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.
Editor’s Note: This is an interview I did yesterday for the “Trib Talk” podcast from the The Salt Lake Tribune .
The sentencing of convicted fraudster Rick Koerber was delayed — again — this week, adding another chapter to a 10-year legal saga for one of Utah’s most notable Ponzi schemes.
But while the Koerber case is unique for its circuitous route to justice, Koerber’s underlying crimes and use of religion to target victims, are relatively common in The Beehive State, according to national statistics and the experience of local attorneys.
On this week’s episode of “Trib Talk” Tribune legal affairs reporter Jessica Miller and Salt Lake City attorney Mark Pugsley join Benjamin Wood to discuss Utah’s high rate of Ponzi schemes and why the state’s residents are particularly vulnerable to affinity fraud.
Recently I have been busy working to recover losses for a large number of investors who lost money in unregistered investments offered by Woodbridge and Future Income Payments or FIP. In many cases these investments were recommended by insurance agents who were not licensed to sell securities, and did not perform adequate due-diligence on these companies before they made the recommendation.
FIP offered pensioners upfront, lump-sum payments in return for a portion of their monthly pension payments over a specific term, often three to five years. FIP then used these pension payments to fund a monthly income stream back to the investors who put up the money for the lump-sum payments. In July of 2018 Scott Kohn, the 64-year-old felon who started the company, closed the doors and disappeared leaving investors with more than $100 million in losses.
Subsequently the SEC filed charges against thirteen individuals and ten companies who recommended and sold Woodbridge, including Utah-based Aaron Andrew and Live Abundant. Live Abundant and its agents were not licensed to sell securities, and yet they recommended both FIP and Woodbridge to hundreds of people here in Utah and throughout the western United States. Our lawsuits against Live Abundant and the individuals and entities who perpetrated this scheme are ongoing.
The common link between these two fraud schemes is that investments in FIP and Woodbridge were not registered with the SEC. These are sometimes referred to as private placements or unregistered offerings. Generally, a company may not offer or sell securities in the United States unless the offering has been registered with the SEC or an exemption from registration is available. For more information about exempt offerings I recommend you look at this article on the SEC’s website.
Below is a repost of an article from Investment News that highlights some of the challenges for individual investors from these investments, and for the firms that offer them.
Sales of Unregistered Securities are a Growing Problem That’s Harming Investors — and the Industry
By Bruce Kelly
To an investor, Castleberry Financial Services Group’s promise of up to a 12.2% annual yield on the alternative investment fund it was selling might have seemed awfully tempting. So might the assurance that your principal would be insured and bonded by well-known insurance companies CNA Financial Corp. and Chubb Group.
In promotional materials, Castleberry claimed to have invested almost $800 million in local South Florida companies and to have a portfolio of real estate holdings that was generating $2.8 million in rental income annually.
But in late February, the Securities and Exchange Commission went into court to shut the company down, claiming it was all a fraud, including the involvement of CNA and Chubb.
Before the SEC acted, though, it said that Castleberry had managed to raise $3.6 million from investors, some of which was used to pay the personal expenses of its principals. Other funds were transferred to family members or other businesses the principals controlled, according to the SEC.
By all indications, the marketplace for all types of private, unregistered securities, including private placements sold to wealthy investors and institutions, is thriving. But what’s growing alongside this legitimate, if risky, market is a seedy side of the financial advice industry. Investment funds promising above-market returns that employ networks of brokers, former brokers, insurance agents or others lurking on the fringes of the industry to sell their investments are taking advantage of unsuspecting investors.
Add in the ability to offer private securities over the internet and solicit clients via social media, and unregistered, private securities being sold to less-than-wealthy investors, many of them senior citizens, are becoming increasingly dangerous. Fraudulent securities are damaging the reputation of the legitimate financial advice industry, and the industry itself might serve as the best solution to safeguarding the investing public.
“I’m seeing more of it: the spike in the sale of nontraditional investments,” said David Chase, a former SEC staff attorney who’s now in private practice and based in South Florida.
The proliferation of potentially fraudulent schemes comes at a time when the sale of legitimate private securities, which are exempt from having to be registered if they meet certain SEC guidelines, has taken off. While the annual amount of public stock offerings has remained relatively steady over the past decade, the sale of new private stock offerings has soared.
