Inside the Harvard Business School Ponzi Scheme

Hedge funder and Harvard Business School grad Vlad Artamonov was a fixture on the Hamptons social circuit in 2008, attending charity benefits and throwing parties.
Photo: Patrick McMullan

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The idea sounded solid on the surface. Vlad Artamonov told prospective investors, many of them his former classmates from Harvard Business School, that he’d discovered a hidden way to learn which stocks Warren Buffett was buying early, an edge that would make him a lot of money. It involved, he said, combing through esoteric state financial disclosures and then trading on the information — essentially, a way to obtain insider tips legally. “Have an insane idea,” he told one investor in the fall of 2022. But it seemed plausible coming from Artamonov, who, in addition to his Ivy League credentials, had spent more than five years at Greenlight Capital, the highly regarded activist hedge fund run by David Einhorn, a self-described admirer of Buffett. He told investors he aimed for returns of as much as 1,000 percent and wanted to make “hundreds of millions of dollars” on the play. “It is really a ridiculous information arbitrage,” he told another investor that fall. “Basically getting tomorrow’s newspaper today. Literally having a private time machine.”

If it sounded a little too good to be true, Artamonov, now 45, assuaged some of his prospects’ fears by making them feel he was doing them a favor. “He came back again and said ‘I think you’re making a mistake.’ He was using the FOMO tactic — You’re really missing out, there’s big upside here,” says a former classmate who had initially rebuffed Artamonov. After some more calls, the friend invested $120,000 in early 2023.

A few months later, the friend was having second thoughts. Curious about Artamonov’s trading signal that was apparently hiding in plain sight, he started digging. He called several states, but officials told him there were no such disclosures. “I thought maybe I wasn’t looking in the right place,” he says. “I kind of was like, Ah, I don’t know why I’m even digging into this; he has something. He’s talking a good game, let’s see what he can deliver.” But as time passed, he received no updates, no quarterly letters, or any other documents from Artamonov indicating how the fund was performing, and he was planning some home projects for which he needed cash. By the summer, he decided to ask for his money back. That’s when things started to get really weird.

At first, Artamonov gently discouraged the withdrawal. “I don’t want this to be a piggy bank, I don’t really want this to be an ATM,” he told his former Harvard classmate. It’s fairly commonplace for hedge funds to lock up their investors’ money for extended periods while they try to create big returns in the market. But Artamonov kept coming up with new excuses. He needed to “get his accounts straight” amid all the trades he was making, he said; he had to make sure the withdrawal was processed correctly; he was undergoing an “audit” that was causing delays. When the friend called him repeatedly, he would pick up and promise to send the money — just as soon as he got back to his computer, which he was never near.

As the months passed, the friend reached out to someone he knew who had also invested with Artamonov and voiced what seemed like a crazy, irrational fear. “There’s no way Vlad would be running a Ponzi scheme, right?” he asked. The two dismissed it from their minds. “Why would he risk his reputation? It’s a small amount of money, it’s not rational — why would he put his career on the line?” they reasoned. “I think you give a friend the benefit of the doubt.”

Then, at the end of this past February, the fears were validated. Tish James, the New York attorney general, announced that Artamonov had indeed been running a Ponzi scheme, primarily targeting HBS alumni, for two and a half years and that she had succeeded in freezing his accounts. The 31 victims — who include executives at big consulting firms and real-estate corporations, veteran Wall Street professionals, and other very wealthy New Yorkers — who have come forward so far had together lost more than $3 million. One early investor killed himself after realizing the $100,000 he’d put in was gone, the AG said. “My stomach fell on the floor,” the friend remembers. “I can’t freaking believe this.”

The AG’s case against Artamonov is a civil one — he has not to date been charged with any crimes over the alleged scheme, and he did pay at least one victim back. This report draws on details from the AG’s case as well as interviews with investors and people he solicited to invest, many of them HBS graduates. Reached by phone and email, Artamonov wrote that he was unable to comment because he is “undergoing treatment.” Asked to specify the condition for which he is being treated, he did not respond.

The alleged Ponzi scheme that drew the legal attention of the State of New York was not a large one. Unlike, say, Bernie Madoff’s scam, it did not pose any threat to financial markets. What stands out about it is the methodology: Artamonov was trading more than anything on the Harvard name and the status that one of its business degrees confers in Wall Street circles. Bill Ackman, Jamie Dimon, Hank Paulson, and Ray Dalio all have one; so does former mayor Mike Bloomberg and former mayoral candidate Ray McGuire. A master’s from HBS is virtually table stakes in the world of high finance as well as an implicit shorthand for “This guy must be good.” The people Artamonov allegedly conned knew him first and foremost as a Harvard Business guy, and for some, that was sufficient to let him loose with enough of their money to put a kid at least halfway through college or put a down payment on a weekend cottage upstate. “The craziest thing is that people actually wrote him a check — to me, that’s wild,” says a younger HBS alum whose money Artamonov unsuccessfully solicited. “The only way that I could see it is if you trust him blindly.”

