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.

Utah’s Little-Used Whistleblower Law Needs an Update

Utah is one of only two states in the United States that has a whistleblower act (Indiana is the other). Utah’s statute was written and passed by a young ambitious politician named Ben McAdams in 2011. Ben asked me to assist with the drafting and to provide testimony in support, which I gladly did. We hoped at the time that this new statute would provide powerful incentives for whistleblowers to come forward and help combat Utah’s unusually high Ponzi scheme problem. And that it would be a model for other states to follow.

The statute passed easily, but unfortunately other states have not followed suit. Making matters worse, Utah’s Whistleblower Act has never really been used much — they have only paid out one award so far. I can personally attest to the fact that there have been many applications for whistleblower awards filed with the Division of Securities (because I have filed a bunch of them), so why haven’t they paid out more awards?

Paying big awards with a press conference would be a great way to publicize this little-known program. Paying awards will incentivize people with knowledge of fraud to file whistleblower tips, which would stop more fraudulent schemes and put more fraudsters in prison. So why haven’t they done that?

I actually have no idea.

Whistleblower Programs are a Good Thing

I think it is fairly noncontroversial for me to say that whistleblower laws are a good way to expose and stop fraudsters. They provide financial incentives to individuals with knowledge of fraud to report that knowledge to state or federal securities (and tax) regulators.

Whistleblowing can be really bad for your career and can even put you in physical danger, so understandably people are not terribly excited about sticking their neck out. But the prospect of receiving a financial award can change that calculus in a big way. These programs really do work!

The SEC’s Whistleblower Program was created by Congress on July 21, 2010 and can be found in Section 922 of the Dodd-Frank Act.  In its most recent report to Congress, the SEC reported that since the program’s inception they have imposed over $2 billion in total monetary sanctions as a result of whistleblower reports, of which almost $500 million has been returned to harmed investors.

In 2019, the SEC received its second largest number of whistleblower tips ever and paid out its third largest award to date – $37 million. The SEC’s Office of the Whistleblower paid out a $50 million award in March 2018 and a $39 million award in September 2018. Clearly, massive whistleblower awards like that provide a powerful incentive for those with knowledge of fraud to come forward.

The CFTC also has a very successful whistleblower program. In its 2019 report to Congress the CFTC reported that since the inception of its whistleblower program it has issued 14 awards totaling approximately $100 million, and that enforcement actions initiated as a result of those tips have let to sanctions totaling more than $800 million.

The IRS whistleblower program has also paid out millions in awards – from billions in collections. Since 2007, the IRS Whistleblower Office has paid out over $931.7 million based on the collection of $5.7 billion in additional taxes. In 2019 alone the IRS handed out 181 awards totaling $120,305,278. According to IRS whistleblower expert (and friend) Dean Zerbe the IRS program has been very successful:

“For all the talk that fills Washington about making sure people pay their fair share, this little program of awarding whistleblowers … has punched far above its weight in terms of successfully going after big-time tax cheats.  Any country (or state) that wants to get serious about tax evasion should take note.”

IRS Reports Ten-Fold Increase in Tax Whistleblower Awards: $312 Million, Forbes Magazine

How a Whistleblower Stopped the Rust Rare Coin Ponzi Scheme

Utah’s largest Ponzi scheme, Rust Rare Coin (RRC), would still be ongoing today if not for a brave whistleblower who was an employee at the company, and an investor. He stumbled upon information that led him to be highly skeptical of the outrageously high profit claims that were being made by RRC’s owner Gaylen Rust and began to investigate.

The whistleblower’s suspicions grew as he observed unusual business activities and the total lack of financial controls RRC had.  What began as observations of odd and unusual business practices quickly let to serious concerns about outright fraud.  By early 2018 the whistleblower concluded that the RRC businesses were operating fraudulently, that investor money was being commingled with other company funds, and that Gaylen Rust was likely running a massive a Ponzi scheme. 

