A man, a plan, a scam


A man, a plan, a scam

Herald investigation pulls back curtain on Durangoan’s worldwide scheme

Back in 2006, Frederick H.K. Baker came to Durango and dangled the promise of safe, easy money.

With his secret formula for trading foreign currency, select investors could make a guaranteed 10 percent profit a month – enough for that trip to Europe or holidays in the tropics.

More than six years later, the retirement dreams of his investors are grounded. But Baker did take their money for the ride of a lifetime.

A few million dollars spent the winter in sunny Los Angeles with a company whose president now is on death row. When the law closed in, Baker moved the money to Portugal, placing it in the trust of a company registered in New Zealand, with an address in Panama and directors in the United Kingdom.

That’s when it disappeared.

Baker is serving a 41-month prison sentence in Missouri, after pleading guilty to operating a Ponzi scheme. But the court case told only one chapter of Baker’s story.

The Durango Herald took a closer look at his case and found that Baker was less of a mastermind and more of a free-rider on other schemes – schemes whose perpetrators remain unpunished. There were more victims and much more money than were ever revealed in court proceedings.

Prosecutors did not charge Baker for his involvement in a second – and larger – scheme, in addition to the so-called currency-trading scam. And the Herald has found evidence that connects Baker to a third scheme, this one in Utah, that began as soon as Baker left Durango.

Ray Fite of Hawaii thought he was investing in a humanitarian project in Africa when he lost money to the same scheme that snagged Baker’s Colorado victims. He did not invest through Baker.

“It’s much bigger than a couple of monkeys in Durango,” Fite said. “It’s a worldwide phenomenon. They’re in Europe. They’re in Australia. And they get away with it.”

No ordinary victim

Kevin Bryden was looking to invest in housing in Durango.

He had just sold a house in California when he approached Cameron Winters, owner of a small construction firm, about investing in one of his projects.

But Fred Baker, who shared an office with Winters, offered Bryden something different – something better. Bryden bought it.

“I would say over $150,000 of my money went to an investment with Fred Baker,” Bryden said. “I lost it all.”

Bryden wasn’t an ordinary victim. He became Baker’s bookkeeper, recording “investments” from about 80 people in Durango, California, Washington, Florida and elsewhere.

His roommate, Durango native Mark Akins, became the scheme’s chief marketer. Akins never invested his own money, but he earned at least $170,000 in commissions for signing up investors, according to court documents. For six months, he and Bryden ran the Durango end of Baker’s scheme.

(Bryden’s comments in this story come from his sworn testimony in U.S. District Court in November 2012. He returned a call from the Herald and left a message after hours, but subsequent attempts to reach him failed.)

Akins confessed to knowing by March 2007 that Baker was running a scam, but he continued to send investors’ money to Baker through that May. For that crime, Akins is serving a 27-month prison sentence. With time served, he’s scheduled to be released this month.

Through prison spokesmen, both Baker and Akins declined to be interviewed for this story.

Bryden was not charged with a crime. Before he testified for several hours last fall, U.S. District Judge Philip Brimmer told him that although the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Colorado was not going to prosecute him, his testimony could be used against him in another state or a foreign country. Bryden testified anyway and never used his Fifth Amendment right to avoid a question.

A mysterious payback

By his own admission, Baker never did any currency trading. But unlike many Ponzi schemes, Baker actually was investing in something – other Ponzi schemes.

The nature of those schemes wasn’t disclosed in court.

Meanwhile, he spent lavishly on himself – $260,000 on debit card withdrawals, $50,000 to sponsor an off-road racing team in Utah, $40,000 for a down payment on a house and $69,500 for work on the Durango house that he had leased with the option to buy, according to his plea agreement.

Through Bryden and Akins, Baker offered two “investments.” The first was currency trading, and the second was “private placement” with a company called Methwold International Finance Corp. Victims were told few details about what “private placement” meant, but they were told it would make even more money than Baker’s so-called currency trades.

In the spring of 2007, Baker pulled all of his victims’ money out of the online bank he was using and put it into a Methwold account in Portugal. That’s the last that investors in the United States saw of their money.

The scam collapsed in May 2007, and Baker fled Durango with his family shortly after.

Bryden and Akins angrily confronted Baker, and, surprisingly, Bryden got four $100,000 checks that fall to repay victims. The checks came from Kristine Kimball of Utah.

Federal investigators learned of the scheme in 2007, but Baker and Akins weren’t indicted until 2011. The indictment covered the period from mid-2006 to May 2007, and the case did not include charges related to Methwold.

It did not delve into what Baker, Akins and several associates were up to in the summer and fall of 2007.

And it did not solve the mystery of those four $100,000 checks.

Monday, the Herald takes on these questions.


A century of Ponzi schemes

Ponzi schemes are named for Charles Ponzi, an Italian immigrant who ran a scam that was the talk of Boston in 1920.

Ponzi began his scheme when he discovered international reply coupons – a voucher purchased in one country that is redeemable for postage stamps in another. He figured out that he could pay people to purchase cheap IRCs in countries like Italy and redeem them for costlier stamps in the United States.

Ponzi rounded up investors for his gambit, but soon he was making all his money from new investors and not from the postal coupon idea.

He paid off old investors with money from new ones – the classic definition of what has become known as a “Ponzi scheme.”

Ponzi made $15 million in less than a year. When his scam fell apart, he was prosecuted and served time in prison.

He died in a charity hospital in 1949 in Brazil.

“It was easily worth 15 million bucks to watch me put the thing over,” said Ponzi, according to Smithsonian magazine.

Ponzi’s name lives in infamy thanks to the hundreds of similar frauds that criminals pull every year.

The largest such scheme operated for decades. Celebrity financier Bernie Madoff lost about $65 billion of his clients’ money when his scheme collapsed in 2008.


In this series

Today: Fred Baker is serving time for his part in a Ponzi scheme, but he was just one player in a worldwide network of fraud.

Monday: Four mysterious $100,000 checks to Baker’s victims coincide with another fraud case in Utah.

Tuesday: The money trail from Baker’s victims, and many others, leads to a company with ties to Panama, New Zealand and Europe.

Wednesday: Victims often fail to heed advice for spotting financial fraud.

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After the scheme collapses, scammers recede into shadows
Scammers often earn victims’ trust through shared hopes, dreams, beliefs

A man, a plan, a scam

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