Fortune 500 companies aren't the only ones who see lucrative new trade opportunities in Eastern Europe and the Pacific Rim. So do telemarketing scam artists.
Small investors in the United States lost more than $1.1 billion to such international investment swindles during the past two years, according to a study released yesterday by the North American Securities Administrators Association (NASAA).
The study was prepared at the request of the House subcommittee on commerce, consumer and monetary affairs, which opened hearings on telemarketing fraud at which witnesses testified that the scams cost big and small investors billions of dollars a year. The panel is studying how scam artists elude arrest and how law enforcement officials can stop them.
The securities administrators' study said the overseas investment scam is a fast-growing segment of telemarketing fraud and is expected to increase because events in Eastern Europe and the economic growth of countries in the Asia-Pacific Rim have caught the interest of small investors.
The study, based on an analysis of 87 enforcement actions and investigations conducted by 40 state securities agencies during 1988 and 1989, concluded that three out of four fraud cases involved U.S.-based promoters who offered overseas investments involving strategic and other precious metals, currency speculation, bonds and foreign banking instruments, such as "no risk," purportedly high-yield certificates of deposit.
Among the examples the study cited was that of a Missouri man convicted in mid-March of masterminding a phony gold contract scheme that cost U.S. investors as much as $100 million, including $15 million for residents of Bozeman, Mont.
The self-styled commodities expert, NASAA officials said, had previously run only a small mirror and tile installation firm. He based his contracts on what were supposed to be five-ounce gold bars produced by South Africa's Impala Mines, which, investigators learned, had never dealt with the man and did not produce five-ounce bullion bars.
The association said the nature of these swindles reflected "the fact that old hands in investment frauds are capitalizing in the new international inclination in investor psychology."
The overseas investment scams also involved fake offshore banks in the Pacific and Caribbean and high-pressure "boiler room" telephone sales operations in Costa Rica and Panama, the study said.
The report raised concern over a group of South Pacific island countries that, through liberal banking laws and tight secrecy restrictions, allow or encourage offshore banking practices that an official of the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency described as "prostitute banking."
The study said those islands include Nauru, Vanuatu, Tonga and the Marshall and Northern Mariana islands.
The victims of the telemarketing frauds, the House subcommittee was told yesterday, are usually the elderly and retirees who are home most of the time, who are lonely and who are willing to spend more time on the telephone.
Stephen Paul Bederson, who was arrested in 1988 and pleaded guilty to racketeering, theft, conspiracy and securities charges in Pennsylvania, testified that he worked as a salesman in boiler-room operations in Manhattan and California for 10 years. He said salesmen would take the time to convince their elderly victims that they cared for them.
Past and present state and federal prosecutors who testified called for bigger budgets for tracking down the telemarketers, and for new federal licensing regulations and fees for telemarketers.