Fuel scams: An Australian tradition

Gerard Ryle is the Sydney Morning Herald journalist who did most of the work of exposing the Firepower fiasco (it was linking to Ryle's SMH articles about Firepower that got me tangled up in the whole thing).

Ryle was on the Radio National mini-show Ockham's Razor the other day; Robyn Williams called his book "riveting". (Unfortunately for Gerard's bank balance, that's Robyn Williams the Australian science journalist and host of Ockham's Razor, not Robin Williams the comedian and movie star.)

Ryle's paraphrasing his book in the Ockham's Razor piece (available as a text transcript and a less-than-15-minute podcast), but he hardly talks about Firepower at all, and isn't just trying to get you to buy the book. Instead, he gives some highlights of the long and miserable history of fuel-saving gadgets here in Australia. Even in just this one country, there have been several stops on this particular railway to nowhere.

It's not all pills, magnets and crystals, either. There's also that hardy perennial, the Miracle Engine.

Miracle Engines share with perpetual motion machines - and ordinary everyday automotive technology, come to think of it - the handy quality of being difficult for laypeople to understand. Especially if you make 'em complicated enough. There are plenty of unusual engine designs that actually do work quite well, after all; those workable engines provide useful cover under which bogus Miracle Engines can sneak up on the consumer. The Miracle Engines often don't look any less plausible to the average Joe, or even to the experienced mechanic, than a Wankel rotary - but they often don't work at all, let alone actually have the potential to revolutionise the whole field of automotive blah blah blah.

As with perpetual motion machines, Miracle Engines have been devised that contain every conceivable combination of rotors, pistons, opposed pistons, free pistons, swing pistons, shape-changing combustion chambers, exhaust turbines, planetary gears and a whole Victorian engineering textbook worth of other mechanisms and linkages.

Miracle Engines have the great advantage that, if a misguided-engineer or plain-old-scam-artist goes to the trouble of making a not-quite-working model of one, nobody can easily test his claims and show them to be bollocks. Sellers of magic fuel pills have to make sure people never actually test their products, but Miracle Engine inventors can just keep sucking up "development" money from investors and quite plausibly string said investors along, explaining that there's still a niggling little problem with the panendermic semi-boloid stator slots, but that's all that still stands in the way of the 500-horsepower 200-mile-per-gallon automobile you've been promised, and it's nothing another hundred thousand dollars can't solve!

First in Ryle's short-list of Aussie fuel-saving ventures is the essentially useless Sarich orbital engine (I was going to edit in some links from one or both of those little Wikipedia articles to the radio-show transcript, but then I detected a certain similarity between the two already, which suggests that such a reference would be circular...). The Orbital company still exists, selling a fuel-injection system that seems to have been the only part of the Sarich engine that actually worked. (Ralph Sarich himself cashed out years ago, but the legend of his engineering genius and the automotive-industry conspiracy that kept the poor man down will never die. Note that the definition of "poor man" here includes "a personal worth of several hundred million dollars". Almost makes me wish I could invent an engine that doesn't work.)

And then there was Rick Mayne's "Split-Cycle Technology", another miracle engine that amounted to nothing. Mayne had the balls to enlist Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs to help promote his technology; this sort of grand cheeky gesture seems to be common in the automotive miracle business.

Splitcycle.com.au has been around for more than ten years now; it was promising great things in 1999, then passed to the ownership of someone unimpressed with Rick Mayne who promised a "Re-Emergence of SplitCycle Engine Technology" in 2005. But now the site is sadly reduced, to what appears to be an empty server.

(Is the Michael Papp who wrote that splitcycle.com.au editorial the same Michael Papp who went on to sell "Spark EV" electric vehicles that didn't, if you want to get all nitpicky and technical about it, exist? Apparently, as of June this year, the Spark EV story was due to "get very interesting in the next month or so", and the electric cars did too exist, and all the mean kids who made fun of Michael Papp and Spark EV would be so, so sorry. As of September '09, spark-ev.com is completely gone.)