The most popular of these, known as Regulation D offerings, have more than doubled, from 18,295 in 2009 to 37,785 in 2017. Those deals, along with other types of private offerings, raised a total of $3 trillion in 2017.
Brokers and advisers can sell private, unregistered shares to only the wealthiest clients; investors need a net worth of $1 million or an annual individual income of $200,000 to buy in. But the public disclosure is negligible, making the securities opaque, some sources said, and that is hazardous.
The game plan of the fraudulent unregistered securities schemes currently roiling the investment advice market is simple. An investment manager claims to have an alternative investment to the stock market that beats the return on bonds or bank deposits. The investments are heavily marketed with investment seminars, dinners, and ads on radio and in local newspapers.
James Park, securities professor at UCLA, said the internet is giving the promoters one more outlet to sell their fraudulent investments.
“It’s now possible to get investors from everywhere,” he said. “In the old days, brokers would have to call up people to convince them to invest or put on a road show. Now it’s normalized with online platforms.”
In one of the largest recent cases, the SEC said the owners of Woodbridge Securities raised $1.2 billion over a five-year period by claiming they were selling loans to real estate developers.Source: North American Securities Administrators Association
Promising returns of 10%, the scheme reeled in 8,400 investors, many of them senior citizens, with the help of a network made up mostly of insurance agents and former stock brokers, according to the regulator. Woodbridge’s owners kept the scam going, the SEC said, by using money from new investors to pay off old investors — a classic Ponzi scheme.
Without admitting or denying the allegations, Woodbridge and its former CEO Robert Shapiro settled with the SEC for $1 billion in disgorgement and fines. Ryan O’Quinn, a lawyer for Mr. Shapiro, did not return a call seeking comment.
Beyond FINRA’s reach
One of the reasons these cons take time to detect is because the agents selling them mostly work outside the supervision of licensed broker-dealers, who are under the purview of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority Inc. This gives the fraud ample time to flower before the SEC or a state regulator gets a complaint from an investor, investigates and shuts it down.
“The largest Ponzi schemes in general are those that have tapped into a very successful and productive line of independent sales agents who typically have long-standing relationships with clients,” Mr. Chase said. “They sell the deal, and clients get defrauded.”
The SEC did a better job of shutting down what it said was a fraud in the case of Castleberry Financial Services Group after only a year in business. In February, the SEC was granted a temporary restraining order and temporary asset freeze against Castleberry and its principals.
Among other allegations, the SEC said the firm’s president, T. Jonathon Turner, formerly known as Jon Barri Brothers, had falsely claimed to have had extensive finance industry experience, an MBA degree and a law degree, while concealing that he had served 18 years in prison for multiple fraud, theft and forgery felonies.
Attorneys for Castleberry Financial and its executives did not return calls seeking comment.
In 2017, state regulators reported that enforcement actions against unregistered brokers and salespeople increased at a faster pace than actions taken against registered individuals. That means the risk from salespeople on the fringes of the financial advice industry is growing. And they are the type of people who often sell scams that are being marketed as unregistered securities.
“[The] enforcement survey reflects a large increase in enforcement actions against unregistered individuals and firms,” according to an October 2018 report from the North American Securities Administrators Association. Members of the group reported actions in 2017 against 675 unregistered individuals and firms — an increase of 24% over the prior year — and 647 registered individuals and firms — a 9% increase.
“The surge in cases against unregistered actors reversed a two-year trend in which registered individuals and firms in the securities industry, broker-dealers and investment advisers, had constituted the majority of respondents in state enforcement actions,” according to NASAA.
Perhaps the poster boy for selling phony unregistered securities is Barry Kornfeld, a leading seller of the Woodbridge Ponzi scheme.
The SEC barred Mr. Kornfeld from working as a broker in 2009. Regardless, he continued to sell private securities; he and his wife allegedly solicited investors at seminars and a “conservative retirement and income planning class” they taught at a Florida university, according to an SEC complaint.
