SEC Targets Web Pyramid Scheme
Aug. 29, 2000
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Federal regulators on Tuesday filed suit to stop an allegedly fraudulent pyramid scheme they said was masquerading as an Internet investment club and had bilked some 2,000 investors of $5.6 million.
For a $1,495 membership fee plus $149 a month, Le Club Prive offered investors a chance to earn commissions by recruiting new members to the club, the Securities and Exchange Commission said in its civil suit filed in federal court in Dallas. Investors were to receive $500 for each new member they recruited. Members were promised access to the club's Internet ``backroom,'' containing investment recommendations, the SEC said.
The club also offered shares of domestic and offshore mutual funds promising huge returns.
In fact, the SEC alleged, the investment club is a sham and investors' money has been diverted by the people running the scheme for their own use. The agency said its investigators have traced more than $3.4 million of it to the people running Le Club Prive or other companies they control.
Last Thursday, U.S. District Judge Jorge Solis in Dallas put a temporary restraining order on Le Club Prive and froze the assets of the defendants. Some $12 million has been frozen so far, according to the SEC.
It was the latest case brought by the market watchdog agency in an ongoing battle against a new form of investment fraud that has been proliferating in Internet junk mail, online newsletters, electronic ``chat rooms'' and Web sites. State securities regulators also have been pursuing investment fraud over the Internet.
Because the Internet is everywhere, unscrupulous stock promoters anywhere in the world can cloak themselves in anonymity and lure investors across the country, who have lost millions in such schemes in recent years.
``These individuals clearly sought to hide behind the Internet,'' said Hal Degenhardt, district administrator in the SEC's office in Fort Worth, Texas.
He said two of the people presumed to have controlled Le Club Prive, Zdenek Kieslich and Ron Z. Mendelson, are not represented by attorneys in the case and telephone numbers are not available for them. The third person identified by the SEC, Eugene G. Chusid, is represented by attorney Larry Lesnick. Lesnick did not immediately return a telephone call seeking comment.
Kieslich, Mendelson and Chusid did not immediately respond to e-mail messages seeking comment.
Kieslich is believed to reside in Costa Rica, Mendelson is a Canadian citizen living in Costa Rica and Chusid is a resident of New Jersey, according to the SEC.
Le Club Prive, which means private club in French, is said to be registered in Panama and has its business address in Hoogkarspel, the Netherlands.
In addition to an injunction against the business, the SEC also is seeking unspecified fines and return of profits against Le Club Prive, Kieslich, Mendelson, Chusid and Le Baron Solidarity SA, an affiliate of Le Club Prive that described itself as a group of financial experts that sold the mutual funds to members.
On the Net: http://www.sec.gov/consumer/cyberfr.htm