"Everyone was investing—everyone. The man was supposed to be religious and he did a lot of charity work. Like everyone else in [our town], just walk through the streets and most people will tell you they had invested with him. We're lucky; some people mortgaged their homes [to raise money to invest]. So, we will manage." 1

The words of a victim of convicted Wall Street fraudster Bernard Madoff? No, but close. They're the words of Mohammad Shour, just one of thousands of victims of Salah Ezzedine who is now being called the "Lebanese Bernie Madoff." Shour invested his family's life savings of $45,000 with the highly respected Ezzedine, anticipating promised returns of up to 50 percent. Shour, a business management college graduate, knew the promised returns were inconceivable: "I would always tell my family we are going to wake up one day and face a disaster," he says. "And that day has arrived." Now, the dream of the fruit orchard he was going to buy with his invested principle and returns has vanished.

Salah Ezzedine was a hero among the marginalized Muslim Shi'ite people of southern Lebanon. He made it out of his own small village of Maaroub and found success in business, later building a stadium and mosque in his hometown. He published children's books and ran a tour company, taking Muslim pilgrims to Mecca. He was generous and charming and offered Lebanese villagers the opportunity to profit by investing in his businesses—supposedly oil, publishing, commodities, and television. And trusting villagers pooled their money and handed it over, grateful for a once-in-a-family's-history opportunity.

But the estimated $1.5 billion Ezzedine collected from investors is now gone. Having squandered his investors' money (including prominent Lebanese leaders connected to the Hezbollah political party), he went bankrupt in 2009 and went into hiding until Hezbollah forces captured him and turned him over to authorities. He left a trail of dashed hopes in his wake: "I inherited $100,000 from my father to continue my studies," says a young man from Ezzedine's village. "I invested them with Ezzedine, and now all my dreams are destroyed. I don't know what I was thinking when I invested with him." 2

Bilking Without Borders

The story of the larceny in Lebanon could be told in any language—bilking of innocent people is no respecter of borders. Most of these frauds are versions of what is now referred to as a Ponzi scheme, named for Charles Ponzi who concocted a way to steal money from investors in and around Boston in 1920. His investment vehicle was postal reply coupons—sort of a currency exchange deal between countries. About 40,000 people invested $15 million before he was caught, jailed, and ultimately deported back to Italy.

I was amazed to survey a chronological list of Ponzi-type schemes from 1899 to the present day.3  More than fifty different frauds were described from countries around the world, using every conceivable scheme imaginable to separate people from their money. And there will be more. For that reason, every person who has a dollar more than he needs must be careful about where he decides to store or invest it.

"But I would never fall for a scheme like that," you say. Really? When CBS news anchor Katie Couric interviewed a group of Bernie Madoff's "investors," among them were a certified public accountant and a successful investment advisor.4   If financial experts can be deceived by white-collar thieves, where does that leave the rest of us? Remember: Deceived people don't know they're deceived! The Bible would not warn us about deception if it could not happen to us (Deuteronomy 11:16; Luke 21:8; 1 Corinthians 6:9; 15:33; Galatians 6:7; James 1:16).

Bilking knows no borders for one reason: the pervasiveness of sin. The biblical doctrine of the total depravity of man does not mean that man is totally as bad as he could be. Rather, it means that every part of his being is depraved (Romans 3:10-18). The part of a human being's moral fiber that we might expect to stop him when he is about to steal a widow's life savings . . . is depraved. There is nothing inherent in the natural man that would keep him from doing bad in any realm except the conditioning of the conscience through parental or societal influence. But such conditioning can be easily overcome when the possibility of wealth is in play.