Affinity Fraud: How to Avoid Investment Scams That Target Group
Oct. 9, 2013
What is an Affinity Fraud?
Affinity fraud refers to investment scams that prey upon members of identifiable groups, such as religious or ethnic communities, the elderly, or professional groups. The fraudsters who promote affinity scams frequently are - or pretend to be - members of the group. They often enlist respected community or religious leaders from within the group to spread the word about the scheme by convincing those people that a fraudulent investment is legitimate and worthwhile. Many times, those leaders become unwitting victims of the fraudster's ruse.
These scams exploit the trust and friendship that exist in groups of people who have something in common. Because of the tight-knit structure of many groups, it can be difficult for regulators or law enforcement officials to detect an affinity scam. Victims often fail to notify authorities or pursue their legal remedies and instead try to work things out within the group. This is particularly true where the fraudsters have used respected community or religious leaders to convince others to join the investment.
Many affinity scams involve "Ponzi" or pyramid schemes, where new investor money is used to make payments to earlier investors to give the false illusion that the investment is successful. This ploy is used to trick new investors to invest in the scheme and to lull existing investors into believing their investments are safe and secure. In reality, the fraudster almost always steals investor money for personal use. Both types of schemes depend on an unending supply of new investors - when the inevitable occurs, and the supply of investors dries up, the whole scheme collapses and investors discover that most or all of their money is gone.
How To Avoid Affinity Fraud
Investing always involves some degree of risk. You can minimize your risk of investing unwisely by asking questions and getting the facts about any investment before you buy. To avoid affinity and other scams, you should:
- Check out everything - no matter how trustworthy the person seems who brings the investment opportunity to your attention. Never make an investment based solely on the recommendation of a member of an organization or religious or ethnic group to which you belong. Investigate the investment thoroughly and check the truth of every statement you are told about the investment. Be aware that the person telling you about the investment may have been fooled into believing that the investment is legitimate when it is not.
- Do not fall for investments that promise spectacular profits or "guaranteed" returns. If an investment seems too good to be true, then it probably is. Similarly, be extremely leery of any investment that is said to have no risks; very few investments are risk-free. The greater the potential return from an investment, the greater your risk of losing money. Promises of fast and high profits, with little or no risk, are classic warning signs of fraud.
- Be skeptical of any investment opportunity that is not in writing. Fraudsters often avoid putting things in writing, but legitimate investments are usually in writing. Avoid an investment if you are told they do "not have the time to reduce to writing" the particulars about the investment. You should also be suspicious if you are told to keep the investment opportunity confidential.
- Don't be pressured or rushed into buying an investment before you have a chance to think about - or investigate - the "opportunity." Just because someone you know made money, or claims to have made money, doesn't mean you will, too. Be especially skeptical of investments that are pitched as "once-in-a-lifetime" opportunities, particularly when the promoter bases the recommendation on "inside" or confidential information.
- Fraudsters are increasingly using the Internet to target particular groups through e-mail spams. If you receive an unsolicited e-mail from someone you don't know, containing a "can't miss" investment, your best move is to pass up the "opportunity" and forward the spam to the SEC at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Recent Affinity Fraud Schemes
Affinity frauds can target any group of people who take pride in their shared characteristics, whether they are religious, ethnic, or professional. Senior citizens also are not immune from such schemes. The SEC has investigated and taken quick action against affinity frauds targeting a wide spectrum of groups. Some of our cases include the following:
The SEC obtained a temporary restraining order and an emergency asset freeze in a $4 million offering fraud and Ponzi scheme orchestrated by a financial planner which targeted members of his church, family members, and friends.
The SEC obtained an emergency court order to halt a hedge fund investment scheme by a former Marine living in the Chicago area who was masquerading as a successful trader to defraud fellow veterans, current military, and other investors.
The SEC charged a day trader in Texas with defrauding investors in his supposed high-frequency trading program and providing them falsified brokerage records that drastically overstated assets and hid his massive trading losses. The scheme targeted fellow members of the Houston-area Lebanese and Druze communities, raising more than $6 million over a five-year period from at least 33 investors.
Ponzi scheme promoter sold promissory notes bearing purported annual interest rates of 12% to 20%, telling primarily African-American investors that the funds would be used to purchase and support small businesses such as a laundry, juice bar, or gas station. Promoter also sold "sweepstakes machines" that he claimed would generate investor returns of as much as 300% or more in the first year.
Ponzi scheme promoters raised almost $6 million from nearly 80 evangelical Christian investors through fraudulent, unregistered offerings of stock and short-term, high-yield promissory notes issued by their company, which was marketed as a voice-over-internet-protocol video services provider around the world.
The SEC obtained an emergency court order to halt an ongoing $7.5 million Ponzi scheme that targeted members of the Persian-Jewish community in Los Angeles. The SEC's complaint alleged that the promoter, himself a member of the Persian-Jewish Los Angeles community, raised funds from 11 investors and used nearly $1.6 million investor funds to buy jewelry, high-end cars, and VIP tickets to sporting events. He lured investors with promises of exorbitant returns in purported pre-IPO shares of well-known companies.
Defendants raised $817,500 from investors representing to them that their funds would be used to develop a financial services firm serving the Hispanic community. The promoter used a large part of the investors' money to engage unsuccessfully in high risk "day-trading" of stocks, pay personal living, travel and entertainment expenses or make other, unexplained expenditures with no connection to the purported start-up business activities.
Miami-based developer conducted an affinity fraud and Ponzi scheme involving real estate investments that raised $135 million from more than 400 investors, primarily from the South Florida Cuban exile community. Among other things, the developer paid existing investors with new investors' funds and assigned the same real estate collateral to multiple investors.
Fraudster raised nearly $11 million claiming returns as high as 26%. He typically met and pitched prospective investors over meals at expensive restaurants in and around Fort Lauderdale. His clients typically came to him through word-of-mouth referrals among friends and relatives. A significant number of the victims of his scheme were members of the gay community in Wilton Manors, Florida.
Fraudster raised at least $2.4 million from at least five individuals in 2008 and 2009. He offered and sold promissory notes and convinced investors to grant him trading authority over money contained in online brokerage accounts. While doing so, he misrepresented his intended use of the money, the risks of his trading, the source of the money used to pay the guaranteed fixed returns, and falsely guaranteed repayment of investors' principal.
The SEC charged a purported money manager, his New York City-based investment company, and two of his associates with conducting an affinity fraud and Ponzi scheme that specifically targeted investors living in the Caribbean and African-American communities of Brooklyn.
If you have lost money in an affinity fraud scheme or have information about one of these scams, you should contact:
- The SEC Complaint Center.
- Your state's securities administrator. You can find links and addresses for your state regulator by visiting the North American Securities Administrators Association's website. That organization also has investor tips for avoiding affinity fraud.
You also can check the SEC's Investor Claims Funds webpage for information concerning the appointment of a receiver or claims administrator in any SEC enforcement action.