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Money scheme leaves a bitter taste

Leo Montagne regrets investing with Dale E. Lowell.

He had never met the former Sandpoint real estate agent, but his parents had, and their experience had been a good one. Lowell had handled a couple of real estate investments for the Washington couple.

“He was meticulous, almost obsessive,” Montagne recalls.

So when Lowell suggested his parents might want to participate in an options trading program that had been very successful for him, they signed on, induced by the promise of 10 percent monthly returns. In fact, they were so enthusiastic his father took $100,000 out of a retirement account to take maximum advantage of the “guaranteed” payback.

In January 2008, they talked Montagne into buying a $31,000 piece of the good thing they and at least a couple dozen other investors had going with Lowell.

Until last August, when Lowell informed his happy band the IRS had “frozen” his accounts as part of an investigation into money-laundering. He was, he wrote, a “destitute millionaire.”

Montagne says alarms sounded, even as Lowell disbursed slightly more than $5,100 back to him, and $31,500 back to his parents.

Despite pressure from other investors who worried that blowing the whistle on Lowell might foreclose any chance of recovering the rest of their money, Montagne says he took his concerns to the Idaho Department of Finance. Monday, the department sued Lowell, alleging a Ponzi scheme that took in at least $2.1 million.

“This man ruined my life,” Montagne says. “I had a bit of money and I threw it away.”

Fortunately for Montagne, at age 26 he has a lot of life left to go, a girlfriend, a landscaping business, and a good-but-costly lesson in investing under his tool belt.

Like signing that contract, which had more red flags than a Beijing parade.

Investors had to acknowledge Lowell was not a licensed security agent. They agreed to commingle their funds with his. And they would have no access to the account, or any statement of condition other than that provided by Lowell.

Not to mention “If it’s too good to be true, it probably isn’t.”

Montagne says he did not think anyone could be as “stupid” as Lowell was in pursuing his scheme. But he now believes Lowell always intended to mimic Charles Ponzi’s classic fraud of paying early backers with money from newcomers.

He takes the blame for his misjudgment, offering in his defense only that he was in something of a meltdown after his home burned down.

His money gone, Montagne says he has one objective left: justice.

“I just want to be part of it,” he says. “Anything they can do to this guy is fine by me.”

If it’s any consolation to Montagne and Lowell’s other victims, his alleged scheme was small time. Hundreds claim that the money they put into Little Loan Shoppe – a payday loan business with its roots in Spokane – was less like an investment and more like a permanent loan.

Apparently, Charles Ponzi was behind the counter.

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