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Recent SEC Releases

SEC Alleges California Woman Ran $68 Million Oil-And-Gas Ponzi Scheme 

A California woman was charged with masterminding a $68 million Ponzi scheme that touted lucrative oil-and-gas interests to primarily Chinese-Americans both in the United States and abroad.  The Securities and Exchange Commission filed an enforcement action accusing Bingqing Yang, her management companies Luca International Group, LLC, Luca Resource Group, LLC, and Luca Energy Fund, LLC, (collectively, the "Luca Managers"), Lei (Lily) Lei, Anthony V. Pollace, and Yong (Michael) Chen of violating multiple federal securities laws.  Pollace has agreed to pay a $25,500 penalty to settle charges that he played a small role in the alleged fraud.  The Commission is seeking injunctive relief, disgorgement of ill-gotten gains plus prejudgment interest, and civil monetary penalties from the remaining defendants.

According to the Commission, Yang and others began targeting Chinese-American investors in September 2007 through Chinese-language television, radio and newspaper advertisements, and investment seminars.  Potential investors were promised annual returns ranging from 20% to 30% through an investment in several investment funds (the "Luca Funds") that purportedly were able to achieve highly lucrative returns by developing and operating oil and natural gas wells in Texas, Montana, North Dakota, Louisiana, and the Gulf of Mexico.  In brochures and powerpoint presentations, potential investors were told there was "zero risk of losing entire principal."  At least one potential investor expressed their confidence and trust in the investment based on Yang's Chinese heritage.

Yang also targeted Chinese citizens who sought to obtain permanent residence in the United States through the EB-5 Visa program, which provides foreign nationals with a method for obtaining a green card by making an investment in the United States.  Chinese citizens were solicited at investment seminars that took place in China, and Yang ultimately raised over $8 million alone from investors who thought they were investing in an opportunity to acquire EB-5 visas.  In total, Yang and the Luca Managers raised at least $68 million from investors.

However, the Commission alleges that Yang made numerous misrepresentations in touting the investment opportunity, incuding that the Luca Funds were profitable when in reality they were losing millions of dollars in their oil and gas investments.  Investors were not told that Yang paid herself approximately $1 million in a "trademark licensing fee" in March 2012 despite the company not having any trademark logos on record and later backdating a trademark licensing agreement in March 2013.  Nor did Yang disclose that investor funds would be used use to support a lavish lifestyle that included the purchase of a 5,600 square foot house in California (which Yang disguised as a letter of intent to make a deposit on a Chinese oil drilling rig), to pay her personal taxes, to pay for family travel to China and Hawaii, to pay private school tuition, and to pay for martial arts and choir lessons for her children.  Yang is also accused of using over $500,000 in investor funds to take potential Chinese investors on a 10-day expenses-paid trip to Pebble Beach, California that included a speech by a former U.S. President.  

Yang is also accused of misrepresenting the true nature of the various oil and gas ventures to potential investors.  While distributing projections that assumed a 100% success rate for each well, Yang failed to disclose that the true success rate of the wells was less than 60% and that the returns were based on a flawed assumption that the wells would be drilled in the first year.  

A copy of the Commission's complaint is below:



Energy Drink CEO Charged With $600,000 Ponzi Scheme

The President and CEO of an Indiana energy drink company was arrested over the weekend on charges that he took in at least $600,000 from several investors in what the Indiana Secretary of State likened to a Ponzi scheme.  Eric Nicholas Morgan, of Evansville, Indiana, was arrested by Indiana authorities and charged with fifteen counts of securities fraud.  Morgan is being held on a $10,000 cash bond.  

Morgan was the President and CEO of Liquid Ninja, an Indiana-based company that marketed a new energy drink to local stores and groceries.  According to Indiana Secretary of State Connie Lawson, Morgan solicited funds from investors under the guise that those funds would be used to invest in Liquid Ninja.  For example, one elderly couple was approached by Morgan, who served as their financial advisor (despite not being registered as such), beginning in late 2012 about Liquid Ninja.  In April 2014, the couple invested $250,000 with Morgan and received a promissory note in return that promised an annual 7.5% return for two years.  At the end of the two years, the couple was told they could either redeem their principal investment or receive a 15% ownership interest in the company.  Secretary of State Lawson alleged that neither Lawson nor the product he was selling were licensed in Indiana.

