US prosecutor: Israeli trained staff to lie repeatedly to binary options victims

At opening of landmark trial, Lee Elbaz, former CEO of Yukom Communications, alleged to have overseen ‘massive’ fraud; her lawyer says ‘She wanted her employees to work clean’

Lee Elbaz arrives at federal court in her trial in Greenbelt, Md., Tuesday July 16, 2019. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
Lee Elbaz arrives at federal court in her trial in Greenbelt, Md., Tuesday July 16, 2019. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

GREENBELT, Maryland — Recorded telephone calls, company emails and videotaped evidence will show that an Israeli woman oversaw a “massive” scheme to defraud tens of thousands of investors across the globe out of tens of millions of dollars, a US federal prosecutor told jurors Tuesday.

“She trained (employees) to lie to victims, over and over and over again,” Justice Department prosecutor Caitlin Cottingham said during opening statements for Lee Elbaz’s trial in Maryland.

But an attorney for Elbaz said the 38-year-old woman didn’t condone any of the fraudulent tactics used by employees who worked under her supervision at a call center in Israel. Defense lawyer Barry Pollack said the evidence will show Elbaz never intended to defraud investors “even if others around her did.”

“She wanted her employees to work clean,” Pollack told the jury.

Lee Elbaz’s attorney Barry Pollack arrives at federal court for jury selection in her trial in Greenbelt, Maryland, July 16, 2019 (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Elbaz is one of 15 defendants in the case and the first to be tried. Five have pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors. Nine others were indicted in February.

Elbaz, who was CEO of an Israel-based company called Yukom Communications, is accused of engaging in a plot to dupe investors through the sale and marketing of financial instruments known as binary options.

The binary options market largely operates outside the US through unregulated websites. In court papers, prosecutors said the payout on a binary option is usually linked to “whether the price of a particular asset — such as a stock or a commodity — would rise above or fall below a specified amount.”

“Investors are effectively predicting whether its price will be above or below a certain amount at a certain time of the day, and when this option ‘expires,’ the option holder receives either a predetermined amount of cash or nothing,” they wrote.

Last week, in a “trial brief” filed ahead of the Elbaz prosecution, the US government set out in rare detail the process by which Israeli binary options fraudsters defrauded their victims.

Yukom provided sales and marketing services for BinaryBook and BigOption, the brand names for internet-based businesses that purportedly sold and marketed binary options. By late 2017, investors had deposited roughly $185 million into BinaryBook and BigOption accounts and withdrawn less than $50 million, prosecutors said.

Elbaz, who used the alias “Lena Green” while interacting with investors, was indicted in March 2018 on three counts of wire fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. FBI agents arrested her in September 2017 after she traveled to New York. She has been living in San Francisco with a relative while awaiting trial in Greenbelt, Maryland. She denies the charges.

A separate indictment against nine other defendants, including Yukom owner Yosef Herzog, says the scheme involving BinaryBook and BigOption cost investors more than $145 million worldwide. The fraudulent Israeli binary options industry is estimated to have fleeced victims worldwide out of billions of dollars.

Cottingham said Yukom employees at a call center in Caesarea, Israel, solicited investments through lies and false promises. Employees pretended to be from other countries, lied about their professional qualifications and adopted “stage names,” the prosecutor said. They also falsely guaranteed profits, lied about their historical rates of return and didn’t tell investors that they only made money if their customers lost money, she told jurors.

“They knew that if they told clients the truth, they wouldn’t have sent money,” Cottingham said.

Cottingham told jurors they will see video of Elbaz telling FBI agents that 95% of clients who sent money to BinaryBook and BigOption lost money.

“No one told victims that,” she added.

Pollack said Elbaz expected employees to meet their sales targets and earn their commissions honestly.

“Some of them made false promises and false guarantees,” he said. “And you know what? Some of them got caught.”

The top of the FBI website on March 15, 2017, dominated by a binary options fraud warning. (Screenshot: FBI)

An email instructed BinaryBook sales representatives to target retirees, Social Security recipients, pension holders and veterans as clients, according to court filings accompanying guilty pleas by former employees.