From 2014 to 2017, he and his wife received $3.7 million in commissions after selling more than $60 million of the Woodbridge private securities, according to the commission. Mr. Kornfeld reached a settlement in January with the SEC, agreeing to be barred for a second time from the securities industry. Robert Harris, a lawyer for Mr. Kornfeld, did not return a call seeking comment.
Registered reps involved
Unregistered reps aren’t the only ones selling fraudulent securities. Registered reps working at broker-dealers also are involved.
“We’re starting to see more sophisticated means for registered reps within the broker-dealer space to get investors to invest in private securities,” Thomas Drogan, senior vice president at Finra, said in testimony last year about investor fraud before the SEC’s Investor Advisory Committee. “The challenge in that space has been reps encouraging their customers, for example, to send money from their brokerage account to their bank account. And once the money gets to the bank account, instructing the customer to then send the money to the individual reps’ outside business activity. This creates a problem. This creates a very big challenge for broker-dealers to conduct surveillance on.”
The practice, known as “selling away,” can be grounds for disciplinary action if the broker-dealer employing the broker has not approved the broker’s actions. Unregistered firms and individual topped the list of disciplinary actions by state securities regulators in 2017.
Advisers at independent broker-dealers are commonly paid 7% commissions when selling private placements, clearly on the high end of a broker’s pay scale.
“What’s driving this?” asked Adam Gana, a plaintiff’s attorney. “It’s commissions, commissions, commissions. Brokers think they can get away with selling whatever they want on the side.”
Even though these dubious private securities are creating havoc for investors and the financial advice industry, regulators may soon change the rules about how private securities transactions are supervised.
Last year, Finra proposed rule changes that are intended to simplify how broker-dealers supervise a hybrid rep’s outside business activity and sale of private securities. The new rule focuses on the rep’s RIA firm and decreases some of the responsibility the broker-dealer has to watch over that separate line of business. It would cut costs for the firm and the broker. But some think these changes could prove dangerous.
William Galvin, secretary of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the most feared regulator in the securities industry, does not care for the Finra rule proposal.
“Finra claims that the proposed rule will strengthen investor protections, but it is not at all clear how investors will be protected by the removal of supervisory oversight,” Mr. Galvin wrote in a comment letter last April about the proposed rule. “The absence of proper oversight of outside business activities will increase the risk of fraud and abuse.”
Can financial advisers and the financial advice industry do anything to contain this problem?
Local investment advisers are often the best cops on the beat for detecting such frauds. Their knowledge often comes from clients who are being pitched such deals at “free” steak dinners that are provided to get them in the door for a presentation.
Advisers have the responsibility to report a suspicious private securities deal to their firm, said Mr. Chase, the former SEC attorney.
“If brokers get wind of these types of deals, they’ve got to go to the broker-dealer’s compliance department and report to the SEC or Finra,” he said. “They have the ability and obligation to report. There’s nothing wrong with putting these suspicious deals in front of regulators.”
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.
Whether you’re a first-time investor or have been investing for many years, there are some basic questions you should always ask before you commit your hard-earned money to an investment.
Question 1: Is The Seller Licensed?
Research shows that con-artists are experts at the art of persuasion, often using a variety of influence tactics tailored to the vulnerabilities of their victims. Smart investors check the background of anyone promoting an investment opportunity, even before learning about opportunity itself.
- Researching brokers: Details on a broker’s background and qualifications are available for free on FINRA’s BrokerCheck website.
- Researching investment advisers: The Investment Adviser Public Disclosure website provides information about investment adviser firms registered with the SEC and most state-registered investment adviser firms.
- Researching SEC actions: The SEC Action Lookup – Individuals allows you to look up information about certain individuals who have been named as defendants in SEC federal court actions or respondents in SEC administrative proceedings.
If you are not sure who to contact or have any questions regarding checking the background of an investment professional, call the SEC’s toll-free investor assistance line at (800) 732-0330.
Question 2: Is The Investment Registered?
Any offer or sale of securities must be registered with the SEC or exempt from registration. Registration is important because it provides investors with access to key information about the company’s management, products, services, and finances.
Smart investors always check whether an investment is registered with the SEC by using the SEC’s EDGAR database or contacting the SEC’s toll-free investor assistance line at (800) 732-0330.
Question 3: How Do The Risks Compare With The Potential Rewards?
