Thursday, August 20, 2020

Allen Kurzweil, Whipping Boy: The Forty-Year Search for my Twelve-Year-Old Bully (Harper Books, 2015).

Sometimes you pick up a book out of mild curiosity and discover that it’s a whole lot more interesting than you thought it would be.

I expected this book would be a middle-aged man’s reflections about his childhood, perhaps an exploration of how painful experiences had laid the foundation for the wisdom that comes with age. There is this angle, sure, but even more interesting is the story within the story. The bully with whom the author tries to reconnect turns out in later life to have become the shill for a fraudulent international financing scheme that preyed on entrepreneurs who could not find financing to underwrite their dreams. And thereby hangs a cautionary tale for all of us.

The book focuses on the activities of the Badische Trust Consortium, which held itself out to be a 150-year-old private bank based in Switzerland and run by a committee composed of “European aristocrats capable of underwriting loans from $10 million to $500 million.” The author’s nemesis, who did business as a representative of “Barclay Global Investments” (confusingly close to Barclays Global Investors, a legitimate investment banking firm), would lure victims into the scheme. Preliminary meetings would be arranged at the New York offices of a premier Park Avenue law firm, which was duped into lending credibility to the Trust’s operations.

Borrowers were promised access to what was characterized as ultimately free capital, so long as they complied with the necessary conditions. Meetings to negotiate contracts would be set up at expensive locations around the world, at which it was made known that “the involvement of outside attorneys…would be looked upon in a very disfavorable manner.” (This, it must be noted, suited some cost-conscious victims just fine.)

The actual fraud was “a basic advance-fee scheme” with “five-star frills.” A borrower would be required to pay advance fees, pay to open offshore accounts, and satisfy an ever-increasing list of other pre-closing charges. Inevitably, the Trust, after imposing final conditions that were impossible to satisfy, would terminate the transaction, of course keeping everything that had previously been paid by the borrower.

The law finally caught up with the Trust, but this is little consolation for some of its victims. In hindsight, one admitted that she had been defrauded by “a bunch of low-class bullies who figured out how to prey on ambition and dreams.” If something seems too good to be true, even if it is very appealing to your entrepreneurial spirit, it probably is.

Bottom line: to quote a meme from a television show that will instantly date me, “Let’s be careful out there.” 

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