A Summerville woman was sentenced Wednesday to three years in prison for conducting a "Ponzi scheme" involving sales of discount-priced store gift cards.
Annette Marie Benson, formerly Annette Marie Bussart, formerly of Columbia, pleaded guilty to wire fraud. She was sentenced in Columbia by U.S. District Judge Cameron McGowan Currie, who ordered Benson to pay over $880,000 in restitution to the victims, according to U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles.
Nettles said evidence presented at a change of plea hearing established that Benson offered select friends and acquaintances in the Columbia area American Express, Wal-Mart, Target, Shell, and Visa gift cards for sale at a discount of 20 to 50 percent off face value. The cards were real and worked at retail stores, so demand was high, he said.
However, Benson, 44, was paying face value for the cards and making up for the loss on old sales with money coming in for new cards. Money to pay for the cards was wired into various bank accounts controlled by Benson. "Eventually, the money Benson received could not cover her outstanding obligations, and the Ponzi scheme collapsed," Nettles said.
He said 42 victims have been identified, and each will get a share of whatever Benson is able to pay towards the restitution owed. At the time of sentencing, Benson had negative income.
The case was investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Winston D. Holliday Jr. handled the prosecution.