By Indranie Deolal
For months, the soft-spoken public sector employee, we will call Donna James, had growing doubts about the incredible business a trusted colleague raved about. An educated, articulate and attractive woman, she had transferred to a mid-level job at a government ministry in Georgetown, from the Guyana mining town of Linden, several years ago.
The move was to allow her lone child to further his studies at a specialised training school, and she talks proudly of her now-grown son who has a job. She scrimped and saved along the way to help start the building of their first home, a modest four-bedroom concrete structure in a thriving suburb on an old sugar plantation, transformed into another crammed housing estate, along the busy eastern bank of the winding Demerara River.
For James, a hard-working single parent who values candour and community, it is her simple dream like countless ordinary Guyanese to move out of the $50 000-monthly-rental two-bedroom cramped apartment into a nice place of her own. She knows not to expect much from any administration, regardless of party and promises. The elusive oil riches and bonanza that she keeps hearing so much about, is all just politicians’ power talk so far, with poorer citizens struggling to make a decent living in the downturn, as national uncertainty was compounded by the COVID-19 crisis.
Starting the project last year, she ended up taking a mortgage from an established regional bank at high rates, and construction ebbed and flowed according to the tranches. By early May, the two-storey house stood about 80 percent complete, but her funds were almost depleted and tiling, electrical fittings and other finishing touches remained.
With a deepening election crisis, a spreading pandemic, and the inevitable economic pressures, James knew that she could no longer indulge in any recreational spending such as her passion for Trinidadian soca superstar Machel Montano and his exhilarating music. It was decision time. Donna finally turned to her friend and associate, Penelope for help and guidance.
Penelope had repeatedly tried to interest her in a widespread investment scheme that reported impossibly rich returns of up to 40 percent per month, but the religious James always shook her head in disbelief, that is until May. She knew her pal had put in an initial test amount of G$200 000 (US$1,000/$1US=G$200 approx) and later upped it three times, to G$600,000 (US$3,000). The high interest had helped pay for medical schooling for Penelope’s son.
James studied the entity’s slick online site, with its glossy pictures and heavy investment language, but she knew nothing about how stock markets really operate, much less the overseas trading of foreign currency, rice futures, gold, oil, and the so-called “digital gold” or Bitcoin cryptocurrency. She tried to read and understand what was there from blockchains to brokerages, studied the “Invest with confidence” opening logo and perused the bit about the firm educating its members to operate in markets.
“Through effective trading strategies and risk management, our members are empowered to succeed and earn generational wealth,” the site declared. The clincher was the highlighted statement that, “The Company is certified by the International Financial Market Relations Regulation Center (IFMRRC) which guarantees its compliance to providing fair and high-quality service to its members.” Donna was unaware that IFMRRC and its impressive moniker is Russian.
She had also not seen certain newspaper reports in October 2019. The Guyana Securities Council (GSC) had advertised in the local press, warning the gullible public that Accelerated Wealth Incorporated renamed Accelerated Capital Firm (ACF) and its principals Yuri Garcia-Dominguez and Ateeka Ishmael were not properly licensed to operate our here.
In notices published in all of the main dailies, the GSC cautioned that Accelerated was unlicensed for the securities business or to solicit investments, noting that it did have any securities registered with the Council that could be legally offered. The Council’s Corporate Secretary, Shaun Allicock even urged, in a subsequent newspaper interview, that potential investors remain on the alert given the dangers of unregulated operators who did not comply with the Securities Industry Act 1998.
“There are all kinds of risks involved in doing securities business without a licence. The general idea is that we monitor the securities market in order to ensure that all of the players are acting in good faith (and) that there are no errors or mistakes,” he said, adding that if they are “(un)regulated that means that we have no way of knowing what it is they’re telling the public.”
Buses to property
Donna James made a fateful decision in late May. When she learnt that Penelope was investing an extra $1million, she emptied her own account of the remaining G$600,000 reserved for her house and handed over all of the cash, equivalent to US$3,000 to an absolute stranger, a smooth woman marketeer introduced to her by Penelope, endorsing a stamped agreement signed by Ishmael and the named marketeer.
