Monday, January 31, 2011

Red Flags Pointing to a Con Artist

Photo By Kenneth Lu

Being scammed is an eye-opening experience for victims who, because of greed, recklessness, or a general lack of attention to detail, just do not see it coming. While there are victims who fall prey to the best of con artists, often through no fault of their own, most scams have identifiable warning signs for those who know what to look for.

Alan Sakowitz’s Miles Away…Worlds Apart: Empowering Lessons Gleaned from Experiences of a Whistleblower uncovers the Scott Rothstein Ponzi scheme, the largest that the South Florida has ever seen, to demonstrate the power of outrageous rewards, and how it can turn well-to-do people into criminals and accomplices. Sakowitz states, “Amazingly, so many people willingly and sheepishly surrendered their own good judgment for the promise of unreasonably high rewards. I saw up close the unbelievable power of greed.”

Despite having government officials, police officers, and many other influential figures convinced of his legitimacy, Rothstein’s charm did not fool Alan Sakowitz. The red flags were visible and Sakowitz’s judgment was not blinded by too-good-to-be-true rewards.

According to The Merriam Webster Dictionary, a red flag is defined as a warning signal or something that attracts usually irritated attention. Scott Rothstein’s firm was full of red flags—there just wasn’t anyone to expose them. One such warning signal that should have been quite obvious was that Rothstein was claiming he was settling 3,000 annually, without a single case turning into a lawsuit. The minimum settlement amount per case: $500,000. Doing the math, it’s easy to conclude that Rothstein shelled out over 1.5 billion dollars in settlements. Red flag? I would say so.

When a person is living well beyond his/her means, a brain signal should go off, indicating something gone awry. For example, Scott Rothstein, a lawyer, buys a $5,000,000 yacht, leases a jet, owns a Bentley, a Rolls- Royce, two Lamborghinis, two Ferraris, a mansion, and the list goes on. “Needless to say, Rothstein’s lifestyle was inconsistent with his position. Scott was living as if he was earning tens of millions of dollars a year, but there was no indication that his firm was generating the kind of money he was spending.”

Red flags were everywhere. For example, Melissa Lewis, partner of RRA—Scott Rothstein’s firm—was suspiciously murdered. Even in layman’s terms, this is cause for concern. Perhaps Lewis found out about the Ponzi scheme. What’s worse is that Rothstein, a man who paid $100,000 for a band to dedicate a song to he and his wife—and routinely tosses around upwards of $50,000 in donations—donates only $20,000 to Melissa’s foundation. While the amount is a large sum, it should be noted that Melissa was an integral part of his life and firm, making it unusual, if not suspicious, that Scott downgraded his donation amount.

In the 21st century, con artists can be associated with law firms, brokerage firms, the web, anywhere—absolutely anywhere. The important thing is to be mindful of potential red flags. If something doesn’t make sense, don’t try to rationalize it until it does. If it looks wrong, it probably is.

Alan Sakowitz’s Miles Away…Worlds Apart: Empowering Lessons Gleaned from Experiences of a Whistleblower offers a common sense perspective on schemes and scams that will enlighten readers and equip them with knowledge that they can use to protect themselves from scams.  This is a must read for anyone interested in learning how to recognize red flags in deals that are just too good to be true.

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