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.