Another Sad Story of Affinity Fraud Within the LDS Community in Utah

Editor’s Note: I often write about the dangers of trusting people in your LDS ward or religious community who are pitching investments, but real stories are sometimes more effective. Below is a CLASSIC example of how members of the LDS Church are targeted for fraud.

This story was published in the Deseret News on Sep 16, 2020 by reporter  Dennis Romboy.


St. George man gets prison term for stealing from fellow Latter-day Saints in financial scam

SALT LAKE CITY — A St. George man who took advantage of a couple in his Latter-day Saint congregation in a financial scam is headed to federal prison.

Gregory Moats Sampson, 46, will spend two years behind bars after pleading guilty to wire fraud and money laundering.

U.S. District Judge David Nuffer enhanced the sentence because the scheme put substantial financial hardship on the couple. The judge also ordered Sampson to pay $250,000 in restitution and to serve three years probation after his prison sentence.

Sampson met the couple, identified in court documents as J.S. and K.S., in 2012 when he was their real estate agent. They had $250,000 to invest after selling a home in Australia. Sampson told them he had invested funds for others in the past and could help them, according to court documents.

J.S. and K.S. were not sophisticated investors and believed they could trust Sampson based on the relationship they had with them, prosecutors said. He told them they could earn $1 million in eight to 10 years and that they would receive stock in a company. He also told them that because they were friends, he would not charge them for their investment.

Instead of investing the money, Sampson spent it all within a month of receiving it, including $98,000 to pay off a personal loan, $82,000 to a company his brother owned, and $20,000 to a company that had nothing to do with the investment, according to court documents.

When the couple asked for a portfolio of their investment, Sampson did not provide one but regularly told them it was performing well.

The couple eventually confronted Sampson and demanded documentation or their money back.

According to court records, he told them: “And you know who gets screwed in the deal? You do … and it’s not to say that I’m trying to protect my own (expletive) because I’m not going anywhere, I promise you. If I need to disappear, I would have already been gone. I’ve got enough money that I can disappear if I need to. …”

Chris Parker, executive director of the Utah Department of Commerce, said affinity fraud continues to be a problem in Utah.

“Scammers will use any social connection available to gain your trust and take your money,” he said.

While federal fraud cases typically focus on losses in the million of dollars, scammers in smaller cases also face stiff penalties, said U.S. Attorney John Huber.

“There is no sweet spot in fraud loss where schemers can fly under the radar and get away with it,” he said. “Once again, we remind Utah investors to beware of the risks associated with big promises from purported friends and neighbors.”

Top Ten Ways to Avoid Losing Money in a Financial Scam – Tip #1

Investment fraud is a big issue here in Utah, largely due to our close-knit social and religious communities, which can be prime targets for “affinity fraud.”  “Affinity fraud” is a scam that is perpetrated by someone you trust. Scammers use relationships to build trust and legitimacy for their “pitch.” Those relationships can be with family members, neighbors, friends or — especially in Utah — members of your church community.   It is important to be aware of the potential for scams and aware of how to protect yourself against them. For example, rushing into an investment because you “trust” your neighbor or friend can lead you to set aside the type of scrutiny you would apply if a stranger was asking for your hard-earned money. 

That can be a dangerous mistake.  

There are concrete ways to mitigate the risk that you may face in this type of situation. To raise awareness and help people avoid the often life-altering financial losses associated with affinity fraud, I’ve created a list of the ten most important ways to avoid investing in a financial scam. The following tip is the first installment in this series:

Tip #1 — SLOW DOWN

Spotting scammers can be difficult, as they are often someone you know and trust. Do not send out personal information in response to an unexpected request, whether online or in person. 

Do not fall for claims of urgency in an investment opportunity. Slow down.  If its a legitimate opportunity it will be there tomorrow, and next week. Research the company online, ask lots of questions, search the for lawsuits and enforcement cases, review the legal and financial history of the individuals involved and, if possible, visit the company office. Ask the difficult questions before committing to anything.

In particular watch out for aggressive sales pitches and “deadlines” to invest. Many victims of fraud report that they were told the investment opportunity was a limited-time opportunity and that they needed to move quickly before someone else takes it. Scammers will often try to push you to invest before you have an opportunity to do your research. This should be a red flag.

Finally, retain a lawyer with expertise in financial investments at the outset to help you evaluate the proposed investment.

The bottom line: If an offer sounds too good to be true, it likely is. Don’t fall prey to high-pressure sales tactics or people demanding money immediately. When it comes to financial investments it is critical to slow down and take the time to do your due diligence! 

RQN Resources

This is the first tip in a ten-part series helping people protect themselves against scams and fraud. Ray Quinney and Nebeker has a team of experts that are well versed in this area of law. For more information and resources, contact Mark W. Pugsley at mpugsley@rqn.com.

Copyright © 2020 by Mark W. Pugsley.  All rights reserved.

