Ah, finally. It looks like they are starting to go after the paid people who pontificate and speciously sanitize these online schemes; couldn’t happen to a more deserving ass-hat. He is described as a “consultant” in the press release; I would have chosen a different descriptor.
Former President of Telexfree Sentenced for Billion Dollar Pyramid Scheme
BOSTON – The former President of Telexfree, Inc., a global pyramid scheme disguised as an internet telecom company, was sentenced today in U.S. District Court in Worcester.
James Merrill, 55, of Ashland, was sentenced by U.S. District Court Judge Timothy S. Hillman to six years in prison and three years of supervised release. In October 2016, Merrill pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud conspiracy and eight counts of wire fraud. He also agreed to forfeit approximately $140 million and other assets.
“Despite knowing that Telexfree was a pyramid scheme, Mr. Merrill profited for years at the expense of the hard-working individuals who invested in the fraudulent company,” said Acting U.S. Attorney William D. Weinreb. “For the hundreds of thousands of investors, here and around the world, who were taken in by the lies promoted by Mr. Merrill and Telexfree, today’s sentence provides a measure of justice. Mr. Merrill’s greed damaged the livelihoods of thousands of people who were simply struggling to make ends meet.”
“While the harm and damage James Merrill caused by stealing more than $3 billion from innocent investors can never be repaired, his victims in more than 240 countries around the world can take some small measure of satisfaction that he is now looking at six years in federal prison and a substantial forfeiture as repayment for his crimes.” said Matthew Etre, Special Agent in Charge of Homeland Security Investigations in Boston. “HSI special agents will continue to aggressively investigate those who seek to profit by taking advantage of others.”
Between February 2012 and April 2014, Merrill was the President of TelexFree, Inc., which sold a “voice-over-internet-protocol” (VOIP) telephone service, similar to Skype, for which customers could sign up on a website maintained by TelexFree. TelexFree, however, was a pyramid scheme; all of the money TelexFree paid out came, not from sales of its product, but from new participants paying TelexFree to sign up as “promoters” for the company.
TelexFree’s website prominently featured Merrill as the leader of the company and as an experienced businessman in the telecom field. As the website advertised at various times, participants paid $1,425 or $339 to sign up with TelexFree, after which they would be paid $100 per week or $20 per week to post classified ads every day on the internet. The company couched those payments in terms of “buying back” unused VOIP packages the participants were unable to sell, but the reality was that participants were guaranteed an annual return of over 200% on their money without having to sell anything. Among other things, emails showed Merrill’s awareness that the ad-posting was intended only to ensure that people visited TelexFree’s web site as opposed to generating actual retail sale of the VOIP product. Participants spent minutes a day cutting and pasting ads into various classified ad sites provided by TelexFree, which were already saturated with thousands of ads posted by earlier participants.
Participants were also given substantial financial incentives to recruit others to join the scheme. To receive bonuses for recruiting others, in theory each participant needed to have one VOIP customer. But in reality, participants met this requirement simply by buying the product themselves and, in 97% of instances, never using it. In this way, TelexFree created the illusion that it had hundreds of thousands of legitimate VOIP customers. On paper the company sold about 12.4 million VOIP plans, but in reality it had a tiny number of legitimate customers, an even smaller number of which had actually paid money to TelexFree for the service. Overall, the nearly 2 million who participated in TelexFree made 96% of their compensation, not from selling the company’s VOIP service, but from ad-posting and recruiting others to join.
TelexFree derived only a fraction of its total revenue in a two-year period from sales of VOIP service – approximately 2%. The remaining 98% came from new people buying into the scheme. TelexFree could only pay the returns it had promised to its existing promoters by bringing in money from newly-recruited promoters.
Beginning in late 2012, involvement in TelexFree spread rapidly, and by April 2014, well over a million people worldwide had signed up with the company. This included over 20,000 people in Worcester, Mass. alone, and thousands more in Boston, Framingham, Chelsea and other communities statewide. Meanwhile, beginning in 2013, Merrill received increasingly frequent warnings that the company was a pyramid scheme. Beginning in August 2013, Merrill began to take steps to change how the company did business, but Merrill never alerted the public, even though over a million people signed up for TelexFree between that month and TelexFree’s collapse.
