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The Secretary and the Flower Shop: Unraveling a Fraudulent Empire

2023

The story of one of America's strangest Ponzi schemes began when Robin H. Swanson, a secretary at an aerospace firm in Southern California, ordered flowers for her boss's wife from a business called Floral Fantasies. Swanson paid $23.95 with her Visa card, but later discovered she had been charged $601.11 for the order. Frustrated and determined to get her money back, she contacted the owner of the flower shop, Barry Minkow, who was also a charismatic young entrepreneur running a successful carpet cleaning business called ZZZZ Best.

Unbeknownst to Swanson, ZZZZ Best's success was built on a fraudulent empire. Minkow had engaged in various illegal activities, including faking burglaries at his headquarters and using fake restoration projects to inflate the company's revenue and attract investors. He also overcharged customers' credit cards and used new investors' funds to pay off existing loans, running a classic Ponzi scheme.

Swanson's obsession with getting her money back led her to investigate Minkow further. She even sneaked into his gated community to catch a glimpse of him. After winning a small claims case against Minkow, she alerted a Los Angeles journalist about his fraudulent activities, setting the stage for the downfall of ZZZZ Best.

Despite ZZZZ Best's public listing on the Nasdaq and Minkow's attempts to expand the company, the expose by the Los Angeles Times and other investigators exposed the fraud. KeyServ Group, a major carpet cleaning business that ZZZZ Best planned to acquire, pulled out of the deal, causing the company's stock to plummet, and Minkow eventually resigned. ZZZZ Best filed for bankruptcy, and Minkow was convicted of fraud, sentenced to 25 years in prison, and forced to pay back defrauded investors $26 million in restitution.

Swanson's role in bringing down the Ponzi scheme has largely been forgotten, but she believes that her persistence and obsession may have saved some people from losing their life savings. Meanwhile, Minkow served time in prison and later faced additional convictions for financial crimes.

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