ONLINE PONZI FORUM BOMBSHELL: Matt Gagnon A ‘Danger To The Investing Public,’ SEC Says; Federal Judge Freezes Assets Of Mazu.com Pitchman Who Promoted Legisi, Other Alleged Scams
Ponzi forum operator or moderator? Online HYIP aficionado? Think you’re safe pitching fraud schemes because you’re “only” a promoter or forum “expert” and not the operator of the programs?
Have a secret partnership deal with an HYIP fraudster? Using fancy, professional-sounding terms such as “due diligence” in your forum posts? Claiming you’ve done thorough research before recommending an “opportunity.”
Pitching programs that advertise unusually large returns — while at once showcasing your knowledge about investment scams and steering people away from certain programs because they sound too good to be true?
In an action that may send shockwaves across the Web world and Ponzi forums such as ASA Monitor, TalkGold and MoneyMakerGroup, the SEC has gone to federal court and filed an emergency action to halt “a series of fraudulent, unregistered securities offerings” made through Mazu.com.
U.S. District Judge George Caram Steeh of the the Eastern District of Michigan has frozen the assets of Matthew J. Gagnon, 41, of Weslaco, Texas, and Portland, Ore. Gagnon is Mazu.com’s operator.
“From January 2006 through approximately August 2007, Gagnon helped orchestrate a massive Ponzi scheme conducted by Gregory N. McKnight . . . and his company, Legisi Holdings, LLC,” the SEC said.
The Legisi scheme raised about $72.6 million from more than 3,000 investors “by promising returns of upwards of 15% a month,” the SEC said.
“Gagnon promoted Legisi but in doing so misled investors by claiming, among other things, that he had thoroughly researched McKnight and Legisi and had determined Legisi to be a legitimate and safe investment,” the SEC said.
Among other things, the SEC alleged that Gagnon “had no basis for the claims he made about McKnight and Legisi.
“Gagnon also failed to disclose to investors that he was to receive 50% of Legisi’s purported ‘profits’ under his agreement with McKnight,” the SEC said. “Gagnon received a net of approximately $3.8 million in Legisi investor funds from McKnight for his participation in the scheme.”
Then, beginning in August 2007, “Gagnon fraudulently offered and sold securities representing interests in a new company that purportedly was to develop resort properties,” the SEC said.
In this scheme, Gagnon “falsely claimed that the investment was risk-free and ‘SEC compliant,’ and guaranteed a 200% return in 14 months. In reality, however, Gagnon sent the money to a twice-convicted felon, did not register the investment with the SEC, and knew such an outlandish return was impossible,” the SEC said.
Gagnon took in at least $361,865 from 21 investors, the SEC said.
Still unfinished, Gagnon — in April 2009 — began promoting “a fraudulent offering of interests in a purported Forex trading venture,” the SEC said. “Gagnon guaranteed that the venture would generate returns of 2% a month or 30% a year for his investors. Gagnon’s claims were false, and Gagnon had no basis for making the claims.”
Gagnon next turned to another Forex sceme, the SEC said.
From October 2009 to November 2009, Gagnon “offered another purported Forex trading venture in which he claimed to have a trader in Europe who would trade foreign currencies for investors in exchange for 40% of any profits he generated,” the SEC said. “Gagnon removed this offer from his website in November 2009 when he received notice that the SEC had subpoenaed his bank records.”
Despite his knowledge about Ponzi and fraud schemes, Gagnon repeatedly pitched such schemes, the SEC said.
“Gagnon has been unrelenting in his efforts to raise money from the public through
fraudulent, unregistered offerings,” the SEC said. “He remains a danger to the investing public.”
Despite his sales pitches, “Gagnon has never been associated with a registered broker-dealer and has never been registered with the Commission as a broker or dealer or in any other capacity,” the SEC said.
Among the people to whom Gagnon directed money was the late Bryan K. Foster, who was convicted in 1997 of five felony counts of wire fraud and sentenced to 41 months in prison. These convictions were recorded in U.S. District Court in Montana, according to records.
In 2000, Foster was convicted in Colorado of one felony count of wire fraud and sentenced to five years in prison, according to records.
Between July 13, 2007 and September 17, 2007, Gagnon sent at least $800,000 to accounts in the name of Trails Home LLC, which was controlled Foster, the SEC said. Money from the illegal Legisi program was included in the sum transferred to Foster for his purported investment program, the SEC said.
The Legisi Program
In 2005, McKnight was an underemployed General Motors worker living outside Flint, Mich., the SEC said, adding that he had financial problems.
“In December 2005, McKnight began offering and selling interests in a pooled investment program variously called Legisi.com or Legisi,” the SEC said. “McKnight promoted the offering around the globe through an Internet website at www.legisi.com,” promising monthly returns of up to 15 percent.
By February 2006, “McKnight incorporated a shell company called Legisi Holdings, LLC in the bank-secrecy haven of Nevis in the West Indies,” the SEC said.
“McKnight asserted on the Legisi website that the Legisi program was merely a ‘loan program’ through which investors would ‘loan’ money to Legisi and, in return, Legisi would pay investors high rates of interest.
But Legisi actually was “a classic pooled investment vehicle, in which investors invested money into a common venture with the expectation that the money would be used to generate profits, for McKnight and the investors, solely through the efforts of McKnight or others working on his behalf. The Legisi program was a security in the form of an investment contract,” the SEC said.
“The Legisi program was also a massive Ponzi scheme,” the SEC said.
In January 2006, McKnight and Gagnon discussed a deal by which Gagnon would promote Legisi on the Mazu.com website, the SEC said.
