To most Americans, paying exorbitant fees to use privately owned ATMs in markets, malls and airports feels like a real rip-off.
But for more than 100 investors from the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond, those ATMs have been an even bigger money drain.
Enticed by the promise of a 15 percent return, they invested millions of dollars in the actual machines, expecting to get a monthly check for a percentage of user fees that can go as high $4.50 per transaction. Only later did they find that they'd been fleeced in what prosecutors say was a Ponzi scheme run by a charming Foster City man.
Michael Brendan Ferguson, 44, has been charged so far with nine felonies, including securities fraud and grand theft. He pleaded not guilty and is being held in Santa Clara County Jail, with bail set at $1 million. Twenty-six investors showed up this week in response to his effort to get his bail lowered. The judge postponed the matter until April 7.
"Mike had that Ivy League look -- a crisp white shirt, tailored trousers," said San Jose resident Cheryl Palos, who lost $769,500, her entire life savings. "I'm telling you, he was slick."
Ferguson's high-powered lawyer, Josh Bentley, who also represents several prominent 49ers football players inn unrelated cases, did not respond Wednesday to requests for comment.
Prosecutor Victor Chen contends Ferguson may have started with honest intentions. But his business rapidly morphed into a scam that stretched over eight years, he said. Prosecutors allege Ferguson sold investors the rights to a percentage of user fees from a portfolio of ATMs located in shopping centers throughout the nation, or sold them ATMs plus a percentage of those fees. However, they allege, Ferguson did not own most of the machines and paid most of his clients with money from new investors.
"He knowingly sold ATMs he did not own or he sold the same ATMs more than once," said Chen, adding that Ferguson promised to return investors' principal upon request. "It only worked as long as he could keep new investor money coming in."
Ferguson maintained appearances by operating an office in San Francisco with a handful of employees, as well as by providing financial statements to investors purporting to show growth in his ATM business, Chen said.
The investors came from all walks of life, including a single mother with a severely disabled child who is on the brink of losing of her house and doesn't even have enough money to move home to North Carolina. Most learned about the "opportunity" via a neighbor, friend or relative. Many took money out of their 401(k)s or took a second loan out on their house.
Palos heard about Ferguson from her brother-in-law. Skeptical at first, she asked him to meet her at the food court of the Hillsdale shopping center off Highway 101 in San Mateo, where one of the ATMs she ultimately "bought" was located.
"Every question I asked, he answered," Palos said, "even, 'What if a bomb went off and the mall was destroyed, along with the ATM machine?' He said, 'There is insurance for that.' "
Palos eventually sunk her inheritance and proceeds from a divorce settlement into what she thought were 14 ATMs scattered around the country, as well as at least one other business Ferguson ran. For awhile, she was getting checks for $5,300 a month, about half of which went toward her rent.
When the checks stopped coming, she called the malls where her ATMs were supposedly located. No one had ever heard of her or Ferguson at any of the shopping centers, from San Mateo to Douglasville, Ga., to Forsythe, Ill.
That's when Palos called the FBI. Now, the investors have organized in hopes of getting back at least some of their money. Ferguson, whose schemes authorities say may have cost victims more than $10 million, declared bankruptcy in January.
Chen is looking for any hidden assets and hoping Ferguson agrees to pay some restitution as part of a plea deal. He currently faces up to 18 years and four months in prison.
Although Ferguson did not break into anyone's home, the prosecution alleges that he entered one victim's home with the intent to commit a felony -- grand theft -- which qualifies as burglary under California law. Burglary is considered a serious "strike" crime under the state's Three Strikes Law.
Kirk Bobo, of Boulder, Colo., invested $320,000 of his retirement savings with Ferguson. Now 55, his hopes of retiring while he is still relatively young are dashed.
"It's a huge hit," he said. "I had no idea Mike would pull a fraud like this."
Contact Tracey Kaplan at 408-278-3482. Follow her at Twitter.com/tkaplanreport.