Once he became convinced that the company was a scam he reported his concerns to the FBI and began meeting with the state and federal securities regulators. Eventually the SEC, CFTC and State of Utah filed coordinated complaints, froze all of RRC’s assets and shut the whole scheme down.

There were at least 430 victims of the RRC Ponzi, and their collective losses were at least $200 million. But it could have been much worse if not for the actions of this brave whistleblower. The court-appointed receiver Jonathan Hafen is now in the process of trying to unwind the whole mess and return money to the victims.

NOTE: I know this story because the CFTC filed a very detailed declaration from the whistleblower with their complaint.

NASAA’s Model Whistleblower Act

Because of the demonstrated success of the SEC, CFTC and IRS whistleblower programs the North American Securities Administrators Association (NASAA), which is comprised of state securities regulators in all fifty states, seems to have decided that more states should follow Utah’s lead.

They just released a Model Whistleblower Act, which is modeled on Utah’s law and has some nice improvements. Thomas Brady, Director of the Utah Division of Securities, tells me that he was involved in the drafting process.

Many of the provisions are based on Utah’s statute:

  • The Model Act creates a civil cause of action for a whistleblower who is retaliated against with powerful remedies including reinstatement, two times back pay with interest, actual damages, litigation costs, or “any combination of these remedies.” Utah Code Ann. § 61-1-105(5); MWA § 9-6
  • The Model Act provides that rights and remedies contained in the act cannot be waived contractually. Utah Code Ann. §61-1-108(2); MWA §9-9
  • The Model Act provides that the regulator cannot disclose information that could reveal the identity of the whistleblower. Utah Code Ann. §61-1-103(2)(a). MWA § 9-7

However, the NASAA update also includes some much-needed protections that are not currently included in the Utah law, including the following:

  • A specific prohibition on retaliatory behavior, including terminating, discharging, demoting, suspending, threatening, or harassing a whistleblower. MWA § 9-1.
  • A 10 year statute of limitations for a claim against an employer for retaliatory behavior. MWA §9-5. (Utah’s is currently only 4 years)
  • A provision that employee non-disclosure (NDA) or confidentiality agreements cannot be used to prevent or discourage communications with the securities regulator about possible securities law violations. MWA §9-8.

I think that all states should seriously consider enacting this model statute. NASAA’s Model Whistleblower Act provides a robust framework for protecting whistleblowers, and substantial financial incentives for them to come forward.

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.

Deep Dive: Ponzi Schemes, Then and Now

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a guest post by Bryce Welker, who is an active speaker, blogger, and tutor on accounting and finance. As the founder of Crush The CPA Exam, he has helped thousands of candidates pass the CPA exam on their first attempt. The views expressed in this article are solely those of Mr. Welker.


Although they’re almost 100 years old, Ponzi schemes will never die. Here’s why:

There will always be people who want the benefits of hard work without having to do any hard work themselves. It’s human nature to follow the path of least resistance. However, what stops most people from doing this is a sense of morality, empathy, and respect for other people and their money.

But what about the people who don’t have any scruples? For aspiring thieves, the next biggest hurdle is intelligence. That’s because most people with money work very hard to protect it from thieves, con artists, and criminals. This is why there are thriving industries of professionals like Certified Internal Auditors, whose jobs involve searching for and preventing fraud

However, there are some people who not only lack moral character but are also intelligent enough to successfully fulfill their devious desires. These are the rare people who are bold enough (and smart enough) to exploit professionals and institutions who are otherwise extremely competent. And the most successful method of doing this —both now and in the last century— has been to run a Ponzi scheme.

What Isn’t a Ponzi Scheme?

In order to understand what a Ponzi scheme is, and how to avoid falling for one yourself, it’s important to understand what a Ponzi scheme isn’t.

