Mormon Investments


Mormons Now Losing Billions to Affinity Fraud


Post by Joanna Brooks

Religion Dispatches

September 13, 2010


Mormon folks in Utah have been fleeced of $1.4 billion over the past few years in affinity fraud schemes designed to exploit their connection to the LDS community and culture, according to news reports.


Oh, yes, we've all seen it. Or heard about it from friends and relatives. Ponzi schemes. Multi-level marketing. Miracle health products. Peddled to people who have been raised in an LDS culture that values “insider” status, kinship ties, hierarchy, and unquestioning respect for authority over critical thinking and skepticism.


A Mormon taste for the miraculous doesn’t hurt either.


Fraud peddlers have been known to call down church membership lists and enlist returned missionaries fresh back from service and hungry for work. Their capital? Utah County, Utah, home to Brigham Young University, and the beating heart of the Book of Mormon belt.


A friend from a northern Utah farmtown remembers that her dad always said: “If the first thing someone says when they introduce themselves to you is that they’re LDS, keep your hand on your wallet.”




And amen.

Agency says three Ponzi schemes took $15 million

By Tom Harvey
The Salt Lake Tribune
Updated Jun 25, 2010

Federal regulators have moved to halt what they allege are three related Ponzi schemes that took in more than $15 million, apparently mostly from Mormon Church members promised returns of 200 percent and more.

The Securities and Exchange Commission has filed a complaint in Salt Lake City’s federal court against four men who allegedly operated Ponzi schemes in which money from new investors goes to pay off earlier investors, making it appear a business is profitable.

Named in the civil complaint this week were Anthony C. Zufelt, 30, of Roosevelt; Joseph A. Nelson, 33, formerly of Layton and now living in EI Dorado Hills, Calif.; and David M. Decker, 36, of Provo and his brother, Cache D. Decker, 32, of Leesburg, Va.

The companies involved are Zufelt Business Services, of Syracuse; Silver Leaf Investments, of Clearfield; and JCN, JCN Capital and JCN International, all of Clearfield.

Thomas Melton, an SEC attorney in Utah, said the schemes involved soliciting investments from people who were told their money would be used to expand businesses that collected fees from merchants for processing credit card payments.

Investors were told they could earn a return of up to 220 percent because fees from the processing businesses would grow as new clients were signed up, he said.

Instead of using investor monies to expand the credit card business, the four used the money to pay off investors, for personal expenses or put it into other businesses — including for a movie called “Pirates of the Great Salt Lake.”

Zufelt “would approach friends, family and other church contacts and tell them he could get about 200 percent return for them in a short period of time,” said Melton.

None of those named in the complaint could be reached for comment Friday afternoon.

Melton said a number of victims told investigators that the accused used their connections as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to solicit them.

“Nelson was a high counselor in his stake who contacted LDS members through church connections and church functions,” said Melton.

So-called affinity fraud, in which members of a group sharing interests and beliefs are targeted by scammers, is a particular problem in Utah, where the LDS community is tightly knit with a high degree of trust between members.

The complaint cites three interrelated schemes.

The first, between June 2005 and June 2006, involved at least 36 persons who invested more than $2.9 million in Zufelt Inc. The second, between July and December 2006, impacted at least 11 people who invested $770,000 in promissory notes offered by Silver Leaf Investments.

Zufelt controlled both companies. The three other defendants are accused of selling investments on his behalf.

Nelson allegedly oversaw the third scheme. The SEC charged that, starting in June of 2005, Nelson solicited at least $12 million from more than 100 persons for investments in promissory notes offered by the JCN companies he controlled.

That scheme was active at least through the first months of this year, Melton said. The SEC has obtained a temporary restraining from U.S. District Judge Dee Benson that freezes the assets of those involved and requires them to account for investor monies.


Preying on the faithful: Though Mormons often victims, LDS Church skips fraud-prevention event

By Tom Harvey
The Salt Lake Tribune

Southwick, Koerber, Hammons and Mowen -- a gallery of Utahns convicted or facing criminal charges for involvement in some of the state's biggest fraud schemes.

But the four represent only a sampling of the problem that has wracked Utah in recent years as the recession has pushed more schemes into the open.

