Different Worlds, One Scam

"Affinity fraud" runs throughout history, from the rich to the poor.

Jan. 6, 2009— -- 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.

Much of Theodule's alleged scheme was focused on southern Florida's largely insulated Haitian-American community, where community members turn to Creole-language radio for their primary news and where investing money in anything other than a savings account just isn't common, said Teresa J. Verges, an assistant regional director for the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Theodule attracted investors in part by assuring them that their money would help the development of Haitian-run businesses.

"Investors believed they were not only doing something good for themselves but something good for the community," Verges said.

Not everyone who invested with Theodule actually had the money to spare.

"People borrowed against equity in their homes, borrowed money needed for Christmas presents, money they needed to live on," said David A. Rothstein, a lawyer who represents dozens of Theodule investors.

Among his clients, the average person invested between $10,000 and $40,000 with Theodule.

By contrast, many Madoff investors lost hundreds of thousands or millions.

Affinity Fraud Victims: Should They Have Known Better?

While many of Madoff's investors were not Jewish, some of his biggest investors included well-established Jewish organizations like the national philanthropic group Hadassah and New York's Yeshiva University. Individual investors included well-heeled Jewish country-club members who socialized with Madoff or money managers close to him.

"A lot of business is done, especially at Madoff's level, at these country clubs, at a golf game or a tennis game. Social networks, business networks and charitable networks are all wrapped up together," said Rob Eshman, the editor in chief of the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles, which has chronicled the Madoff scandal's impact in Southern California.

"These are people who not only play together and pray together, but they attend each other's kid's bar mitzvah, go to each other's weddings," he said. "It's a rarified world of exclusivity and trust."

Many of Madoff's alleged victims, critics say, were sophisticated enough to know better but were blinded by good returns and downright greed.

"They felt their money was guaranteed, that, no matter what the economy, this guy had the Midas touch," said Jay Sanderson, the chief executive officer of the Jewish Television Network, which saw two of its biggest donors felled by Madoff investments. "In many cases, the people who gave him all their money felt privileged to give him all their money."

At the end of the day, Verges said, any group is susceptible to affinity fraud.

"Especially when it's someone from our trusted community -- no one wants to believe that that person would essentially violate them or steal from them," she said. "In fact, that's exactly what these perpetrators are banking on."

In the last 10 years, the SEC has filed charges against affinity fraud schemes targeting Korean-Americans, Jehovah's Witnesses, African-American Baptists, Latin American investors and Texas senior citizens, among others.

Brad Garrett, an ABC News consultant and a former FBI agent, said that chances are, there are many more affinity fraud scams that have gone unreported. Garrett said that, as with other crimes, victims may feel embarrassed to report the crimes or may simply want to avoid contact with police.

Affinity Fraud: A Public Relations Problem?

Cass said affinity scam victims, in particular, may be reluctant to bring a scam to light for fear of damaging public perceptions of their groups.

"Particularly if the group is in some sense outside the mainstream, you don't want to do something that exacerbates the stereotype that makes you seem less attractive," he said.

Still, victims like Horace-Manasse are speaking out.

The 30-year-old mother of four has hired lawyers -- she's being represented by Rothstein's firm -- and is hoping to get at least some of her money back.

Horace-Manasse used to be "a believer" in Theodule, she said. Now, she said, "I just feel hurt."