  • A Ponzi scheme isn’t a pyramid scheme. Also known as a multi-level-marketing or MLM scheme, this involves generating money by charging new members who then attempt to recruit other people so they can make money. Although similar in terms of recruitment, MLM is different from Ponzi schemes in terms of structure and payouts.
  • A Ponzi scheme also isn’t an investment bubble. Although Ponzi schemes take the form of investments, and people can lose their life savings due to an investment bubble, the two are not the same. Investment bubbles don’t necessarily involve fraud; they’re simply a case of assets being priced artificially high, usually due to high demand, and then being corrected by the market.

Despite being fundamentally different from both, a Ponzi scheme can resemble an investment bubble or a pyramid scheme. In fact, this confusion is usually a key factor in pulling off a successful scheme, and it’s also why they can be so difficult to catch.

What IS a Ponzi Scheme?

Put simply, a ponzi scheme is a scam disguised as an investment. Victims are convinced to “invest” their money into funds or businesses —that usually aren’t real— with the promise of extremely high returns. In reality, the only money being generated by these schemes are from new “investors,” which are constantly being recruited by the scammers. Essentially, it’s a flavor of securities fraud.

Another reason why Ponzi schemes are so deviously successful is that they can actually pay out to some investors. In order to prevent bad publicity, many practitioners of this scheme will pay out some of their early investors with a small portion of the money gathered by new ones. At the same time, clever social engineering can dissuade other investors from asking for payouts, allowing the scam to continue.

Confused? Take a look at some of the biggest Ponzi schemes in the past century and you should start to see the big picture.

Biggest Ponzi Schemes of the 20th Century

6 biggest ponzi schemes of 20th Century

What Do 20-Century Ponzi Schemes Have in Common?

While this is far from a complete list of all Ponzi schemes perpetrated in the 20th century, it is essentially a list of the greatest hits. Hence, drawing comparisons between these six scams can help us identify some key factors that go into successful frauds. That way, you can hopefully avoid falling for the next one!

So what are some similarities between these Ponzi schemes? Here are a few worth mentioning:

They’re Backed by “Experts”

Many successful Ponzi schemes are perpetrated by individuals and companies that have the appearance of authority in their industry. These figures and institutions tout their expertise in the fields of finance and business, promising to leverage these assets for their investors to yield high rewards.

In the case of Moneytron, the scam’s ringleader Jean Pierre Van Rossem appealed to investors by touting his academic education in economics; he was often referred to as a “stock market guru.” Towers Financial Corporation’s owner Steven Hoffenberg boasted a similar level of expertise in the field of business, since he previously made a high-profile attempt to purchase the New York Post in order to save it from bankruptcy.

However, the most surprising example of a scam’s successful appeal to expertise is in the case of MMM, the biggest Ponzi scheme of the 20th century. Even after being exposed as a scam, Russian citizens were still interested in investing because of how good MMM was at scamming people!

They Appeal to Charity

When it isn’t possible to run a fraudulent enterprise from a position of expertise or authority, the next best method used by schemers is charity. This is textbook manipulation right out of Niccolo Machiavelli’s playbook:

Niccolo Machiavelli quote

Appealing to people’s moral compass is how Gerald Payne was able to run a wildly successful Ponzi scheme through Greater Ministries International. He invoked religious imagery by quoting Bible verses in order to convince over 20,000 churchgoers to hand over their mortgages, retirement funds, and life savings.

A similar story can be heard regarding the Caritas scam. The way that Ioan Stoica managed to attract investors to his scheme was by promising struggling Romanian citizens the ability to afford basic amenities and household appliances. He even went so far as to name his company after the Latin word for charity!

They Keep Going Up (Until They Don’t)

Even the most secure financial investment in the world won’t see perpetual gains. Any legitimate business enterprise is going to encounter ups and downs as a reaction to competitors, overall economic health, and other forces out of their control. However, Ponzi schemes only go up until they’re exposed— which is usually followed by declaring bankruptcy.

The European Kings Club scheme perpetrated by Damara Bertges promised investors consistent returns of 70% annually. That means investors were promised to increase their investment by 70% every year with no dips. 

