Three fake pastors are facing charges of allegedly scamming more than $28 million from at least 1,200 victims. The men reportedly ran a financial literacy Ponzi scheme called "1st Millions" and frequented churches, hotel galas, and upscale events to recruit new investors.
According to the Department of Justice (DOJ), the trio operated under the "auspices of God." They promised high returns on investments and claimed that their program was backed by religious organizations. However, authorities say it was all a fraud.
The three men were identified as Tyrone Dwayne Smith, Kevin Darnell Smith Sr., and Roderick Mitchell Jr. In addition to running a fraudulent investment scheme, they also attempted to scrub an online article about a previous Ponzi scheme before they were caught.
"The defendants allegedly used their status as religious leaders to win people's trust and then stole millions of dollars from them," said Acting U.S. Attorney for the District of Maryland Jonathan F. Lenzner in a statement.
The DOJ alleges that the trio spent investor funds on personal expenses such as luxury cars and vacations instead of investing them as promised. They also used new investors' money to pay off earlier investors - which is characteristic of a typical Ponzi scheme.
"These defendants preyed on vulnerable individuals who trusted them because they presented themselves as men of faith," said Special Agent in Charge Thomas Jankowski with IRS Criminal Investigation Washington DC Field Office.
If convicted, each defendant faces up to 20 years in prison for wire fraud conspiracy; Tyrone Smith also faces additional charges for obstruction of justice related to his attempt at removing an online article about another alleged Ponzi scheme he operated previously.
The investigation into this case is ongoing, but authorities urge anyone who believes they may have been victimized by these three individuals or any other financial scams to come forward and report it to the IRS or FBI.