Why Is Utah Home To So Many Ponzi Schemes?

EDITORS NOTE: this is a repost of a story that aired on our local NPR affiliate, KUER on December 30, 2019. Doug Hronek is a client of mine who agreed to speak publicly about this experience. We have filed lawsuit against Live Abundant and its agents on behalf of Doug and a number of other victims who lost millions due to bad advice they received from Live Abundant.

By SONJA HUTSON DEC 30, 2019

Doug Hronek first heard about Live Abundant while listening to the radio in his car. He said he ended up investing nearly $500,000 in a Ponzi scheme through Live Abundant.

Doug Hronek was driving home to Heber City through Provo Canyon about five years ago when he tuned his car radio to a conversation about unique investment opportunities. 

“I just started listening to it and thought, ‘Well, gosh I’m getting ready to retire — I need to figure out what to do with my retirement funds so I’ve got enough money to get through to end of life,’” Hronek, 62, said.

Hronek and his wife soon went to a seminar at a hotel in Provo, put on by that radio guest Doug Andrew and his financial planning firm Live Abundant. 

At that seminar in Provo, Hronek and his wife were presented with what he says were impressive brochures and a video sharing Andrew’s story and investment strategies. 

“The experience of losing a house in foreclosure was a defining moment for me as a financial strategist,” Andrew said in the video.

“Because it was his story, it came across as very sincere,” Hronek said. 

Ultimately persuaded to invest in a real estate company called Woodbridge, Hronek took out a mortgage on his house, which he and his wife had already paid off, and ended up investing about $500,000.

Two and a half years later, Woodbridge filed for bankruptcy and the Hroneks saw their investment disappear. 

“You get a pit in your stomach,” Hronek said. “Attorneys started looking at my documents and saying you don’t have anything here that’s going to provide you any way to recapture that money.”

The Securities and Exchange Commission has filed charges against Live Abundant related to the Woodbridge scheme, alleging they acted as unregistered brokers for unregistered securities. Live Abundant, which has denied those allegations in court papers, did not respond to a request for comment. 

Meanwhile, Hronek is not alone. Utah has the highest rate of Ponzi schemes per capita in the United States, more than twice the rate of Florida, the next highest state, according to an analysis by a Salt Lake City investment fraud attorney. The analysis also showed that Utah investors have lost around $1.5 billion to Ponzi schemes over the past 10 years. 

To help victims of Ponzi schemes, Utah Congressman Ben McAdams has introduced a bipartisan bill that would give more power to federal investigators seeking to recoup their financial losses. 

“In Utah we are quick to trust, we are quick to see the best in others and to extend a hand of friendship,” McAdams said. “It is that attribute that I love about living in Utah. It’s that very attribute that they are preying upon.”

Trust Is A Double Edged-Sword

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints fosters a trusting culture in its members, who make up almost two thirds of the state’s population, according to Dixie State Sociology Professor Bob Oxley. That has a lot to do with the importance placed on supporting others in the community and with the system of tithing. 

“So that’s all built into that value system whereby I’m contributing a certain percentage of my income to the Church which they’ll make their determination to distribute that to other people that are less fortunate than I am,” Oxley said. “And also with the understanding that if I need in the future, I can always depend on the church to be there for me.”

Trust can hurt investors financially by leaving you vulnerable to Ponzi schemes and other forms of investment fraud. But, that same attribute can lead to success in business. 

Shaun Hansen, a business professor at Weber State University, said trust is one of the driving factors of economic growth. 

“When you deem the person trustworthy, you’re willing to take risks with that person,” Hansen said. “In other words, engage in business with them.”

Utah Effort to Help Fraud Victims

McAdams’ bill, which passed the House overwhelmingly last month, would extend the statute of limitations for federal regulators to recover victims’ money from five to 14 years.

But critics say the bill would drag out already lengthy investigations by removing an incentive to move quickly. But McAdams argues it often takes a long time for Ponzi schemes to collapse, and the current statute of limitations leaves out a lot of early investors in these companies.

To date, Hronek has gotten back about $20,000 of his nearly $500,000, he said. But he doesn’t expect any more beyond that. The experience has left him less trusting, yet he still thinks trust can be valuable. 

“If I had something to say about it and do it over, I would say trust, but verify,” Hronek said.

Discussion of Investment Fraud in Utah on KSL’s Sunday Edition with Doug Wright

Editor’s note: I was interviewed on KSL’s Sunday Edition with Doug Wright last week. The discussion about Ponzi Schemes and affinity fraud in Utah happens at 8:18. I appreciate KSL Television’s willingness to engage in a frank discussion about why affinity fraud is a particularly vexing problem here in Utah, and to help get the word out on how to prevent these scams.

Finally It’s Confirmed: Utah Has More Ponzi Schemes Per Capita Than Any State in the Country. By Far.

I frequently speak to groups about investment fraud and one of the questions I often get asked is whether it’s true that Utah has the highest rate of Ponzi schemes and affinity fraud in the country.