Compare that to the performance of 2019’s top-rated mutual funds. These are generally considered to be the safest and best-performing investments, and they only provide average annual returns of 15-20% over ten years. This means much smaller gains over a much longer period of time, accounting for the aforementioned market forces out of the fund manager’s control.

A general rule with any investment is that high risk is an instrumental aspect of high reward. Hence, it’s a good idea to assume that any investment promising high rewards also guarantees high risk. However, if they offer high rewards with little to no risk, it’s almost definitely a scam!

Now let’s take a look at how these schemes have changed over time.

Largest Ponzi Schemes of the 21st Century

largest ponzi schemes of the century

What Do 21st-Century Ponzi Schemes Have in Common?

Just like before, this list is far from complete. However, it does showcase the most notorious and noteworthy examples of modern Ponzi schemes. Before going into the ways these scams compare and contrast to ones in the past, here are some things these six have in common:

They Incorporate New Strategies and Technologies

In order to successfully pull the wool over the eyes of shrewd investors who would otherwise have learned from the past, many of these modern scams involved unconventional investment techniques or cutting-edge technology. That way, any perceived inconsistencies with their business strategy could be excused as a layman’s misinterpretation of a highly technical and complex system.

Take Bitconnect for example. One reason why this scam was able to exist in the first place was due to the “wild west” nature of cryptocurrency. With the hyper volatility of currencies like Bitcoin, and a general public lacking adequate knowledge of blockchain technology, the staggering gains promised by this company seemed more reasonable. Furthermore, the lack of regulation makes it fertile ground for all kinds of scams.

Another common strategy for modern Ponzi schemes is to disguise themselves as lesser-known business and investing strategies. In the case of Mutual Benefits Company, Peter Lombardi was able to scam investors through an obscure (and morally questionable) practice known as viatical settlements. By cashing out life insurance policies early at a fraction of their value, this scheme capitalized on business ignorance and desperation to generate its money.

They React Poorly To Recessions

ponzi schemes and recessions

Eventually, Ponzi schemes will fall apart on their own as the perpetrators either successfully skip town or get busted by law enforcement. However, there doesn’t seem to be a set lifespan for a Ponzi scheme, although it’s rare for them to last longer than a few years.

That being said, one thing that clearly stops a scam like this dead in its tracks is an economic recession. Because they only have enough money to pay off a select few investors, the massive rush of people trying to cash out will lead to a premature collapse.

For example, look at the biggest Ponzi Scheme in U.S. history. Bernie Madoff’s financial racket only began to unravel as a result of the 2008 market downturn. As former Madoff investor Burt Ross stated in a PBS Frontline documentary, “He easily could’ve gone through his life without this being found out. The only reason that this ended was because… the economy did so badly that people wanted —needed— to get money out of Madoff’s investments.”

Although this can’t be confirmed, it’s possible that this same financial crisis was the catalyst for Tom Petters’ Ponzi scheme to unravel as well. After all, his co-conspirator Deanna Coleman cooperated with law enforcement in 2008 to expose this fraudulent scheme, as reported by the U.S. Department of Justice. Although she hasn’t confirmed this in any subsequent interviews, it’s entirely possible that she turned herself in because she could see the scheme unraveling due to the recession in a similar manner to Madoff’s.

They’re Hard To Stop

No matter how clever the perpetrator of a scam may be, there’s always going to be skeptics pointing fingers before the jig is up. Especially with such a rich history of Ponzi schemes in the past, it’s fairly common to hear accusations of fraud directed toward many successful business ventures. However, accusations are one thing; convictions are another.

In the case of Bernie Madoff, one financial investigator named Harry Markopolis had accused him of foul play as far back as 1999. From that point, a lengthy battle between private investigators and the SEC vs. Madoff’s team of personal auditors and bribed associates ensued for nearly a decade before arrests were made.

