Melvin J. Ford doesn't live in Switzerland or Antigua or South America.

The 50-year-old insurance salesman-turned-investment guru conducts his business from various offices near his Bowie home. He uses the U.S. mail and invests the money of U.S. citizens. He advertises some of his ventures in national publications and on television infomercials.

But money he collected from investors in recent years--tens of millions of dollars--has gone to offshore destinations such as Antigua and Barbuda, Switzerland, and Panama, where it simply seems to vanish.

The Ford case is an example of the predicament federal authorities face when they attempt to trace money that is sent to offshore banking havens. Even when officials believe financial crimes involving U.S. citizens may have occurred, laws of offshore asylums such as Antigua protect the privacy of their banking clients, making it virtually impossible for U.S. officials to get access to evidence.

In 1991, U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan said Ford was responsible for a "massive securities fraud," drawing investors into what was essentially a pyramid scheme when he collected between $80 million and $100 million from investors by promising huge returns on investments.

The Securities and Exchange Commission, which can bring only civil charges, shut down his operations, and Ford in 1992 signed a consent order agreeing not to violate securities law again. After filing for bankruptcy, he paid $5,000 of an $860,000 fine levied by the SEC.

A trustee recovered only about 3 percent to 4 percent of investors' money. No criminal charges were ever filed. And Ford has continued to take in money from investors by moving his operations offshore, according to investors and federal authorities.

"I was pretty amazed that $100 million disappears and the guy isn't prosecuted," said David Marchant, publisher of the Miami-based Offshore Alert. "It's breathtaking. Why isn't anybody doing anything about this huge criminal enterprise? . . . All these offshore scams are run from the U.S."

Currently, Ford and his associates are being investigated by the SEC, the Internal Revenue Service, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Maryland, the U.S. Customs Service and U.S. postal inspectors.

IRS agents have executed search warrants on the homes of Ford and his principal associates--Goldie Ford, who is not related to Melvin Ford but who handles financial transactions for his various enterprises, and her husband, Chester Moody. Each of them, as well as their attorneys, declined to be interviewed.

As many as 30,000 investors have given money to Ford's operations since 1993, according to federal authorities. Ford's current organization, The Forum, is based in Antigua and claims to offer returns of 100 percent in only a matter of months, according to investors.

Thera Husih, 69, of Sun Lakes, Ariz., invested $35,000 with Ford three years ago and hasn't seen "a penny" back. "Why isn't he in jail?" she asked.

The answer, according to offshore experts, lies buried in the high-tech world of wire transfers from banking shelters such as Antigua, where the laws protected the identities of those who wash money through its banks. The banks that Ford used had no vaults and no tellers and could not transact business in the local currency. One was housed in offices above a strip mall outside the city of St. John's.

Ford's clients sent money orders to a freight-forwarding company in Miami, which sent them on to Antigua, federal investigators said. In the world of offshore banks, funds are electronically transferred to and from "correspondent banks" in money centers such as New York. So, the money itself is accounted for on the West Indies island only briefly. After it reaches correspondent accounts in the United States, it goes on to banks where it can be used by Ford.

In addition to insulating himself by depositing his investors' money in accounts in offshore jurisdictions that are difficult to trace, Ford also has protected himself by preaching the gospel of fear to his clients, according to investigators and former clients.

Many of the investors he has lured to offshore seminars affiliated with The Forum have been part of militant anti-government groups and already have a natural distrust of government agencies. Ford has added to that concern by telling them the IRS would only want to take away their investment returns, so even those who have lost tens of thousands of dollars have not reported those losses to authorities.

Ford encouraged his investors to set up "international business companies" (IBCs), which often have nominee directors or stand-ins for the real owners, blurring their true ownership. While there is nothing inherently illegal about an IBC or an offshore trust, they are frequently used to hide assets from legitimate creditors, to avoid paying taxes or to launder money made from criminal activities, according to the IRS.

Ford then advises the investors to use money deposited with their IBCs to invest in various enterprises that he runs.

The Antigua government charges a fee of $300 for every IBC that is formed there, and the IBC must be renewed each year. Ford's clients opened at least 12,000 IBCs in recent years, according to a well-placed banker on the island, paying Antigua about $3.6 million a year.

