I try to keep up with all the latest investment scams. It started when Bernie Madoff’s empire crumbled. I have always considered myself a cautious investor. Could I have been taken in by Madoff? I like to think I’m the one guy who would have dug a little deeper and uncovered his phony investment scheme. After all, there were plenty of warning signs. On paper, Madoff’s enterprise simply didn’t make sense.
Well, I can’t assume I’m any smarter than anyone Madoff defrauded. I must educate myself. I want to be an expert. I scour the paper and business journals for the words “fraud,” “Ponzi” and “pyramid.” I search for common threads, and they aren’t difficult to find.
It seems most “mini-Madoffs” — the term may seem trite, but nobody can match the sheer scale of the losses he caused — fit a shared profile: a highly intelligent person, typically male, typically with a criminal past. They also tend to fake their credentials. I’m talking about real estate schemes perpetrated by non-realtors and investment schemes run by unlicensed brokers, each with a long list of failed companies and criminal investigations on their résumés. By my math, simple background checks could eliminate 95 percent of the Ponzi schemes that make the news today.
This month’s cover story tackles the wave of embezzlement cases that is making life miserable for dealers across the country. Stephanie Forshee draws a profile of dealership embezzlers that is quite different from the fraudsters I’ve been reading about. These criminals are more often female and most often found working in administrative posts. They had access to the same checks, documents and records you’ll find at any store. That was all they needed.
The amounts they stole varied wildly, from less than $100,000 to more than $10 million. But it’s not the quantity that bothers me, it’s the quality. This is real money we’re talking about. It’s generated by actual transactions with actual documentation. Isn’t somebody else counting the money?
Dealers who wish to avoid a calamity of the type described in these pages would do well to reconsider their accounting practices. I realize that is not a fashionable suggestion. Most dealers are still trying to get back to the levels of profitability they enjoyed before the recession, and those who are growing don’t want to get in their own way. Besides, who wants to start pointing fingers when no crime has been committed?
It doesn’t matter. If you are growing, good. Your record-keeping should mature along with the business. If you’re tightening up, all the more reason to make sure nothing is slipping through the cracks. The accountants I know don’t make a career out of pinching pennies. They’re personally invested in their clients’ businesses. If your money people don’t share your passion, perhaps it’s time to make a change. The course you set for your business today will bind your current staff and everyone who follows to a certain way of doing business. Demand accountability.
By the way, Carlo Ponzi, for whom the Ponzi scheme is named, does fit the description of the typical perpetrator. By the time he launched the scam that would bring in millions of dollars from thousands of investors, he was already a known thief, fraudster and all-around ne’er-do-well.
But, as I often assure myself, Ponzi peaked in the early 1920s, when anyone could claim to be whomever they wanted. He could never fool a modern investor.