EAST ST. LOUIS, Ill. - A Canadian national who the U.S. government says swindled $70 million from 40,000 investors on six continents carried out the same kind of Ponzi scheme the one-time bank robber mocked on his website, federal investigators allege.
Nicholas Smirnow warned clients of his online business, "Pathway to Prosperity," to stay away from high-yield investment programs that often boast of unrealistic returns for little or no risk. Yet a federal criminal complaint alleges that he promised "outlandish" return rates - investigators say anywhere from 546 percent to 17,000 percent - with no explanation of his methodology or his identity.
Smirnow, 53, also hid an extensive criminal past that included convictions for burglary and drug trafficking in Canada, according to the documents.
"He warned: 'the bigger the return on offer, the louder the warning bells should sound,"' the complaint, dated Friday and obtained yesterday by the Associated Press, alleged. "Investors, however, did not heed the 'warning bells' of Smirnow's ridiculous claims of unrealistic rates of return and instead invested by the thousands."
Smirnow, who prosecutors believe lives in the Philippines though his whereabouts yesterday were unclear, was charged with conspiracy and securities, mail and wire fraud. Some of the charges carry up to 20 years in prison and $250,000 in fines.
The case is being handled by the U.S. Attorney for southern Illinois in part because the assigned prosecutor has expertise in such investment cases. Smirnow's alleged swindle also claimed victims in half of the 38 counties making up that jurisdiction's turf.