In the past I haven’t been able to say for sure.  There aren’t any good studies that have reached that conclusion, and so I have to just rely on anecdotal evidence. 

Well, now we have proof.  Jordan Maglich, who runs the website PonziTracker.com, just released an epic ten-year survey of Ponzi schemes in the United States.  He found that there were over 800 Ponzi schemes reported publicly from 2008-2018 and that they collectively caused a jaw-dropping $60 billion in financial destruction.  I believe this is the first database compiling publicly-reported Ponzi schemes and sentences during the “Madoff Era.”

And the survey contains very bad news for Utahns.  Utah had the sixth-highest number of Ponzi schemes despite ranking 31st in population.  So when I ran a per-capita analysis of the numbers Jordan reported it turns out that Utah has the highest rate of Ponzi schemes per capita in the country by far, at 1.35 Ponzi schemes per 100,000 people.  And the next highest state (Florida) is nearly two thirds lower at .51 per 100,000 people.  (Chart)

If you take out the massive Madoff Ponzi scheme in New York ($17 billion), Utah also has the highest loss per capita of $502 per person – which is more than double the next highest state! 

Overall, Utah investors lost over $1.5 billion to these schemes in the last ten years.  And that number does not include other affinity frauds and other investment scams which undoubtedly account for another $500 million in losses to Utah residents over the last ten years (at least). 

How would $2 billion benefit our economy?  What is the collateral impact of these scams?  Here are a few thoughts:

  • Millions in state and federal resources are consumed by the victims of fraud who no longer have means to support themselves in retirement, including paying their medical bills and other living costs.
  • The families of fraud victims often have to step in to house and support their parents or children who have been wiped out financially.
  • Banks, investment advisors and stock brokers lose significant revenue when people liquidate their IRAs and 401K to invest with some unlicensed scammer.

The list goes on… 

Why is Utah’s problem so much worse than any other state?

This is a complicated problem, and there is no clear answer.  But after helping people recover losses from investment fraud for 25 years my view is that people in Utah are simply too trusting, particularly when the person soliciting an investment is in their ward or shares their religious affiliation.

If someone pitching you an investment casually mentions that they used to be the bishop or in some other church position, watch out!  Church callings and temple worthiness are not relevant to investment decisions, so beware of those who bring these issues up in an investment pitch.

Also, it may seem like doing business with someone you know and trust would be safer, but that is simply not true.  All investing involves risk, and just because you trust the individual soliciting the investment does not mean that the investment itself is good.  Trust but verify; and if things go badly do not hesitate to aggressively protect your interests.

Finally, investment decisions should never be made based on feelings.  Just because it feels legitimate, or feels like a good idea does not make it so. 

Here are a few things you can do to avoid getting scammed:

Do your homework.  Run a simple Google search on the company and its managers, or the individual pitching the investment.  You might be surprised by what you find. 

Hire an attorney. An experienced lawyer can help you perform due diligence into the company and individuals offering a private investment.  You need to carefully evaluate the risks and determine whether the offering complies with state and federal statutes.  It is far cheaper to hire an attorney on the front end of an investment like this – when your money is gone it gets very expensive. 

Get it in writing.  I am amazed how often people will give hundreds of thousands of dollars to someone on nothing more than a handshake.  The terms of your deal should always be put in writing, and those terms should be reviewed by the competent attorney you hired. 

Read the Paperwork.  Investors in a private investment opportunity should receive a detailed lengthy disclosure document called a private placement memorandum (PPM).  Take the time to review it before you invest.  Like a prospectus, a PPM contains detailed information about all aspects of the business including the business model, financial history, risk factors, biographical information on the managers, and the terms and conditions of the private investment, among other things.  If you don’t understand these things, hire a professional who does.

Work through licensed stock brokers or investment advisors. Even private (unregistered) investments generally need to be sold by licensed stock brokers.  Every investor should look at the employment and disciplinary history of their broker or investment adviser, which is available on FINRA’s BrokerCheck website

And most importantly, if it sounds too good to be true it probably is. If you are thinking about putting money into an alternative, unregistered, or unusual investment that promises abnormally high returns (like anything higher than 10 to 15% per year), watch out.  And if someone promises you a “guaranteed” return on any investment that ought to be a red flag — investments are rarely guaranteed and investments that offer unusually high returns are more risky, not less. 

State Population Schemes Schemes per 100,000 people Total Losses Losses per capita
Utah 3,101,833 42 1.35 $1,558,325,000 $502.39
Florida 20,984,400 107 0.51 $5,893,496,000 $280.85
New York* 19,849,399 90 0.45 $21,707,050,000 $1,093.59
Illinois 12,802,023 53 0.41 $523,400,000 $40.88
Calif 39,536,653 151 0.38 $3,889,700,000 $98.38
Texas 28,304,596 76 0.27 $8,372,900,000 $295.81
*New York (without Madoff) 19,849,399 89 0.45 $4,307,050,000 $216.99

NOTE: The per capita analysis in this table is mine.  The underlying data comes from this website:  Ten Years After Madoff, Updated Ponzi Database Shows Schemes Are Thriving

Copyright © 2019 by Mark W. Pugsley. All rights reserved.

