"I was duped," Meyer said. "We trusted this man. The community is still in shock."

Authorities say owner Paul Burks was the mastermind of a $600 million Ponzi scheme â¿¿ one of the biggest in U.S. history â¿¿ that attracted 1 million investors, including nearly 50,000 in North Carolina. Many were recruited by friends and family in Lexington, a quintessential small town where neighbors look out for each other.

But what investors didn't know was that state regulators had received nearly a dozen complaints about ZeekRewards and the related site Zeekler.com, but failed to take action for months, leaving the company free to recruit tens of thousands of new victims.

The Securities and Exchange Commission, which closed the operation Aug. 17, accused Burks in a civil complaint of fraud and selling unregistered securities. The Ponzi scheme was using money from new investors to pay the earlier ones.

Burks has agreed to pay a $4 million penalty and cooperate with a federal court-appointed receiver trying to recover hundreds of millions of dollars.

Investigators say Burks, a former nursing home magician, siphoned millions for his personal use. But he has not been charged with a crime.

In his first public comments, Burks told The Associated Press he couldn't discuss details because of lawsuits by victims trying to recoup money.

"Everything will come out in time," said Burks, 66, standing in the doorway of his home.

Asked if he had anything to say to victims, he shook his head.

"I never told anyone to invest more money than they could afford," Burks snapped. "I didn't tell them to do that. Never."

He said if they lost money, "it's their fault. Not mine. Don't blame me."

But Cal Cunningham, a former prosecutor representing investors in a lawsuit, slammed Burks â¿¿ and regulators for taking so long to act.

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