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Ponzi king’s death is a reminder that his con-artist tricks live on

Bernie Madoff left behind a lesson for investors: Never trust, always verify

Bernie Madoff leaves federal court in New York in 2009. (Stuart Ramson/AP)

Criminal mastermind Bernie Madoff is dead, but plenty of con artists around the world are still thriving — and eager to steal your money.

It’s been nearly 14 years since I wrote about a different scheme run by another charismatic huckster. In that case, unlicensed mortgage brokers were pushing homeowners into the type of high-priced, predatory mortgages that led to the housing crash and ultimately created the Great Recession.

The mortgage promoter has remained in business, evading regulators by frequently changing the name of the company and moving his operation from state to state. Every so often I get an email from someone wanting to know whether it’s safe to trust the guy.

Many do exactly what they should do. They search for information and inevitably come across one of my columns. They email me wanting to know more. So I send them additional columns that I wrote about the mortgage scheme.

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Despite a history of cease-and-desist orders from various states, some of these folks still weren’t persuaded to avoid business dealings with a person who has a proven track record of deception.

“I want to believe that this company is a legitimate financial services firm that’s looking to expand,” one woman emailed in 2018. “Everything in me is saying ‘Run Forrest, run.’”

Eventually — after several warnings from me — she did run. Others don’t want to believe the reporting, so I give up.

But the scammers don’t give up. Because, the truth is, they know people want to believe what we natural skeptics instantly see as unbelievable.

Last week, Madoff died at 82 — 12 years into serving a 150-year prison term for bilking investors out of about $20 billion. In 2008, Madoff admitted to perpetrating a massive Ponzi scheme in which he used money from some of his investors to make payouts to others.

Madoff had been a prominent member of the securities industry and the chairman of Nasdaq. His victims included inexperienced investors as well as the rich and famous — director Steven Spielberg, actor Kevin Bacon and Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel.

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In my experience, investment-fraud victims generally fall into three categories. Many people are so strapped financially that skepticism doesn’t seem like an affordable option. Others trust recommendations from people they know and skip doing any due diligence of their own. And some people, out of greed, simply ignore repeated warnings that “if it’s too good to be true, it probably is.”

Madoff’s death is an opportunity to remind us all that the tricks he used still live on and continue to snare investors in other scams.

Don’t trust. Always verify. Ronald Reagan said when negotiating with the Soviets, “Trust, but verify.” But when it comes to investing, be skeptical from the start. I don’t care if your mama, papa or pastor recommends a financial opportunity — always check it out. If someone says they are licensed independently, verify whether it’s true.

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Beware of top-earning recruiters. One of the things scammers have going for them is the ability to get others to help them fish for prey. Scammers use people who profited early to spread the word, making the venture appear legitimate. This is common in pyramid schemes, such as illegal “sou-sous,” which I’ve written about. Recruiters — some who are unaware that they are participating in a scam — share testimonies about their earnings. In doing so, they hook other victims.

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The bait is the financial success of these co-conspirators, or the innocent fishermen and women. That’s what happened with Madoff. Early investors seemingly made lots of money, although we now know they were being paid by the funds that new investors were giving Madoff. Based on the recommendations from these folks, other investors were lured into the Ponzi scheme.

If you don’t understand how the money is being invested, run. You need to understand how your investments will generate a return. Many Madoff victims admitted that they had no clue how their money was being invested. They couldn’t explain how he achieved year-after-year double-digit returns. And when Madoff was pressed, he often wouldn’t explain his investing strategy.

“There was a myth he created around him, that everything was so special, so unique that it had to be secret,” Wiesel, who died in 2016, said during a panel discussion about Madoff’s scheme. At the time Wiesel said he lost his life savings and $15 million for the foundation he founded.

If you’re discouraged from asking too many questions, you’re about to be scammed. Madoff would get agitated when pressed for details about his extraordinary investing strategy.

Once when I was peppering a promoter with questions, I was told I had to pay a $100 membership fee to get more answers.

"Membership has its privileges,” the business promoter angrily quipped. She then asked who had invited me to the meeting.

“My friend,” I said.

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“Would your friend introduce you to anything that is crazy?” she asked.

Yes, your friend may unwittingly introduce you to a scam or scammer. If you are made to feel like a troublemaker because you’re asking a lot of questions, that is a sign to get out — fast.

Madoff was — before his downfall — an investment legend. But we now know the only legendary thing he did was use the same old ploys that have long worked for con artists.