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The 12 Worst Financial Scandals In History
Updated: June 11, 2018
If Olivia Pope has taught us anything, it's that everyone loves a good scandal. And when it comes to managing money, there's a whole lot of room for screw-ups, cover-ups and everything in between. So let's take a stroll back in time, and revisit a dozen of the craziest financial flukes in the history of cash.
1. The Panic of 1792
In the early days of America, a pair of bankers named Alexander Malcomb and William Duer attempted to buy up all the U.S. debt securities offered by the First Bank of the United States. Unfortunately, Malcomb and Duer decided the best way to pay for these securities would be to, uh, not actually pay for them. They cooked up a scheme to buy the debt securities using fake personal loans they gave to each other, and this had the effect of driving the price of securities way up. When their fake loans collapsed and their creditors came a’ knocking, the prices for securities fell, sparking a bank run. Luckily, Treasury Secretary (and very good rapper) Alexander Hamilton was able to stabilize the market and prevent the (still very young) U.S. economy from collapsing. Let's call it "Baby's First Wall Street Crash."
2. The Teapot Dome Scandal
This scandal might have a silly name, but it's the reason why President Warren G. Harding's is always listed high up on all those "Worst Presidents Ever" clickbait articles. In 1922, Harding’s Secretary of the Interior, Albert Bacon, leased the oil reserves at Teapot Dome Oil Field in Wyoming to an oil exec named Henry F. Sinclair for much, much less than they were worth. In return, Sinclair showered Bacon with hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts, bribes, and interest-free loans. Once the scheme was exposed, Bacon became the first-ever Cabinet member to go to prison.
3. The Original Ponzi Scheme
Charles Ponzi was an Italian con man who operated throughout the U.S. and Canada in the early 20th century. In 1920, he became famous for the scheme that now bears his name. Essentially, Ponzi would ask people to invest in his business, promising them a 50% profit in 45 days. And for a while, it seemed to be working. Investors began to get back their returns as promised, and they were so jazzed about it that they reinvested their money immediately back into his business.
Everything was going great until, suddenly, it wasn’t. It turns out that Ponzi's crazy returns weren't the result of shrewd trading. In fact, Ponzi was simply using money from new investors to pay out "profit" to old investors. Because so many people were reinvesting, he was able to keep the scheme going for a long time. All in all, the losses from Ponzi’s scheme totaled $20 million, and he went to prison. But while Ponzi himself stopped, his scheme continued. Let's just say this won't be the last time you see a Ponzi scheme on this list.
4. Selling the Eiffel Tower
“One of the greatest financial scams in history was carried out by the villain Victor Lustig," said Sacha Ferrandi, founder and CEO of Source Capital Funding, Inc. "Otherwise known as the man who sold the Eiffel Tower …twice."
We'll let Ferrandi tell the rest of the story herself:
"A Hungarian immigrant to the United States, Lustig took the country by storm and enacted a series of cons for a whopping 13 years. Of the many cons he concocted, his Eiffel Tower scheme was the greatest.
In 1925, Lustig traveled to Paris and learned that the Eiffel Tower was badly dilapidated, an expensive nuisance leftover from the 1889 Paris Exposition. He decided to capitalize on this, and dubbed himself a new government official that had the rights to tear down the tower and haul away the scraps."
In an intimate meeting with scrap metal dealers, he explained that the city was going to scrap the tower in secret, selling it to the highest bidder. One dealer put down a hefty cash bid to tear down the tower, and after going to government officials to secure his prize, he realized he had been duped. The poor chump was so embarrassed he didn’t report it to the authorities, allowing Lustig to head back to Austria.
After a while of following Parisian news and not hearing anything about the tower scam, Lustig returned to Paris to enact his scheme once more. Unfortunately for Lustig, the second victim reported him to the authorities, and he was forced to flee Paris for refuge.
Known as one of the most charming con men of all time, his name 'Count Victor Lustig' destined him to be a villain.”
5. Ivar Kreuger, the Match King
If you bought a match in the 1920s (and who didn't??) odds were good that you were contributing to Swedish industrialist and financier Ivar Kreuger’s global fire-starting empire. In the aftermath of World War I, Kreuger amassed an international monopoly, owning around 75 percent of match producers worldwide, earning him the nickname “The Match King.” But when the stock market crashed in 1929, some of the more “innovative” accounting practices that Kreuger had invented to keep his empire float were revealed. And they extended well beyond match sales.
In short: Kreuger had made the businesses seem far more profitable than it actually was. In 1932, as his vast web of financial schemes collapsed, Kreuger shot himself in a Paris hotel room. These complex accounting frauds and vast global losses would not be seen again until the 2000s. (Keep reading. We’ll get there.)
6. Barry Minkow and ZZZZ Best Cleaners
In the 1980s, supposed “whiz kid” Barry Minkow started a carpet cleaning business called ZZZZ Best Cleaners. The business grew quickly, mostly due to its successful “insurance restoration” work, which allowed it to secure some pretty big loans and investments. The company went public in 1986 and was in talks to purchase other large carpet cleaning companies to expand its reach even further, but in 1987 the whole thing came crashing down.
