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Froma Harrop
Froma Harrop
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Raining Scams in the Sunbelt

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PALM BEACH, Fla. — Oh, it's another sun-blessed, balmy day in Palm Beach County. Were it not for the foreclosures, collapse in tourism and Madoff scandal, all would seem perfect. Did I mention retailing? Dior on Worth Avenue vanished the day after Christmas. The Macy's at the Palm Beach Mall closed several weeks later.

Some distress is of the national sort: drained stock portfolios, seized-up credit markets, fear itself. And any place so dependent on real estate and splurge spending would get harder hit.

But a financial crime wave targeting locals at every income level has added to these economic challenges. Shills, confidence men and assorted tricksters roam every region, but here they are an industry.

The headliner of the group, Bernard Madoff, famously cleaned out fellow members of the Palm Beach Country Club, as well as investors across the globe. (An estimated $50 billion is gone — somewhere.) In the more modest condo corridors spreading inland, meanwhile, a plague of annuity fraud snares elderly retirees.

On the political side, sexual misconduct has sent two of Palm Beach's U.S. congressmen packing, one after the other. Republican Mark Foley e-mailed sexually explicit messages to underage male congressional pages. Then Democrat Tim Mahoney engaged in serial extramarital romps and mistress payoffs.

In local government, corruption charges were recently slapped on County Commissioner Mary McCarty, a political fixture for 18 years. She is alleged to have funneled government-bond contracts to her husband's underwriting firm.

Why here? Well, it's partly a Sunbelt thing, according to former Minnesota Assistant Attorney General Prentiss Cox.

"The worst kinds of scams all come out of the Sunbelt," Cox told me, noting that he himself is Mississippi-born and Louisiana-raised. An expert on predatory lending and telemarketing frauds, Cox now teaches at the University of Minnesota Law School.

State investigators list a handful of return addresses as hotbeds for financial misdeeds.

There's Orange County, Calif., epicenter for subprime-mortgage abuses. Plano, Texas, seems to specialize in direct-mail fraud. Las Vegas and Southern Florida offer the full range of swindles.

"People are presumably guilty if they're operating out of Southern Florida," Cox added, only half kidding.

Still, one asks why these particular places attract so many con artists. Cox surmises that it could have something to do with their rapid development. The populations of Orange County, Plano, Las Vegas and Palm Beach County have all exploded. Newcomer dupes get thrown together with newcomer cheats, who are long on charm and short on background. Clients don't have much history on which to judge a financial adviser's integrity.

There's also a gold-rush mentality in fast-growing areas. All that easy real-estate bubble money for seemingly little work. Miami was home to a legendary binge of property speculation in the 1920s, and that too ended badly.

It's otherwise hard to explain how many of these outlandish schemes caught on. Victims gave two Florida companies $30 million promising to make them rich selling iPods in South America. And in Texas, elderly investors put $45 million in a "hedge fund" that offered annual returns up to a fantastical 61 percent.

The cons can also be outrageous. Marcus Schrenker was a financial adviser from Indiana accused of perpetrating an annuity scam. He faked a plane-crash death near Milton, Fla. The Florida authorities later picked him up.

A certain unreality comes from spending winter in a place where the wind-chill factor is never a factor. While even much of the South shivers, South Floridians get away with short sleeves by day, light sweater at night. Perhaps the cheating-of-the gods quality in the weather convinces crooks that they can cheat everyone else. That's one theory.

Time for a swim.

To find out more about Froma Harrop, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.

COPYRIGHT 2009 THE PROVIDENCE JOURNAL CO.

DISTRIBUTED BY CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.

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Comments

2 Comments | Post Comment
Ma'am;...Two things eat up all my spare cash: A beat up old hog that breaks almost as soon as it is fixed; and Charity.... In a sense I have all my income invested in debt... So I hope they call me so I have some one to talk to...But it does not matter how crooked they get because they can never keep up... Nothing is as big a ponzi as capitalism...Everyone invests their lives up front hoping to get something back and some times they do...But think of it....Build your infrastructure and hope they will come....That is why we have infrastructure falling apart all over America while the jobs that once supported it have waved goodbye....People get their educations on their own dime hoping there will be a job there, and when they get there they find some import from India or the phillipines is already doing their job, driving down the price of labor, and driving up profits...If you want a sure bet then play the lottery...If you want to sell your life cheap, and give away everything you own for pennies on the dollar then bet on capitalism...It is legal thievery...They don't even need a product...They go to government to get money without lifting a finger knowing their government will squeeze it out of you, force you to work harder for less, and offer you no protection what so ever... You cry about the small crime....The only crime that is not perfectly legal in this land is murder, and we see that for money, in the name of capital that people can kill, or cause death, or hasten death, and suffer not a moment in prison.... Do you think Madoff will go to prison???Do you think anyone will get their cash back??? Do you think the peanut butter murderers will go to prison...Do you think any of the government who have allowed all this crime spree to go on unmolested will suffer prison???I want to tell you that of all the people in this world I most want to take you seriously, you stand foremost... It is impossible when you make an issue of the ants at this picknic, and trouble not about the rabbid dogs...How long can we justify this stupidity that is sucking our lives out through our pores???Isn't there some point with you were the sublime become ridiculous????Thanks...Sweeney
Comment: #1
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Thu Feb 5, 2009 4:25 PM
I'd like to comment on the column by Froma Harrop "Getting off the dog track: Good for humans, too." I agree with just about everything Ms. Harrop says in her column except "greyhounds are born to run and they eventually find their way into loving homes." There is some truth to this, but sadly, this is not the whole story. In spite of more than 300 greyhound rescue groups in the US, there are too many bred every year, trained, raced, and retired for even them to absorb. Guess what happens to the "overflow?" You guessed it. They euthanized, "put down," KILLED. It's true that many who adopt this gentle giant are so enraptured with them that they end up with 2, 3 or more in their house. But there are always, always, far more than can be absorbed and it just goes on and on each and every year. It used to be that in England, anyone caught abusing greyhounds was punishable by death. Now the track vets put them down and pile them up if rescue groups can't take them. This is not the only country that breeds and races greyhounds. Ireland, Spain et al are just beginning to see the worth in rescuring these retired dogs. Yes, and when they are culled out in Ireland oftentimes they are shipped in the most inhumane way to say, Spain, sold to gypsies who punish the "losers" by stringing them up on a fence so that their hind feet don't quite touch the ground. This because they've "embarrassed" their owner.

There is much, much cruelty in this sport both here and abroad. I would respectfully suggest that the next time you write an article on greyhounds, you delve deeper into the facts. It would be a blessing indeed, if "fewer greyhounds were to be brought into this world."
Comment: #2
Posted by: mary brann
Mon Feb 9, 2009 2:46 PM
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