POMPANO BEACH, FLA. (WSVN) - A South Florida woman faces a federal fraud investigation after she scammed thousands of people through a massive, multimillion-dollar Ponzi operation, authorities and investors said.
A civil complaint filed by the Securities and Exchange Commission earlier in August accused Johanna Garcia, the manager and president of MJ Capital Funding, of violating the antifraud and registration provisions of the federal securities laws.
Speaking with 7News on Friday, real estate agent Alfredo Iglesias shared his experience with the business.
“I’m a single father with an 18-year-old son,” he said.
Iglesias said that when he heard about friends investing in MJ Capital, he thought it sounded like a good deal.
Steven Shulman, who runs his own pet rescue charity, said on Thursday that he was also a victim.
“It’s a terrible loss, and I was using and raising the money and the profits to save the lives of animals,” he said.
Iglesians and Shulman said they thought they had found the perfect investment vehicle in MJ Capital Funding, which is run out of a Pompano Beach storefront.
When asked how much money he invested, Iglesias replied, “Twenty-five thousand [dollars]. I trusted the person, I trusted the system.”
The idea behind investing in the company was to put up money to be used by small businesses for loans, called merchant cash advances, or MCAs, and make a profit on the interest.
“Seemed legit, and it just seemed quite interesting,” said Shulman.
Another investor, who asked to be identified as “Maria,” also thought it seemed like a sound investment.
“We were looking to see if we could make a little extra money,” she said.
Maria said she and her family, including her elderly mother and mother-in-law, put up nearly $300,000.
It may have seemed like a good idea at the time. The SEC filing claims, “MJ Capital promises an annual return of varying amounts, typically 120%.”
A video on MJ Capital’s website describes a plan that allows investors to earn money based on loans to small and mid-sized businesses.
“For those individuals asking if MJ Capital Funding is a Ponzi scheme, that is a great question,” a woman said in the video.
Maria said the video presentation is a good example of how she was drawn in.
7News is not identifying the woman in the video because she was not named in the SEC complaint.
“You can rest assured that we are not a Ponzi scheme,” she said in the video presentation.
The SEC disagrees. Their filing states, “The representations that the MJ companies were using investor money to fund MCAs and that their money was secure were lies.”
“They keep raising more money so they could pay earlier investors and skim money off the top for themselves,” said attorney Jeff Sonn with the Sonn Law Group. “It’s not a legitimate business; it’s simply a game of musical chairs.”
Through her lawyer, David Garvin, Garcia denied the claims. A statement reads, “Johanna Garcia is not going anywhere. She has complete trust in the legal system. A lot of this speculation and innuendo will prove to be inaccurate, and ultimately she will be vindicated. She did not do anything knowingly incorrect or improper.”
Friday evening, 7News cameras captured a sign on the front door of an MJ Capital Funding Pompano Beach location that reads that the business is “subject to a federal receivership,” meaning that all its assets have been frozen.
Now investors are out tens of millions of dollars, according to the SEC.
“We are devastated. I don’t know how we are gonna get through all of this,” said Maria. “She should burn in hell because you don’t do this to people.”
“I’m too torn up right now,” said Shulman. “Pure unadulterated greed, which ultimately, you get caught.”
“I think, if it sounds too good, it must be. I would not trust it,” said Iglesias. “I don’t know. We just have to wait for system to do their job and see what happens.”
A petition in support of Garcia has been posted to Change.org. As of Friday night, more than 1,000 people had signed it.
The petition includes a lengthy statement from her family that reads in part, “We know Johanna wants nothing more than to continue to help others and making sure they are not burdened in any way, shape or form with all that has taken place.”
A hearing in the case has been set for Sept. 8 in federal court.
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