BREAKING: Vescor Ponzi Mastermind Val Southwick Has Been Paroled

Val Southwick, who was convicted of defrauding more than $140 million from hundreds of Utah residents, was quietly paroled last month after serving just ten years, according to KSL News. He pleaded guilty to nine counts of securities fraud, each second-degree felonies, and was sentenced to serve anywhere from 9 to 135 years in Utah State Prison.

Apparently he was a model prisoner.

Mr. Southwick’s case was somewhat infamous in this state because at the time it was the largest Ponzi scheme in Utah history, and because he was so blatant in his use of his LDS faith to convince others to invest.

In its summary of the case the Utah Division of Securities alleged that Southwick “emphasized his membership and ecclesiastical roles in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints during solicitation of meetings with investors.”

“Southwick showed his LDS temple recommend, or mentioned its existence, to several investors, and his office contains LDS ‘memorabilia,’ all of which appeared designed to breed a sense of trust between Southwick and investors.” Investigators said Southwick touted himself as a “respectable LDS gentleman, who was more concerned about the consequences of the after-life than those in this life if he lied to investors.”

The receivership case was finally closed in 2011.

Stay tuned for more information.

More Legal Trouble for Zane Jeppeson

This is actually the third post I have written about a guy named Zane Jeppeson of Garland, Utah. My prior posts can be found here and here. Today’s update comes to us courtesy of The Leader out of Tremonton, Utah. Apparently Mr. Jeppeson is having a hard time getting his restitution paid and may go back to jail. Kudos to Judge Royal Hansen for keeping his feet to the fire.

Jeppesen granted more time to pay restitution

By Cari Doutre Leader County Editor Feb 13, 2019

Garland resident Zane Jeppesen has been given more time by a judge to pay restitution to victims in the amount of $488,830, extending his time to March 14, 2019. Jeppesen appeared before Third District Court Judge Royal Hansen on Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019, for an evidentiary hearing on one count of pattern of unlawful activity, a second degree felony.

On April 4, 2016, Jeppesen was charged with 11 counts of securities fraud, two counts of theft and one count of pattern of unlawful activity, all second-degree felonies. On July 7, 2017, Jeppesen entered into a plea deal with the state and plead guilty to one count of pattern of unlawful activity and the remaining charges were dismissed.

On Dec. 8, 2017, Jeppesen was sentenced to one to 15 years in the Utah State Prison but the term was suspended. Instead, he was sentenced to 30 days in jail, which he served. Jeppesen was also ordered by the judge to pay restitution to the investors in the previously mentioned cases in the amount of $488,830 within six months of his release, which would have been June 2018.

Jeppesen failed to make a court appearance on Sept. 28, 2018, an order to show cause. On Oct. 1, 2018, on an outstanding bench warrant issued by Third District Court in Salt Lake City. Jeppesen arrested and taken into custody in Box Elder County but was released later that day on a $25,000 cash only bail.

According to a probable cause document, from 2010 to 2014 Jeppesen raised approximately $555,000 from at least four investors and issued promissory notes to those investors. Jeppesen sold promissory notes on land in Saratoga Springs and Payson with the promise that the land was worth value and offered a promissory note and trust deed as security for the real estate development.

Court documents show that Jeppesen failed to tell these investors that he filed for bankruptcy in 2005 and was unable to pay back prior investors. The money from investors was spent on “Ponzi like payments to other investors” as well as transfers to family members, credit card payments, transfers to other bank accounts, electronic stores and bank fees.

The probable cause statement added that Jeppesen has never held a securities license and that Jeppesen’s company, Jeppesen Land and Property, has never been licensed or registered with the Utah Division of Securities.

Documents state that Jeppesen, in connection with the offer of sale of security, directly or indirectly, and made untrue statements or omitted facts in an act, practice or course of business which operated or would operate as fraud or deceit in violation of Utah state laws. The theft charges stem from Jeppesen’s allegedly obtaining or exercised unauthorized control over the property of another with a purpose to deprive them thereof.

This isn’t the first time Jeppesen has been charged with securities fraud. According to court documents Jeppesen was employed through Beverly Hills Development Corporation, a real estate development enterprise ran by Michael J. Fitzgerald of Utah County, from April 1998 to May 2004. In that time Jeppesen obtained a total of 134 Utah investors, many in Box Elder County, and raised approximately $8 million for Beverly Hills Development. During that time he was paid $986,563 in compensation from the company for his work raising investment funds.

There were at least 100 investors from Box Elder County, many of which from Tremonton and Garland that invested with Jeppesen before 2005. Investments ranged from as little as $380 to as much as $467,000.

