Federal agents have arrested three Venezuelan Americans in South Florida and accused them of defrauding dozens of people by luring them to invest money in precious metals, oil, foreign currency and high-interest checking accounts — none of which existed.
Instead of paying dividends as promised, some of the suspects spent the money on personal items including purchase of an SUV and lease of a five-bedroom apartment in Manhattan, according to federal authorities.
Officials from Homeland Security Investigations, a unit of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said those arrested Monday were Antonino Castro, 65, of Hialeah, Betsy Aguiar Molina, 41, of Miami Lakes and Anibangel Molina, 42, of New York.
A federal magistrate granted bond after their arrest, but the defendants could not be reached for comment. Castro and Anibangel Molina have private attorneys, but neither returned calls to their offices. Betsy Molina has a public defender but his or her name was not listed in court records.
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If convicted, the defendants face up to 20 years in prison, ICE said.
From November 2011 through November 2012, Molina and Aguiar Molina received at least $4 million from more than 50 individual investors, ICE said. None of the defendants or their company Bancard Financial Services are registered or licensed to trade in commodities, securities, currency or as a broker of these articles, ICE added.
The case was a typical Ponzi scheme in which money from recent investors was used to pay off earlier one, while the suspects pocketed the rest.
Initial investors received periodic payments of between $400 and $500, but sometime last October the payments stopped and some of the investors reached out to authorities to complain.
However, ICE believes that there may still be many victims who have not come forward.
“It could be dozens or hundreds of people,” said John Tobon, assistant special agent in charge at the Homeland Security Investigations Miami office. “Our concern is that there may be lots of people walking around not receiving dividends from this typical Ponzi scheme.”
Tobon said it was possible that some of victims lost savings and money set aside for their children’s education.
“Some invested their children’s college funds and others lifetime savings,” Tobon said.
Tobon asked that if anyone has information about the case or has been a victim of the fraud, to call 866-DHS-2-ICE (866-347-2423).
According to ICE, the three suspects posed as executives of a company called Bancard Financial Services, which offered the investments through seminars held in the South Florida area. ICE said Molina was the company president while Aguiar served as operations manager and Castro as office manager.
Company headquarters were at 1001 Brickell Bay Dr. , Suite 1510. The office is inside one of the many skyscrapers in the Brickell financial district. The heavy twin doors of the office, painted black, were locked and no one answered knocks. Several television camera crews were filming the doors, when a man who identified himself as the building manager arrived and asked journalists to leave.
A criminal complaint filed in Miami federal court by an Homeland Security Investigations agent said the 1510 suite housed Bancard Financial Services along with related companies Ordene Metals and PIDAUSA Corporation.
There was no company name on the 1510 suite doors.
According to ICE, the defendants solicited investors through television commercials that advertised classes in foreign exchange currency trading in Miami.
“After people attended these seminars, the defendants offered to invest customers’ money in foreign currency markets, commodities or high interest checking accounts,” the agency said in a statement.
A criminal complaint filed in Miami federal court by an Homeland Security agent said the case began in 2009 when Anibangel and Betsy Molina began accepting money from investors.
“Bank records show that from November 1, 2011 through November 2012, Anibangel and Betsy Molina received at least $4 million from more than 50 individual investors,” the criminal complaint said.
The money was then deposited in at least six accounts at JP Morgan Chase, the complaint said. It added that of the $4 million, about $218,000 were paid as dividends to investors, but that a ”high percentage” of withdrawals from investor accounts were used to pay for dinners, airplane tickets, hotel bills and shopping sprees by the defendants.
“For example,” the complaint said, “in December 2011, Anibangel Molina wrote a $33,740 check from Bancard’s account ending in 0301 to purchase a $59,741 2012 Range Rover Evoque.”
It was labeled “gift” for Betsy Molina, the complaint said.
It went on to cite the experiences of several investors who initially received divided payments, but later complained repeatedly to defendants about not getting their payments.
After agents searched Castro’s cellular phone messages, they found several from panicky investors demanding promised payments.
One sent Feb. 5 said: “Yesterday I left you a message and you never answered me. Please let me know what is going on because my accounts are overdrawn and today I have to pay rent. This is ridiculous.”
Another text message on Feb. 19 said: “Hello Antonio, this is Lourdes. I am very concerned that I have not received any deposit for two months. The last one was in December. Let me know if there is a problem.”