Will sending a get-rich-quick guru to jail for running deceptive TV infomercials scare other gurus into cleaning up their acts?
Will radio and TV stations think twice before selling airtime to con men, if they hear about criminal charges?
The state of Florida would like to think so. Last month, in a shot across all crooked bows, a federal jury in Orlando found real estate guru William McCorkle, 32, guilty of 81 counts of fraud and money laundering. His wife, Chantal, 30, who helped run the business, drew 69 counts.
The court also ordered the McCorkles to forfeit nearly $10.6 million in assets. Their attorneys have filed for new trials, but failed to return calls.
The McCorkle verdict ups the ante in the fight against financial fraud. Gurus usually face civil cases, in which their only risk is losing money. A criminal case, however, can take them off the streets.
Hucksters are now on notice that "when they sell items based on lies, they are clearly committing a crime," prosecuting attorney Marie DeMarco told my associate, Dori Perrucci.
The McCorkles touted a "Cash Flow System" for buying foreclosed property. In widely watched, 30-minute TV presentations (infomercials), William McCorkle told thousands of trustful viewers that he held the key to easy money.
He aimed his pitch at working-class people with limited assets. If they found a bargain property, he promised, he'd put up the money and give them half the profits when the property sold.
Believers paid nearly $80 to receive his basic course. Advanced courses were flogged for up to $1,500. In all, the couple grossed $40 million to $50 million but McCorkle provided financing in only about 15 cases, lead prosecutor Paul Byron says.
McCorkle's infomercials amount to a primer on what not to believe. You should burst out laughing whenever a financial guru talks about:
? His humble beginnings. McCorkle brags about childhood poverty, bankruptcy and working as a busboy for $150 a week. This gets the attention of people honestly struggling to improve their lives.
? His trappings of wealth. The guru shows off private planes, boats and luxury homes, apparently his. But they're usually props.
? His fabulous no-cash system. Gurus know that their viewers are probably broke. So you're told you don't need an upfront investment. It's "no money down." Or it's "I'll put up the cash."
? His happy customers. People looking just like you praise the guru and burble about all the money they've made. But you can't trust what you see.
At the McCorkles' trial, an actress testified that she was hired to pose as a successful Cash Flow graduate. Videotape used while preparing an infomercial show her practicing her lines, choosing a fake name and telling two different stories.
One infomercial shows a man apparently buying a boat at a U.S. marshal's auction, with McCorkle's help. But that didn't happen, says Lisa Young, an assistant state attorney general in Orlando. In trial documents, McCorkle's attorney, F. Lee Bailey of West Palm Beach, conceded the point.
McCorkle purchased the boat more than a year later, Young says, after she started checking on the infomercial's truth.
In yet another testimonial, a woman seems to say she'd made money using McCorkle's system. Trial documents showed that she hadn't done any transactions.
? A heartfelt desire to share. Gurus claim they've made millions by practicing their own money system and want to help others do the same. In fact, they make their money by selling you courses, books and tapes.
? Instant wealth, working part-time. In the testimonials, people claim without evidence that they made $10,000, or $30,000, or $50,000 within a very few weeks.
? A money-back guarantee. Sure, and muskrats dance on trees.
Lisa Young has several other guru cases going, all on civil charges. Since the McCorkle verdict, attorneys for the gurus have been asking about settlement terms, she says. She adds that some TV stations in Florida no longer take these kinds of infomercials.
Even so, gurus will change their ads as little as they can get away with. And other radio and TV stations continue to abet deception by putting phonies on the air.
Around $300,000 has been returned to 767 bilked McCorkle customers so far, Young says. More than 400 remain on the claimants list to be paid when the case is finally over.
Few of McCorkle's followers made any money, Young says. Sadly, the testimony revealed, some of them signed high-rate promissory notes to get financing that they didn't know would be part of the deal. For them, the story hasn't ended yet.
Life insurance alert
There always seems to be something new you have to watch for in life insurance sales. Now it's the dates when dividend payments will change on whole life policies.
If you're shown the wrong date, you may get a policy that from the very first day you buy will not work the way you thought. That's because dividends are falling. Lower dividends change the way your policy behaves.
Say, for example, that you wanted your policy "paid up" in a fixed number of years. At that point, you'd get coverage for life, with no more premiums out of pocket.
But here's something you may not realize: Premiums always have to be paid for life. When you stop paying, the dividends simply pay the premiums for you.
To do this, the dividends have to grow by a certain amount. If they don't, you'll have to pay premiums for more years than you thought. What's more, the cash value and death benefit may be less than you thought.
When you buy, get a policy illustration showing a lower dividend rate, to see how the policy might change in the future (some states require it).
But don't leave it at that. Every year, get a new "in-force" illustration, to see how your policy is working out. It's the only way to protect yourself.
Syndicated columnist Jane Bryant Quinn can be reached in care of the Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St., Washington D.C. 20071-9200.
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