Turns out, ZZZZ Best Cleaners was actually a massive Ponzi Scheme. While the business's carpet cleaning service was legitimate, its “insurance restoration” division was run by the ghost of Charles Ponzi, and the investors who'd put so much money into the company were left in a lurch. Minkow was arrested and sentenced to 25 years in prison but was released in 1995. (He has since gone back to jail for—among other things—defrauding his church. What a mensch.)
7. Charles Keating and The Savings & Loan Scandal
In the US in the late 80s and early 90s, over a thousand savings and loan associations failed, leaving massive losses and costing investors and taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars. The poster child for this crisis was financier Charles Keating who acquired Lincoln Savings and Loan in 1984 and promptly had them make a bunch of risky (but potentially more profitable) bets and investments. After years of mounting losses that were kept hidden from regulators, Lincoln Savings and Loan (and the company that owned it) went bankrupt in 1989. The firm was seized by the US government and Keating was sent to jail. Bondholders lost over $250 million, and the government ended up on the hook for $3.4 billion.
8. Albanian Pyramid Schemes
Genti Cici, CFP, Founder and CEO of StandUP Advisors, was born and raised in Albania, immigrating to the US in 1998. He told us the story of the Albanian Pyramid Scheme crisis:
“In the early 1990s, Albania was coming out of almost 50 years of a very harsh communist regime. The country was opening up to having different political parties, freedom of speech, religion and even private property and investments, which up to then were not allowed. I was a teenager at the time and all of this was new, exciting, and of course unknown.
The first time I heard about what we now know as ‘pyramid schemes’ was about a ‘system’ where you would purchase a ‘ticket’ and then you would tell more people to do the same eventually getting you to the top to be paid. In the early 90s these systems were almost underground, but in the mid-90s almost everyone I knew was involved and ‘invested’ in one or another firm that popped up everywhere across the country managed by ‘interesting’ people with really no background in investing, economics or business.
At first these firms, which had no real investments to show, were paying 7-10% per month interest (very high by any standard), but in the heat of competition from one another and closer to the top of the bubble, some of the firms around 1996 were paying 3 times your money in 3 months, an almost 100% return per month – crazy to hear now, but then almost all were in, some even selling their homes and even their livestock to invest.
These pyramid schemes affected many people deeply as they wiped out almost all of their savings and, looking back, this could have been easily detected by financial experts, but almost all, including the government, were enjoying the benefits of prosperity (even if a fake one).
At the end, this dark episode in financial illiteracy cost Albania way too much. Not only in lost wealth, but also in lives, as almost 2,000 people died in the anti-government protests and chaos that followed when all the pyramid schemes collapsed in 1997. The government fell, the military and police force was almost nonexistent, the military armories were looted and kids were walking down streets with AK-47s. As a Certified Financial Planner (CFP) now, I’m doing my part to promote financial literacy to all around US, as I know first-hand probably the worst experience of financial illiteracy.”
In the year 2000, you would be hard-pressed to point to a more successful company than Enron, a Texas-based energy company that was worth an estimated $60 billion.
But that all came to a swift halt by the end of 2001. Because all that success Enron was having, was actually just a big, fat whopper. Sure, it looked like the company was just raking in the cash, but that outstanding revenue and company growth wasn't happening because of next-level business initiatives. The company was actually losing money, but through a lot of illegal accounting gymnastics, they reported that they were profiting in the billions. What they were doing is called "mark-to-market" accounting, where they based the value of their securities on their current market value, and not on their actual book values.
According to Investopedia, "In Enron's case, the company would build an asset, such as a power plant, and immediately claim the projected profit on its books, even though it hadn't made one dime from it. If the revenue from the power plant was less than the projected amount, instead of taking the loss, the company would then transfer the asset to an off-the-books corporation, where the loss would go unreported. This type of accounting enabled Enron to write off unprofitable activities without hurting its bottom line."
When this massive coverup was brought to light, it took down everyone from Enron CEO Kenneth Lay, COO Jeffrey Skilling, countless other Enron executives and their accounting firm, Arthur Andersen. To add insult to injury, the Houston Astros had to rename their stadium from Enron Field to Astros Field (it's now the Minute Maid Park).
At the time it happened, Enron’s downfall was largest corporate bankruptcy in American history. But it was quickly unseated from its perch by the next entry on our list ...
Before it filed for bankruptcy in 2002, Worldcom was the second-largest telecommunications company in the country. But when the company’s internal auditors discovered $3.8 billion in fraudulent revenues from 1999 to 2002, things went south in a hurry. Worldcom would eventually file for bankruptcy, costing investors $180 billion and 30,000 people their jobs.
Personal finance blogger Jon Dulin of MoneySmartGuides.com (@MoneySma) was one of those investors:
“I first bought into Worldcom back in 1999. It was my second stock investment. That summer, news started trickling out that Worldcom and Sprint would be merging. Worldcom stock was popping $5 a day. I was excited and waited for the "news bump" the stock got to cool off. That fall, I bought more shares as Worldcom reported good earnings.