In 1996, Antigua's prime minister, Lester Bird, said in an interview that he had begun an investigation of Ford and his activities on the island. But an Antigua banker, who declined to be identified, said the probe was never carried out. Bird declined to comment.

Antigua is just one of 17 Caribbean offshore tax havens where laws protect the identities of private banking clients. This spring, the Treasury Department issued an advisory to banks to "give enhanced scrutiny to all financial transactions routed into or out of Antigua and Barbuda," particularly into the 50 offshore banks there.

The loose banking regulations in Antigua "threaten to create a haven whose existence will undermine international efforts . . . to counter money laundering and other criminal activity," the advisory said.

"We think it is a most unfortunate decision," Bernard Percival, chairman of the International Financial Sector Authority in Antigua, said of the advisory. "Antigua has always cooperated with the U.S. . . . We want money laundering eradicated."

Antiguan officials said they do not have the resources to police all the offshore banks there and have asked for the help of U.S. authorities in some cases. Two of the banks Ford dealt with have been closed by authorities for insolvency and put into receivership.

U.S. banks must keep records of all inbound and outbound wire transfers, although once the money is deposited in an offshore bank, the account names may be changed, making it impossible to trace it further. In addition, many offshore banks issue credit cards that can be used as debit cards. So if you wanted to buy a $50,000 car in the United States, you could simply use your Antigua bank's Visa card rather than writing a check or wiring the money back to the United States. This is how Melvin Ford paid his living expenses, according to investigators.

According to investigators, Ford travels first class to Antigua and other destinations and has used investors' money to bankroll a diamond club, an import-export business, a Gambian seafood company, a limousine service, and real estate and diamond-mining ventures.

Some of Ford's investors were rewarded financially to bring in other investors. Others were not.

This summer, some of the investors contacted International Debt Recovery, an investigative firm based in Ireland, and asked for help in recouping their investments.

IDR, whose World Wide Web site is www.idrnet.co.uk, now represents about 17,000 U.S. clients who say they have lost their initial investments. IDR says it has not calculated the total value of the claims, but it could easily exceed $47 million. And that figure represents less than half of Ford's investors.

"We have a better chance of tracing the money than the authorities," said Andy Haughton, managing director of IDR, who said the firm will earn between 10 percent and 20 percent of any money recovered. "We don't have any barbed-wire jurisdictional fences like they do."

Meanwhile, one of the primary banks used by Ford's organization in Antigua, American International Bank, has closed. William W. Cooper, who ran the bank, has been indicted in Florida on charges of money laundering. Cooper, who has not been extradited, denies the charges.

No one knows how much of Ford's investors' money is left. As much as $25 million was used to finance Ford's business schemes, according to the IDR spokesman. According to investigators, when money ran out, Ford would simply bring in more investors. This money, the investigators say, paid for such ventures as:

* Pelican Seafood. Ford paid $2.4 million for a Gambian fishing operation that now comprises four fishing boats (two of which have sunk) and no fish. Chester Moody oversees the operation while living in a seven-bedroom walled villa with servants in Gambia.

* A diamond-mining venture. The Forum heavily promoted a mining venture in Guinea from which it said investors would reap tremendous rewards. De Beers, the diamond conglomerate, reports that the likelihood of a new source of diamonds there--or anywhere else--is small and would require enormous investment.

* Boxes of gold. Ford paid $1 million for several locked boxes from Sierra Leone that were supposed to contain gold worth $10 million. The boxes actually contained rocks and dirt.

* Diamond Club International. National television and magazine ads promoted mail-order diamonds. Earlier this year the Diamond Club closed, and creditors have sued it for $500,000 in unpaid bills.

* Limousine and clothing businesses. Goldie Ford, who drives a new champagne-colored Jaguar, has started a number of businesses in Maryland, including A Touch of Class Limousine Service; High Image Fashion, a boutique that sells mink coats and upscale clothing; and Waldorf Golf Plus, a golf store.

None of those ventures has benefited David M. Foster, 50, a Vancouver, B.C., railroad engineer who jumped into investing with Ford because he had heard others struck it rich.

His primer on offshore investing was an expensive one--it cost him his $60,000 savings.

"This offshore stuff, it's really shark-infested waters," Foster said. "There are a lot of scam artists out there."