Frustrated by the wave of fraud that by one estimate took $750 million out of Utahns' pocketbooks last year, regulators, law enforcement officials and attorneys are organizing a free "Fraud College" next month in Utah County for the public to call attention to the problem and to try to combat it.

But the one player that all agree has to lend its loud voice to the proceedings if they are to be as effective as possible will be largely silent -- the LDS Church.

This is Utah, after all, where The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints claims about 60 percent of residents as members. Beyond the numbers, there is the church's organization into close-knit local wards led by male authority figures where members' social and religious lives revolve around shared beliefs in the sacredness and uniqueness of their religion.

Those characteristics make Mormons vulnerable to what regulators and government investigators label "affinity fraud" in which groups who through shared associations develop bonds of trust that can be easily exploited by con artists. Though other faiths are similarly vulnerable, that is particularly true in the insular Mormon culture of Utah.

"There's this notion that if you pay your tithing and do what you're supposed to do, the windows of heaven will be open to you and God will pour you out a blessing such that there's not room enough to receive it," said Keith Woodwell, a church member and director of the Division of Securities, the state's chief investigator of investment fraud. "So it's very easy for someone who has [fraud] as their motive to use that doctrine and say, 'Look, you're a member in good standing and you pay your tithing and you're entitled to be blessed.' "


Choosing not to participate » But the church, after initially signaling to organizers that it would be a key player in the fraud conference that is drawing representatives of other faiths, has chosen not to send a high-ranking authority to speak.

A church spokesman declined to say why it was not participating.

Mark F. Zimbelman, a Brigham Young University professor of accounting who teaches a class about how frauds are committed, will be the LDS member on the interfaith panel at the Fraud College. But he said will not be speaking for the church.

The church's decision is a disappointment for organizers, who wanted a strong LDS presence to send a message about safe investments.

"I don't think any church has done enough, including the Mormon Church," said attorney Brent Baker, a former Securities and Exchange Commission lawyer and a specialist in securities fraud cases.

Discouraged by the level of fraud in Utah and the inability of government to deal with the problem, Baker and fellow attorneys, state regulators and others saw the Fraud College set for June 30 at Utah Valley University in Orem as a way educate Utahns and give them the tools to evaluate pitches and make decisions about whether to invest.

The sessions will include an interfaith panel in which representatives of several faiths are scheduled to participate. But organizers saw the involvement of the LDS Church as crucial, given the level of fraud perpetrated in its ranks and what many perceive as its muted response to the problem.

"I think more needs to be done" by the church, said Francine Giani, a church member and executive director of the state Department of Commerce. "A couple of years ago we saw a statement that was read over the pulpit that I was happy about, but we should see more and we should see it often."

In a written statement, LDS Church spokesman Scott Trotter said church leaders have been warning members for years about the dangers of fraud and get-rich-quick schemes. "These messages have been delivered over the pulpit in General Conference, in official letters from church leadership, and in articles found in official church publications," he said.

Even without an official LDS presence, Fraud College organizers think they will still be able to put on a credible event. The one-day session will feature panelists speaking on various aspects of investing and on investment fraud. Gov. Gary Herbert will be the keynote speaker. Spokeswoman Angie Welling said the governor agreed to participate because he's concerned about the issue.

"Too often Utahns are very quick to simply trust those people in their inner circles, whether it's through church affiliation or any other social or recreational group," said Welling, adding that the governor will talk about the importance of research before investing.

Barbara Bowden knows the pitch all too well. She and members of her family invested about $1 million with a former LDS bishop, mostly because of his standing in the church.

"Bill Hammons reached a great deal of people in the church, and I know he did perpetuate the fact that he was a bishop or had been a bishop and that was first and foremost your reason for trusting him,"said Bowden.

Hammons of St. George is facing trial this year on 10 felony fraud-related charges for allegedly helping bilk dozens of people out of tens of millions of dollars. Hammons, who denies he knowingly participated in a crime, was the largest fundraiser for VesCor Capital, the entity associated with what appears to be the biggest financial fraud case in Utah history.

VesCor owner Val E. Southwick, who is serving a lengthy prison sentence for his role, displayed LDS symbols in his Ogden office, and was known to sometimes push his Mormon temple recommend across his desk at potential investors. Southwick has been excommunicated, the church confirmed on Friday.

State regulator Woodwell would like to see the church treat fraud as a violation of as sacred relationship.