A little bit further into Ryle's tale of woe we encounter "Save The World Air Inc", which offered a little fuel-saving nasty-emission-eliminating gizmo allegedly invented by Pro Hart, of all people.

Regular readers may remember Save The World Air from this post, in which I started out thinking that a new "electrorheology" fuel-saver idea actually didn't look like just another textbook scam, since it was plainly presented with all the information necessary for other researchers to attempt to replicate the alleged findings. But then I noticed that the gadget had been licensed to Save The World Air, which dropped it straight back into the "obvious scam" category, if you ask me. And lo, here we are a year later, and electrorheological combustion enhancement ain't changed the world yet.

Ryle couldn't do a piece like this without mentioning Aussie racing legend Peter Brock and his religious belief - maintained right up until his 2006 death in a racing accident - in the "Energy Polarizer". The Polarizer added crystals to magnets, to allegedly achieve the usual wonderful things. (The only measurable effect the Energy Polarizer ever actually had was on Brock's relationship with Holden.)

Perhaps, one day, all this nonsense will have faded away like patent medicines - but I doubt it'll happen soon. Even if we're all driving electric cars that're charged by too-cheap-to-meter solar or fusion power - or being driven around in autonomous electric cars - there'll still be carpetbaggers selling magnetic crystals that're meant to improve motor power.

With any luck, though, the sheer size of the stinking jet of bloody phlegm that sprayed all over Australia when the Firepower boil was finally lanced will at least slightly dampen enthusiasm for the next couple of fuel-pill scams.

In other Firepower-related news which I have shamelessly scraped from Gerard Ryle's blog, there's been some pleasing developments in the life of the delectable John Finnin, former Austrade official, former CEO of Firepower, et cetera.

One, the fact that this gentleman's full name is "John Cornelius Alphonsus Finnin" has become public knowledge.

And two, Finnin's been found guilty of 23 child-sex charges, and gone down for eight to twelve.

(This may or may not have something to do with the fact that Finnin brillantly decided to represent himself in court.)

I actually think eight years, followed by the usual Registered Sex Offender life-ruining, is a bit of a rough sentence for someone who's only been found guilty of having a consensual relationship with a 15-year-old rent boy. But Finnin played a big, and it seems to me obviously knowing, role in the shovelling of taxpayers' and naïve investors' money into his own, and Tim Johnston's, pockets.

So, you know, screw that guy.

(In case you were wondering, Tim Johnston himself continues to Skase it up overseas, deaf to the cries of creditors large and small.)

Another unrequested Firepower update

The major focus of attention since the collapse of magic-fuel-pill company Firepower, with which I had such fun, has been the scam artist in charge, one Tim Johnston. Tim's lavish lifestyle was as unsustainable as the rest of the Firepower debacle, so he dragged his carpet-bag full of cash off into the night some time ago.

Now, another Firepower collaborator has bobbed to the surface of the treatment pond. His name is John Finnin.

John Finnin was the guy who gave Austrade grants to Firepower. Then, as is traditional among the parasitic worms who've burrowed their way through the vital organs of the world economy for so many years, Finnin became Firepower's CEO on a $AU500,000-a-year salary, while still greasing the wheels for taxpayers' money to flow from Austrade to Firepower.

(Well, I think he greased them. It might actually have been some sort of mucus. Lab tests are ongoing.)

Shortly after golden-parachuting into Firepower, though, Finnin was accused of child sex offences, and quit the CEO job.

At the time, this was all just part of the rich tapestry of tawdry dodginess that was the Firepower saga. (After a while, I was expecting Erik Prince or L. Ron Hubbard to be involved somehow.)

Given that modern society seems to be pretty sure that inappropriately touching one small boy is a worse crime than burning down a hundred fully-occupied hospitals, I'm not crazy about the publicity that child-sex accusations always attract. If you baselessly accuse someone of having interfered with children, then even if they're found as Not Guilty as anybody ever has been, the smell of the accusation will follow them around until they die.