Instead of using investor funds for the Liquid Ninja business, Lawson alleges that Morgan used the funds for his own personal use.  According to authorities, nearly $150,000 was withdrawn from Liquid Ninja's bank account seven days after the elderly couple's $250,000 investment and used to obtain a cashier's check made payable to an unrelated individual.  In December 2014, an Indiana newspaper reported that Liquid Energy had shut its doors.  The company's website has also been taken down.


Hedge Fund Manager Gets Six Year Sentence For $11 Million Ponzi Scheme

A Chicago investment fund manager who touted his law degree to potential victims in an attempt to win their trust will serve the next seventy-two months in federal prison for masterminding a Ponzi scheme that raised more than $11 million from primarily Hindu victims.  Neal Goyal, 34, received the sentence from U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly after previously pleading guilty to one count of wire fraud.  Goyal was also ordered to pay more than $9 million in restitution to his victims - an amount prosecutors estimate will never be completely repaid.  

Goyal owned and managed two investment advisors: Blue Horizon Asset Management ("Blue Horizon") and Caldera Advisors, LLC ("Caldera").  Blue Horizon and Caldera, neither of which was registered with federal or state securities regulators, acted as investment advisers to four investment funds created by Goyal (collectively, the "Funds").  Beginning in 2006,  while he was attending law school at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law, Goyal began raising funds from friends and family members in the Hindu community.  Potential investors were told that the Funds primarily invested in equities, and employed a "long-short" strategy that involved holding both long and short positions.  According to account statements provided to investors from 2011 to 2013, the Funds returned at least 17% per year.  In total, Goyal raised more than $11 million from at least 35 investors.

However, Goyal was not the savvy trader investors were led to believe.  Indeed, his initial trading resulted in substantial losses, and he ceased trading completely by January 2009.  Instead, Goyal used investor funds to pay returns to existing investors - a classic hallmark of a Ponzi scheme.  Additionally, Goyal misappropriated investor funds to sustain his lavish lifestyle, including more than $1 million for two homes, more than $200,000 in investments in a Chicago tavern owned by his father-in-law, luxury vacations and custom-tailored suits, and $100,000 for a children's clothing boutique operated by his wife.  Indeed, despite the fact that his wife's children's clothing boutique was losing money, Goyal used investor funds to help the business expand to a second location.  Goyal also splurged on his employees, handing out gold bars as rewards, renting out a bank vault for a work Christmas party, and even treating his staff to a week-long trip to the Dominican Republic just before the scheme collapsed.

A routine audit by the Securities and Exchange Commission uncovered the fraud, and the Commission filed an enforcement action last May accusing Goyal and the Funds of multiple violations of federal securities laws. Goyal was also criminally charged, and subsequently pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud in February 2015.


Canadian Securities Regulator Tries Public Shaming To Increase Fine Collections

A Canadian securities regulator frustrated with unpaid fines for financial crimes has tried a new tactic: publishing the names of individuals and entities that have been fined for financial-related crimes but have failed to pay.  The Alberta Securities Commission has published a list of individuals or entities with unpaid administrative penalties, disgorgement orders and/or costs that were ordered after enforcement proceedings in Alberta.  The list, which comes on the heels of similar efforts by regulators in other Canadian provinces, contains over 100 names that have collectively failed to pay over $100 million.

In proceedings brought by a civil regulator such as ASC, a prison sentence is not an available penalty.  Instead, the convicted fraudster can be ordered to pay a hefty sum in disgorgement and/or penalties.  Unfortunately, oftentimes any available funds have long since been squandered by the fraudster, and the orders to pay have little effect other than a hollow victory.  These sums can be significant; the ASC handed down nearly $7 million in penalties in 2014 and nearly $6 million in 2013.  However, the ASC collected less than $250,000 in 2013 and approximately $2 million in 2014 - amounting to an average annual collection of less than 20% of the levied fines.  While the agency operated at a budget deficit in 2013 and 2014, a stronger recovery could have possibly vaulted the agency to a surplus.  

In a Recovery of Unpaid Orders page available on the ASC's website here, an alphabetical list denotes 136 individuals and entities - some listed twice - with unpaid or partially-paid violations.  The list does not include the actual amount owing - perhaps due to the potential upkeep required to constantly update the amounts as funds come in - but instead links to the decision imposing the fines.  The list is updated quarterly, with the incentive that the ASC will remove the names of those who fully satisfy their obligations.  According to the Financial Post, the list's collective obligations total over $100 million while regulators have collected less than $23 million.  

