The two owners of a Marlborough company accused of bilking investors in a global $1 billion pyramid scheme were criminally charged in federal court Friday, a major escalation of an ongoing investigation into the firm.
James M. Merrill, 53, of Ashland, co-owner of TelexFree Inc., was arrested Friday afternoon in Worcester. Authorities also have issued a warrant for the arrest of co-owner Carlos N. Wanzeler, 45, of Northborough, who is now a fugitive. He is believed to have fled to Brazil, federal officials said earlier this week.
The men were charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud, according to charges filed Friday in US District Court in Worcester.
“The scope of this alleged fraud is breathtaking,” US Attorney Carmen Ortiz said in a statement. “These defendants devised a scheme which reaped hundreds of millions of dollars from hard-working people around the globe.”
Many of the alleged US victims of TelexFree are immigrants from Brazil or the Dominican Republic, drawn into TelexFree’s marketing pitch by other members of their community who boasted of the huge sums they were making for the simple job of promoting an Internet telephone service.
The US Securities and Exchange Commission and state Secretary of State William F. Galvin are investigating TelexFree. The SEC froze the company’s assets April 16 and filed a civil suit, two days after the company filed for bankruptcy.
Merrill’s lawyers did not return requests for comment Friday. Wanzeler’s Boston lawyer, Paul V. Kelly, said he was unaware of an arrest warrant for his client. “We have no information about the existence of an arrest warrant for Mr. Wanzeler,” Kelly said in an e-mail. “Until we have the opportunity to confirm this information independently, we will have no comment.”
TelexFree spokesman Clifton Jolley also declined to comment on the charges.
TelexFree claimed to be an Internet telephone services company, but authorities say it was really a pyramid scheme that recruited thousands of “promoters” to post ads for its product online. The promoters were required to buy into TelexFree, paying anywhere from about $300 to about $1,400, then were compensated weekly, according to the complaint.
The money they received came not from sales generated by the ads, but from other people lured into the scheme, authorities said.
An undercover Homeland Security investigator recruited to TelexFree in October was told that a $1,425 investment would yield $100 a week just by posting ads online and recruiting others, according to the criminal complaint filed Friday. Homeland Security agents typically investigate cases of international financial fraud.
The undercover investigator ultimately posted more than 700 ads without selling any products, according to court records. But a company recruiter told the agent that it wasn’t necessary to sell products to earn money; the recruiter said that he himself had earned $1.6 million “without selling a TelexFree product.”
Documents filed by federal authorities on Friday aim to prove the case that TelexFree was a pyramid scheme.
Authorities said in court records that their review of TelexFree’s bank accounts shows that out of thousands of deposits, only 19 were the result of selling the company’s service, commonly called a VOIP, or voice over Internet protocol. Between June 2012 and May 2013, TelexFree made 1,133 deposits totaling $12.2 million to one Bank of America account, according to court records. Only nine deposits were in the amount of $49.90 — the VOIP purchase price.
Investigators have found 14 bank accounts used by TelexFree over about two years as banks kept shutting the accounts after flagging TelexFree for possible financial misconduct or money laundering, according to court documents. During a raid of TelexFree’s Marlborough headquarters last month, officers intercepted the company’s chief financial officer trying to leave the building with a bag full of Wells Fargo cashier’s checks totaling $38 million.
Brazilian authorities began investigating TelexFree, which operated under a different name in that country, in January 2013, saying they had uncovered “evidence of crimes.” Several months later, officials successfully barred the company from recruiting new promoters and eventually shut the firm down, freezing about $350 million in funds.
A lawyer for several of the people who lost money to TelexFree said his clients were happy about Merrill’s arrest and the criminal charges leveled against the company’s other owner.
“I think they should put them in jail and throw away the key,” Robert J. Bonsignore said. “These were very hard-working people they preyed on.”
Salem mother Nildeane Ceciler said she lost $2,000 when she took a friend’s advice and signed up to promote TelexFree in the hopes of making a little extra money while caring for her baby son and nearly 2-year-old daughter.
“Seven days exactly after I put my money in they went into bankruptcy,” said Ceciler, who said she has spent much time since then wondering why she trusted a company making promises of high returns with little work. “I always thought, you know, this is weird.”
Now that the company’s assets have been frozen and one of its owners arrested, she’s just hoping to get some of her money back.
“I have two children. I have a car I need to exchange for another one. I could do many other things with that money,” she said. “Right now, I am very tight. My husband is the only one who works.”
Lawyers representing the company have argued in court that the company’s owners have a legitimate business selling Internet-based telephone service for long-distance calls and a mobile phone application to accompany it. They said TelexFree filed for federal bankruptcy protection in Nevada last month so it can reorganize the business and generate more revenue for its participants.
But the SEC said in court this week that there is no meaningful business to speak of at TelexFree. “We believe there’s nothing to reorganize here,’’ said Frank Huntington, an SEC lawyer.
Huntington said that, by TelexFree’s accounting, the company has about $100 million in assets that could be available to creditors, most of whom are the company’s participants and promoters.