But wouldn't you know it - Finnin's been found guilty of a total of 23 charges, which include repeatedly molesting a 15-year-old-boy. His lawyer has courageously asserted that there's an "element of entrapment" to the case, since the boy concerned was - he says - perfectly happy with prostituting himself. That's not what entrapment means, of course, but I'm sure the court will give this argument all the consideration it deserves.

This prosecution all kicked off after some different child-sex claims, which were allegedly what caused Austrade to allow Finnin to "resign quietly and return home", and thereby stop - again, allegedly - using Australian embassy privileges to help him participate in an international child-sex ring. Austrade are adamant that they didn't actually tip Finnin off about the investigation, and that their previous internal investigation of Finnin's activities did not in fact involve a "child sex ring". Austrade just allowed Finnin to give lots of public money to a man with a previous career of fuel-pill scams who then hired him as CEO of his new fuel-pill scam. So that's all right, then.

There'd been a bit of a lull in Firepower-related news before this delectable little detail came along. Gerard Ryle, the Sydney Morning Herald journalist most likely to be depicted on Tim Johnston's dartboard, published an unassumingly-titled...

Firepower book

...book about the company a little while ago. Ryle has been doing interviews and publishing excerpts. (He's got a blog, too. He's less than totally impressed with Austrade.)

It's possible that, a mere year and a bit after Tim Johnston skipped the country, the Australian Securities and Investments Commission will actually, finally, file criminal charges against Johnston. Don't hold your breath, though; it's got to take a while to figure out how to bust Johnston without bothering the various governmental worthies who were so proud to be associated with him a couple of years ago.

(There's been a civil case against whatever-remains-of-Firepower crawling along for more than a year now. ASIC has also awarded an eight-year ban to one of the several financial planners who told their clients Firepower shares were a great investment, when the shares weren't actually even legal to sell. The investors who ended up holding Firepower's toilet-paper shares continue, hopelessly, to try to get their money back.)

You can expect official regulatory bodies to take this long to dot all the i's and cross all the t's, and taking a while to do so certainly doesn't mean such bodies are useless. But it does serve as a reminder that you shouldn't expect the government to prevent rip-offs from being perpetrated, even large-scale and immensely audacious ones. Indeed, the bigger a scam is, the more likely it is to have some government officials actively helping it, either knowingly - as, I presume, was the case with Finnin - or as gullible marks - which I suppose the fresh-faced Stephen Moss might have been. (I bet Stephen's dad knew what was going on, though; Stephen claims he ended up being owed money by the vanished Mr Johnston, but his father cleared a 1.6-million-dollar profit when he sold the soon-to-be-bankrupt Sydney Kings to Firepower.)

The State government here in New South Wales has also recently banned four more bogus fuel-saving devices, not including the previously-mentioned Moletech thingy which is I think still technically legal to sell in NSW.

Among the now-banned gadgets are the "FuelMAX" and "Super FuelMAX", which are magnet devices, banned by the US FTC in 2005, but still apparently on sale from some Australian dealers. Then there's the "Magnoflow", another magnet, which the manufacturers say breaks down "fuel clusters" to allow more complete combustion, for a claimed "20% or more" mileage improvement. Which is of course BS, because modern engines burn 98% or more of their fuel already. The Magnoflow people seem to have given up on Australia, which is a terrible shame, since this gadget's US list price appears to be $US159 or more, but it was only $AU129 here in Australia.

Also now-banned-in-NSW is the "Prozone Fuelsaver" - which allegedly gives lucky buyers a magnet and a "catalyst"! (Astonishingly enough, the Prozone Fuelsaver never seems to have been tested by the catalyst enthusiasts at "California Environmental Engineering".)

Four down; only several dozen more to go.

In Australia alone.


