Hollywood Ponzi Scheme Guilty Plea

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The big news in Hollywod is a D-List actor named Zach Avery (legal name Zachary Horowitz) who is set to plead guilty to a Ponzi scheme in which he collected $650 million from about 250 investors. That’s a lot of money! And that’s an impressive scam.

Over the years, I’ve written a bunch here about Ponzi schemes:

The fraud went like this: Horowitz started a company called 1inMM Capital, LLC. In his plea agreement, he admits to a seven year scheme in which he told investors that this film company was purchasing foreign distribution rights to movies. The movies were then licensed to Netflix, HBO, and other streaming platforms so they could be streamed online outside the U.S.

Zachary had no distribution or streaming deals, and the contracts he showed potential investors were all fake. Here’s where the fraud should have been obvious to any of the investors: Zach promised them 25% to 45% returns on their money within a year. Continue reading

MLM Income Disclosure Statements Updated Again

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For years I’ve been collecting income disclosure statements issued by multi-level marketing (MLM) companies. These are the proof that you have almost no chance of making money in MLM, no matter what the company or product.

Across the board, you see that the vast majority of the distributors make almost nothing in commissions. The “average earnings” for a company as a whole sometimes looks decent (who wouldn’t want to make an extra $2,000 per year!), but the averages are skewed by the handful of people at the top of the pyramid who make big money (at the expense of the many at the bottom).

I have updated our library of disclosure statements to include new disclosure statements for 2020. The newest ones include Amway, Beachbody, Inteletravel (PlanNet Marketing), Herbalife, LuLaRoe, Mary Kay, Melaleuca, Monat, Optavia, Paparazzi, Rodan + Fields, and Xyngular.

Milwaukee Alderwoman Chantia Lewis Charged With Fraud

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On Tuesday, Milwaukee Alderwoman Chantia Lewis was charged with 4 felonies and 1 misdemeanor related to misconduct in public office, embezzlement, fraud, and campaign finance violations. Her attorneys say this situation is just about “accounting errors.” The detailed criminal complaint includes compelling evidence, however.

The total Ms. Lewis is accused of stealing or misappropriating totals at least $21,666.70. Thomas Meverden, an investigator with the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office examined bank records and other documents that were subpoenaed from vendors such as Agape Love Bible College, New York New York Hotel and Casino, Southwest Airlines, and the City of Milwaukee.

The alleged fraud breaks down like this: Continue reading

Investigating Ponzi Schemes

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You’ve heard news stories involving Ponzi schemes. Investment scams and Ponzi schemes are all too common, even thought consumers are warned about them regularly. Investors are lured in with promises of high returns. People in or nearing retirement find these investments enticing, especially as their retirement funds in the stock market have taken many hits in the last few years.

As I wrote in my book Expert Fraud Investigation: A Step-by-Step Guide, investors are becoming victims of these scams despite the proliferation of information available about phony investment schemes and the dire warnings given regularly by news reporters.  Perpetrators of investment schemes dream up stories explaining their unusually high rates of return on money, and get high net worth people to invest with them. Often these people are investing their entire savings with scammers.

These high investment returns typically amount to guarantees in excess of 10% per year. Often they are to the point of ridiculous, offering a 30% or 40% annual return. As a fraud investigator, it is clear to me that these offerings are bogus, because any investment that legitimately generated such returns would not be much of a secret to the rest of the world. But consumers, who are often eager to protect and grow their nest eggs, are all-too-willing to believe that this investment is the answer to their money problems. Continue reading

Tracing Digital Assets in Divorce (Cryptocurrency)

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Everyone is asking about cryptocurrency and NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens) in divorce. More and more people are investing in and using cryptocurrency, and it could be an important asset that needs to be accounted for during the divorce. In some cases, one spouse has made or lost a lot of money trading crypto, and that has implications too.

So what do you do if you haven’t a clue about this crypto stuff?

First, you make sure you’re working with a forensic accountant or other financial expert who knows what they are talking about. Cryptocurrency can be hard to track down and an added problem is the volatility (crypto can gain or lose a ton of value throughout a day).