Having heard about the profitable acquisitions made by other “investors” ranging from mini-buses to property, James ignored the startling second clause that the exclusive “private income club” was limited to just “40 members.” She did not worry about the tell-tale spelling and grammatical errors, the obvious paucity of credible investments details, or the puzzling sections such as the “Contributor asserts that all deposits made in the company will be sufficiently reflected upon and not take them as mere games or gambling.”
In a Whatsapp interview, James requested that her real name and that of her friend be withheld. She explained that by the end of June, when the 40 percent pay-out did not materialise, Penelope had “a very bad feeling” that it was a pyramid operation. On asking the marketeer what was holding up the disbursement, the woman who was also paid commission for every new contributor she lured in, repeatedly blamed it on the general economic slowdown. “We did not deal with anyone at the top but the money passed on to them” Donna told me. By July, hard reality had started to sink in.
Took a chance
“I am trying to be hopeful. We (Guyanese) are resilient but I should have been far more sensible and careful. I took a chance that I should not have, and I lost,” she admitted ruefully after a lengthy silence when I feared the connection had faded, confessing, “Now I know, I should have waited longer (to ensure it was not a fraud).” She has written off her losses as an invaluable lesson.
But James takes comfort that she could have suffered substantially, had her bank account held a bigger sum. She acknowledges the steady reports of the wealthiest investors who put in hundreds of millions, and she speaks sadly of the grand awardee sessions where the top contributors were hailed and honoured. She is convinced that “big ones (are) involved and they (are) shielding that Cuban man (Garcia-Dominguez) and his wife (Ishmael).”
The house project has slacked off again, and needs about G$6 million (US$30, 000) to finish. But at least one contrite woman will not be signing the Change.org petition started by some hard-line-supporters of Accelerated nor will she be pursuing further investments that are too good to be true.
Only one account
Just over a week ago, the attorney general’s (AG) Chambers announced a high-level team to probe the scheme. The Bank of Guyana (BoG) has since said that ACF and its principals never deposited anything near the sums it is alleged were collected. The BoG revealed that ACF has only one local account, with the Bank of Baroda (BoB). On Tuesday, the BoG, the GSC and the Financial Intelligence Unit warned that several of these schemes are around, advising “that these operations are all fraudulent, illegal, unlawful and unregulated, and will eventually result in significant financial losses to investors.”
In a joint statement, the three agencies said the firm was operating since 2017, but “ONLY submitted their application for registration with the Guyana Securities Council on August 6th, 2020.” The Council requested additional documents and told the applicants that the minimum required paid-up capital to register as a Securities Company is G$200 million (US$1M) but this was not forthcoming.
Saying they will continue to collaborate with international partners to try and “recover funds that the scammers claimed to have remitted to those jurisdictions, including the United States of America, Belize, Germany, Greece and Switzerland,” the regulatory bodies noted they have not found any such monies in these jurisdictions. “It has also been established that no substantial monies were deposited in or transmitted from any commercial bank in Guyana by ACF or its principals to any of the jurisdictions mentioned above or any other jurisdiction.”
Garcia Dominguez also claims that he holds big Bitcoin wallets, and ACF, on Tuesday called on authorities to release the directors and drop all charges so “payments to our clients can be resumed…” But the new AG Anil Nandlall warned that Garcia Dominguez and Miss Ishmael are flight risks.
This week, a dignified “Donna James” went to file an official complaint at the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) which has invited participants to come forward as the investigation into the US$30-US$20 million estimated scam continues. A chubby couple strolled in and sat on a bench. James did not give them another glance until the compiling officer told her. Ateeka Ishmael, 33 and her newly naturalised Guyanese husband, fellow Accelerated director, the fast-talking whiz Yuri Garcia-Dominguez, 34.
*ID looks at Accelerated’s Facebook site and how to develop a millionaire mind-set in six steps, especially “1. Focus On What You Want – And Take It! 4. Never Stop Learning 5. Think Big and 6. Enjoy the Attention.”
UPDATE: Yuri Garcia Dominguez and his wife, Ateeka Ishmael have been arrested. Last Thursday, they were remanded to prison on conspiracy charges of obtaining monies by false pretence. They were granted bail of G$3,900,000 (US$19, 500) on 13 of the charges and denied bail on six other charges.