In December 2013, Merrill wired himself and two co-conspirators a total of $10 million from TelexFree accounts. On April 14, 2014, Telexfree filed for bankruptcy, at which point it owed approximately $6 billion to its participants, while having only about $120 million on hand (about 2% of what it owed). At that point, approximately 1,855,000 participants worldwide lost money in the scheme, with total losses of about $3,045,000,000. Overall, these victims came primarily from the United States (all 50 states), Brazil, China, Portugal, Peru, other Central and South American nations, Italy, and Russia, with smaller victim populations in dozens of other countries.
Acting U.S. Attorney Weinreb and HSI SAC Etre made the announcement today. The U.S. Attorney’s Office also received valuable assistance from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Brazilian Federal Police based in Vitoria, Brazil, the Securities & Exchange Commission, and the Massachusetts Securities Division of the Office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Assistant U.S. Attorneys Andrew E. Lelling and Neil J. Gallagher, Jr., of Weinreb’s Economic Crimes Unit are prosecuting the case.
Former ZeekRewards CEO Sentenced To More Than 14 Years For Operating $900 Million Internet Ponzi Scheme
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – U.S. Attorney Jill Westmoreland Rose announced today that U.S. District Court Judge Max O. Cogburn, Jr. sentenced the former CEO of ZeekRewards to 176 months in prison for operating a $900 million Internet Ponzi scheme. Paul Burks, 70, of Lexington, N.C. was also ordered to serve three years of supervised release and to pay $244,000,000 as restitution. A federal jury convicted Burks in July 2016 of wire and mail fraud conspiracy, wire and mail fraud, and tax fraud conspiracy following a three-week trial.
Michael Rolin, Special Agent in Charge of the United States Secret Service, Charlotte Field Division and Thomas J. Holloman III, Special Agent in Charge of the Internal Revenue Service, Criminal Investigation Division (IRS-CI) join U.S. Attorney Rose in making today’s announcement.
According to filed court documents, evidence introduced at Burks’ trial and today’s sentencing hearing:
From January 2010 through August 2012, Paul Burks was the owner of Rex Venture Group, LLC (RVG), through which he owned and operated Zeekler, a sham Internet-based penny auction company, and its purported advertising division, ZeekRewards (collectively “Zeek”). Burks and his conspirators induced more than 900,000 victims – including over 1,500 victims in the Charlotte area – to invest in their fraudulent scheme, by falsely representing that Zeekler was generating massive retail profits from its penny auctions, and that the public could share in such profits through investment in ZeekRewards. Burks and his conspirators, including Zeek’s former Chief Operating Officer Dawn Wright Olivares and her step-son and Zeek’s Senior Technology Officer Daniel C. Olivares, claimed at one point that investors would be guaranteed a 125% return on their investment.
Burks and his conspirators represented that victim-investors in ZeekRewards could participate in the Retail Profit Pool (RPP), which supposedly allowed victims collectively to share 50% of Zeek’s daily net profits. Burks and his conspirators did not keep books and records needed to calculate such daily figures. Instead, Burks simply made up the daily “profit” numbers. Contrary to the conspirators’ claims, the true revenue from the scheme did not come from the penny auction’s “massive profits.” Instead, approximately 98% of all incoming funds came from victim-investors, which were then used to make Ponzi-style payments to earlier victim investors.
In addition to promising massive returns on investments, Burks and his conspirators used a number of ways to promote Zeek to current and potential investors. For example, the conspirators hosted weekly conference calls and leadership calls, where participants could call in listen to Burks and others make false representations intended to encourage victim-investors to continue to invest money and to recruit others to invest in Zeek. Burks also organized and attended “Red Carpet Events,” where victim investors came to hear details of the scheme in person. During these events, Burks and his conspirators made false representations about the massive retail profits generated by Zeek. They also used electronic and print media, including websites, emails and journals, to make false and misleading statements about the success of Zeekler to recruit victim investors.
As the Ponzi scheme grew in size and scope it became unsustainable and it eventually began to unravel as the outstanding liability resulting from the bogus 125% return on investment continued to rise beyond control. By August 2012, Burks and his conspirators fraudulently represented to the collective victims that their investments were worth nearly $3 billion, but had no accurate books and records to even determine how much cash on hand was available to pay such liability. Contrary to representations made to victim investors, at that time, Burks and his conspirators had only $340 million available to pay out investors. Over the course of the scheme, Burks diverted approximately $10.1 million to himself.
Burks also failed to file corporate tax returns or to make corporate tax payments for his companies, among other things. In addition, for tax year 2011, Burks issued fraudulent IRS Forms 1099s, causing victim-investors to file inaccurate tax returns for phantom income they never actually received.