"I'd love to hear a very clear statement that this is a relationship of scared trust that you have with your ward members, stake members," he said. "And to abuse this relationship of trust, to take advantage of someone financially, is not just a crime but that it is really a reprehensible and an egregious abuse of that relationship. And it should be treated in the same way the abuse of other sacred relationships are treated. It's just like spousal abuse or child abuse."


Worst in the country » Fraud is a long-standing problem in the state, stretching back decades as it ebbs and flows, coming back each time with a vengeance, said James Malpede, who leads the FBI's white-collar crime unit in the state. Utah has lost its ranking as the top state per capita in fraud but it remains a huge problem.

"I'd say per capita it is one of the worst in the country," said Malpede.

How bad? The agency is mostly limiting itself to investigating cases in Utah involving $20 million or more.

"Most of what we're working on is $25 million and up, and a lot of what we're working on is $100 to $150 million and more," said Malpede.

Attorney Baker said he came up with an estimate of the amount of money Utahns lost to big fraud schemes in 2009 based on cases in which charges have been filed and those he knows of where no actions have yet been brought.

"I did a rough calculation of Ponzi schemes I saw over the last year that came through Utah and I would say it was at least $750 million."

Mike Hines, chief of enforcement at the Division of Securities and a 20-year veteran of fraud investigations in Utah, said state and federal officials are limited in what they can do in educating people about how to avoid affinity fraud.

"As I step back as a regulator I look at it this way. If the trust within the affinity causes the harm, the affinity has some responsibility in helping us solve the problem," he said. "As regulators, we can't do it. We can't catch their attention."

The Fraud College is intentionally being staged in Utah County, which in the past decade or so has become a center for fraud in the state.

"There's a much higher percentage of cases in Utah County or that touch Utah County," said Malpede of the FBI, who was assigned to Provo for a time.

Rick Koerber, who has pleaded not guilty to 20 fraud-related charges in federal court, operated out of Utah County with an real estate investment operation the government says raised at least $100 million. Jeffrey Mowen also was a Utah County resident. He is in jail waiting trial on charges of fraudulently taking about $10 million of investor funds.


Focus on Utah County » Officials say there are several reasons for Utah County's heightened profile. One is the growth of wealth over the past 20 years as the economy prospered before the recession and the corresponding rise in home prices. This left many would-be investors with the belief they had available funds that could return big profits.

Attorney Mark Pugsley, who handles securities cases and recently served on the advisory board for the Division of Securities, told about one man who was soliciting investments for Mowen in Utah County that is 77 percent LDS.

"They just used the ward list and went straight down and made phone calls to everybody. Next to each name where they successfully raised money they wrote a dollar figure in the margin," said Pugsley, who also blogs about fraud in Utah at

Two fraud-related phenomenon particular to Utah and more so to Utah County are the recruitment of returned missionaries into what turn out to be illegal activities and the creation of investment programs based on multilevel marketing models.

Returned missionaries often come back with enhanced communications skills and thick skins but in recent years have been met with fewer employment options because of the recession, Baker said. Other young people also are caught up in scams when they are recruited to raise money for businesses, he said.

"You have this 18- to 25-year-old segment that frankly is being recruited as lieutenants and ultimately perpetrators or perpetuators of the fraud," he said.

He would like to see the church debrief missionaries about the dangers of being caught up in a fraudulent activities as they seek employment after their church service.

Regulators say another type of fraud particular to Utah County involves multilevel marketing in which participants recruit others into an investment, who then recruit still others, with each level receiving a return from the investment of those recruited after them.

Plenty of companies use that marketing plan legitimately, but recruitment of people into some types of "business opportunities" within the multilevel marketing business model often crosses legal lines, and participants become victims and participants in the crime at the same time.

"In the securities industry you rarely hear of multilevel marketing of fraud programs," said state regulator Hines. "But [in Utah] we hear of them with regularity."

All of this fraud is taking a toll not just on individual Utahns but on the state's economy and its future. Millions of dollars have been drained that could have gone to legitimate businesses or even into relatively safe investments.

"All of those hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars leak out of the legitimate investment system and just disappear," said attorney Baker. "That can't go to fund the company that has the next cure for cancer or the new clean energy company, nor can it go into safer market-based products like mutual funds."