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How to stop Ponzi schemes the Tamil Nadu way

When conman Ulhas Khaire promised a 20% return on one’s investment every month and return of the principal on the seventh month, about 200,000 people gave him their savings that amounted to Rs 1,100 crore, and waited for their money to multiply.

The Stock Guru promoter and his wife also had people believe them when they promised a 100 percent placement in the film industry through their film school.

Not surprisingly, all the money the couple has collected has vapourised and today, all that the police has been able to trace is a paltry Rs 20 crores, and a glum Khaire who looks as if he is the victim.

Earlier this year in western Tamil Nadu, another set of conmen - this time about 250 companies - effectively harnessed the greed of thousands of poor investors by selling them a wonder-bird that we have seen only in zoos: the emu. They asked the investors just to buy the birds and keep them at home while their money doubled and tripled as the emu gained height and weight.

Gateway to fortune or being bird brained? Thousands of investors have been cheated out of their money by emu farms. AFP

Thousands of emus, as well as the investors, are a law and order problem for the state police today. Even the sight of the birds is repelling, leave alone eating its red meat which once was touted to change the protein habits of people.

Concurrently, we also had people investing in gold schemes expecting 180% returns, money-chain and telemarketing companies making a never-ending chain of conmen out of investors, and even finance companies collecting money to invest in lotteries. When genuine businesses are struggling to generate single-digit returns, private banks continue to promise 24 percent or more interest on deposits.

Before the emu, gold and lottery schemes, we also had goats, teak and manchiam (a fast growing tree) as investment options with mouth-watering returns. Needless to say, all that remains of these schemes today are some aging investor-associations which rant against the governments and wail about their losses.

When every ponzi-scheme leads to several other ponzi schemes and people rush to invest, what is the way out? One can jail every Ponzi scheme operator, but how does one stop the cause that fast-breeds the schemes, namely human greed?

The threat by the Tamil Nadu police to penalise people who invest in fraud schemes looks like an out-of-the-box move.The police, fed up by the mushrooming of fraud schemes, mostly in western parts of the state, has reportedly warned people that the provisions of the Prize Chits and Money Circulation Schemes (Banning Act) 1979 would be invoked against them if they invest in fraudulent schemes and spread it.

And the punishment can be up to three years in jail.

The Times of India reported on Friday that “as per the Act, investors collaborating with unregistered financial firms offering high returns merely as investors or as promoters will be punished even if they have lost money.”

It might sound perverse that the victims are threatened with punishment, but when the victims themselves are responsible for fuelling such schemes, they are as responsible as the promoters.

Obviously, the police is at its wits' end with the enormity of the investigations that such schemes drag them into. Besides defrauding people, these schemes are also a huge drain on the resources of the police, judiciary and other government departments. In fact, it has become a fast spreading menace, which is bred only by human greed.

What better way to address it by threatening to penalise this greed, when it appears to encourage the criminals if the law provides for that?

Perhaps the rest of the country should take a cue from Tamil Nadu police and go public with this innovative threat. If they don’t have appropriate laws, maybe it is time to copy-paste and implement the act. They can add value to the innovation by roping in the media, which is guilty of advertising such schemes.

Who knows, it might work, particularly when nothing else seems to be working.