At sentencing, Judge Cogburn stated that for the defendant’s scheme to work would have required a miracle on the order of the “loaves and fishes.” Judge Cogburn stated that a significant sentence was necessary to promote respect for the law, provide just punishment, and also deter others considering committing fraud. Judge Cogburn further noted that the scheme was “almost breathtaking” and emphasized that the defendant had time to stop it.
Burks will be ordered to report to the Federal Bureau of Prisons to begin serving his sentence upon designation of a federal facility. All federal sentences are served without the possibility of parole.
Burks’ co-conspirators, Dawn Wright Olivares, Zeek’s Chief Operating Officer, and her step-son and Zeek’s Senior Technology Officer, Daniel C. Olivares, were previously sentenced to 90 and 24 months in prison and three years of supervised release, respectively, for their involvement in the scheme.
In making today’s announcement, U.S. Attorney Rose thanked the U.S. Secret Service and IRS-CI for investigating the case, and the U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission, Division of Enforcement for its assistance with the investigation.
The prosecution is handled by Assistant United States Attorneys Jenny Grus Sugar and Corey Ellis of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Charlotte.
Additional information and updated court filings about this and related cases filings can be accessed at the district’s website: http://www.justice.gov/usao/ncw/ncwvwa.html.
Here is a link to an article on BehindMLM. http://behindmlm.com/companies/telexfree/brazil-indicts-twenty-two-telexfree-scammers/
Mentioned in the indictments are Carlos Wanzeler and Carlos Costa (and their family members) for their roles in TelexFree Brazil.
Thanks Oz for another great article.
ANNOUNCEMENT FROM THE RECEIVER – February 2, 2017
As I previously announced, I continue to pursue Final Judgments requiring each member of the Net Winner Class of those who won at least $1000 in ZeekRewards to repay their net winnings to the Receivership for distribution to victims of the scheme. On January 27, 2017, United States District Judge Graham Mullen entered an Order on Process for Determining the Amount of Final Judgments Against Net Winner Class Members, which sets forth the process for determining the amount of the net winnings received by each member of the Net Winner Class. That amount plus prejudgment interest will then become the amount of the Final Judgment to be entered against the net winner. I intend to pursue collection of these judgments vigorously, and expect the ultimate amount collected, while uncertain, will be a substantial sum.
The Court’s Order, which describes the process in detail, may be viewed by following this link. The first step in the process – notifying each Net Winner of the amount of their net winnings – is expected to begin next week. After notification, each Net Winner is required to provide a response stating whether he or she accepts or disagrees with that amount within 60 days of the notification using a website Net Winnings Determination Response Portal. More information and links to the Response Portal will be sent to the Net Winner Class members in the notification email. If a Net Winner does not receive their notification by February 13, 2017 then he or she should email email@example.com to receive instructions on how to obtain the notification.
Throughout the Receivership, the Receiver has expressed a willingness to consider voluntary final settlements with ZeekRewards’ Net Winners to efficiently resolve the claims against them. Hundreds of settlements have been negotiated with Net Winners and approved by the Court. If a Net Winner wants to discuss a settlement of the Receiver’s claims prior to Final Judgment being entered, please communicate with the Receiver at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the case entitled “Bell v Disner, et al”, we have the Judge’s Order on a Motion to set up a process for determining Final Judgments against Zeek “Net Winners”. Here are a few highlights, there are 25 sections within the Order:
- The amount of net winnings shall be calculated in the same manner as the Final Judgments entered against the named Net Winners in this action. “Specifically, Net Winnings shall be calculated as total cash paid-out by RVG less outside cash (excluding reinvested funds generated as part of the ZeekRewards Program) used to purchase VIP bids, retail bids, and subscriptions (VIP bids + Retail bids + Subscriptions)”
- On or before January 31, 2017, the Receiver shall notify each Net Winner Class member of the amount of their ZeekRewards Net Winnings as reflected in the available books and records of the RVG Receivership.
- The Receiver shall notify each member of the Net Winner Class of the amount of their Net Winnings by email to the email address provided by the net winner in connection with any account included in determining the amount of Net Winnings as well as any other email address that has been provided by the net winner following the appointment of the Receiver. The Receiver shall also post a link on the Receivership website that allows class members to receive notification of the amount of their Net Winnings. In the event that the notice cannot be delivered to any email address provided by the Net Winner, the Receiver shall send a letter to the last known physical address of the Net Winner informing the Net Winner of the proceedings and the availability of the amount of his or her Net Winnings on the Receivership website.
