Deep Behind the Pine Curtain In Uncertain, Texas, a once favored son from Tyler, Texas, Richie McFarland’s luck has run out. Last week, Richie pleaded guilty to mail fraud before U.S. District Judge T. John Ward, and was sentenced to 8 years and 1 month in the federal system, plus he must pay $8.8 million in restitution to certain investors. That’s what happens when you raise $30 million from almost 350 investors around the country. From the inside looking out, it didn’t have to be that way for Richie who had every opportunity to profit from honest enterprise, but as with most con-men, something went wrong. What was it—greed, eternal optimism, or simple criminal desires? Who knows, but the victims all share the same trait—trusting their money to a con man and left with no place to turn.

Apparently over the last decade or so, Richie has run a number of investment scams under various names such as Delta Interests, Inc., Caddo Resources, LTD, Synterra Investments, Boomtown, LLC and perhaps other entities chiefly offering investors interests in non-existent oil wells, oil and gas leases and other supposed drilling programs. Investors’ efforts to secure repayment of lost investments appear to have been fruitless over the years, thwarted by the legal system, bankruptcies, and ineffective regulatory oversight, but recent efforts by the U.S. and State governments and regulatory bodies will land Richie in jail. Are there more cons in the woods of East Texas, and throughout small town America?

PONZI schemes can be simple or complex, but they all seem to have at their source a perversely gifted con man that can talk plain folk, street savvy and highly educated investors alike out of millions. What leads a gifted person from a caring family like McFarland to defraud friends, family and otherwise unknown investors with friends and family out of millions of dollars of hard earned money? Greed, stupidity, or a death spiral so strong that even the stalwart can’t survive. Obviously McFarland’s con was on a much smaller scale than Bernie Madoff or Sir Allen Stanford, but no less damage was inflicted on the victims. Do they know that one day the gig will be up, or do they believe that they will escape the same post mortem of every other PONZI scheme con man—namely time in a federal correctional facility with a restitution order that will never be paid. Said another way, are there countless cons like McFarland, Madoff, Stanford or George Hudgins that do, in fact, escape all scrutiny and simply move from one con to another living off of their ill-gotten gains? If so, something is wrong in the regulatory world whose officers and agents are charged with protecting the innocent investors of every walk of life from these con men.

What are investors to do? As the old adage goes, if it sounds too good to be true—IT IS! While an ounce of prevention in the form of good sense before investing is definitely worth a pound of cure when one deals with a PONZI, often the only possible recourse is to find someone other than the snake-oil salesman who is responsible. In many instances, these scams lead through registered brokerage firms, commodities firms, banks and other regulated institutions that have laws and regulations that require their vigilance and supervisory oversight. In those instances, investors may, indeed, have a valid recourse to recovering their lost investments by the entity that should have detected and prevented the scam from starting or continuing. Frequently investors are successful in recovering their losses when someone with deeper pockets had a legal responsibility to detect the con, and protect the investors. If you have invested in something that now sounds “too good to be true”, check with a securities fraud attorney competent in recovering these funds.
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Do brokerage firms knowingly turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to the Ponzi schemes recommended by their brokers, or are there instances where brokers really are successful in hiding these schemes from even the most vigilant financial firms? Not surprisingly, the answer is “yes” to both questions. However, it should come as a surprise because firms really don’t have any upside when their brokers participate in outside business activities or private securities transactions. Pursuant to Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) Rules 3030 and 3040, brokers are required to notify their firms of any outside business or investment opportunity they get involved in, and with regard to the investment opportunities, the brokerage firm is required to supervise the scheme just as if it was branded and endorsed by the firm. When firms don’t properly supervise these outside securities transactions, they can be held financially responsible for the victims’ losses.

According to the United States Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC) it filed 60 enforcement cases that involved Ponzi schemes, with some of the most notable being Bernie Madoff and Sir Robert Allen Stanford who made off with an alleged $50 Billion and $7 Billion, respectively. But one thing is certain, given the heyday of the last bull market and no doubt the lifestyles built by these con men and even well intending stockbrokers, there will be more PONZI schemes in the news.

For those that find themselves victims of PONZI schemes, more troubling may be the fact that the regulators such as the United States Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC), Financial Industry Regulatory Authority and various states securities regulators may have received advanced warning in these schemes, but slow to act. Many of these regulatory bodies and their employees have found themselves the target of accusations that they simply turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to obvious warning signs, and in some instances actual knowledge of the wrongdoing. While the regulators are becoming more and more zealous in their enforcement efforts, they rarely recover an individual victim’s losses.