The move comes on the heels of a recent passage of legislation by Utah legislators creating a White Collar Crime Registry consisting of a database of individuals convicted of various white collar crimes.  Utah's database, modeled loosely off of the well-known registry used to identify convicted sex offenders, was conceived in an effort to combat an unusually high incidence of financial fraud occurring in Utah in what some attribute to the state's high Mormon population.  Under that law, a first-time offender would have their information included in the registry for ten years.  


SEC Busts Gold-Mining Ponzi/Pyramid Scheme Targeting Spanish-Speaking Victims

The Securities and Exchange Commission filed civil fraud charges against a Massachusetts company and its principals and promoters, arguing the company was a massive Ponzi and Pyramid scheme that raised at least $15 million from primarily Spanish and Portuguese-speaking victims.  DFRF Enterprises LLC, a Florida company, and DFRF Enterprises, LLC, a Florida company, along with Daniel Fernandes Rojo Filho, Wanderley M. Dalman, Gaspar C. Jesus, Eduardo N. Da Silva, Heriberto C. Perez Valdes, Jeffrey A. Feldman, and Romildo Da Cunha were charged with multiple violations of federal securities laws in a complaint that was filed today in Massachusetts federal court.  The Commission is seeking injunctive relief, disgorgement of ill-gotten gains along with prejudgment interest, and civil monetary penalties.

According to the Commission's complaint, Daniel Fernandes Rojo Filho ("Filho") began pitching memberships in DFRF to victims in the Spanish and Portuguese-speaking communities in Massachusetts, Florida, and other areas throughout the world.  In a sales pitch primarily made through internet videos, victims were told that DFRF owned more than 50 gold mines throughout Brazil and Africa (including reserves in Brazil alone valued at over $4 billion) that collectively produced 13-16 tons of gold monthly and realized a return of over 100% on each kilogram it produced.  The sales pitch also claimed that DFRF used a credit line with a Swiss bank to triple its available funds, that DFRF donated 25% of its profits to African charities, and that investors could realize a 15% monthly return - an annual return of nearly 200%.  Recently, the defendants claimed that DFRF was registered with the Commission.

DFRF used multiple methods to attract potential investors, including hosting a public event on a cruise ship in the Boston Harbor in October 2014.  DFRF also provided incentives to investors and promoters that attracted additional investors to DFRF, including promised 10% referral bonuses as well as additional bonuses for investors that invested more than $10,000.  Potential investors were promised that their investments were fully insured.  

In early 2015, a newspaper published an article detailing a recent class action lawsuit filed against DFRF and Filho in a Massachusetts court.  Ironically, Filho denied the allegations that DFRF was a fraudulent scheme and instead suggested that the plaintiffs had confused DFRF with TelexFree - a massive alleged Pyramid and Ponzi scheme that was also based in Massachusetts and which is the subject of multiple criminal and civil regulatory actions.  

DFRF has also sought to attract investors with promises that its stock was set to become publicly-traded and that current investors would have the ability to covert their membership interests into stock options at approximately $15.00 per share.  Filho later claimed that DFRF was already public, but that it would not begin trading until the conversion process was finished.  Last month, Filho claimed that, while he was withholding the stock symbol for DFRF for investors' "protection," the "value" of its stock had already surpassed $64 per share.  

However, according to the Commission, 

There are no gold mines, no gold reserves, or no gold operations. DFRF bank documents indicate that none of the investors' money has been used to conduct gold mining, and DFRF has received no proceeds from gold mining operations.

Moreover, DFRF's claims about its gold production and reserves are easily disproven by referencing the U.S. Geological Survey.  At the current market price of $3.77 million per metric ton, the combined gold reserves of Brazil and Mali are worth approximately $39 billion - much lower than the $1.4 trillion in reserves that DFRF claims to have.  Nor has the Commission been able to find any evidence that DFRF spent any money on charitable activities in Africa or elsewhere.  Instead, the Commission alleges that DFRF was able to pay the outsized returns it advertised through orchestrating a massive Ponzi and pyramid scheme that attracted significant attention after it began using internet videos to solicit investors.  In addition to using investor funds for the payment of purported "returns," Filho is also accused of siphoning more than $6 million out of DFRF for a lavish lifestyle that included a fleet of luxury automobiles such as a 2014 Rolls Royce, a 2014 and 2014 Lamborghini, and a 2006 and 2012 Ferrari.  

The Commission also alleges that DFRF paid more than $300,000 to Sanderley Rodrigues de Vasconcelos, who is also a defendant in the TelexFree enforcement action brought by the Commission last year.  

A copy of the Commission's complaint is below:




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