“McKnight and Gagnon had known each other for several years after Gagnon recruited McKnight into a multilevel marketing business called ‘Mannatech,’” the SEC said. “McKnight became part of Gagnon’s ‘down line,’ meaning that a portion of McKnight’s commissions from selling Mannatech products went to Gagnon.”
McKnight paid Gagnon “a total of approximately $4,532,512 between January 29, 2006 and April 14, 2008,” the SEC said. “All of the money Gagnon received from McKnight consisted of investor funds. There were no ‘profits’ generated by Legisi.”
Gagnon netted about $3.8 million in the scheme, the SEC said.
“On behalf of McKnight, Gagnon solicited investors around the world through the publicly available Mazu.com website,” the SEC said. “Gagnon wrote and/or reviewed and approved the content of the Mazu website. No valid registration statement was filed or was in effect with the Commission in connection with Gagnon’s offer and sale of Legisi program investment contracts.”
SEC: Forum Moderators Helped Push Ponzi Scheme
“Between approximately January 2006 and August 2007, Mazu employees working on Gagnon’s behalf and at his direction promoted the Legisi program in emails, in Mazu Business Packs and DVDs they sent to investors, and on the Legisi Forum,” the SEC charged.
“The Legisi Forum was an on-line chat room accessible through the Legisi.com website. Several Mazu employees served as ‘moderators’ on the Legisi Forum. Mazu’s support services also included answering questions over the telephone and email,” the SEC said.
Forum shills performed services for Legisi and deflected concerns when CNN carried a negative report on the company, the SEC said.
“The Mazu employees acting as moderators encouraged readers to invest in Legisi, assisted them in transferring money to Legisi, encouraged investors to bring in new investors, and offered investors personal assistance in bringing in referrals,” the SEC said. “They also encouraged investors to keep their monthly earnings with Legisi, rather than withdrawing them, in order to achieve purportedly higher returns. They made sure transfers of money between investors and Legisi went smoothly. The moderators updated investors on changes to the Legisi program like new minimum investment amounts and referral fee rules.
“The moderators made posts on the Legisi Forum to prevent and diffuse investor rumors and concerns,” the SEC continued. “After an article questioning Legisi’s legitimacy appeared on the CNN Money website on May 8, 2007, one moderator wrote, ‘I think it is worth mentioning that the Forum is probably being read by people who are not Legisi members. So let’s not raise red flags to any bulls out there shall we. . .. Of course so far as any discussion on the [CNN Money] article is concerned I’m sure that everyone is aware that Greg went into Legisi knowing the law and planning for this eventuality. So keep a cool head and stop worrying about what you should do.”
No Due Diligence
McKnight was operating a classic Ponzi scheme fueled in part by Gagnon’s cheerleading on Mazu.com, the SEC said.
Despite the relentless hype, Gagnon performed no due diligence and simply fabricated information or passed along claims as though they were factual, the SEC said.
“Gagnon did not obtain or review any of McKnight’s trading records, bank and brokerage account statements, or e-currency account records at any point prior to, or during, Gagnon’s promotion of Legisi,” the SEC charged.
SEC: Gagnon ‘Recklessly Disregarded’ Scam Warning Signs
“Throughout the time that Gagnon promoted Legisi, he simultaneously warned readers about a type of fraud referred to as a high yield investment program. High yield investment programs, commonly called ‘HYIPs,’ typically involve off-shore companies promising very high rates of interest generated by investment in foreign currencies and a variety of other vehicles, along with repeated hyping of the legitimacy of the program,” the SEC said.
Gagnon understood the HYIP fraud universe, but nevertheless pitched Legisi, which had promoted an unusually high rate of return and had other markers of the exact kind of scam Mazu.com warned about on its website, the SEC said.
“From at least April 2006 through at least May 2007 Gagnon provided on the Mazu website an accurate description of a HYIP by stating that they (emphasis added by PP Blog):
collect funds from lenders as investment capital or deposits and promise a return that is usually extremely high in exchange for ‘borrowing your money.’ The result? Generally after a period of time you are free to withdraw your capital and or your profits, or you can ‘reinvest’ them to earn additional profits. In theory, the compounding can create a crazy return on investment given time . . .
* * * * * *
Sadly, most HYIPs are offshore fronts that don’t lie within U.S. jurisdiction and you have no recourse when they steal your money. Most HYIPs realize this and they bank on it! They’ve got you right where they want you. Most also allude to making their profit in legitimate investment vehicles when in reality, you have no idea where they’re making their profit.
And Gagnon also warned readers about Ponzi schemes.
“On the Mazu website between at least April 2006 and May 2007, Gagnon accurately described a Ponzi scheme as an ‘investment program touting huge returns in a short period of time. Any returns someone sees are paid out of monies gathered from the investors. No real product, investment, or business takes place,’” the SEC said.
The Legisi Ponzi began to unravel by September 2007, its decay brought about in part by “the federal seizure of an e-currency provider that was holding $1.8 million for McKnight,” the SEC said.
Gagnon then “attempted to extort money from McKnight,” the SEC said.
“On September 9, 2007, Gagnon informed McKnight that he was ending the partnership between Legisi and Mazu,” the SEC said. “Gagnon offered McKnight a choice: send Gagnon and several of Gagnon’s associates approximately $2.5 million, tell the Legisi members that Gagnon was starting a real estate fund, and that Mazu and Legisi were parting amicably, or Gagnon would email the entire Legisi membership and tell them ‘the truth’ about McKnight’s fraud.”
Read the SEC complaint.