Different Worlds, One Scam

They believed they could trust him. He was, after all, a successful businessman with a fine reputation in their community. And he was one of them.

Word of mouth spread about the opportunities he offered, and eventually thousands of investors offered their cash -- in many cases their life savings -- in exchange for the near-certainty that they would reap healthy returns.

And then it all came crashing down: Alleged fraud was uncovered, the money they invested was gone and their trust shattered -- replaced by a sense of betrayal.

This could be the story of Bernard Madoff, the once-prominent investment guru who now stands accused of a widely publicized $50 billion scheme.

But it's also the story of a much smaller alleged scam -- one that law enforcement officials say bilked investors of some $23 million and was allegedly run by George Theodule, a self-proclaimed preacher originally from Haiti.

The alleged perpetrators of both schemes are accused of running Ponzi or "pyramid" scams, where, often under the guise of a legitimate investment opportunity, swindlers use money provided by new investors to pay off older investors.

But the Madoff and Theodule scandals have more in common than that. Both men, officials say, committed affinity fraud: They exploited their ties to affinity groups -- in Madoff's case, Jewish groups; in Theodule's case, Haitian immigrants -- to find funding for their operations.

"We all came from a Third World country. We never thought something like this would occur," said Nerline Horace-Manasse, a Haitian-born Florida resident who invested $25,000 with Theodule. "We just wanted to believe in Mr. Theodule -- that he wanted to do the best for the Haitian community."

Ronald Cass, dean emeritus of Boston University School of Law and the president of the legal consulting firm Cass & Associates, said would-be swindlers have an easier time finding targets among those with whom they already share a common bond.

"It's common sense that your best prospect for getting someone to buy in to what turns out to be a Ponzi scheme or some other sort of scam is to go to people who have special reason to have faith in you," Cass said. "So people go to folks who share their religion, or who share their ethnicity or who share a common set of background traits or experiences."

Affinity Fraud: The Ponzi Precedent

Affinity fraud, experts say, has been around as long as any other scam. Cass said Charles Ponzi himself -- the man for whom Ponzi schemes are named -- was likely guilty of affinity fraud.

Beginning in 1919, Ponzi, an Italian immigrant, targeted other Italian immigrants, convincing them to give him millions for what he billed as investments in postage with 40 percent returns. In reality, Ponzi was using money contributed by new investors to provide returns for old investors. The scheme collapsed when Ponzi ran out of funds. (He was convicted of mail fraud in 1920 and eventually deported to Italy.)

"If you're an Italian-American, why would you target other Italian-Americans?" Cass asked. "Not because you don't like them, but because those are the people who are going to be most trusting of you."

Together, the Madoff and Theodule schemes -- which came to light within weeks of one another -- illustrate the wide spectrum of people who can fall prey to affinity fraud.

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