In June 2018, the Utah Division of Securities of the Department of Commerce filed three different reports against Jeppesen, a Stipulation and Consent Order, an Order of Adjudication and a Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law and Recommended Order, all highlighting Jeppesen’s pattern of securities fraud from six different investors starting in 2010 while adding two other incidents that left many Box Elder County residents out of millions of dollars.

According to these documents, the Division determined that Jeppesen, with Jeppesen Land and Properties, are subject to a $300,000 fine. In the stipulation and consent order, it states that JLP is a business entity that was incorporated in Feb. 2011, and is currently an active entity registered with the Utah Division of Corporations with LaDene M. Jeppesen, 92, (Jeppesen’s mother), listed as the registered agent and manager. Jeppesen Land and Properties has never been registered with the Division as an issuer of securities and found no records showing securities registration, exemption from registration or notice filing in any manner for JLP, according to these documents.

If he fails to make the payments to investors he may be sentenced to addition time in jail and/or prison. It has not been stated in court records if Jeppesen has made any restitution to victims.

Top Ten Ways To Avoid Losing Money In A Financial Scam*

130911175808-financial-scam-620xaEvery week Utah residents lose money by investing with friends, family or neighbors – people they knew and trusted. Investment fraud is a big problem here in Utah, largely because our close-knit communities are a prime target for “affinity fraud.”  Our state has a long history of financial scams and Ponzi schemes, many of which have been perpetrated by members of the LDS church on members of their ward or stake.  It’s heartbreaking.

I have seen people who borrowed money against their homes or liquidated retirement accounts in order to fund risky investments based on pitch by someone they trusted.  Unfortunately by the time they call me, the money is long gone – and so is the person who took the money. Because I specialize in helping people recover losses in investment fraud cases I often get asked for advice on how to avoid needing me.  So, at the risk of all my work drying up, here is my TOP TEN ways to avoid investing in a financial scam:

10. Slow down.  According to the Insider Monkey blog, many people invest after only hearing the pitch; watch out for promoters who try to commit you on the spot.  Don’t do it!  Take your time, do your research, ask lots of questions, search the internet, review their financials, visit the company, kick the tires before you buy.  Be very wary of aggressive sales pitches and deadlines.  Ask the hard questions before you hand over your money, not after.

9.  Do your homework.  Run a simple Google search on the company and its managers, or the individual.  If it involves a company, ask for a private placement memorandum and company financials.  Hire an attorney to evaluate the investment and help you perform due diligence.  Attorneys have access to court databases to look for lawsuits and bankruptcies.  Contact federal and state securities regulators see if actions have previously been taken against the company or individuals involved.

8. Hire an attorney.  Attorneys can be expensive, but it is much cheaper to hire an attorney to document the transaction properly on the front end than to sue the bad guys when it all blows up.  A good lawyer can help you perform due diligence on the company and individuals, and can determine whether the investment is properly structured as a private offering and complies with state and federal statutes.  Your lawyer can review the offering materials and help you understand what the risks are.  Hiring a good attorney up front is an investment in your investment.

7.  Get it in writing.  I am amazed how often people will give hundreds of thousands of dollars to someone on nothing more than a handshake.  Don’t do it!  If things go bad later, proper documentation will be critical to me in my efforts to get your money back.  The terms of your deal should always be put in writing, and those terms should be reviewed by the competent attorney you hired.  (See number 8.) In any private investment opportunity you should receive a detailed lengthy disclosure document called a private placement memorandum (PPM).  Take the time to review it before you invest.  It contains detailed information about all aspects of the business including the business model, financial history, risk factors, biographical information on the managers, civil lawsuits, and the terms and conditions of the investment, among other things.  If the company soliciting your money has not prepared a PPM, that should be the end of your discussions with them.

6.  Beware of guarantees.  If anyone tells you that your investment is “guaranteed” that should cause some you concern.  All investments carry risk, and personal guarantees (especially oral ones) are rarely a means to get your money back. Even if you are approached to loan money and get a promissory note that is usually still considered to be an investment, and such loans can be very risky if not properly secured.  If you are told that the loan or investment is “secured” hire an attorney to document the security interest and verify the collateral.  (See Number 8.)

5.  Beware of secret trading strategies, offshore investments, commodity or currency (FOREX) trading, futures, options and minerals.  This could be an article all by itself.  Generally, avoid anyone who credits a highly complex or secretive investing technique or touts unusual success.  Legitimate professionals should be able to explain clearly what they are doing and how they make money.  And if the individual is really making as much money with their strategy as they say they are, they shouldn’t need yours.  These types of “alternative” investments nearly always involve extremely high risk, despite what you are told.

4.  Work through licensed stock brokers or investment advisors.  Even when investing in a private (unregistered) opportunity ask whether the promoter is licensed to sell you the investment, which regulator issued that license and whether the license has ever been revoked or suspended.  A legitimate securities salesperson must be properly licensed under most circumstances.  If you have any questions contact the Utah Division of Securities at (801) 530-6600.

