Scams in Zion, Part III: Utah is Indeed the Ponzi Scheme Capital of the US

It’s been a long time coming, but this is part III of a series on “Scams in Zion,” with part I (showing that Latter-day Saint-heavy counties have less fraud) here, and part II discussing our multilevel marketing problem here.   

Here I’m directly addressing a particular kind of affinity fraud we’re known for: Ponzi schemes. I ran across a site where a financial lawyer fairly exhaustively tracks all known Ponzi schemes in the US over one million dollars and provides a helpful database.

I went ahead and downloaded his file, pulled the number of people in each state from the Census Bureau, and created a “number of people per Ponzi Schemes” metric. (Nitty gritty, wonkish disclaimer: It’s slightly apples and oranges because I’m pulling the number of people from the most recent ACS 5-year estimates, whereas the Ponzi scheme database goes back to 2008, but for all practical purposes it doesn’t matter because the amount of variation within states across time is nothing compared to the variation between states). 

According to this metric Utah is by far the highest state per capita for Ponzi schemes at one per 70,247, with the next highest being Nevada at one per 117,663. 

I generated a map to show the variation across the country. Some of the very low Ponzi scheme states drown out a lot of the others, so to make it show more variation I quickly and simply set the very low states (Arkansas, Kansas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico) to missing. 

To describe the pattern in one sentence it would be: Ponzi schemes are more common in financial centers on the coast (unsurprisingly) and the Mormon Corridor. 

A few more points: 

  • The largest Ponzi scheme in Utah was undertaken by a father-son duo for $220 million. It mentions in the SEC documentation that they used their Church connections; Wendell Jacobsen was a bishop of a student ward. 


  • I worked for Rick Koerber ($100 million) for a day and then quit when it was clear that the job as advertised was not the job they were going to have me do. Koerber also clearly leveraged the cachet of an emeritus general authority friend of his to attract investors. 


  • Usually when a Church leader is involved it gets blared in the headlines. (My biggest eye rolls are when some publication in the UK says “Mormon Church Leader Arrested For…” and it’s some elder’s quorum secretary). Consequently, Googling around is probably an okay way to quickly check for any such cases because the media will probably pick up on it. 


  • I found two stake presidents convicted of running a Ponzi scheme (Mouritsen and Udy). I am personally aware of another case in the database where it was a former member of a stake presidency, but his leadership position never made it into the news. His family knows my family though, so I won’t make it awkward by naming him. 


  • I found five bishops from Google (Blackwelder, Merriman, Hammons, Jacobsen, and Reid). I did this using the “-” advanced search operator, which allows you to search for results minus results that have a certain name, which allows you to quickly iterate and filter down the list. Let me know if I missed someone in the comments, but I *think* this got all the big ones.  


Overall, I’m actually surprised that the number of leaders I found was as small as it was, given how large the proverbial Ponzi-scheming bishop looms in many people’s consciousness and how many bishops there are. It goes without saying that the vast majority of Ponzi schemers are not Church leaders, but the leaders are the ones that (somewhat understandably) receive more media attention. 

The more general numbers kind of speak for themselves, I don’t know if I have much else to say that isn’t implied in the data, and I suspect that the kind of people reading this aren’t at much risk of sending their 401(k)s to brother so and so promising extravagant returns, but still, to risk saying the predictable, boring thing, the prosperity gospel and the perceived wealth/righteousness connection I’ve already written about probably feeds into our cultural penchant for get-rich-quick schemes, and the sooner we can consider the ideal life as not being defined in any way in dollar terms the better, but lip service to this ideal notwithstanding it’s clear that we aren’t even close to it.


**************Note: After this post ran a comment was stuck in spam that pointed out that there was an excellent  Deseret News article that did a very similar analysis a couple years ago using the same PonziTracker database. I didn’t run across it since my Googling was directed towards leader-related Ponzi schemes, and if I ever read it before I did my analysis I didn’t remember it.

9 comments for “Scams in Zion, Part III: Utah is Indeed the Ponzi Scheme Capital of the US

  1. Would be interesting to know how many of the mormon ponzi warriors started on the up and up and then went bad when the wheels started to fall off. Or maybe its the members FOMO that is the real issue? Or the attraction of part-time work for full-time pay? How many members would rush to be on the down-line of Wendy Nelson? Heck I would buy whatever Uchtdorf was selling! Maybe its all about trust? Whatever the reason, Ponzi capital of the US is not a good look for the church and its members.

    StephenC, I like you. You are just the type of person I am looking for. I have a limited “opportunity” I think you are going to like. Let me draw some lines and circles on the board for you….and I assure you some “brethren” have endorsed this….

  2. Shortly after I arrived in Provo as a young married to continue my degree at BYU, I was surprised (and very pleased) that a high councilor held a Sunday-evening fireside where the topic was avoiding fraud by members. One quote I remember is “If someone ever says, ‘I’m a member of the church; you can trust me.’, run away as fast as you can.” One of the best firesides ever!

  3. Setting the dollar amout stolen at one million leaves out a lot of crooks.

    They steal much less but they still steal.

    We have quite a few here in our stake.

    Two members of our stake presidency right now are in this business and work together.

    Our stake president is a lawyer and his right hand man ( first counselor partner in dirty tricks) is a real estate sales man.

    These two were installed in this presidencey while we were in covid lockdown and forced to watch stake conference from our homes via Zoom.

    Were were told we if any one is opposed to blahblah blah, the audio of the transmission was not good.

    The seventy in charge of the whole thing got on the plane right after the meeting a skedaddled back to Salt Lake as fast as he could ( the other one was also on Zoom participating from SL).

    No recourse was given as to how to reach either one.

    Many of us were and still are unhappy with this but we are stuck.

    You can probably figure out how that is working now with meeting attendence and accepting of callings.

    Especially after the news broke on the SEC and the lies and betrayal with all of that.

  4. I agree with you that we (as a people) are deceived by prosperity gospel type philosophies but I also think we under teach general morality. I feel that any teaching we get in our church about honesty is heavily skewed toward lessons targeting young children and emphasize things like returning incorrect change, obeying parents and leaders, confessing to accidentally breaking the window with your baseball, etc. I don’t hear lessons that specifically address ethical and honest business practices. Nothing that would address predatory behavior in business or schemes that exploit other people.

  5. @Dale: Wish we had more lessons like that, but maybe people are wising up.

    @E: That’s an excellent point; I’d think business ethics might be a little too niche, but I agree there are general principles we should hit more as adults, and we should incorporate business examples in the process.

  6. I’ve observed throughout my life how the church, whether intentionally or not, has a pattern of increasing the dependency of members upon the church. People who need their connection with a member to help them get a job, or who look to the church institution/leaders for guidance on life decisions, or who need their bishop’s input on very personal issues like whether or not to have another child, have a vasectomy/hysterectomy, etc. What on earth does your own reproductive decisions have to do with your bishop?

    But I digress. This dependency seems to also grant trust to other members that hasn’t been earned or warranted. Then once they are trusted, and suddenly they have some hot opportunities to pull you into, it’s too late and you’ve been scammed.

  7. Do you have any data on the related topic of Fonzie schemes? You know, where someone convinces others to invest by wearing a leather jacket while water skiing?

  8. @Stephen C I performed this exact anlysis (a per capita anaysis of Ponzi schems in Utah) in 2019 based on the same numbers. The Deseret News, KSL and other local publications ran stories about it, which presumably showed up in your research. For instance, see

    Is it an acceptable practice on this website to plagarize the work of others without any attribution whatsoever?

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