Trust is, of course, at the root of many Wall Street deals. In finance, talking the talk with the bona fides to back it up — target-school diplomas, an A-list hedge-fund stint, and summering in the right Long Island towns — is a legitimate and time-tested way to pass through many of that world’s key filters. It’s often enough to gain entrée into circles where making investments or donations can be a friendly social gesture. The strategy has worked for philanthropists, hedge-fund upstarts, and grifters alike. Artamonov clearly understood this well.

Soon after the friend who’d invested learned about the scam, he was talking to one of the AG’s investigators. “Were you aware,” the investigator asked him, “that one week after the investment, your money was already lost?”

Artamonov, who went to high school in Russia and retains a trace of an accent, earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Pennsylvania in less than three years. At just 20 years old, he started working full time as an analyst at Merrill Lynch. He was sanguine about his future, advising his peers still in college not to stress themselves or worry about finding a job. “Everything seems to work out and be fine in the long run,” he told the college newspaper, The Daily Pennsylvanian. Two years later, he landed at Harvard Business School as part of the class of 2003. At HBS, he stood out for his relative immaturity, his peers say, but also his obvious intelligence.

He made a bigger impression after graduating, moving to New York, and starting work at Greenlight, one of the most prominent hedge funds in the city. He became known for throwing parties at his rented lofts in Noho or the West Village and going out often at night. “He was a staple of the New York HBS community — and for good reason,” says one alum from a later class who settled in the city and got to know Artamonov there. Every summer, Artamonov seemed to have an expansive party house in the Hamptons, spending hundreds of thousands a season, friends estimated, between renting a home and underwriting outings to hotspots like the Surf Lodge. On Facebook, he posted photos of himself on luxury vacations in places like Nantucket, Montauk, Miami, and Cartagena; one image shows him sailing around Manhattan sporting a navy polo shirt and blue-tinted aviator sunglasses.

Artamonov was a “party boy,” says an HBS alum who hung out with him. In one Facebook photo, Artamonov sails around Manhattan on what appears to be a yacht.
Photo: Facebook

At Greenlight, Artamonov was part of a seven-person team working on investments in “a full range of situations and industries,” according to his LinkedIn profile. But colleagues noticed he often didn’t roll in to the office until noon and assumed he must have stayed out late the night before. “He was the only analyst that would keep really odd hours,” says someone who worked there at the time. It didn’t seem to hurt his performance: He successfully pitched several investment ideas into Einhorn’s carefully vetted stock portfolio.

Artamonov was eccentric and socially awkward with a nerdy Urkel-like laugh that colleagues sometimes teased him about. Another younger alum assumed he was on the autism spectrum. But Artamonov was still reasonably well liked. “It just seemed like he’s more innocent and naïve than someone who would coordinate a scheme like this,” says the friend who invested. “It’s just so crazy.”

Artamonov used this party scene he built to look for love — or at least for dates. “I think he liked to impress women,” says the friend who invested. “Taking someone out to a nice dinner or ‘Come to my Hamptons house’ — I suspect that was a big part of the game.” Other alumni took notice of the photos Artamonov posted on social media posing with an array of different women (“With one of the coolest girls in the world,” he captioned one). “Deep inside, he was still the same little nerdy immigrant kid who was trying to show that he is part of something,” says the New York alum from a later class. “And that was literally his thing — he was like this party boy. But he was, again, very, very smart.”

Artamonov left Greenlight in December 2008 during the lows of the financial crisis and struck out with his own fund, Coastal Investment Management, teaming with Todd Plutsky, a fellow HBS alum. They ran activist campaigns — that is, investor-led efforts to shake up a company and increase profitability — on surf brand Billabong and Australian firms Spicers and Redbank Energy and even won a few board seats for their efforts.

Coastal was not a huge success, though. At the end of 2015, Artamonov ran into a group of younger HBS students at a beach club in Brazil and was still bragging about working at Einhorn’s hedge fund, giving them the impression he had never left. “He pitched like he was still at Greenlight when he was in Brazil,” says a younger alum who was there and hadn’t met Artamonov before. They never hung out again, but Artamonov persisted in trying to befriend the younger man in New York, inviting him to parties for more than three years afterward. “I just kind of thought he was this nerdy guy who didn’t really have many friends,” the younger alum says. Around 2016, Artamonov was subletting a room in his apartment on Bond Street, a posh location in downtown Manhattan. An acquaintance estimated the apartment rented for around $20,000 a month, but taking on roommates still seemed like a strange choice for a seemingly rich hedge funder. “I thought it was odd,” says the younger alum. “Why is a guy who worked at Greenlight subletting a room? Does he really need the money?”