3.  Don’t invest with friends and neighbors.  It may seem like doing business with someone you know and trust would be safer, but that is simply not true.  All investing involves risk, and just because you trust the individual soliciting the investment does not mean that the investment itself is good.  Trust but verify; and if things go badly do not hesitate to aggressively protect your interests.

2.  Keep church out of investing.  If someone pitching you an investment casually mentions that they used to be the bishop or in some other church position, watch out!  Church callings and temple worthiness are not relevant to investment decisions, so beware of those who bring these issues up in an investment pitch.

1.  If it sounds too good to be true it probably is.  If you are thinking about putting money into an alternative, unregistered, or unregulated investment that promises abnormally high returns, watch out.  The fact that others may have been getting their promised returns does not mean you will.  All Ponzi Schemes eventually implode, and you may be left holding the bag.

Note:  I wrote this article for The Enterprise  and it was published in their July 2014 issue.  Because their content is only available to subscribers I am posting it here.

Copyright 2014 by Mark W. Pugsley.  All rights reserved.


*This article is intended to address private investments, not those made through a licensed stock broker or registered investment advisor.

Rust Rare Coin: An Analysis of Utah’s Latest Massive Ponzi Scheme

Imagine waking up one day and discovering that all of your retirement savings were gone; all the money you had been working to save had evaporated in a poof.

That’s what happened to over 200 people on November 15th.  They had invested in a “Silver Pool” investment promoted by Gaylen Rust who claimed he had inside information about the silver market and told investors he was consistently making returns of 25 to 40% per year.  He claimed that investor money would be used to purchase and store silver bars, and that he had never lost money in his trading.

Photo by Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune

People bought into this Silver Pool investment and recommended it to their family and friends.  And after watching their investment increase (on paper) many “doubled down” and put all of their retirement money with him.

After all, Rust was an active, respected member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and a generous promoter of music education in the schools.  What could go wrong?

Well, as it turns out plenty.

On November 13, 2018 the Commodities Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) and the Utah Division of Securities jointly filed a lawsuit against Gaylen Rust and his company Rust Rare Coin, Inc.  The SEC filed a similar lawsuit a few days later.  The filing of simultaneous, obviously coordinated lawsuits by three different securities regulators is quite rare in this state, and is indicative of the size and seriousness of the case.

The state and federal regulators have alleged that Gaylen Rust has been “engaged in a massive scheme to defraud” and has been running a Ponzi scheme since 2008.  He raised over $200 million from investors in the last 5 years alone, and now it’s gone.

If true, this will be one of the largest Ponzi schemes in Utah history.

I have been getting calls from investors, regulators and former Rust employees over the last few weeks and almost all of them are stunned by this news.  Gaylen Rust and his father Alvin have maintained a good reputation in the rare coin and precious metals industry in Utah for many years.  Alvin Rust was an avid coin collector and started Rust Rare Coin in 1966 as a way to combine his hobby with his livelihood.  Rust Rare Coin was known as a reputable place to purchase gold and silver coins, even after Alvin got caught up in some ill-fated deals with Mark Hoffman years ago.

According to the allegations in the CFTC Complaint, Rust and his company began promoting a “Silver Pool” in 2008 as a way for people to invest in the silver market, which Rust probably seemed to understand quite well:

“[Rust] told investors and prospective investors that they would sell silver held in the pool as market prices rose and buy silver for the pool as market prices fell; thereby increasing the amount of silver held in the Silver Pool, as well as the value of each investor’s share in that pool.  [Rust] told investors and prospective investors in the Silver Pool that by trading silver in this manner, they generated extraordinarily high returns, averaging twenty to twenty-five percent per year and sometimes as high as forty percent per year or more.”

Consistent returns of 25% to 40% per year??  A simple Google search would have shown that trading commodities is extremely risky.  How did he achieve such consistent profitability? The simple answer is that he didn’t.   Potential investors should have been skeptical of those consistently high returns, but most trusted him and did not attempt to verify the claims Gaylen Rust was making.  My opinion is that if any investment claims to achieve returns of 15% or more per year you should be extremely careful.

Shockingly, Rust didn’t provide investors with any paperwork setting forth the terms of the investment, he didn’t formally disclose his financials, and he didn’t provide any risk disclosures.  All of those should have been huge red flags to any investor.

Once he had their money, Rust sent out “account statements” via email showing impressive (but unfortunately fake) returns on their investments. Rust purportedly claimed that he had as much as $80 million dollars of silver bars stored at Brink’s depositories in Salt Lake City and Los Angeles, and that this reserves would permit investors to liquidate their investments at any time.

How much silver is that?  One source told me that $80 million in silver would fill five semi-trucks.  That’s a lot of silver, but unfortunately Brinks depositories aren’t big enough to hold that much silver. Not good.

