The North Carolina man who drew comparisons to Bernard Madoff for his operation of a Ponzi scheme that duped tens of thousands of victims out of nearly $1 billion learned from a federal judge today that he, like Madoff, will likely spendthe rest of his life in federal prison. Paul Burks, 70, was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Max Cogburn Jr. to a term of fourteen years and eight months, largely in line with the range urged by prosecutors following Burks' conviction on four fraud and conspiracy counts. As Judge Cogburn observed, Burks "is essentially facing a life sentencing given his health conditions," which include multiple infirmities such as diabetes, prostate cancer, and mild dementia. The sentence is approximately twice as long as the 90-month term previously handeddown to former ZeekRewards COO Dawn Wright-Olivares.
Burks operated Rex Venture Group, LLC ("RVG") since 1997. In 2010, he formed zeekler.com, which operated as a penny auction website offering participants the ability to place bids on merchandise in one-cent increments. Individuals were required to purchase "bids" in lots, usually at a cost of $.65 per bid, in order to participate in the auctions. Burks launched ZeekRewards in January 2011 as an "affiliate advertising division" of Zeekler. Participants were then solicited to become investors, or affiliates, in ZeekRewards in the form of investment contracts called the "Retail Profit Pool" and the "Matrix." None of these investments were registered with the SEC or any state regulatory authorities.
The Retail Profit Pool promised investors the chance to earn lucrative daily returns of "up to 50% of the daily net profits" after completing a process that involved enrolling in a monthly subscription plan, soliciting new customers, selling or purchasing ten Zeekler.com "bids", and placing one free ad daily for Zeekler.com. According to the ZeekRewards website, a daily commitment of "no more than five minutes per day" was required to share in daily profits. The daily "award" was usually 1.5% of the individual's 'investment'. Due to the compounding nature of these "Profit Points", as they were called, the cumulative amount of outstanding Profit Points numbered nearly $3 billion in August 2012 when the Securities and Exchange Commission filed an emergency action to halt the ongoing fraud. Assuming a 1.5% daily "award", the outstanding Profit Points would have required daily cash outflows of $45 million should all investors seek to receive their "award" in cash.
In addition to the Retail Profit Pool, investors could also participate in the "Matrix", which was a form of multi-level marketing that rewarded investors for each "downline" investor within that investor's "Matrix". The Matrix consisted of a 2x5 pyramid, and each person added to an investor's Matrix qualified that investor to receive a bonus.
While ZeekRewards represented to investors that the operation was extremely profitable, in reality, the company's revenues and payments to investors were derived solely from funds contributed by new investors - a classic hallmark of a Ponzi scheme. Indeed, authorities alleged that 98% of all incoming funds were derived from the funds of new investors. Thus, the scheme could only stay afloat so long as new investor contributions were sufficient to satisfy the amount of outflows. However, because investors were actively encouraged to "roll-over" their "profit points" back into the scheme, the number of outstanding liabilities to investors steadily increased, reaching approximately $2.8 billion in August 2012 despite available cash reserves of less than 4300 million. Due to the likelihood that those funds would soon be exhausted, the Commission initiated an emergency enforcement proceeding and sought an asset freeze in August 2012.
Burks, as principal of Rex Ventures and Zeek Rewards, is alleged to have withdrawn over $10 million in investor funds for the benefit of himself and his family members.
After a number of delays, a Charlotte jury convicted Burks of all counts in July 2016 following a two-week trial.
The court-appointed receiver, Kenneth Bell, anticipates makinga third distribution to victims in March 2017 that will result in all victims recouping between 60% and 75% of their net losses. This recovery marks one of the highest ever achieved by Ponzi victims.