Stuck in a tropical paradise with nothing to do

In a development so astonishing that this month's issue of Astonishing Developments Magazine has been held back for a complete rework to accommodate it, "Colourful Perth businessman Warren Anderson has fallen out with his friend Tim Johnston - the founder of failed fuel technology company Firepower - after chasing him to Bali."

Apparently Tim wouldn't meet with Warren. Poor Warren. Everybody, all together: "Awwwwww."

All Warren now has to comfort himself with is the millions of dollars he made by offloading his Firepower shares before they, inevitably, fell to zero. And, um, also all of his numerous other millions.

But he does get points for using the word "henchman" to describe another of Johnston's business associates.

Firepower: Just a fricking misunderstanding

"You will see: we will eventually be vindicated and our investors will be well rewarded", claims Firepower boss Tim Johnston in an interview with The Australian. He also insists that he hasn't been hiding at all. (He just hasn't been anywhere the people who want him to pay what he owes have been looking. Oh, and not answering the phone, either.)

Johnston insists he's perfectly innocent, all of those never-shown-to-do-anything Firepower "products" work fine, Four Corners' report was a vile calumny, the investors will all get their money back, et cetera.

He also, at one point, is reported to have used the word "fricking".

And now, another link-dump of news stories about Firepower that've come out since my last update, in roughly chronological order, newest first:

Apparently Rose and Willie Porteous, or maybe only Rose, also bought into Firepower, and are as a result now one step closer to the penury which anybody which who cares to read up on them will, I think, agree they deserve.

The Australian High Commissioner in Pakistan is reported to have "acted unwisely" when she bought 200,000 shares in Firepower, but has been judged to have suffered enough, and so kept her job.

And there was a brief flap over a gaggle of Australian Defence Force chiefs who, apparently, invested in Firepower, and then became rather kindly disposed to the company. To the point where they let Firepower use the Navy frigate HMAS Sydney for a function in 2006, for free.

The function was to launch the basketball season for the Firepower-sponsored Sydney Kings, who followed Firepower down the plughole and no longer exist.

(The above Herald report is excellent, except for the part where it says "Firepower employees at the function literally swept from one person to the next generating confidence". One would think they used brooms for this purpose, but they were on a ship, so perhaps they swabbed the deck with mops.)

Firepower, by the way, gave people attending the above Frigate Function goodie bags including some of their magic pills, the unimpressiveness of which started the ball rolling at the Herald.

The previously-mentioned Warren Anderson said that people who'd lost money on Firepower were just "greedy". This statement was received with a certain amount of astonishment by the company's liquidator, who pointed out that expecting an investment to appreciate is kind of... the only reason why anybody invests.

Anderson's point was that many Firepower investors had "accountants and bloody lawyers and Christ knows what", and so should have been able to tell that the company wasn't on the level. And, one presumes, should then have sold on their foolishly-purchased shares for a handsome profit before Firepower folded. You know - like Warren Anderson himself did.

The above-linked article isn't primarily about the liquidator; it's about some un-named "Sydney man" who's alleged by a large group of small shareholders (presumably not including the ones who had "accountants and lawyers"...) to have embezzled five million bucks from Firepower. And therefore impeded Firepower's efforts to keep all of that money for itself.

The creditors are chasing this guy because, according to local litigation-funding company IMF, they've got bugger-all chance of squeezing any cash out of Firepower's entirely straightforward and above-board international operations. The liquidator previously said that unless the investors find someone to sue, they're not going to get a penny.

And then there's one Frank Timis, described in The Australian as "a colourful Romanian-Australian businessman", who says he's starting a new business that'll repay (plus ten per cent!) all of the ripped-off investors.

Timis and his new company, the entirely-unconfusingly-named "Greenpower" (or perhaps "Green Power"), scores a mention in the recent Johnston interview piece, too. Apparently Tim and Frank will be issuing free shares in the new company to shareholders in the old, so don't you worry about that.