According to the CFTC complaint, Rust did not use investor money to purchase silver or silver contracts for the Silver Pool as he had represented.  Instead, investor’s retirement money went to make payments to other investors, to fund other affiliated Rust Companies, and to pay personal expenses for the Rust family.

Rust never even had a commodities trading account at HSBC Bank, and was never licensed as a broker or commodities trader.

It was all a big scam.

The Prospects for Recovery

One of the first questions I invariably get from victims in a case such as this is: “What are the chances of recovering of my retirement losses?”

Unfortunately, they are not great in this case, as in most Ponzi scheme cases.  It is exceedingly rare to recover all of your losses from a Ponzi scheme.

The CFTC case (which is the main case) has been assigned to United States District Judge Tena Campbell who is a highly respected jurist here in Utah.  Based on the CFTC’s motion Judge Campbell has selected Jonathan Hafen to serve as the receiver in this case and he will work under the direction of the Court along with several lawyers in his firm, including Joe Covey who will be lead litigation counsel.

Because I am not involved in that aspect of the case and only have access to the public filings I cannot predict how much money will ultimately be recovered. Mr. Hafen has stated in open court that there are no significant assets to recover, which is not a good sign.

Mr. Hafen’s job will be to gather assets from any sources he can, and then to distribute those assets in an equitable manner to the victims.  You can learn more about how an SEC receivership works here.  The latest filings and information about the case can be found on the Receiver’s website: https://rustrarecoinreceiver.com/.

Unfortunately, one of his primary tasks will be to file clawback lawsuits against investors who got their money out before the whole scheme collapsed.  So if you are one of the lucky investors who got out you should expect a demand letter from the receiver within a year. It’s a good idea to hire an attorney to handle that clawback case; preferably one who understands the process.

Complex receiverships such as this are extremely expensive and can stay open for years, depending on how long to takes to pull together and then distribute all of the assets. The Vescor case involving Val Southwick took ten years to complete, which led understandable criticism of the receivership process.

The only winners in this process are the lawyers.

How To Avoid Getting Scammed

This is a tragic story that is repeated over and over in our state, and most of these scams take advantage (intentionally or not) of the relationships of trust that members of the LDS Church have with one another.  This is commonly called “affinity fraud.”  Our state has a long history of financial scams and Ponzi schemes, many of which have been perpetrated by members of the LDS church on members of their ward or stake.  It’s heartbreaking to say, but Utah has one of the highest rates of fraud per capita of any state in the country.

I specialize in helping people recover losses from investment fraud, but by the time people call me the money is usually long gone – and so is the person who took the money.  So here are a few tips to avoid getting sucked into an investment scam:

  1. Slow down. Take your time, do your research, ask lots of questions, search the internet, review their financials, visit the company, kick the tires before you buy.  Be very wary of aggressive sales pitches and deadlines.  Ask the hard questions before you hand over your money, not after.
  2. Do your homework. Run a simple Google search on the company and its managers, or the individual.  If it involves a company, ask for a private placement memorandum and company financials.  Contact federal and state securities regulators see if actions have previously been taken against the company or individuals involved.  The local office of the SEC can be reached at 801-524-5796, or you can call the Utah Division of Securities at (801) 530-6600.
  3. Hire an attorney. Attorneys can be expensive, but it is much cheaper to hire an attorney to document the transaction properly on the front end than to sue the bad guys when it all blows up.  A good lawyer can help you perform due diligence on the company and individuals, and can determine whether the investment is properly structured as a private offering and complies with state and federal statutes.
  4. Get it in writing. I am amazed how often people will give hundreds of thousands of dollars to someone on nothing more than a handshake.  The terms of your deal should always be put in writing, and those terms should be reviewed by the competent attorney you hired.
  5. Beware of guarantees. If anyone tells you that your investment is “guaranteed” that should be a red flag.  All investments carry risk, and personal guarantees (especially oral ones) are rarely a means to get your money back.
  6. Beware of secret trading strategies, offshore investments, commodity or currency (FOREX) trading, futures, options and minerals. Avoid investing with anyone who claims to have a secretive investing algorithm or touts unusual success.  These types of investments nearly always involve extremely high risk, despite what you may be told.
  7. Work through licensed stock brokers or investment advisors. Even when investing in a private (unregistered) opportunity ask whether the promoter is licensed to sell securities, which is required under most circumstances.  Run their name through FINRA’s Broker Check
  8. Don’t invest with friends and neighbors. It may seem like doing business with someone you know and trust would be safer, but that is simply not true.  All investing involves risk, and just because you trust the individual soliciting the investment does not mean that the investment itself is good.  Trust but verify; and if things go badly do not hesitate to aggressively protect your interests.
  9. Keep church out of it. If someone pitching you an investment casually mentions that they used to be the bishop or in some other church position, watch out!  Church activity or high callings are not relevant to investment decisions, and if anyone mentions their church position as part of an investment pitch warning bells should be going off.
  10. If it sounds too good to be true it probably is. If you are thinking about putting money into an alternative, unregistered, or unregulated investment that promises abnormally high returns, watch out.

