Saturday, August 16, 2014

Investors need to wise up to Ponzi schemes - Sharemax and directors schemed to defraud public, says Fais ombud

Investors need to wise up to Ponzi schemes


With many South Africans – and retirees, in particular – struggling to make ends meet, they become easy pickings for fraudsters operating get-rich-quick investment scams, also known as Ponzi schemes.

In their search for high returns on investments, South Africans seem to repeatedly entrust their hard-earned savings to operations which, at best, have short-term track records and, at worst, knowingly sell promises that they are unable to deliver on.

Investors buy into these promises without fully understanding how these operators achieve their alleged returns.

Over the past five years, the following schemes – which have had traumatic consequences for unsuspecting investors – come to mind: Fidentia, Leaderguard, Sharemax, King Group, and the Herman Pretorius saga.

There is a golden thread running through this list: each one promised a return far superior to that of the financial market, at a very low risk. In hindsight, such promises were too good to be true. But why do we continue to move from one such scandal to the next?

Spotting a Ponzi or pyramid scheme is relatively easy. Here is a checklist to arm yourself against fraudsters:

1. Insist on proof that the investment vehicle is registered with the Financial Services Board (FSB).

If it isn’t, and your money gets lost, you have no avenues of recourse open.

2. Compare the interest rates on offer with the global and local investment landscape (for example, interest rates and economic growth rates).

If the national interest rates are at 5 or 6 percent, and someone is offering you a guaranteed return of 30 percent, it is likely to be a fraudulent scheme. Having realistic expectations of investment returns is the cornerstone of any sensible investment strategy.

3. Be wary of consistent returns.

By their very nature, financial markets are fluid instruments fluctuating daily.

If a scheme offers consistent, guaranteed returns and it is not underwritten by an insurer or bank, it is most likely not invested in secure financial instruments and should, therefore, be closely scrutinised.

4. Look carefully at the track record of the institution and individual offering the investment opportunity.

And this means not just taking their word for it. Contact the FSB, contact the editor of the personal finance section of the newspaper, and ask reputable brokers for their opinion. In an economic downturn, your best bets are very well-established investment houses with solid track records and healthy cash reserves.

Don’t be fooled by professional-looking documentation or reporting.

5. Practise steps 1 to 4 above, no matter who you hear about the scheme through.

Unfortunately, many unsuspecting investors are introduced to Ponzi schemes through intermediaries, such as friends and family, and this provides them with a comfort factor. This does not mean they are safe. It is possible that those family and friends will equally become victims.

6. Don’t be comforted if the scheme has paid out regularly to those family or friends.

This is a classic characteristic of a Ponzi scheme. In order to appear legitimate, they pay out, as promised, for a period of time to allow word-of-mouth to market the scheme on their behalf. Then, when there are enough investors, they pull the plug and make off with the money.

7. Trust your instincts. Common sense and gut feel can be great defences against falling for Ponzi schemes.

Ask yourself why you have been given an opportunity to make fabulous returns on your investment. Why have you been so lucky to get this unbelievable opportunity to multiply your wealth? What’s so special about you?

8. Be extremely wary of “opportunities” to invest your money in franchises or investments that require you to bring in subsequent investors to increase your profit or recoup your initial investment.

No legitimate investment house employs this strategy – in short, it is a very big clue that something dodgy is brewing.

Whatever your reason for investing, it is vital to have a goal, a timeline and reasonable expectations.

By investing in regulated investment products – such as unit trusts or mutual funds – you are investing in products that have an enormous amount of governance.

Before investing, you must be sure that you are trusting your funds to a person, people or an institution that has shown that it can consistently deliver returns over an extended period of time.

Long-standing institutions with proven track records are often the wisest choice.

Please contact an accredited financial adviser to discuss these collective investment schemes.

* De Villiers is chief executive officer, Sanlam Structured Solutions.