Fast forward to 2000, and news broke that the merger was called off. The stock took a hit, so I bought more shares. I never bought because of the potential merger, I bought because I thought Worldcom was a solid company. And I felt it still was even though the merger was called off. Even as the stock price continued to drop, I (now foolishly) bought more. In 2002, the news broke about the SEC investigating the company and the stock dropped to $6. At this point, the majority of my investment was wiped out and I did what many investors do—I held on hoping for a miracle. That never came and the stock became worthless and I wrote the entire loss off.
In all, I lost just over $6,000. Not a ton, but I was in college when I started investing and just out of college when the SEC started their investigation. So to me, it was a lot of money!”
11. The Lehman Brothers Bankruptcy
The financial crisis of 2008 was bad news for a lot of companies operating within the finance sphere. But no other company took it harder than Lehman Brothers, a 150-year old investment bank that filed for Chapter 11 in 2008, citing $639 billion in assets and $619 billion in debt.
Like many other institutions, Lehman Brothers had bet big on the housing market—and on subprime mortgages in particular. When the bottom fell out of the U.S. housing market, Lehman Brothers looked down and realized that they were in for a long drop. It was later revealed that, in the months before their bankruptcy filing, Lehman Brothers had tried to hide the extent of their losses by disguising $50 billion in subprime mortgage debt as $50 billion in cash. No one was ever prosecuted for this due to a lack of evidence.
12. Bernie Madoff
The thing about Ponzi Schemes is that they constantly need new money coming in to sustain the illusion that they are a legitimate investment opportunity. Turn off the money spigot, and the whole thing dries up in a hurry. When the money stopped flowing during the financial crisis of 2008, it wasn’t too long before the Ponzi scheme being run by financier Bernie Madoff—the largest one in U.S. history—was revealed for all to see. Madoff committed an estimated $64 billion in fraud and was sentenced to over 150 years in prison. Madoff’s scheme can still be felt today by the New York Mets, whose owners, the Wilpon Family, invested approximately $500 million in accounts with Madoff.
Robert Siciliano, CEO of IDTHeftSecurity.com told us, “The best way to avoid being taken by a Ponzi Scheme is to make an effort to understand how the system is supposed to work.” He recommends that you take the following precautions recommended by The North American Securities Administrators Association:
Contact your state or provincial securities regulator to see if the investment vehicle and the person selling it are registered.
Contact your local Better Business Bureau to see if any complaints have been filed against the venture’s promoters or principals.
Deal only with financial advisers, broker-dealers or financial institutions that have a proven track record.
Ask for written information on the investment product and the business. Such information, including financial data on the company and the risks involved in the investment, is contained in a prospectus.
Don’t take everything you hear or read at face value. Ask questions if you don’t understand, and do some sleuthing for yourself.
Steer clear of investments touted with no downside or risk.
“But these tips wouldn’t be enough to prevent someone like Bernie Madoff from making a convincing play for your money,” said Siciliano. “Bernie Madoff was a financial adviser who got away with his fraud because he controlled his clients’ assets and falsified the documentation. If you invest with a financial advisor that generates his own statements, you are at risk.”
He added: “A financial adviser or broker should only have access to your funds in order to manage them, not to control them. They shouldn’t be able to withdraw funds without your consent. And they should never have the ability to move funds without your awareness.”
Genti Cici, (@genticici) born and raised in Albania, immigrated to the US in 1998 and is now the Founder/CEO of StandUP Advisors, a company founded with the idea that financial literacy, planning, and real advice are key to living a life fulfilled, with meaning and less stress. He and his wife are on a mission traveling across the US in an RV to promote financial literacy seminars at universities, colleges, businesses and communities and provide solutions helping all towards their path to Financial Freedom. He’s been involved in finance, investment advice, and planning for the last 15 years, and is also a Certified Financial Planner (CFP), CAIA Charter holder and has an MBA in Finance. You can reach him at Genti@StandUPadvisors.com or on the web at StandUPAdvisors.com.
Jon Dulin, (@MoneySma) is a personal finance blogger at MoneySmartGuides.com. He has worked in the financial services industry for over 10 years in various roles and has been an avid investor for close to 20 years.
Sacha Ferrandi, is the Founder of Source Capital Funding, Inc. (HardMoneyFirst.com) and is an expert in finance, entrepreneurship, and real estate. Source Capital Funding, Inc., is based in San Diego and operates across the United States.
Robert Siciliano, CSP (@RobertSiciliano) is an American security analyst, author and media personality. He is the CEO of Safr.Me and delivers presentations throughout the United States and Canada on identity theft protection and personal security, including self-defense. Siciliano is also the author of four books, has appeared on programs such as "The Today Show," "Anderson Cooper 360°", CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, CNBC, and has been quoted in USA Today, Forbes, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and Boston Globe, among other publications.