Investing

Nothing for money

Financial self-help gurus promise quick riches, but leave some of their followers penniless.

Marianna and Willem Van Gogh at their home in south east Calgary. The Van Goghs say they were defrauded by Gerard Darmon (Photo: Andrew Querner)

“If you’re an employee, you’re a slave,” Robin J. Elliott tells the roughly 30 people assembled in a meeting room in a three-star hotel in suburban Coquitlam, B.C. The speaker, a bald, bespectacled man wearing a tailored suit and expensive watch, takes a similarly dim view of conventional entrepreneurship. “People buy a business, and it becomes a job,” he says in his clipped South African accent. “It becomes a prison.”

I’ve paid $39.95 (the event notice says “regular price $497,” but everyone seems to get the discount) to attend a full-day seminar from DollarMakers, an outfit run by Elliott and his wife, Rika, out of their Coquitlam home. If you follow their program, they say on their website, you can retire in less than a year. And if you own a business, they can help you double your profits in 97 days. The secret to earning income without risk or working for it, I learn on this day, is bringing together a buyer and a seller of services and receiving an ongoing commission on all the business they do together. They call this arrangement a “joint venture.”

For my money, I expected the speakers to at least be entertaining, sort of like the SlapChop guy. But instead I get trite aphorisms (“If you want to make the gold, you have to think golden”) and unsupported generalizations passed off as business wisdom with the help of a few props (a hunting knife, a gerbil’s exercise wheel) and the occasional bit of audience participation. The lecture is filled with pop-psychological jargon, referring to “hot buttons” and “triangulation of trust.” The only distractions during break times are the tables lining the walls where DollarMakers Network members hand out brochures for their businesses—jewelry importers, barter schemes, custom baking and the like. I find myself struggling to stay awake, trying not to think of the better ways I could be spending this springlike Saturday in February.

The other participants are more attentive, perhaps because most of them have paid $99 (regular $247) to become members of the DollarMakers Network, a club with weekly meetings and coaching conference calls, and invested in other workshops like this. One tells me she has used the DollarMakers method, bringing together a buyer and a seller she knew, and received a cheque in the mail for a couple of hundred dollars. So there are satisfied customers out there.

But most DollarMakers likely don’t know about the one big blot on the Elliotts’ record. One of their past “joint ventures” was with Steven Friedland, whom the B.C. Securities Commission last fall banned from dealing in securities for 20 years. Friedland headed Western Liquid Funding Inc., which became insolvent in 2010 after raising $12 million from 140 investors over six years without ever filing an offering memorandum. Some of those investors attended the Elliotts’ seminars. According to documents the company filed with the commission as a result of an investigation, the Elliotts’ company, Elliott Enterprises—along with Patrick Giesbrecht, another of the presenters on this day—referred hundreds of thousands of dollars of investment to Western Liquid Funding in return for $262.25 plus a 0.25% trailer fee per month for as long as the money stayed invested.

On her blog site, before Western Liquid became illiquid, Rika Elliott once posted: “We also have had great success investing with Steve Friedland and have referred many other investors to him. We earn good money from these joint ventures. If you are interested in any of these, e-mail me or give me a call. Introducing people to us is an easy way to make money.”

The Elliotts and Giesbrecht have not been implicated in any illegal dealing—in an interview, Robin Elliott insisted this was the only time they’d ever referred members to an investment and “obviously we’re never going to do it again”—but their brand of get-rich-quick seminar has become a fertile recruitment site for investors in a growing number of shady investment schemes. Following the 2008–09 stock market crash, many people are looking at their shrunken nest egg, swearing off mutual funds and looking for other ways to catch up. To many, wealth enhancement experts appear to offer the answer.

While the major stock exchanges, securities regulators and police have made significant progress in the past dozen years purging the old-style boiler rooms and pump-and-dump schemes from the public markets, the marketing of suspect securities continues to thrive in the private domain. Typically, a company advertises or otherwise promotes a particular venture to investors, usually at a fixed price and for a fixed term. At the end of the term, the asset (usually real estate) is meant to be sold, and investors get their money. Sometimes, it begins producing an income stream for the investors. At least, that’s how it works in theory.

