MONEY

Suckered by a pyramid scheme

Question: I invested $1,000 with a company called MTE in 2006. At a church meeting, MTE claimed to invest in securities and promised a monthly return of 25%. Before I got any payment, the state froze MTE’s funds, saying it was a fraud. Will I get my money back? – Steven Collins, South Holland, Ill.

Answer: Oh, dear! You let yourself get snared in a classic pyramid scheme, where scam artists recruit investors with promises of humongous returns, pay the early investors using money from the later ones – and spend the rest on themselves. Usually, by the time you realize you’re involved with no-goodniks, they’ve skipped town.

But thanks to the Illinois attorney general, you may get something back. According to prosecutors, Roy Fluker Jr., the founder of MTE (short for More Than Enough Wealth Creation Institute), and his cohorts hosted recruitment meetings at African-American churches on the South Side of Chicago eight to 10 times a month. They offered attendees “opportunities” to invest up to $20,000 a year for an ultrahigh return – 25% a month for 12 consecutive months – and said the money was going into stocks, real estate and foreign currencies.

But prosecutors say MTE invested in nothing. Most of the money went to repay early investors and to reward MTE’s principals with cruises and other trips. Illinois froze MTE’s accounts, valued at more than $3.1 million, shortly after you invested. “They were offering returns that you know can’t be real,” says Tom James, the lead prosecutor. Fluker and friends have pleaded not guilty and are awaiting trial.

While Illinois has dissolved MTE and banned Fluker and co-defendants from selling securities, no money has been returned to investors. The AG’s office is sending claim letters to the 3,000-plus victims and has posted claim forms on its Web site at illinoisattorneygeneral.gov. With limited funds remaining, you’ll probably get only a portion of what you invested. Still, you’d be lucky to get anything back in a deal like this one.

Tip: The stock market’s long-term return is about 10% a year. Any deal that “guarantees” lots more is suspicious. A promise of an outsize return on an investment should set off an alarm in your head.

So far Money Helps has saved readers $193,989.03

Having a financial nightmare? E-mail Donna Rosato at money_helps@moneymail.com.

- Reporting by O.C. Ugwu

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