Copyright © 2018 by Mark W. Pugsley.  All rights reserved.

Another Former LDS Stake President Indicted for Affinity Fraud

On Wednesday September 6, 2018 the US Department of Justice announced the indictment of Robert G. Mouritsen of Kaysville, Utah on three counts of wire fraud and three counts of money laundering.

The DOJ alleged that Mouritsen used a “position of prominence” to induce friends and fellow church members to give him money to further a fraud scheme he called “The Project” which targeted his fellow church members and was ongoing at the time the Indictment was filed.  Luckily he only managed to raise $1.5 million before the feds shut him down.

The “position of prominence” the DOJ is referring to is the fact that Mouritsen was a stake president of the Kaysville Utah Crestwood Stake of the Mormon Church from 1989 to 1997.   He also wrote a book called “Mantle: Windy Day in August, at Nauvoo, When the Mantle of the Prophet Joseph Smith Fell on Brigham Young Hardcover” (available on Amazon!).

Kaysville, Utah is predominantly LDS community 20 miles north of Salt Lake City.  He allegedly began the scheme just a few years after he was released as the stake president.

Mouritsen told prospective investors that The Project “involved a series of complicated international transactions” that “involved governments in Asia and Europe and required the help of attorneys and bankers.”  He also purportedly told investors that this investment opportunity had to be kept “strictly confidential” so he could not disclose many of the details.  Right.

And of course he promised that the investment would produce very high returns.  Secrecy, unusually high returns and urgency are all significant red flags that should have caused investors to forego this investment opportunity, but unfortunately some folks fell for it.  If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Predictably, Mouritsen neglected to tell investors that The Project had failed to produce any returns in over a decade and that he used a significant portion of investor money for his own personal use and benefit.

Affinity Fraud in Utah

Affinity fraud is particularly prevalent among members of the LDS Church.  The primary reason for this, in my opinion, is because church members tend to have a high level of trust in fellow church members, and that invites unscrupulous people to take advantage of that trust.

The thought process is that since Brother So-and-so is/was a bishop, stake president, elders quorum president, etc., he was called by revelation and therefore is a worthy priesthood holder in the eyes of God.  Sure, the investment sounds too good to be true, but since he was a great church leader it must be legit!  In Utah affinity fraud schemes are nearly always targeted at people who are in same ward or stake – a place where his current or former church service is well-known.

I have written about affinity fraud schemes targeting members of the Mormon Church for years, including here, here, here, here and here (among others).

This is a big problem in our community and I have repeatedly called on leaders of the LDS Church to be more proactive in warning church members that they need to carefully evaluate investment opportunities on their merits, regardless of who is pitching them.

How To Avoid Affinity Fraud

Investing always involves some degree of risk, but investors can mitigate these risks by carefully investigating investment opportunities. The Securities and Exchange Commission recommends the following steps to avoid getting caught up in an affinity fraud scheme:

  • Check out everything – no matter how trustworthy the person seems who brings the investment opportunity to your attention. Never make an investment based solely on the recommendation of a member of an organization or religious or ethnic group to which you belong. Investigate the investment thoroughly and check the truth of every statement you are told about the investment. Be aware that the person telling you about the investment may have been fooled into believing that the investment is legitimate when it is not.
  • Do not fall for investments that promise spectacular profits or “guaranteed” returns. If an investment seems too good to be true, then it probably is. Similarly, be extremely leery of any investment that is said to have no risks; very few investments are risk-free. The greater the potential return from an investment, the greater your risk of losing money. Promises of fast and high profits, with little or no risk, are classic warning signs of fraud.
  • Be skeptical of any investment opportunity that is not in writing. Fraudsters often avoid putting things in writing, but legitimate investments are usually in writing. Avoid an investment if you are told they do “not have the time to reduce to writing” the particulars about the investment. You should also be suspicious if you are told to keep the investment opportunity confidential.
  • Don’t be pressured or rushed into buying an investment before you have a chance to think about – or investigate – the “opportunity.” Just because someone you know made money, or claims to have made money, doesn’t mean you will, too. Be especially skeptical of investments that are pitched as “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunities, particularly when the promoter bases the recommendation on “inside” or confidential information.
  • Fraudsters are increasingly using the Internet to target particular groups through e-mail spams. If you receive an unsolicited e-mail from someone you don’t know, containing a “can’t miss” investment, your best move is to pass up the “opportunity” and forward the spam to the SEC at enforcement@sec.gov.

If you are a victim of this scam or know more details about Mr. Mouritsen please feel free to share your story in the comments below.  Anonymous comments are welcomed.

Copyright © 2018 by Mark Pugsley.  All rights reserved.