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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That can be a dangerous mistake.  

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

Tip #1 — SLOW DOWN

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

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

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

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

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

RQN Resources

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

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

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.

How to Blow the Whistle on Bank Fraud

The Federal Government offers potentially significant rewards to whistleblowers who provide information to the government that helps protect financial institutions by “deterring would-be criminals from including financial institutions in their schemes.” United States v. Serpico, 320 F.3d 691, 694-95 (7th Cir. 2003).

The Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery and Enforcement Act (FIRREA) and the Financial Institutions Anti-Fraud Enforcement Act (FIAFEA) enable the Attorney General to investigate and bring a civil suit against a perpetrator for criminal conduct which “affect[s] a depository institution insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation or any other agency or entity of the United States.” 12 U.S.C. § 4202(2).

Whistleblowers who provide information to the government that leads to a successful investigation and prosecution could be eligible to receive an award of up to $1.6 million. FIRREA reports can involve any of the following types of conduct involving financial institutions:

  • Giving corrupt gifts, offers, or promises
  • Stealing, embezzling, or misapplying by bank officer or employee with the willful with intent to injure the bank
  • Making of false entries, reports, or transactions (including FDIC transactions)
  • Making false statements for loan and credit applications, renewals and discounts, or crop insurance
  • Fraudulently obtaining loans or credit through false pretenses, representations, or promises
  • Making false statements, entries, overvaluation of securities, embezzlement, concealment, or misrepresentations
  • Making false, fictitious, or fraudulent claims to the Government
  • Concealing assets from a conservator, receiver, or liquidating agent
  • Conducting mail or wire fraud

This includes conduct where the financial institution is either the victim or perpetrator of the fraud. See Paul Lawrence, Whistleblower Cases Involving Securities and Financial Fraud, American Association for Justice Annual 188, (2012).

The fraud is reportable if it happened in the last ten years.

To be eligible for a reward, your report must lead the government to recover money. Whistleblowers get 20-30% of the first million dollars recovered, 10-20% of the next four million dollars recovered, and 5-10% of the last five million. There is a maximum bounty of 16% of 10 million – or $1.6 million.

In addition, the Department of Justice may award money to a whistleblower when there is either a criminal conviction or where the government is able to acquire funds or assets that were based in whole or in part on the information you provide.

HOW TO SUBMIT YOUR CLAIM

To submit a whistleblower claim, you must file a “Declaration of Violation,” under oath, which explains the fraud in detail. This declaration must contain specific facts regarding the fraud, the basis for that knowledge, and at least one new fact that was unknown to the government. This declaration cannot be based on information that has been publicly disclosed, unless you are the original source of the public information. During the investigation, the declaration you submit will remain confidential.

Do you think you have information that might qualify for an award? Contact our legal team to help you navigate this complex process and ensure that your claims are handled correctly.

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

Note: This article was written with the assistance of Lydia Rytting, who is student at the University of Utah, S.J. Quinney College of Law.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The list goes on… 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.”

More Legal Trouble for Zane Jeppeson

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

Jeppesen granted more time to pay restitution

By Cari Doutre Leader County Editor Feb 13, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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