One way promoters market these so-called exempt securities to investors is through partnerships with financial self-help gurus who put on seminars in hotel conference rooms. The gurus promise to impart secrets to quick riches, then offer investment opportunities to their trainees. Though some of these investment schemes appear legitimate, a number have ended badly for investors, enough that the B.C. Securities Commission in May issued an investor alert about wealth enhancement seminars. “The BCSC strongly urges consumers to avoid these types of seminars,” the release said, noting that they often offer “questionable ways to succeed in business and/or to make money through things like precious metals, consumer debt, environmental projects, and international mutual funds.”

Investment promoters have long exploited this synergy with wealth experts. Indeed, sometimes the two are one and the same. In 2003, the Ontario Securities Commission disciplined personal-finance guru Brian Costello for flogging investments throughout the 1990s without being registered as an adviser. Some of those investments were even offered by a company that was 47.5% owned by Costello.

A closer look at some of today’s self-proclaimed financial gurus reveals numerous, often surprising, linkages. Toronto wealth adviser Jeff Eshun lured dozens of attendees of his DSC Lifestyle Services seminars to invest in ventures that later became insolvent. His partner in some was Maisie Smith of Langley, B.C. Smith often follows her name with the initials “CBM,” which stands for certified business mentor. The designation is bestowed by none other than Robin J. Elliott, following the completion of a five-day course at an advertised cost of US$19,000, plus $247 a year for membership in the DollarMakers Joint Venture club. In the past year, Smith also became co-director of eConventus Holdings (B.C.) Ltd., the latest venture of one Mohammed (Mo) Jiwani, who has left a trail of hapless investors across the country over more than a decade.

In the fall of 2000, the Ontario-based Jiwani staged a financial self-help seminar called Oracle 20/20 in Edmonton, where Brenda Rost and her husband, Stewart Dean, were in the audience.

Rost describes herself and Dean only as “employees” working in Fort McMurray, Alta., when they first got interested in real estate investment. “We did the RRSP thing,” she explains, meaning investing in the usual stocks, bonds and mutual funds for retirement. But they were still working for a living. They dreamed of a day when their money would do the working for them. They had seen Rich Dad, Poor Dad author Robert Kiyosaki on TV talking about using real estate investments to build wealth. It sounded like a plan. And when they attended Jiwani’s seminar, he was saying exactly what they wanted to hear—that they didn’t have to spend the rest of their lives working for someone else. They enrolled in a course on real estate investing lasting for several weeks. Then they enrolled in a second course on asset protection. It was at that point Jiwani introduced them to a venture he claimed was backed by an offshore bank and became repayable in one year.

“There were red flags everywhere,” reflects Rost, 48, who now lives in the Calgary area. First, the secrecy—Jiwani urged investors not to talk to anyone about it, she says. It was an exclusive opportunity for seminar attendees, available for a limited time, he explained. Second, the company was Canadian but the funds had to be wire-transferred to a shell in Nevada, meaning their US$25,000 investment went “right to Vegas,” Rost says with gallows humour. Third, there was little documentation: no offering memorandum, no financial statements. Rost and Dean had to pester Jiwani just to obtain a share certificate that she says looked like it had been made up on a home printer.

The only way to get any information about their investment was through an Ontario toll-free number. Then, in August 2001, it was disconnected. Rost and Dean received an e-mail saying something had happened, and Jiwani & Co. were doing their best to recover their money. Together with other investors scattered across Canada, they tried to track Jiwani down, but he could not be found.

Others attracted to Jiwani’s seminars tell still sadder stories. Northern Alberta dairy farmers Marianna and Willem Van Gogh attended some of the same Oracle 20/20 seminars as Rost and Dean in 2000. They ended up taking several courses from Jiwani over three years. At one such forum in Vancouver, Jiwani introduced the Van Goghs to Gerard Darmon, who was soliciting investment for a company called Dexior Financial Inc., which was developing vacation properties in B.C.

The Van Goghs did not bite right away, but they continued to attend Jiwani’s events and stayed in touch with Darmon, who presented himself as an accountant and at one point prepared their taxes. Darmon took them on tours of some of Dexior’s building sites, and they were impressed. On his advice in 2006, they sold their dairy herd and milk quota for $1.4 million and reinvested the proceeds in a couple of Dexior’s projects. For the next two years they received interest payments of $15,000 a month, and encouraged other farmers they knew to invest too.