Second, you can learn the basics of crypto and NFTs so that you at least know what you’re talking about. Cryptocurrency is quite simply a digital currency in which transactions are verified and records are maintained by a decentralized system. In other words, no one person or entity (like a government) controls cryptocurrency. There are all sorts of different flavors of cryptocurrency, but some of the most recognizable names include bitcoin, ethereum, litecoin, and dogecoin. Continue reading

Think Like a Thief

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Fraud is committed by real people. They have real families and real jobs. They often are just like you and me. But what makes thieves different from a lot of us is their ability to lie and steal. Most of us would never seriously consider taking something that does not belong to us, especially not significant sums of money.

But thieves are different. Those who commit fraud have taken that which is not theirs. They have cheated others. They have covered up their lies. What makes it okay in their minds to commit fraud? What is it about their moral code that allows them to steal? How do they justify their actions?

The answer is found in the fraud triangle, an old concept in criminology that still has wide acceptance in the fraud examination field. In order for fraud to occur, three things must be present, and each represents one side of the triangle. The three pieces of every fraud puzzle are opportunity, motivation, and rationalization. These are key to explaining why a fraud occurs. Continue reading

Two Great Internet Resources for Background Investigations

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My investigations are rooted in financial documents, as I am most often trying to trace money and figure out where it went. (Thus, my unofficial tagline of: “I find money!”)

But incorporated into the financial investigations is often background investigative work. To be clear: I don’t do deep-dive background investigations. For something like that you’d go someone like Marcy Phelps or Philip Segal. If the point is just getting a better understanding of the people and entities involved, however, I do some of the legwork to find that.

I’m often looking for names of family members, friends, roommates, business associates. I want to find addresses of homes lived in and other properties owned. I might be looking for addresses that were used by business entities. Sometimes I’m looking for pictures of people or places they lived.

Here’s how I would use obituaries and Facebook in my financial investigations:

Obituaries can tell you about…. Continue reading

The Seven Year Billionaire Divorce

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Divorces can go on for years. It’s emotionally taxing, and of course, the longer a divorce goes on, the more expensive it gets. Can you imagine a divorce that goes on for seven years?

Scott Hassan and Allison Huynh were married for 13 years when he sent her a text in 2014 saying the marriage was over. They’re still fighting because they’ve got billions of dollars of assets to divide.

Of course, there are some interesting details:

  • Every settlement conference, Scott reduced his settlement offer
  • He started a website in her name to publish embarrassing things related to a wrongful termination lawsuit she filed against her employer in 2000
  • Scott wanted Allison to sign a post-nup in 2005 and she said no thank you
  • A romantic trip to Fiji in fall 2014 seemed to signal good things ahead, but he asked for a divorce a couple of months later.

Continue reading

Big Firm Advantage in Forensic Accounting Services

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When companies have big problems, they usually bring out the big guns. The benefits of using large law firms, audit firms, and other professional service firms are undeniable. These firms offer a depth of experience that is invaluable, and they have seemingly unlimited resources in terms of manpower. A large firm often has the ability to mobilize an engagement team quickly, and can bring in experts from around the world.

Does bigger mean better? Certainly the perception exists that larger firms provide better services. No one can fault an executive who chooses a big firm when trouble is brewing. There is an undeniable comfort level that comes with the big firms because they have established reputations and many resources. Even if the project goes poorly, no one can fault the executive who chose the large firm. Continue reading

EY Charges Related to Auditor Independence

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An interesting story popped up last week about charges the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) brought against Ernst & Young (EY) and current and former partners. The current partner is James Herring, and the former partners are James Young and Curt Fochtmann. Separate charges were also brought against the chief accounting officer for the potential client, William Stiehl. All parties involved have agreed to settle the charges for a total of more than $10 million.

The SEC says the partners were submitting a proposal for audit services for Sealed Air, a public company in Charlotte, NC. During the request for proposal (RFP) process, the partners got confidential information from the audit committee, as well as information about other proposers. What the chief accounting officer (Stiehl) did amounted to “auditor selection process improprieties.”

Why would these big firm partners participate in the fraud of bid-rigging? EY is a huge firm, and surely one audit client wouldn’t make or break them. That’s true, but to the partners involved, it’s a much bigger deal. Partners in auditing firms live or die by the business they bring in, and the competition for new audit clients can be tough. Continue reading