The potential for greater returns comes with greater risk. Understanding this crucial trade-off between risk and reward can help you separate legitimate opportunities from unlawful schemes.
Investments with greater risk may offer higher potential returns, but they may expose you to greater investment losses. Keep in mind every investment carries some degree of risk and no legitimate investment offers the best of both worlds.
Many investment frauds are pitched as high return opportunities with little or no risk. Ignore these so-called opportunities or, better yet, report them to the SEC.
Question 4: Do You Understand The Investment?
Many successful investors follow this rule of thumb: Never invest in something you don’t understand. Be sure to always read an investment’s prospectus or disclosure statement carefully. If you can’t understand the investment and how it will help you make money, ask a trusted financial professional for help. If you are still confused, you should think twice about investing.
Question 5: Where Can You Turn For Help?
Whether checking out an investment professional, researching an investment, or learning about new products or scams, unbiased information can be a great advantage when it comes to investing wisely. Make a habit of using the information and tools on securities regulators’ websites. If you have a question or concern about an investment, please contact the SEC, FINRA, or your state securities regulator for help.
Editor’s note: This is a repost of an article from the SEC’s
investor education website. I have a more extensive checklist of my top ten ways to avoid getting caught in a financial scam that is still highly relevant today. If you have questions about an investment or knowledge of ongoing fraud please contact me.
Every 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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
Editor’s Note: I have been contacted by a number of individuals who invested in Future Income Payments or FIP through Utah-based Live Abundant, which is referenced in the article below. This article appeared in the Wall Street Journal today and has a pretty good summary of the FIP situation. Spoiler alert: it’s not good.
Private Pension Product, Sold by Felon, Wipes Investors Out
Investors accuse Future Income Payments of taking them for more than $100 million
By Jean Eaglesham of the Wall Street Journal – July 23, 2018 5:30 a.m. ET
Mr. Kohn’s company, Future Income Payments, appears shut, according to court filings. His investors are likely to be wiped out, according to lawyers representing them, who plan to sue scores of firms that sold Future Income products as soon as this week. At least 25 states have taken enforcement actions or are investigating the company, it said in April.
The blow-up shines a light on the boom in opaque private markets, to which investors have flocked in the hope of doing better than they can in traditional stock and bond markets.
Private-market products, including the ones offered by Future Income, are frequently sold by financial advisers. Sales targets are often retirees looking to beat the anemic returns on bonds and other savings products.
Future Income essentially sold investors other people’s pensions. Mr. Kohn’s firm would find workers entitled to pension payments and temporarily buy the rights to those payments—effectively lending the beneficiaries money against their future pension income in what is called a “pension advance.” Then, Future Income would sell the rights to investors for a lump sum. An investor might put up $100,000 in exchange for an income of 7% for five years, for example.
But Future Income’s apparent collapse has left investors stranded. The company is no longer collecting the pension money that funds its own payments to investors, according to court documents. Mr. Kohn couldn’t be reached for comment. It isn’t clear if he has a lawyer.
Unlike publicly traded investments, there are few rules on how pension advances can be sold or by whom. “They illustrate the problems with the financial services industry selling opaque, high-commission private investments,” says Joe Peiffer, a New Orleans-based plaintiffs’ lawyer representing some purchasers of Future Income’s products. “We have clients who were advised to cash in their pensions and refinance their homes to buy these things.”
In a letter sent to investors in April, Mr. Kohn said his company was suffering from “intense regulatory pressure and legal expense,” and investors had been told there were “no guarantees [they] would receive all payments.” Future Income didn’t respond to emails, and its phones appear to be down. Christopher Jones, a lawyer representing the company over a civil investigation by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, didn’t respond to requests for comment. The CFPB declined to comment.
Future Income called itself “America’s largest pension cash-flow originator,” boasting of a “global footprint of over 200 employees.” Its mailing address is a mailbox at a United Parcel Service Inc. store in a strip mall outside Las Vegas. The same address has been used by Mr. Kohn for dozens of other companies, most of them now defunct, state records show.
Mr. Kohn formed Future Income in 2011, company records show. In 2016, he set up a separate company, FIP LLC, controlled via a Philippines-based corporation of which he is the sole owner, according to a complaint filed last year by Minnesota regulators. He pleaded guilty to trafficking in counterfeit goods in 2006 and served 15 months in federal prison.