Then in late 2007, Dexior went bankrupt. Though it had invested $12 million in a number of businesses and real estate projects, several were themselves now defunct, and the bankruptcy trustee could not account for another $8 million out of the $20 million Dexior had raised. Once creditors and legal fees are paid, there will likely be nothing left for investors.

“We’re broke,” says Marianna Van Gogh, who continues to serve on the bankrupt firm’s board of trustees. The couple is living in a rented house after lenders foreclosed on a property they’d borrowed heavily to buy just before the 2008–09 financial crisis. Willem, 62, is on a disability pension. Marianna, 58, is trying to set up a new company.

Thanks to the anonymity and limited oversight of the private market, the purveyors of securities snake oil manage to keep peddling their wares to new individuals seeking a shortcut to financial success. Incredibly, in 2007, the same year Dexior collapsed, Rost found Jiwani back in Edmonton. Six years after disappearing during the offshore bank debacle, he was putting on a seminar under a new company name, Q Institute of Wealth Enhancement. Rost confronted him, whereupon he denied any responsibility but offered to help the couple recover their money. After a year of trading e-mails, Jiwani said they were on their own.

“There is no truth to any of their stories,” and the investments he offered were properly documented, Jiwani said in an e-mail to Canadian Business. He nonetheless declined a request for an interview for this story.

“Some of these things, when they go bad, are heartbreaking,” says Lang Evans, director of enforcement for the BCSC. “We’ve seen marital breakups. We’ve seen nervous breakdowns. We’ve seen strokes, heart attacks and suicides. Not only do people lose their money, they lose their lives and their families’ lives.”

Securities commissions are usually associated with policing the stock market, but their reach is, by necessity, expanding. “I’ve seen so much more lost in the private market than I have anywhere close to in the public markets,” Evans says. Fraudulent investment schemes come and go in waves, he adds, and in the wake of the 2008 global financial crash, many people seem ready to try alternative paths to financial independence.

“I can’t paint all of the seminars and all of the products with the same brush, but I can say with certainty there have been problems in this area. Some have been terrific scandals,” Evans says. The challenge for regulators has been detecting and prosecuting an infraction before the money disappears. Even after the fact, it’s hard to prove fraud; after all, honest ventures can go belly-up too.

“We’re kind of like the street cleaners after the circus has gone through town,” he says. Under B.C.’s Securities Act, the commission can regulate who sells securities and how. In the case of self-proclaimed wealth experts, anyone who brings attention to an investment and is compensated for resulting referrals can be defined as a dealer who must now be registered. Those criteria spread the net wide. They would implicate, for example, T. Harv Eker, who hosts motivational seminars at airport hotels and convention centres around North America with his North Vancouver–based Peak Potentials Training. As Vancouver Sun investigative reporter David Baines revealed in a series of articles, Eker has invited the likes of Milowe Brost, who is currently in prison awaiting trial over an alleged $400-million Ponzi scheme in Alberta, convicted white-collar criminal Nick Thill, Michael Ruge, who was banned for life from dealing in securities by the BCSC, and Nick Lathigee, head of the failed Freedom Investment Club, to present at his “Millionaire School” events and received commissions for steering investors in their direction. To this day, neither Eker nor Peak Potentials is a registered issuer in any province. (Eker did not respond to requests for an interview for this story.)

But even then, a charge of unlicensed dealing falls far short of fraud, carries light penalties and may not be worth prosecuting. Often the only proactive thing regulators can do is try to educate investors. Evans rings off some simple rules: don’t buy anything you’re pressured to buy or don’t understand; ask the seller for their qualifications and track record, and if they don’t give satisfactory answers, don’t buy; don’t invest more money than you can stand to lose, and never invest it all in one deal; avoid anything with an offshore element to it (“That means your money’s never coming back”); and seek out an unbiased second opinion, say, from your accountant or bank manager.