To add insult to injury, sometimes the reason for these schemes taking so long to bust is negligence or sabotage. This was apparently the case with regards to the second biggest Ponzi scheme in U.S. history. Although Allen Stanford was arrested in 2009 and convicted in 2012one SEC inspector alleged that the federal agency was aware of misconduct as early as 1997, but didn’t act for so long due to internal issues.

How Do I Avoid Falling For a Ponzi Scheme?

Now that you’re well aware of the concept, practice, and most notable cases of Ponzi schemes, the only thing left is to learn how to avoid falling for one yourself. Here are some general tips that should help you avoid falling for this century-old trap:

Do Your Research

If you’re approached with a tempting investment opportunity based on cutting-edge technology, unconventional business practices, or philanthropy, don’t take the pitch at face value. These cases don’t necessarily indicate a scam, but they should be grounds for skepticism. Avoid putting any money down if you can’t find satisfactory answers to these questions:

  • Does this charity have a well-documented financial history that’s free of any accusations of fraud?
  • Does this technology have documentation (like a whitepaper) that clearly explains how it works and how it makes money?
  • Do the people running this unconventional business strategy have a history of successful enterprises, even during a recession?

Be Logical

Another common way for all kinds of scammers to trick victims into giving up their money is by exploiting logical fallacies. These arguments and justifications may seem rational at first, but won’t hold up if you really break them down. Analyze any interesting business investment pitches for fallacious arguments like these:

  • Appeal to authority: Although it’s a good sign that a business is affiliated with an expert in their field, that shouldn’t be their only selling point. See Bernie Madoff and Moneytron for examples of this fallacy at work.
  • Bandwagon: It means nothing if a large number of people are investing in one business. Popularity has absolutely nothing to do with legitimacy; just look at MMM and Bitconnect for examples.
  • Appeal to emotion: Just because an investment pitch tugs on your heartstrings, it doesn’t mean it’s legit. This was the case with Caritas, Mutual Benefits Company, and Greater Ministries International.

Contact The Authorities

contact the authorities for ponzi scheme

If you’ve examined a business or organization and have a strong suspicion that it may be a Ponzi scheme, tell someone!

Speaking out sooner rather than later can prevent more people from losing their life savings. It may take a long time for justice to be served, and it may even be a false alarm. Regardless, it never hurts to be careful. Consider contacting one of these organizations if you’re suspicious:

  • FBI: If you go to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Tips page, you don’t have to provide your name when reporting someone you suspect is committing a federal crime. However, you may have to provide some extra information; additionally, submitting multiple false claims on purpose can have consequences.
  • IRS: If you or someone you know has already invested in a Ponzi scheme, the Internal Revenue Service has a page with forms you can fill out in order to claim your losses and request restitution. They also have a detailed Q&A section with more details.
  • SEC: After the embarrassingly drawn-out situation with Bernie Madoff, the Securities and Exchange Commission now takes accusations of Ponzi schemes very seriously. In fact, submitting a legitimate tip through their Whistleblower program could even earn you a monetary reward.

Originally published on https://crushthecpaexam.com/deep-dive-ponzi-schemes-then-and-now/

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.

My Interview with ‘Trib Talk’ on Why Utah is Home to So Many Ponzi Schemes

‘Trib Talk’: Why is Utah home to so many Ponzi schemes?

(Steve Griffin | Tribune file photo)

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.

Click here to listen now. Listeners can also subscribe to “Trib Talk” on SoundCloudiTunes and Apple Podcasts, Google PlayStitcherSpotify and other major podcast platforms.

“Trib Talk” is produced by Sara Weber with additional editing by Dan Harrie. Comments and feedback can be sent to tribtalk@sltrib.com, or to @bjaminwood or @tribtalk on Twitter.

The Growing Problem With Sales of Unregistered Securities

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.

Sales soar

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.

State enforcement

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.

Simplify supervision?

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.”

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.

FIVE QUESTIONS TO ASK BEFORE YOU INVEST

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 SECFINRA, 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.

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.