- Class Counsel for the Net Winner Class shall (i) post a notice on the Net Winner Class website describing the process set forth herein and (ii) communicate to the Net Winner Class the availability from the Receiver of the Net Winnings amount for each class member.
- On or before March 31, 2017 (or at least 60 days following the initial email transmittal of the Net Winning amounts to class members if the Receiver’s email notice occurs after January 31, 2017), each class member shall, if they choose to do so, respond to the calculation of their Net Winnings from the RVG records.
- Final Judgment shall be entered against any Net Winner Class member who does not respond to the Receiver’s calculation of their Net Winnings on or before the response deadline in the amount of their Net Winnings as calculated by the Receiver plus prejudgment interest, calculated at the North Carolina statutory rate of 8% per annum from August 17, 2012, which is on or after the date of the last fraudulent transfer payment to each Defendant, to November 29, 2016, the date of the Summary Judgment Order in this action.
I have uploaded the complete Order here.
Photo of $20M seized in box spring following arrest of Brazilian national in scheme to launder proceeds of TelexFree http://go.usa.gov/x9bs5
ANNOUNCEMENT FROM THE RECEIVER – January 19, 2017
On February 13, 2013, Paul Burks will be sentenced in United States District Court for the Western District of North Carolina for his role in the ZeekRewards Ponzi and pyramid scheme. The sentencing hearing is open to the public and will be held at the Federal Courthouse at 401 W. Trade Street, Charlotte, NC.
Victims of these offenses are entitled to be heard at sentencing. If a victim would like to have a letter describing the impact that ZeekRewards had on them submitted to the Court please send an email to HearingLetter@zeekrewardsreceivership.com. In particular, the Court would like to hear about any of the below circumstances:
- Becoming insolvent;
- Filing for bankruptcy under the Bankruptcy Code;
- Suffering substantial loss of a retirement, education, or other savings or investment fund;
- Making substantial changes to his or her employment, such as postponing his or her retirement plans;
- Making substantial changes to his or her living arrangements, such as relocating to a less expensive home; and
- Suffering substantial harm to his or her ability to obtain credit.
I will be attending the hearings on behalf of all ZeekRewards victims and will present your letters to the Court.
Zeek Receiver, Kenneth Bell, has filed a Motion to Enter and Order for determining the amount of Final Judgment against the “Winner Class” members. The Court had entered an Order granting a Summary Judgment and Partial Summary Judgment against the Net Winner Class on November 29, 2016. The Court found that the Net Winner Class received “fraudulent tranfers” that must be repaid to the Receiver.
The only issue now remaining before the Court with respect to the Net Winner Class is how to fairly and efficiently determine the amount of the Final Judgment (ZeekRewards net winnings plus pre-judgment interest) to be paid by each of the over 9000 members of the class.
Attached to the Motion is an Exhibit containing the proposed process
that will give each class member individual notice of the amount of his or her “net winnings” according to RVG’s records, an opportunity to respond to that amount with evidence of a different amount and access to a fair and expedient process to resolve any cases in which the Receiver and Net Winner cannot agree on the amount of the Final Judgment. Counsel for the Receiver has conferred with Counsel for the Net Winner Class, and Counsel for the Net Winner Class has stated that the Net Winner Class has no objection to the Receiver’s proposed process.
Part of the proposal is notification “on or before January 31, 2017” of the amount of “Net Winnings” as indicated in RVG’s records and the records of the Receivership.
The amount of net winnings shall be calculated by the Receiver (through his expert witness) in the same manner as the Final Judgments entered against the named Net Winners in this action.
Judge Cogburn has issued the following Order:
THIS MATTER is before the court on the parties’ Joint Motion to Continue Sentencing (#119). Having considered the motion and reviewed the pleadings, the court enters the following Order. The court notes that the parties have requested that the court continue the sentencing hearing to or after January 30, 2017 and have reported that February 9th, 2017 is a known conflict for the counsels’ schedules.
IT IS, THEREFORE, ORDERED that the parties’ Joint Motion to Continue Sentencing (#119) is GRANTED, and the Clerk of Court is instructed to place this matter on the next appropriate sentencing calendar.
The case docket sets a tentative date:
Sentencing set for 2/13/2017 09:30 AM in Courtroom, 401 W Trade St, Charlotte, NC 28202 before District Judge Max O. Cogburn Jr.