Regular readers of this blog know that a good chunk of my legal practice these days focuses on representing victims of Ponzi Schemes. It is tough work because often the Ponzi schemer is in, or near jail, and the stolen monies are hidden in some off shore account or long frittered away on leases for private jets and the finest of wines. So we must do the hard work of finding out who helped the scheme succeed. Who was the getaway driver, who provided services that while seemingly benign were instrumental to the success of the scheme?
When discussing these cases with colleagues and friends, they often will say, “how could these victims be so stupid?" Why didn’t they check things out more carefully? Often victims themselves are embarrassed and beat themselves up over their gullible behavior. Indeed, their shame often silences them from coming forward at all.
After a solicitation I received last week, I better understand the mindset of the victim. My experience does not involve a Ponzi Scheme per se, but a different kind of scam; one that played on my hubris.
One morning, my legal assistant excitedly advised me that I had been contacted by a television producer seeking to interview me. I would later learn it was not just to interview me, but to feature me in a series that would run on PBS as well as various cable networks (big ones, TNT, Biography A&E, are just a few examples I remember and news websites including Time, Inc.) I spoke to the producer, who identified himself as Victor Peters, and I tried my best to be “matter of fact” (Sure, I get requests like these all the time) and knowledgeable. I spouted on about my background and what a fine lawyer I was and what a grand interview I would provide to none other than Joan Lunden.
Victor called back the next day. I had him hooked. Or maybe he had me hooked. He began by reviewing the great benefits of the interview (should have been a warning right there) and then he made his move.
“Steve it is customary for you to pay $22,500 for the out of pocket expenses”. I quickly realized something was amiss. I was not yet angry – crestfallen yes – my anger would come later when I realized all along he was just trying to steal my money. I pulled myself together and replied, “That’s a non-starter." He quickly replied, well how much can you pay? I said I needed to sleep on it. Admittedly, I wanted to be on TV and featured on the web. So my initial reaction was not this is a scam but rather what I could afford.
That’s when I figured out it was all a scam. Mr. Peters represented his company as World Progress Report. Internet research one night revealed that the same entity was very recently called Vision Media Television. The internet was filled with warnings about the company. In fact, PBS explicitly included a long disclaimer of any affiliation with the entity on its website.
PBS “does not endorse, distribute programming for, review underwriting, or otherwise have any business relationship” with Vision Media Television, World Progress Report [or a host of other imposters].
In addition, the New York Times and NPR have each run stories to get the word out on World Progress Report/Vision Media and the scandalous nature of its business model. The articles chronicle stories just like mine – a young business eager to get some attention convinced it will enjoy the spotlight in front of millions of Americans when all that’s really available is overpriced advertising. Each time the request is upwards of $20,000. It begs the question: how many people are actually being scammed – and for how much?
Folks, I was ready to pay these guys something. Being featured on all those media outlets was, yes, too good to be true because they were promising me something I wanted. No different than Madoff or Sanford or Cosmo. They offered huge returns on investment. Mr. Peters was offering me a new level of public exposure.
In the end “you want to believe”. For potential victims in the future, don’t forget what your mother told you: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. I deal with fraud, scams, and suspicious schemes every day in my practice and I nearly fell victim. Remain vigilant, do your homework. Don’t let flattery or claims of easy money distract you from the obvious signs of a fraud and the need to always perform a dispassionate analysis of the facts.