On Facebook, Artamonov (center) posted photos of himself vacationing at luxury beach destinations.
Photo: Facebook

In the fall of 2017, Artamonov moved into a prewar townhouse on West 4th Street, paying $8,500 a month for an ornately furnished apartment. “He lived the life of a hermit and only went out for short periods,” says his landlord, Gilda Lavalle, who also lived in the building. She recalls a relationship with at least one girlfriend ending badly. “They would scream at each other in the public hall and wake everyone up,” says Lavalle. One night, the woman ran out of the building without her shoes or her phone and called the police, according to Lavalle. When she returned the next day to retrieve her belongings, she brought two cops and her family with her.

Artamonov stopped paying rent in early 2020, and Lavalle filed suit against him in February 2021. That September, she moved to evict him, alleging that during Hurricane Ida that summer Artamonov had left “the windows and door purposely open so as to cause flooding from the storms” and was “actively and maliciously vandalizing his apartment and endangering the lives of the other occupants of the building.” Artamonov denied the accusations in court, calling them “a clear overdramatization” and claiming he didn’t notice any damage. But it was not the first time he had been sued for inundating an apartment: In 2016, AIG, his then-landlord’s insurer, filed a suit alleging that he had left the faucet running in a place he was renting on Lafayette Street two years earlier, resulting in damages of nearly $43,000. (Artamonov never responded to the allegations in court, and the case was ultimately discontinued.)

“I have no money,” Artamonov wrote to the judge in October 2021, representing himself and pleading to be able to file his responses electronically like the other lawyers, instead of by hand. He also asked for an extension, claiming he had been sick with gastritis and provided a doctor’s note, which said he was “being referred to a specialist for further evaluation.” Artamonov was legally kicked out of the apartment in the summer of 2022 and ordered to pay $135,000. By then, prosecutors say, he had been preying on Harvard alumni and friends for nearly a year — starting around the same time he’d told the court he was ill.

Why Artamonov apparently turned to white-collar confidence schemes after setting himself up for a successful career on Wall Street is a mystery that puzzles people who knew him, as does the question of why dozens of Harvard-educated executives and investors fell for it — high-ranking employees at top management-consulting firms, a chief investment officer at a major financial company, and various entrepreneurs and investment bankers.

As relentless as he was in calling his prospects to convince them to invest, Artamonov was also secretive and warned them not to tell anyone about the opportunity, especially not other stock-market investors (who he said might steal his idea) — a behavior that, in hindsight, struck some as a red flag. “A bit paranoid about confidentiality here,” Artamonov wrote to several recruits and potential investors in a boilerplate email. “Asking everyone to be super confidential about this as I want to keep the ball rolling for a long time. It is bonkers unique and intellectual property.”

When the friend who had invested $120,000 called late last year to ask once again for his money back, Artamonov, who by then had moved to California, picked up the phone one night. It was around 9 p.m., and as the friend pressed him to return the funds, Artamonov suddenly started crying. “I think he was a very lonely guy. He told me on several occasions that at this point he really wanted to have a wife and kids and family,” the friend says. “Sometimes he’d be really giddy and then we’d get on the phone and he’d be really upset. You start connecting the dots — lonely guy, upset about a prior relationship, where am I going in life, having money problems.” Still, the fact that Artamonov was picking up the phone at all seemed to signal that nothing suspicious was happening. “We were like, ‘Oh, he’s not totally avoiding us,’” says the friend. “It wouldn’t make sense for him to put his career on the line for that amount of money.”

But Artamonov was simultaneously trying to lure in new money, pretending everything was going well. Last September, he suddenly started calling the younger HBS alum he’d met in Brazil years earlier, multiple times a day in the middle of work. “Have something bonkers,” he texted. They arranged a call, and then another one, with the younger alum and a friend who had worked at a hedge fund who pushed Artamonov to explain the mechanics of his strategy. They asked Artamonov for basic details: What kind of returns did he expect? What would the track record look like if he’d launched the strategy two years ago? And they wanted him to put it in writing. “He would get flustered when we’d ask questions,” the younger alum says.