As securities law across the country acknowledges, the existence of a private investment market is crucial for the funding of all kinds of business ventures. And for investors, private deals offer real income and asset appreciation that, over the past decade at least, has been elusive in the public markets, argues Jim Sand, CEO of Fast Track Capital, a registered exempt-market dealer based in St. Albert, Alta. “Overall, there hasn’t been a lot of money made,” he says of the stock market. In addition, private investors have access to company management on a day-to-day basis to find out how the project is unfolding, something impossible with a publicly traded stock. Finally, private securities are not burdened with the layers of fees—visible and invisible—that eat up investors’ returns from stocks and mutual funds.

In the past few years, Fast Track has marketed 14 real-estate and energy deals worth $200 million to 3,500 investors, most of them attendees of Fast Track to Cash Flow seminars led by Fast Track Group founder Darren Weeks and based on the Rich Dad, Poor Dad philosophy of financial liberation through ownership of income-generating assets. Of those, one housing project has begun returning capital to investors, Sand says. (Most are set up to mature in five to eight years and as yet are well short of their maturity date.)

In the past year, Canadian securities regulators have raised the bar for exempt-market dealers, requiring them to be registered and bonded, issue an offering memorandum with every deal and provide audited financial statements to investors annually, says Sand, who supports this new layer of assurance. It means an investor can check whether a dealer is duly registered and in good standing simply by going to the Canadian Securities Administrators website (securities-administrators.ca) and checking the national registry, though he recommends doing further due diligence too. Just because someone is registered does not mean they’re scrupulous. Indeed, there will always be operators who manage to stay one step ahead of the law.

“If someone’s going to cheat and lie, they’re going to cheat and lie,” Sand warns. Dead giveaways include use of the word “guaranteed” (“There’s no such thing in investing as a guarantee,” he asserts) and unrealistic timelines, like a year or 18 months to payout. And of course, always beware the hustle, where you have to invest today.

The people attending the DollarMakers seminar do not look at all like suckers. They are mostly in their 30s and 40s, of all ethnic backgrounds, and in conversation obviously consider themselves to be on the make. Some have full-time jobs—accountant for a mining company, college instructor, hairdresser, financial planner—while others own businesses ranging from a tea shop to a Chinese restaurant. Virtually all have something going on the side, a distributorship or a hobby flipping houses. They sound as skeptical and rational as anybody you’ll meet. If they have any reservations about the content of the presentation, though, they keep it to themselves.

In his speaking style, Robin Elliott flaunts his judgmental, dismissive side. There’s an underlying theme of contempt for institutions—for government, for university education, for lawyers and reporters (“the biggest bunch of liars”)—as well as for “losers” who lack initiative and expect handouts. By the same logic, people only have themselves to blame if the joint venture formula doesn’t work out for them. “I know people who joined Amway, failed and now hate Amway. You’ll find that anywhere,” Elliott explains. “Only a small percentage of people will make anything work.”

He offers a final salvo: “You only fail when you quit.”

At no point in this seminar, I should point out, am I presented with an investment opportunity, though I’m encouraged to join the DollarMakers Network and to take a seven-day trial of Elliott and Australian Luke Fatooros’s 12-step wealth-for-life mentoring program for just $1 ($47 a month thereafter). In a telephone interview following the event, Elliott characterizes himself and his wife as victims in the Western Liquid affair who lost $400,000 of their own money. “We were investors, and many of the investors promoted Steve’s investment on a commission basis,” he says. “Everybody got paid every month for seven years.”

Asked how many seminar-goers he’d referred to Friedland, described as “a family friend,” Elliott claims ignorance. Lots of people recommended Western Liquid, he says. “My name gets dragged around and my reputation gets hurt because I’m known.”

After her bad experience with Jiwani, Brenda Rost says she went on to have great success applying the principles learned through housing guru Don Campbell’s Real Estate Investment Network, which is solely an educational organization. She now oversees a small portfolio of rental properties that she researched and bought on her own. Her husband still works at a full-time job.

Nonetheless, participants in any kind of wealth-building seminar are advised to remain wary. “You’ve got to ask yourself,” says the BCSC’s Evans, “why does this person want me to be rich? Is it just out of the goodness of their heart? I think not. There’s usually a financial incentive underlying it.”