(About 25 seconds after Timis said investors would be paid back, the IMF litigation-funders pointed out that this promise might just possibly not be worth an awful lot. IMF, like others, advises investors to consider their money to be gone, gone, gone.)

Firepower link-dump

My "what?!" for today was prompted by a Perth Now piece titled, wait for it, "Johnston builds new Firepower".

Yep - Tim Johnston, creator of the whole Firepower debacle, is "...trying to buy Firepower stock and assets for overseas-registered company Green Power Corporation".

(The piece goes on to point out that the Green Power Corporation in question is not this one in Thailand. So don't hassle them unless their Web site suddenly starts sprouting ads for magic fuel pills and/or expensive franchised engine-cleaning machines.)

[UPDATE:: "Firepower chief back to try again". Such grit! Such determination! In the face of such skepticism! The actual newspaper reports are now frankly calling Firepower's products "fake", but that does not deter Mr Johnston!]

While we're all waiting for a more pleasing headline - I suggest "Johnston gets twenty years stamping numberplates for conventionally-powered cars" - here's a selection of other recent coverage of the Firepower saga.

"Anderson in shares scandal" is another Perth Now piece, about the "colourful" Western Australian property developer who apparently bought a bunch of Firepower's not-quite-legally-issued shares and sold them on for a profit of more than four million bucks. (Here's a longer piece from The Australian on this subject. I presume Anderson is still eager to opine that Tim Johnston is not a criminal.)

How much of that four million, and all the other millions poured into getting a share of Firepower's worthless products, can the naïve investors expect to get back, I hear you ask?

That's right: Not a cent. Small investors are, as usual, screwed the hardest.

Firepower's largest single creditor (of a cast of thousands) continues to be Tim's former business partner Ross Graham, who I mentioned in this post.

The Firepower site still says Ross was very pleased to be involved with Firepower, on account of its amazingly valuable products and rock-solid business fundamentals - but what he's actually doing now is spending another hundred thousand bucks to get a liquidator of his choice appointed to the now-very-dead company, so as to maximise the chance that he'll get back at least a little of the ten million bucks he says he's owed.

I continue to wish Ross no luck at all in this venture. If you take an active role in a scam and then find that you're one of the people that ends up ripped off, you deserve what you got.

(Previously, there were hopes that Firepower could somehow be "rescued". Those hopes were of course dashed. The idea that Firepower was even worth rescuing was based on the incorrect assumption that the Firepower products were good for something, and not just the latest version of an old, old scam. That same scam had been run by the same guy on previous occasions, for Pete's sake.)

Slightly earlier: Firepower financial info 'goes missing'. Apparently Firepower kept some rather important salary information on one computer, with no backups. That computer apparently, like the Luggage, followed Tim Johnston to his current undisclosed, but probably lavishly furnished, location.

Said undisclosed location apparently has rather unreliable telephone service. Tim hasn't even been able to talk to creditors on the phone.

My occasional correspondent Gerard Ryle, still working on his book about the Firepower story, wrote "Firepower collapse fallout" for the Sydney Morning Herald. Apparently the sportspeople and teams who got stiffed for sponsorship money Firepower owed them, and the other sporting schmucks who invested in Firepower and lost the lot, were the lucky ones.

The unlucky ones are the ones who actually got money from Firepower - after it was already insolvent. They have of course generally spent that money, but may now have to repay it, because the creditors want it.

There's a point worth making: It's not even safe to accept payment from a rip-off artist. If the money he pays you turns out to not have been his to give, you can end up in a much worse situation than if he hadn't paid you at all.

Earlier, Tim Johnston was "reported to the Australian Securities and Investment Commission for further investigation". I expect ASIC to take three, or maybe seven, years to generate a very thorough report indeed on the several most reliable ways in which stable doors might, in future, be bolted.

