The granddaddy of all con men, Leo Koretz (1881-1925), gives Jobb (Journalism/Univ. of King’s Coll., Halifax; The Cajuns: A People’s Story of Exile and Triumph, 2005) the opportunity to exhibit his impressive research and storytelling skills.
The original Ponzi scheme lasted less than a year, but Koretz had already laid the groundwork for the greatest fraud ever. Bored with his life as a lawyer, he discovered an easy way to make money from people who already had plenty, but selling false mortgages to acquaintances didn’t begin to support his extravagant lifestyle. Eventually, a merchant named David Nieto drew Koretz in, claiming to have acreage in the Bayano Valley in Panama that had a limitless supply of timber. After investing $1,000, Koretz convinced friends to add another $9,000. When he went to Panama to inspect the land, he knew he’d been played for a sucker. He may have lost money, but it showed him the means to get others to invest in his “big idea” to profit from “timberland” in Panama. Throughout his fraudulent “career,” he was clever in choosing investors, never asking outright for money. Instead, he hinted at the great wealth he was making, and he flaunted it, insisting he was fully backed. Nothing drives up demand like short supply, and the wealthy friends he lavishly entertained were begging to give him money. As often as not, he turned them down, but they invariably came back with still larger checks. Koretz used the new income to pay out dividends to the investors, many of whom were his own extended family. In a stroke of evil genius, he convinced most of them to reinvest the dividends, most never taking a dime of profit. The author keeps readers on edge following the scam’s collapse and the worldwide manhunt, as they wait to see if Koretz might just get away with it.
A highly readable, entertaining story offering a solid education for anyone lacking scruples and wanting to make money. Surely Bernie Madoff studied Koretz’s methods.