Crucially, they wanted Artamonov to demonstrate the gains he could reap by learning about Buffett’s investments from the state filings before they hit the public-market filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission, inevitably boosting their price as other investors piled into the trade. (In the investment world, Buffett has a unique status, and any time he takes a position, there tends to be a flood of copycats doing the same.) Just one example would suffice, they told Artamonov — one state filing revealing a purchase by Berkshire Hathaway, Buffett’s company, with the stock trading at a lower price than it did some days later when the news hit the broader market. Weeks went by, but all Artamonov provided were random printouts from a Bloomberg terminal showing the price change after Berkshire revealed a new stock purchase in a conventional SEC filing and news clippings reporting on the market bump — nothing illustrating an early advantage. “It was always, ‘Can you just show us how this works?’ And he said, ‘I can’t really show you.’ He would send us these screenshots, as if it answered the question,” the younger alum recalls. “Dude, this doesn’t answer the question. If anything, this makes it even worse.”

Artamonov was similarly cavalier about tracking his investors’ money, at one point emailing the younger alum a “term sheet” for the investment. “You can just reply ‘I agree’ if it looks good to you,” Artamonov told him. At another point, he texted the younger alum to send money by 2 p.m., even though he had not agreed to invest. “I was like, at that point, Something’s wrong here. He definitely seemed desperate,” the younger alum says. “I would screenshot all the calls. Guess who’s calling me again? Like, this guy is crazy.”

Moreover, the younger alum couldn’t understand why Artamonov was raising money at all. If he could really make big returns capitalizing on this semi-secret edge he was so worried others would find out about, why wouldn’t he just keep it to himself? They wanted to know how much of his own money he was putting in, but even that he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, answer. “A 45-year old guy who used to work at Greenlight and other hedge funds,” said the younger alum, “who doesn’t have any money and can’t execute a strategy on his own, that’s a red flag.”

Still, it wasn’t exactly a Ponzi red flag. “I was just like, you must be really bad at this,” the younger alum says. “But I never thought he was a fraud because it’s hard to think that about someone who went to HBS and worked at Greenlight — those kinds of people don’t really work at those kinds of places.”

In fact, Artamonov never even tried to execute the Buffett-following strategy. According to the AG’s case against him, he plowed the money he collected from investors into risky short-term options, many of which had nothing to do with Buffett’s trades, resulting in nearly immediate losses of tens of thousands of dollars. In December 2022, as he aggressively pursued former classmates and other alumni to invest, he raised about $380,000 in their money but lost more than 80 percent of it that same month. Occasionally, he used his investors’ money to treat himself to a $300 meal in New York or a $2,000 Airbnb rental, the AG alleged. “It doesn’t make sense — he could have just done a normal fund,” says the friend who invested. “Why take the money and light it on fire?”

That’s what galls some of the victims the most about his particular brand of Ponzi: Artamonov sold them on an idea he apparently didn’t even intend to attempt. “He concocted such a detailed lie. It’s one thing if you’re going to run a Ponzi scheme and you set out to do something good and then things go wrong and you start lying. Like Madoff,” says the friend who invested. “In this case, from the very beginning it was a lie so you knew you were going to go out and steal money from your friends, and that was okay with him.”

While Ponzi schemes are a classic form of white-collar fraud, Artamonov is not currently facing criminal charges, and there is no warrant out for his arrest. The AG’s civil action primarily seeks to recoup as much money as possible for the victims. The identity of the investor who died by suicide after losing $100,000 has not been revealed publicly, but HBS alumni believe it had to be someone outside the Harvard community because they are unaware of such a death within their ranks. The AG says it has since located Artamonov and served him, but several earlier attempts at what was then his last known address at a “very large house” in California were unsuccessful, with the person who opened the door claiming Artamonov didn’t live there. It’s not clear where he currently resides. Meanwhile, he showed up to a status conference in May in New York for the eviction case, which is ongoing, but by then, his former landlord, Lavalle, had given up. The government’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program had paid the portion of Artamonov’s debts agreed to in a settlement but didn’t cover half of the more than $300,000 Lavalle says she lost in unpaid rent, utilities, and cleaning services, nor nearly $100,000 more in legal bills. “Vlad never paid anything,” says Lavalle, who has since sold the West 4th townhouse and moved out. “My experience with Vlad has been a total financial disaster for me.”

Sometime in the coming months, the court is expected to set a deadline for Artamonov to give a deposition and turn over documents to the AG showing the paper trail of his investors and the money he received from them. But he is unlikely to face prison time unless the local district attorney or the Department of Justice decides to prosecute him criminally.

So far, Artamonov has not exactly denied orchestrating the scam. After the AG announced that Artamonov had been running a Ponzi scheme, the friend who’d been trying to get his money back texted him: “This explains it.” Artamonov wrote back, “Don’t worry, I’ll make it up to you.” How? the friend wondered: “It sounds like all the money is gone.”

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