Named after Charles Ponzi, an Italian immigrant to the US who convinced New Yorkers to invest in coupons yielding fabulous returns in the aftermath of World War I, most Ponzi schemes have the following modus operandi: investors are wooed by fantastic returns, with the older investors in the scheme getting paid from the proceeds of the newer investors. But the scheme only lasts as long as it attracts new investors.

South Africans in search of high returns have also been caught out. Names that spring to mind include Barry Tannenbaum – who fleeced billions from wealthy individuals in 2009 – Masterbond, Ovation, Fidentia and, most recently, Herman Pretorius.


May 24 2013 at 08:00am
By Roy Cokayne

SHAREMAX Investments, its network of financial advisers and four of its directors – Gert Goosen, Willie Botha, Dominique Haese and André Brand – were involved “in a scheme calculated to defraud members of the public”, financial advisory and intermediary services (Fais) ombud Noluntu Bam said yesterday.

Bam reached this conclusion in her latest determination on a complaint lodged by a 73-year-old female pensioner from Heidelberg in the Western Cape against financial adviser Edward Carter-Smith after investing R490 000 in the Zambezi Retail Park on Carter-Smith’s advice.

Sharemax promoted and marketed the Zambezi Retail Park property syndication.

Bam ordered Carter-Smith, Sharemax Investments, FSP Network (a network of brokers set up to market Sharemax schemes), Goosen, Botha, Haese and Brand jointly and severally to repay the complainant.

Carter-Smith complained that he had been misled by the directors of Sharemax and called them “liars”.

In an earlier determination Bam said Sharemax was “nothing more than a Ponzi scheme” in which investors were paid interest out of their own funds.

Business Report confirmed in October last year that the Hawks were investigating allegations that Sharemax committed fraud and operated a pyramid or Ponzi scheme.

About 40 000 people invested about R4.5 billion in the various schemes promoted and marketed by Sharemax.

It defaulted on monthly payments to investors in August 2010 when a decision by the registrar of banks that Sharemax’s funding model contravened the Banks Act became public knowledge.

ACT Audit Solution told the ombud that it had concluded after seeking a legal opinion that the transfer of investor funds from the trust account of Sharemax attorneys Weavind & Weavind to the investment property companies in The Villa and Zambezi schemes, prior to the registration of transfer of the property to investment property companies, “may constitute a reportable irregularity on a proper interpretation of the prospectuses”.

However, Sharemax directors claimed no reportable irregularity occurred because a bona fide “copy and paste” mistake had occurred during the drafting of the prospectuses.

Bam said this claim by the directors of Sharemax was “disingenuous and against the probabilities”.

She said her office was in possession of promotional pamphlets produced and distributed by Sharemax in 2010 that also stated investors’ funds would be paid into the trust account of Weavind & Weavind attorneys until the property was ready for transfer into the investors’ names.

Bam said Sharemax, FSP Network and the four Sharemax directors on their own version knew at the time of producing this pamphlet that they were “wilfully and deliberately misleading members of the public” because of the “cut and paste error” and the prospectus was subject to rectification.

They failed to explain why this “error” was only discovered after the Reserve Bank intervened in 2010 and after the scheme had already collapsed. They also failed to explain why Weavind & Weavind, which allegedly made the mistake, did not file any papers or correspondence in support of the “cut and paste error” version.

Bam said Weavind & Weavind had further failed to explain why it did not inform investors there was an error before it started paying the funds out of its trust account.

She said Weavind & Weavind had never supported the notion of an error in the prospectus. The law firm was of the opinion that the government notice on property syndications did not apply to this scheme and it was therefore not illegal to pay the money from the trust.

Letters sent to each investor by Sharemax, acknowledging the investment and stating that their investment had been deposited into Weavind & Weavind’s trust account, and kept there until the investment amount was processed and the property was transferred, were “equally untrue and misleading” because on Sharemax’s version this was a mistake.

Bam said these letters of confirmation were still being written to investors after the “mistake” was discovered.

“The only reasonable conclusion to be drawn… is that the second to seventh respondents [Sharemax, FSP Network and the four Sharemax directors] were involved in a scheme calculated to defraud members of the public,” she said.

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