U.S. regulator probing "rampant Ponzimonium"

BOSTON Fri Mar 20, 2009 5:55pm EDT

The 1920 mugshot of Charles Ponzi and the 2009 mugshot of Bernard Madoff. REUTERS/Handout/Composite

The 1920 mugshot of Charles Ponzi and the 2009 mugshot of Bernard Madoff.

Credit: Reuters/Handout/Composite

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BOSTON (Reuters) - Hundreds of people in the United States are under investigation for financial scams, many involving Ponzi schemes, a U.S. regulator said on Friday, calling the phenomenon "rampant Ponzimonium."

While none are as mammoth as disgraced financier Bernard Madoff's $65 billion fraud, multimillion-dollar "mini Madoffs" are proliferating from New York to Hawaii, the head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission said.

So far this year, the agency has uncovered 19 Ponzi schemes, which depend on an influx of new capital instead of investment profits to pay existing investors.

That compares with just 13 for all of 2008.

"Because of the economy, people are seeking redemptions more than they ever have and that's making a lot of these scams go belly up," Bart Chilton, commissioner of the Washington-based Commodity Futures Trading Commission, said in a telephone interview.

In the last month alone, his agency has pursued investment fraud in Pennsylvania, New York, North Carolina, Iowa, Idaho, Texas and Hawaii.

Chilton called the problem "rampant Ponzimonium" and "Ponzipalooza" -- a play on the word "Lollapalooza," an American music festival featuring a long list of acts.

Many of the financial scams are small but grew fast to support lavish lifestyles, like the suspected $40 million, five-year Ponzi scheme that came to light last month when a North Carolina man, Bruce Kramer, committed suicide.

Claiming he was an expert mathematician, Kramer is accused of persuading 79 people to invest in what he said was a foreign currency trading operation, Barki LLC. He promised monthly returns of at least 3 percent to 4 percent, the CFTC said.

Instead, he funneled money into a Maserati sports car, a $1 million horse farm and artwork while holding "extravagant" parties, according to a CFTC complaint released on Wednesday.

As the economy soured, Kramer struggled to find new clients to keep the scheme going. In the days before his suicide, his investors demanded their money back and grew suspicious when they couldn't access their own funds, said Chilton.

The Commodity Futures Trading Commission shares oversight of financial markets with the Securities and Exchange Commission, which also faces a swelling casebook of Ponzi schemes, including charges against Texas billionaire Allen Stanford, who is accused of bilking investors of $8.8 billion.

The SEC has taken emergency action in 24 cases this year "to halt ongoing fraud," said SEC spokesman John Heine.

The FBI is also ramping up probes of financial wrongdoing. The agency has 43 corporate fraud cases under way directly related to the financial crisis, FBI Deputy Director John Pistole told a Congressional panel on Friday.

The CFTC, which set up a task force last year to pursue foreign currency Ponzi schemes and fraud, discovered about $80 million invested in four Ponzi schemes this month. That followed 10 such schemes in February totaling about $1.46 billion, and about $450 million in such scams in January.

Those accused of the scams used the money for cars, boats, clothing, jewelry, homes and ranches, said Chilton. One bought his own island in Belize in Central America, he added.

"Some are easier to catch now because people are more vigilant than they have been," he said.

(Reporting by Jason Szep; Editing by Gary Hill)

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