Investing In Death

It was memories of her son's last painful months of life that led Doris Barrilleaux to invest her money in death.

"I just knew what a different life he could have had if he would have had an insurance policy that last year of his life instead of just struggling until he died," she says.

So she put $40,000 in something called a viatical settlement with a company called Mutual Benefits Corporation.

A sales video from MBS states: "The MBC purchaser is attracted to this type of investment because of its humanitarian and investment value."

Simply put, Barrilleaux bought the life insurance policies of people she was told were terminally ill. People, like her AIDS-stricken son, who desperately needed quick cash and didn't care who the policies paid once they died.

"I never wished for them to die," she says. "I just thought they were very sick and that they would die soon."

She saw it as a good investment with a supposed guaranteed 42 percent rate of return in anywhere from 12-36 months. But six years later she's yet to see a dime. Neither have as many as 29,000 other MBC investors.

"If you're running a Ponzi scheme, sooner or later the last people in lose their money, and that's what's happening here," says Tom Gallagher, Florida's chief financial officer.

Investigators claim the company's scheme started to collapse when sick people didn't die quickly enough, forcing Mutual to use new investors money to pay premiums on old investors' policies. An industry spokesman says many companies were undone by unexpected breakthroughs in the treatment of AIDS.

"There were an awful lot of people who had AIDS policies in the 90s who outlived their life expectancy because of miracle drugs," says Doug Head of Viatical and Life Settlement Association of America.

As an investment, this secondary life insurance market is booming, from an estimated $80 million industry in 1990 to more than $3 billion today. But regulators caution that while this may be appropriate for institutional investors who have access to more information, it is particularly risky for individual investors.

"If I even got my $40,000 back, I would be happy," says Barrilleaux. "I don't see that happening."

While Barrilleaux waits, she back at work, buying and renovating houses - an investment she says seems a bit more concrete.