Seal of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System BOARD OF GOVERNORS

WASHINGTON, D. C.  20551
SR 02-13
May 20, 2002


SUBJECT:   "Prime Bank" and Other Financial Instrument Fraud Schemes

                      In 1993 and 1996, the Federal Reserve issued advisories concerning illegal schemes purporting to involve "prime bank" financial instruments.1  In its alerts, the Federal Reserve advised banking organizations and the public that, among others things, it does not know of any legitimate use of any financial instrument called a "prime bank" note, guarantee, letter of credit, or debenture and that the Federal Reserve does not guarantee or enter into transactions with individuals and does not license anyone to trade "prime bank" financial instruments or act as the Federal Reserve's agent to sell or redeem such instruments.

                      Since 1996, fraudulent schemes involving financial instruments have proliferated in the United States and abroad, and investors have lost significant sums of money.  Federal and state law enforcement agencies, as well as the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, have investigated and prosecuted numerous individuals associated with supposed investment opportunities involving "prime bank" instruments or other financial instruments.

                      The Federal Reserve wants to again highlight the dangers associated with investing or participating in questionable transactions that promise unrealisticly high rates of return and involve other dubious characteristics.  Over the past several years, Federal Reserve staff has reviewed numerous illicit transactions and provided assistance to U.S. and foreign law enforcement and securities regulators and, based on this experience, has identified the following hallmarks or "red flags" associated with many fraudulent financial instrument scams that can be used to avoid them:

  • References to financial instruments issued by "prime banks," "top 100 world banks," "top 25 European banks," and similar references to categories or groups of banks that are not used in the banking industry.

  • Promises of extremely high, unrealistic rates of return with little or no risk.

  • Participation in an investment program often referred to as a "roll program (or programme)," "high yield investment program," or "bank debenture trading program."

  • High rates of return are generated by repeatedly trading (or buying and selling) financial instruments (often over a 40-week period).

  • Legitimate financial instruments, such as letters of credit, guarantees, and medium term notes, are bought and sold or traded in manners that are not realistic -- for example, standby letters of credit are bought and sold.2

  • Transactions are overly complex and nonsensical.

  • Terms that have no meaning in legitimate financial transactions are used repeatedly -- for example, "conditional SWIFT," "key tested telex," "pay order," "funds of good, clean, clear and non-criminal origin," "master commitment," "one year and one day," and "commitment holder."

  • High degree of secrecy -- for example, the trading of financial instruments takes place on a secret market, your banker or investment adviser will not know about the investment opportunity because only a few special people around the world are aware of it or participate in the secret trading, or the investor is being allowed to participate in a secret trading program and, if he or she reveals any information about the program, the investor's participation will be terminated.

  • The investor's funds are absolutely safe and cannot be lost -- for example, a bank has issued a guarantee or an attorney is holding the funds in a special escrow fund.

  • Involvement of a well known governmental authority, such as the Federal Reserve, World Bank, or IMF.

  • Inaccurate references to the International Chamber of Commerce and its publications.

  • Investor's funds will be used for "humanitarian" projects.

                      Federal law enforcement authorities have asked the Federal Reserve to advise individuals, banking organizations, and other entities who have been approached to invest in a "prime bank" financial instrument or participate in some manner in any transaction containing the characteristics listed above to contact the local offices of the agencies.  This includes the field offices of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, U.S. Secret Service, U.S. Customs Service, or Internal Revenue Service's Criminal Investigation Division.  The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission is also actively involved with investigating securities frauds associated with these types of transactions, and asks that companies and individuals alert a local office of that agency.

                      Reserve Banks are asked to distribute this SR letter to domestic and foreign banking organizations supervised by the Federal Reserve.  Questions regarding apparent fraudulent schemes involving "prime bank" financial instruments or other transactions with the hallmarks described above can be directed to the Special Investigations Section of the Division of Banking Supervision and Regulation at (202) 452-2620 or (202) 452-5235.


Herbert A. Biern
Senior Associate Director



  1. Copies of the Federal Reserve’s alerts are available at Over the past several years, advisories concerning illegal "prime bank" and other financial instrument schemes have also been issued by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the International Chamber of Commerce, the Law Society of Britain and Wales, and other U.S. and foreign law enforcement and regulatory authorities.  Return to text

  2. In August 1993, an article entitled "Anatomy of the Medium-Term Note Market" was published in the Federal Reserve Bulletin. The article was written by Federal Reserve economists and describes the use of this type of legitimate debt instrument by corporations and banking organizations and how they are underwritten and priced by the market. Since the publication of this article and the issuance of the Federal Reserve’s 1993 "prime bank" advisory, which alerted the public to the non-existence of "prime bank" instruments, many illicit scams purport to involve the trading of "medium term notes" (often referred to as "MTNs") rather than "prime bank" financial instruments. Apparently, wrongdoers involved with illegal financial instrument scams try to convince their victims that the Federal Reserve Bulletin article proves the existence a market where MTNs can be traded for enormous profits.  No such market exists..  Return to text

SR letters | 2002