Tag Archives: pyramid scheme

It’s In The Mail

ImageIn one of my previous lives, I worked for a company that, among its various business ventures, owned a mailboxes service. I would pop in occasionally to see how this and other nearby businesses were doing and, on one such visit, I found myself in the middle of an adventure. In the morning, shortly after the store opened, a man walked in and flashed his very impressive-looking badge. He explained that a woman was going to come in later in the day to pick up a package and that he needed to be present when this happened. Unsure what was going on, yet thoroughly impressed by the badge, the store’s staff agreed to let the man set himself up behind the counter, in wait for the woman. In no time, the man had settled himself in a chair, opened up a newspaper and blended into the scenery. A short while later, the store’s phone rang and one of the store’s employees answered a call for the woman they were waiting for. She asked if her package had arrived. Upon hearing that it had, she requested that someone bring it out to her car, as she was waiting outside the store. The employee explained that it was the store’s policy that all customers come in to pick up and sign for their own packages. After a short back and forth, he hung up the phone and a few minutes later a small woman in massive sunglasses walked in. The agent paid her no notice and appeared, instead, to be engrossed in a phone conversation with a friend. The woman signed for her package and turned to leave with it. As she did so, the agent whispered urgently into his phone and, suddenly, the mailboxes store turned into a scene straight out of the movies. Men in dark glasses, holding guns, burst in through the door, our agent behind the counter surged forward and, in no time, the woman was under arrest and her box was in their custody. Before he left, the agent explained that this woman was one of a group of people shipping some drug along the lines of PCP. Suffice to say, we were all pretty speechless and the most amazing thing of all? These guys worked for the US Postal Service. Yes, those folks who will let “Neither snow nor rain nor heat…” keep them from delivering your mail will not let crime hang out in their system either.

The United States Postal Inspection Service, founded by Benjamin Franklin, is the primary law enforcement arm of the US Postal Service and one of the oldest federal law enforcement agencies in the United States. Their goal is to protect against those who  “attack our nation’s postal system and misuse it to defraud, endanger, or otherwise threaten the American public.” You would be amazed how many criminals use the postal service as a conduit for perpetuating their crimes (using services such as UPS and FedEx for crimes that cross state lines is also covered by these laws). When Charles Ponzi was arrested for taking people’s money in a giant fraud that came to be known by his last name, the Ponzi Scheme, he was arrested by the US Postal Inspection Service because he had used the mail system to write to his investors, encouraging them to reinvest their funds.  He was charged with and went to jail for mail fraud.

If a person sends you mail in order to ensnare you in some kind of scam, to make an illegal delivery or to otherwise commit a crime, that is mail fraud. Conversely, if someone has scammed you and you end up sending that person money or some other item of value, that too is also considered mail fraud and that person can be prosecuted for it. Since a lot of mail fraud involves financial schemes, the work of financial forensics experts is quite important in the crime fighting work of the US Postal Inspection Service. If, for example, a person were running a pyramid scheme that involves people mailing in funds to invest in the scheme, a forensic accountant would be needed to track and follow the money trail and build a case against the criminal carrying out the scheme. Also, say you received a solicitation to send money to a fake charity and you sent payment in the mail. A forensic CPA’s skills would go a long way in exposing and putting a stop to the bad deeds of the fake charity.

The US Postal Service provides a very important service. It is well known that stealing mail is a federal crime but few realize just how far the US Postal Service and its law enforcement agents go to maintain the integrity of the postal service. Much trust is placed in those blue boxes and this is because of the work of these agents.

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I Told Two Friends…

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When I was about ten years old, I received the first chain letter that I remember. At that point in my life, I had not received much mail so I was really excited to receive a letter. However, when I opened it, my excitement faded very quickly. This letter declared, with a descriptive diagram, that I could stand to gain a bunch of money and it was all very simple. There were four names, listed vertically at the bottom of the page. I was to give twenty cents (a decent amount of money to the non-earning kid that I was) to the person whose name was at the top of the list. I was then to make ten copies of the letter, putting my name in at the bottom of the list and moving the remaining three names one place up on the list. My instructions were to pass these copies out to ten friends and then wait for money to come my way, once my name got to the top of the list. The diagram very helpfully showed me just how much money I stood to receive. I can’t  remember how much it was but I do remember that it was enough to get my friends and classmates chatting excitedly about all the things they could buy with the money they were going to get. There was was a high energy buzz in our class and I remember seeing classmates, writing out copies of the letter, as they prepared to keep the chain going.

Me? I was too busy being sad to get in on the letter writing. Why? Well, because, first of all, I did not have ten friends. All my life, I thought I was doing really well with the four very close friends that I spent just about all my free time with. Until the moment I received the letter, I had never felt that I lacked in the friendship department. But, once I got that letter I got to thinking:

  • Why did I only have four close friends? Why didn’t more people want to hang out with us? Was there something wrong with us?
  • What about the other people in my class? Could I consider them to be close enough friends for the purposes of this letter? I mean, we did go to each others birthday parties and sometimes we hung out? Could they be friends?
  • But those other kids had friends too who were probably going to send them a letter. Could I send them a letter too? Was it okay to get more than one letter and end up in more than one chain? (That question was answered pretty quickly, as I received several letters over the next few days.)
  • Who were my friends going to give their letters to, if not me and each other? Who did they know that, that I did not know, and they were friends with? Why had they not introduced me to them so we could all be friends? Was something wrong with me?
  • If we were only friends with each other, this chain was going to end up being a tight circle, where we could not fulfill the the ten person rule and ended up just passing the letter amongst ourselves?

So, while others were making copies, I was feeling miserable (and receiving a few more letters). I was miserable because I didn’t know enough people to keep the chain going. So, I ended up being the person where chain letters came to die – something I also felt terrible about.

I didn’t know it then but that so-called chain letter was actually the first pyramid scheme that I came into contact with. It turns out that, once people get to thinking about it, no one knows enough people to keep the chain going. If a pyramid scheme is sold well, you can very easily miss that there are not enough people on the planet to keep the scheme going more than a few rounds. Sadly, pyramid schemes tend be be sold very well and that is why they are often so successful for those who start them. Sometimes the person selling you the idea will even tell you that your risk is nothing; that you can come back to them and get your money back if you have second thoughts (those tend to come when you realize that no one is sending you any money or that you have no one to recruit to this scheme). The person selling you the scheme will wax lyrical about all the money you stand to make just by putting in a little bit of money and basically sitting back and waiting on your network to do the rest. It all sounds very tempting – who doesn’t want a lot of return for a little effort? The truth, though, is that, just as the laws of physics dictate, so it is with money matters – it generally takes a lot of effort to get a little return. So, learn to protect yourself against potential pyramid schemes:

  • Even when a trusted friend suggests putting your money into an investment, do some of your own investigating into the proposed investment. Try to find out how solid an investment it really is.
  • Especially when the returns are supposed to be very high, be very careful. Great rewards come with great risks – decide how much you are willing to lose and how willing you are to do so.
  • If someone tries to talk you into a program that requires recruiting people to put money into a fund so you can get a payout, think about how many people you would need to know in order to keep that program going. For example, if each cycle requires ten new recruits, after only six cycles, you would need one million recruits. That is unsustainable.
  • You know the saying – if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is not true. You really do get nothing for nothing. So when someone comes to you with a get rich quick scheme, recognize that the person who will get rich from that scheme is mostly likely not you.

Pyramid schemes are illegal in the United States, with good reason. However, illegality has never stopped anyone from trying to run a scam. Know to recognize the red flags and remember that the few friends you have are probably what are keeping your money in your pocket.

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