The Herald Bulletin

March 30, 2013

Authorities: $600M scheme incubated in NC town


The Associated Press

LEXINGTON, N.C. — In the hardware store on South Main Street, the owner pulled Caron Myers aside to tell her about the best thing to happen in years to this once-thriving furniture and textile town.

Did she hear about the online company ZeekRewards? For a small investment, she could make a fortune. He had invested. So had his grandsons. And so were more and more people in Lexington, including doctors, lawyers and accountants.

Skeptical at first, Myers drove a few blocks to the company's one-story, red-brick office and spotted a line of people circling the building. She was sold, and plunked down several thousand dollars. But months later, Myers, like hundreds of thousands of others, discovered the truth: ZeekRewards was a scam.

"I was duped," Meyer said. "We trusted this man. The community is still in shock."

Authorities say owner Paul Burks was the mastermind of a $600 million Ponzi scheme — one of the biggest in U.S. history — that attracted 1 million investors, including nearly 50,000 in North Carolina. Many were recruited by friends and family in Lexington, a quintessential small town where neighbors look out for each other.

But what investors didn't know was that regulators had received nearly a dozen complaints about ZeekRewards and the related site Zeekler.com, but failed to take action for months, leaving the company free to recruit tens of thousands of new victims.

The Securities and Exchange Commission, which closed the operation Aug. 17, said Burks was selling securities without a license. The Ponzi scheme was using money from new investors to pay the earlier ones.

Burks has agreed to pay a $4 million penalty and cooperate with a federal court-appointed receiver trying to recover hundreds of millions of dollars.

Investigators say Burks, a former nursing home magician, siphoned millions for his personal use. But he has not been charged.

In his first public comments, Burks told The Associated Press he couldn't discuss details because of lawsuits by victims trying to recoup money.

"Everything will come out in time," said Burks, 66, standing in the doorway of his home.

Asked if he had anything to say to victims, he shook his head.

"I never told anyone to invest more money than they could afford," Burks snapped. "I didn't tell them to do that. Never."

He said if they lost money, "it's their fault. Not mine. Don't blame me."

But Cal Cunningham, a former prosecutor representing investors in a lawsuit, slammed Burks — and regulators for taking so long to act.

"It's why we need a full hearing on what happened in a court of law — whether that be our civil case or a criminal proceeding. A lot of people were hurt," he said.