To be fair, ASIC apparently started investigating Firepower late last year, after previously ignoring warnings. And shady companies like Firepower can pretty much always slither past government regulators for a while, partly because they simply don't file any of the legally-required paperwork, and so don't appear on the regulators' radar until plenty of suckers have already paid up. But it wasn't until July this year that they took real concrete action. Casual basketball fans figured the situation out earlier than that.

So it really does seem that ASIC were very slow to react to the quite obvious shonkiness of this very high-profile company. I suppose the fact that Firepower had leverage with Austrade didn't hurt.

A new challenger appears

Rob at Boing Boing Gadgets has been favoured with correspondence from an enthusiastic proponent of Fuel Freedom International's "MPG-Caps". They're yet another magic pill for your fuel that'll give you more power and better mileage and whiter teeth and so on.

I think it is safe to say that Rob was not 100% sold on the idea.

The MPG-Caps also have their very own page on fuelsaving.info. Apparently they've been on sale for an awfully long time, under one name or another - but what do you know, even after decades there hasn't been one proper independent test that proves their claims.

So away we go again. A fool and his money are welcome here.

The whole Firepower episode, like numerous other collapsing scams that I didn't personally have anything to do with, reminds me of the bit in the last episode of Band of Brothers where Webster abuses the endless line of German captives marching past him under guard: "What were you thinking? Dragging our asses half way around the world, interrupting our lives... For what, you ignorant, servile scum?! What the fuck are we doing here?"

Over and over, these God-damned scam artists take for suckers people who didn't pay enough attention in science class, and raise the blood pressure of people like my blog hosts with substanceless legal threats... and for what? Couldn't all this effort, all this ingenuity, be used in the service of something real?

Oh, I'm sorry - that'd mean you'd actually have to earn your million-dollar cars, wouldn't it?

Well, carry on then, I suppose.

Firepower on Four Corners

A few readers have reminded me that tomorrow's edition of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's venerable current affairs program Four Corners will be all about the Firepower saga.

You probably won't even have to wait for someone to rip it off and make a torrent, as the ABC lets you download whole episodes of many shows, including Four Corners. I don't think they've got any annoying geographic IP checking that'll stop foreign readers from watching, either.

UPDATE: Here's the episode, wittily entitled "Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire".

The polite term is "developmentally delayed"

A reader brought my attention to Cracked's 6 Retarded Gas Saving Schemes (People Are Actually Trying). I've could make a couple of minor technical complaints about it, but overall it's great. The more people point out the idiocy of things like running your car on water and magic gasoline pills, the better.

I got a kick out of the Khaos Super Turbo Charger (KSTC), which apparently made as big a splash in the Philippines as Firepower did here in Australia. The KSTC has its very own page on fuelsaving.info; there's another page about air-bleed devices in general.

Fuel scammers often seem to take the thirty-something per cent thermodynamic efficiency of internal combustion engines to mean that sixty-something per cent of the fuel isn't being burned, when the actual amount of fuel that escapes the engine unburned or only partially combusted is a few per cent, at the very worst. For most vehicles today, it's well under one per cent, as I noted when Firepower tried the same line on me.

Cracked's number one Retarded Gas Saving Scheme is "Water4Gas" from one "Ozzie Freedom". It's a particularly elaborate kit of parts - including various aquarium components, and not one but two jam-jars - that's meant to let you run your car at least partially on, that's right, water.

I mention this in hopes of attracting some more of those hilarious Google ads from the several other water-fueled-car companies out there, all of which have mysteriously failed to make the trillions of dollars you'd expect.

(This is, of course, because of The Conspiracy. Which somehow doesn't stop these people from selling their ridiculous kits to soon-to-be-disappointed customers.)

Oh, and meanwhile it's come to light that the list of people to whom Firepower promised money and never delivered includes the Liberal Party of Australia.

At this stage I'm surprised that Tim Johnston - who in the photo accompanying the article has a hairstyle that looks not unlike a Brylcreemed ballsack - didn't go door-to-door slipping IOUs into people's letter boxes.