Utah residents have lost more than $200 million in recent years through fraudulent investment schemes, many of which were designed to take advantage of Mormons' strong loyalties to one another, according to a state task force report.
"Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints Mormon Church are particularly susceptible to various schemes because faith in one another spawns promoters to take advantage of 'the Mormon Connection,' " said the report by a committee of prominent lawyers, bankers, public officials and a leader of the Mormon Church.
Investment fraud in Utah is so widespread that published reports have referred to the state as the "sewer of the securities industry" and the "stock-fraud capital of the nation," according to the task-force report. More than 9,000 state residents have been victimized by frauds, it said.
" . . . Church members often invest based upon the individuals involved and their standing in the LDS Church," the report says. "Promoters have structured scams to appeal to members of the LDS Church, using such ploys as a trust fund to send children on a mission."
"I happen to think all people are pretty much alike, and there aren't any of us who wouldn't lust after a great investment," said Utah Gov. Scott M. Matheson, who appointed the task force.
"Most of these fraudulent schemes have promised excessive returns on investments appealing directly to greed," the report says.
Most victims lacked knowledge in investment matters and failed to seek professional advice when they were presented with a seemingly lucrative opportunity," the report says. "A recurring theme in testimony during . . . public hearings was that individuals based their investment decision on the person presenting the plan to them rather than on sound financial investment principles."
The report says Utah residents appear more susceptible to fraud than people in most other states, and the state and the Mormon Church are alerting the public to the risks of investments based on religious and personal relationships.
The losses have occurred in connection with investment schemes involving gold mines, diamond ventures, real estate development, shell corporations and "Ponzi schemes," the report says.
In a Ponzi scheme, the investors' money is never invested in anything, and early investors are paid "gains" out of money put up by later investors. The payout on early investment lures additional investment money until the bubble bursts. The scheme is named after Charles Ponzi, who in 1920 amassed nearly $15 million in eight months in a scheme that involved postal reply coupons purchased in Spain for a penny that allegedly were redeemable in the United States for 10 cents, the report says.
One of the major reasons investment fraud is concentrated in Utah is the absence of state laws prohibiting "blind-pool" stock offerings by new companies that have no definite business plans, the report says. Most states have laws that prohibit these offerings, and Matheson thinks Utah's securities statutes need to be changed.
Of the 282 stock offerings in Utah in the 1983-84 fiscal year, 211 were blind pools, the report says. Colorado was second with 17 blind-pool offerings. Most of these involved stocks that cost less than 10 cents a share and frequently included undisclosed financial arrangements that encouraged brokers to sell the securities.
The governor's task force held hearings in cities across the state so they could learn about the schemes from Utahans who were swindled. Among the victims was Alice Larsen, a 74-year-old, blind, retired teacher who lost her retirement savings in a fraudulent scheme. Larsen and her family lost $65,000 in a real estate scam which they invested in because "she knew other investors who were satisfied because they had been paid the monthly interest promised," the report says.
"People invest with members of their church without bothering to check into things," said Robert S. McConnell, a Salt Lake City lawyer who is chairman of the task force. "The Mormon Church is quite concerned. . . They recognize they have a problem. . . I don't mean to say all of the schemes are church-oriented, but enough are that it is a concern of the enforcement people. . . Some of the Mormon Church people will get other high-ranking church officials involved. . . and they'll say to church members, 'Come invest with us. Elder so-and-so, who is a high-ranking church member, is part of our team.' "
Doctors and dentists also were mentioned in the report as victims of investment schemes. Many of them invested blindly in abusive tax shelters, the report says. Senior citizens also are vulnerable, the report says, and many older Utahans have been pressured into fraudulent investments they do not understand.
The task force recommends vigorous enforcement of securities laws, earlier detection of fraudulent activity, public education programs and new legislation outlawing blind-pool offerings.
Utah's appeal to new businesses has been seriously undermined because of its unfavorable reputation for securities fraud, the report says.
The state's history is part of the problem, the report says, noting that in the 1860s, commercial mining endeavors encouraged speculation in the state.
"Encouraged by their leaders to fund many public works and quasi-private business ventures by subscription, the Mormon people bought shares of canal companies, grain elevators, flour mills, spinning and weaving corporations, stage and freight companies as well as other enterprises needed in their frontier communities," the report adds.