SEC Enforcement Chief References Investor Alert On ‘Pyramid Schemes Posing As Multi-Level Marketing Programs’ In Congressional Testimony Today, Says ‘Coordinated Effort’ To Disrupt Them Under Way

“The staff also has recently seen what appears to be an increase in pyramid schemes . . . under the guise of ‘multi-level marketing’ and ‘network marketing’ opportunities . . . These schemes often target the most vulnerable investors, and social media has expanded their reach. The Division is deploying resources to disrupt these schemes through a coordinated effort of timely, aggressive enforcement actions along with community outreach and investor education. We are also using new analytic techniques to identify patterns and common threads, thereby permitting earlier detection of potential fraudulent schemes.”Andrew Ceresney, SEC Enforcement Division director, March 19, 2015

cautionflag3RD UPDATE 6:09 P.M. EDT U.S.A. Bad news for “program” scammers and their willfully blind enablers: Andrew Ceresney, the director of the SEC’s Divison of Enforcement, told lawmakers on Capitol Hill today that scams using an MLM or network-marketing business model are on the radar.

In fact, according to written testimony Ceresney delivered to the House Capital Markets and Government Sponsored Enterprises subcommittee, they are enforcement “priorities” — right up there with insider trading, microcap fraud and other forms of securities fraud.

The Division is deploying resources to disrupt these schemes through a coordinated effort of timely, aggressive enforcement actions along with community outreach and investor education,”  Ceresney told the panel.

New Jersey Republican Rep. Scott Garrett chairs the panel. Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, a New York Democrat, is ranking member.

In October, an SEC official attending a symposium sponsored by the Federal Trade Commission on the subject of how fraud affects communities told the audience that the SEC has a “newly established pyramid-scheme task force.”

Ceresney didn’t reference the task force in his prepared remarks today. However, the agency already has filed two actions against MLM or network-marketing schemes this year. In February, the agency sued the “Achieve Community,” alleging it was a Ponzi- and pyramid scheme that had gathered about $3.8 million and had spread on social media. One or more criminal probes related to the SEC’s Achieve investigation are believed to be under way, amid concerns Achieve was funneling scam proceeds offshore.

Also in February, the SEC sued a “program” known as Wings Network, alleging it was targeting Latino communities and that its promoters “used Facebook to publicize ‘business meetings’ that took place at hotels and other locations in Connecticut, California, Florida, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Texas, Georgia, and Utah.

“The promoters also set up storefronts or ‘training centers’ to lure investors into attending Wings Network presentations,” the agency charged. “For example, one promoter used a storefront in downtown Philadelphia to make presentations to prospective investors, and another promoter rented office space in Pompano Beach, Fla., and spread the word in the local Latino community to attract prospective investors to come in and hear presentations.”

Wings appears to have gathered at least $23.5 million.

In addition to targeting vulnerable population groups, Wings Network tried to sanitize itself by falsely trading on the name of the Direct Selling Association, the SEC said in court filings. Wings has been tied to two companies that used the name Tropikgadget.

Both ostensibly operated from Portugal through business entities set up in Madeira, a Portuguese island in the North Atlantic, and through Sharjah, a city in the United Arab Emirates, the SEC alleged.

Court records suggest Wings had a strong presence in Marlborough, Mass., the town from which the TelexFree MLM scheme was based. In April 2014, the SEC described TelexFree as a massive Ponzi- and pyramid scheme largely targeting immigrant populations. A court-appointed trustee says TelexFree may have gathered $1.8 billion through its pyramid scheme in about two years.

Participants hailed from dozen of countries. A partial list of U.S. participants shows many names that appear to be Latino. Trustee Stephen B. Darr said in court filings that the full list of worldwide participants “contains 1,894,940” names and spans “35,110 pages.”

A list of alleged “winners” in the 2012 Zeek Rewards scheme broken up the SEC and the U.S. Secret Service also appears to include a disproportionate share of Latino names or names from other vulnerable population groups. Zeek is estimated to have rounded up $897 million in less than two years and to have affected on the order of 800,000 victims.

Zeek’s name (through parent Rex Venture Group LLC) was referenced in a footnote and related link in today’s written testimony by Ceresney.

So was the name of CKB168, a “program” that allegedly targeted members of Asian-American communities in New York and California and was taken down by the SEC in 2013. The alleged haul was pegged at at least $20 million.

The footnote pointed to an SEC investor alert dated Oct. 1, 2013, and titled, “Beware of Pyramid Schemes Posing as Multi-Level Marketing Programs.” The alert, which has been translated into Chinese, Spanish, Portuguese, Vietnamese and Creole, has been updated to include information on “programs” such as TelexFree and Wings Network.

Though not referenced specifically in the October 2013 alert, “programs” such as eAdGear, Zhunrize and WCM777 also have encountered SEC actions. All three appear to have affected Asian population groups. WCM777 also clearly affected Latino groups and has emerged as one of the strangest MLM schemes of all time.

Court filings suggest that $750,000 in WCM777 money was siphoned off and provided to one or more lobbying firms. On March 13, the PP Blog reported that more than $400,000 in proceeds allegedly were directed to a former CIA operative who once worked as a political fundraiser and has two felony convictions.

Some WCM777 promoters had claimed that $14,000 sent to the California-based “program” returned $500,000 in 52 weeks. WCM777 appears to have gathered more than $80 million in about a year, with the proceeds from the MLM “program” diverted to purchase golf courses, real estate and more. Tens of millions of dollars appear to have been diverted to Hong Kong.

The alleged haul of eAdGear was $129 million. Two persons have been charged criminally.

Zhunrize, the SEC said, gathered about $105 million.

Today’s Congressional testimony took place against the backdrop of continuing clashes between Herbalife and activist investor Bill Ackman, an Herbalife short-seller who has accused the MLM program of being a pyramid scheme that targets Latinos.

Herbalife, which was not referenced in today’s testimony, denies it is a pyramid scheme and says it is proud of its appeal to Latinos and serves the community honorably. (Ackman also isn’t mentioned in the testimony.)

Responding on web forums such as Seeking Alpha, fans of Herbalife have accused Ackman of pandering to enforcement agencies, members of Congress and Latino groups as part of a scheme to inspire investigations that would line his pockets by driving down Herbalife’s stock price.

In media accounts, Ackman has said he won’t keep personal profits if his Herbalife short pays off. At the same time, he asserts he is pursuing profit for his hedge-fund investors through a strategy that also delivers social justice.

Perhaps the only thing clear right now is that MLM, no stranger to controversy, never before has been under a light this intense.

The Capital Markets and Government Sponsored Enterprises subcommittee is under the House Financial Services Committee. The committee is chaired by Rep. Jeb Hensarling, a Texas Republican. Rep. Maxine Waters, a California Democrat, is ranking member.

Read Ceresney’s written, footnoted testimony.

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