ponzi scheme that falsified trading reports to show a client was earning a profit.

Regardless of the technology used in the Ponzi scheme, most share similar characteristics:

– A guaranteed promise of high returns with little risk
– Consistent flow of returns regardless of market conditions
– Investments that have not been registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC)
– Investment strategies that are a secret or described as too complex
– Clients not allowed to view official paperwork for their investment
– Clients facing difficulties removing their money

Securities Fraud

Securities fraud is a type of serious white-collar crime that can be committed in a variety of forms, but primarily involves misrepresenting information investors use to make decisions.

The perpetrator of the fraud can be an individual, such as a stockbroker, or an organization, such as a brokerage firm, corporation, or investment bank. Independent individuals might also commit this type of fraud through schemes such as insider trading.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) describes securities fraud as criminal action that can include high yield investment fraud, Ponzi schemes, pyramid schemes, foreign currency fraud, broker embezzlement, hedge fund related fraud, and late day trading. In many cases, the fraudster seeks to dupe investors through misrepresentation and to manipulate financial markets in some way. This crime includes providing false information, withholding key information, offering bad advice, and offering or acting on inside information.

Securities Fraud Takes on Many Forms

There is no shortage of methods used to trick investors with false information. High yield investment fraud, for example, may come with guarantees of high rates of return while claiming there is little to no risk. The investments themselves may be in commodities, securities, real estate, and other categories. Advance fee schemes can follow a more subtle strategy, where the fraudster convinces their targets to advance them small amounts of money that is promised to result in greater returns. Sometimes the money is requested to cover processing fees and taxes in order for the funds that allegedly await to be disbursed. Ponzi and pyramid schemes typically draw upon the funds furnished by new investors to pay the returns that were promised to prior investors caught up in the arrangement. Such schemes require the fraudsters to continuously recruit more and more victims to maintain the sham for as long as possible.

The FBI warns that security fraud is often noted by unsolicited offers and high-pressure sales tactics on the part of the fraudster, along with demands for personal information such as credit card information and social security numbers. Allegations of securities fraud are investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and National Association of Securities Dealers (NASD). The crime can carry both criminal and civil penalties, resulting in imprisonment and fines. Some common types of securities fraud include manipulating stock prices, lying on SEC filings, money laundering, and committing accounting fraud. Some famous examples of securities fraud are the Enron, Tyco, Adelphia and WorldCom scandals.

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