State regulators took action against Future Income as early as 2014 over the terms on which it was buying pension benefits, saying the firm was lending illegally. Some states said the company was breaching state laws limiting the interest that can be charged on loans. A disabled Gulf War veteran who borrowed $2,700 was required to send $450 a month from his benefits for five years—a total of $27,000, or an annual percentage rate of 200%, according to one example cited in the Minnesota lawsuit. Mr. Kohn in his April letter said the company was in the process of agreeing, or had agreed to, settlements with the states that limited the amounts it could collect.
“Future Income Payments’ illegal loans were outrageously expensive,” said Lisa Madigan, the Illinois attorney general, who filed a suit against the firm on the same grounds this year.
The string of regulatory actions didn’t stop advisory firms and others selling the commission-rich products, many as part of a retirement-savings strategy. A Future Income marketing presentation urged retirees to “give your savings the opportunity to grow,” with “competitive fixed rates,” according to a copy reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.
The sellers included Live Abundant, a firm based in Salt Lake City that promises on its website to “empower you to live a more abundant life by replacing your old, outdated retirement philosophy.” It has sold products from both Future Income Payments and Woodbridge Group of Cos. LLC, another private-market investment that collapsed, according to lawyers representing investors who said they intend to sue Live Abundant.
Loren Washburn, an attorney for Live Abundant, said the firm plans to review what it “could have done better” in vetting the deals. “This outcome where we’re having to explore options to collect [the money due to investors] is obviously not optimal.”
The sellers also included independent advisers registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission, such as Gus Marwieh of Austin, Texas. Mr. Marwieh “used his strong religious beliefs to engender trust from investors,” said Mr. Peiffer, who is representing some of them. Mr. Marwieh confirmed he sold Future Income products but declined to comment further.
An SEC spokesman declined to comment.
Investors are now scrambling to try to recover money. Mr. Peiffer said he is “highly confident that the losses suffered by investors are well over $100 million.”
Faw Casson & Co., an escrow company in Dover, Del., that held funds on behalf of investors, sued Future Income Payments in May. Faw Casson, whose lawyer declined to comment, said in a court filing it has received calls from several investors including a “retired secret service agent [who] said that if we do not return his phone call, he is coming to the office and trust me that is not what we want.”
One of the biggest problems I am seeing these days is private placements (also called alternatives or non-registered investments) that are sold to accredited investors through a private placement memorandum or PPM. Because these investments are not registered with the SEC the information that you can get about them is far more limited, and can even be fraudulent.
According to this article in the Wall Street Journal yesterday, sales of private placements are surging, as part of a broader rise in private capital markets. Private placements can be great opportunities, but they nearly always carry significant risk and in some cases they can be Ponzi schemes. Caveat emptor.
Aside from the risk, one of the biggest concerns regulators have is how the products are sold. FINRA has warned in the past about “fraud and sales practice abuses” by firms and brokers in the market. In some cases this may be due to the fact that these smaller, less known firms tend to hire troubled brokers for their track record in aggressively selling high-commission deals, sometimes using questionable tactics. Most of these firms are small to midsize brokerages, with fewer than 500 brokers, and are spread throughout the country.
According to the WSJ, more than 1,200 brokerage firms sold around $710 billion of private placements last year, and sales for the first five months of this year will be even higher. To make matters worse, securities firms with an unusually high number of “bad brokers” are selling tens of billions of dollars a year of private stakes in companies. The WSJ reviewed records of who was pushing these investments and identified over a hundred firms where 10% to 60% of the in-house brokers had three or more investor complaints, regulatory actions, criminal charges or other red flags on their records. This is not normal (always run your broker or advisor’s name through Brokercheck).
The bottom line is that investors are far more likely to be exposed to losses or fraud in private investments. If your broker or advisor recommends a private placement or “alternative” investment make sure he/she has a good track record and has done extensive due diligence.
If you get a cold call from a firm you’ve never heard of trying to convince you to invest in one of these, just say NO.
Copyright 2018 by Mark Pugsley. All rights reserved,