The NFL Sounds A Warning Whistle

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The shiny investment brochure and elaborate website call it the "Dreamkeeper Program," an opportunity for the "not so wealthy to have a chance to make the same type of percentages on their money that the wealthy have been enjoying for centuries." Put out by an Orlando, Florida company called Ware Enterprises and Investments. Inc., it is run by two brothers, one of whom is identified as a church minister. And they promise returns that are nothing short of heavenly: 10 percent monthly for the first 10 months. And 5 percent monthly thereafter.

But sources have told TIME that those returns looked just too good to be true to the National Football League, which says at least 20 of its players have invested with Ware. After the NFL security department looked into the firm last summer at the request of one player, the league says it informed both the FBI and the Securities and Exchange Commission in Washington of its suspicions. (The FBI and SEC had no comment) "Our security people smelled a rat," NFL spokesman Gregory Aiello told TIME. "It appears to be as big a potential fraud as we've seen impacting our players."

On July 31, the NFL says it also sent out an alert to its 32 teams warning of possible "misrepresentation" involving the company and providing generic information on pyramid fraud schemes. The League also let its teams know that the firm is not registered with investment regulatory authorities and that both Ware brothers have criminal records in Florida, although those records are unrelated to finance or investment. Citing privacy concerns, the NFLwould not identify players who have invested in the Dreamkeeper Program or the teams to which they belong.

But there is another investigator who has been looking into the case: Barry Minkow, a well-known former con-artist who served seven years and four months in federal prison for a 1987, $300 million fraud associated with his ZZZZ Best carpet cleaning business. The scheme, in which Minkow fabricated thousands of documents, has gone down as one of the most elaborate ponzi schemes ever prosecuted. Now out of prison, he has become a non-denominational pastor, and helped found the San Diego-area "Fraud Discovery Institute," a church-based group that looks into financial chicanery and has assisted both state and federal regulators in the discovery of a recent major fraud.

Minkow told TIME, "We believe that there are current and former players from the Oakland Raiders, Miami Dolphins, Washington Redskins and possibly other NFL teams as well as entertainers." That, he says, is based on an investigation which contacted a variety of investors in the Dreamkeeper Program as well as account representatives, and Roderick Ware, who helps run the company.

In a written report which was sent to the FBI and securities regulators, Minkow, notes Dreamkeeper's very high promised rates of return, saying that "this company will stop at nothing to recruit new investors." He says the fund includes "approximately 1,000 to 2,000 investors comprising no less than $100 million dollars" from a variety of US states and at least six countries . . . including Canada, Switzerland and Brazil. According to Dreamkeeper literature, it takes funding from ordinary investors ranging between $2,000 and $10,000. The firm says it places the money in short term loans to brokerage houses and other concerns as well as in real estate.

If Dreamkeeper is doing anything illegal, its investors don't appear to be complaining publicly. Indeed neither the NFL nor anyone else has suggested that any of its investors have lost money. "Things are going fine and I don't know of one client who is unhappy. None have lost money or failed to receive their (promised) rate of return," says Warren Ware, who also noted that since his company doesn't sell securities there was no need for his firm to register with regulators, but that his company had spoken to them. He also stressed that the company does not advertise, solicit or call investors, although it does run seminars for existing clients around the country. Citing privacy Ware declined comment on the identity of any of his investors, saying only that "Kobe Bryant is not one of them."