In 2011, the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center received only four complaints from victims of binary options fraud, reporting losses of just over $20,000. In 2016, however, the center received hundreds of these complaints with millions of dollars in reported losses.

“This has been a worldwide problem,” Justice Department prosecutor Ankush Khardori said during a September 2017 detention hearing for Elbaz, according to a transcript.

Elbaz’s indictment cites a September 2015 email from one employee to co-workers about a sales “marathon,” a competition to obtain deposits from investors.

“This is not a cemetery here! It’s a boiler room!” the employee wrote.

Binary options fraud flourished in Israel for about a decade before the entire industry was outlawed via Knesset legislation, in October 2017, largely as a result of investigative reporting by The Times of Israel that began with a March 2016 article entitled “The wolves of Tel Aviv.” At its height, hundreds of companies in Israel were engaged in the fraud, employing thousands of Israelis.

Many of the fraudulent operatives have since moved their operations abroad, or switched to other scams, though Israeli law-enforcement authorities have proved unwilling or unable to prosecute more than a handful of alleged offenders. By contrast, the US government is ratcheting up efforts to bring Israeli offenders to justice.

Liora Welles in a photo she uploaded to Facebook in December 2015. (Screenshot: Facebook)

Federal prosecutors in Maryland have filed related charges against three other Israeli women who worked for Yukom. Shira Uzan and Liora Welles were charged last December with conspiracy to commit wire fraud. The same charge was filed in November against another defendant, Lissa Mel. Welles and Uzan, both of whom worked under Elbaz as sales representatives, pleaded guilty to the conspiracy charges during separate hearings. Welles and Uzan acknowledged that they were “directly responsible” for approximately $2.4 million and $1.8 million in investor losses, respectively, according to court filings.

Lissa Mel in a photo that appeared on her Instagram profile shortly before her arrest.

According to the indictment, Yukom provided investor “retention” services for the binary options websites BinaryBook and BigOption. The indictment also alleges that Elbaz, together with her co-conspirators and subordinates, misled investors by falsely claiming that the company earned profits when the investor earned profits, when in fact the opposite was true. Elbaz and her co-conspirators also allegedly misrepresented the return on investment from BinaryBook and BigOption, as well as allegedly using aliases and claiming that they were calling from London, when in fact they were calling from Israel.

The US Justice Department’s “trial brief” summarized the “legal and factual issues” relevant to the trial. Setting out in detail the means by which Elbaz allegedly fleeced her victims, the prosecution document constitutes a devastating insight into the cynical practices by which the fraudulent industry stole immense amounts of money from trusting victims around the world. The document marks confirmation by the US government of much of the reporting by The Times of Israel over the past three-and-a-half years on the methods binary options fraudsters used to dupe their victims.

The “trial brief” names several co-conspirators, including Herzog, Yakov “Kobi” Cohen, Ori Maymon (aka “Patrick Accardo”), Elad Bigelman (aka “Michael Goldberg”), Nissim Alfasi (aka “Nick Onasis”), Ronen Roytman (aka “Alexander Goldman”), Welles (aka “Lindsay Cole,” “Lindsay Taylor,” and “Lindsey Wells”), Yair Hadar (aka “Steven Gold”), Uzan (aka “Emily Laski”), and Austin Smith (aka “John Reid”).

BinaryBook’s website homepage.

Herzog, Alfasi, and Bigelman were among nine alleged binary options operatives, indicted by the US in February, whose indictments were only made public last month, all of them associated with and The US alleges that Herzog, who was questioned by the FBI in Israel in January 2018, was the owner of a Mauritius-based company called Linkopia, as well as Israel-based Yukom Communications; it alleges that Alfasi was an employee of Yukom Communications and brand manager for BinaryBook; and it alleges that Bigelman was an employee of Yukom Communications and brand manager for BigOption.

Herzog’s lawyer said in a statement last month that his client “has just learned of the charges filed against him in the US a few days ago. He denies the allegations and intends to fight them and any extradition procedure, if commenced. At no point in time was he involved in any fraudulent scheme.”

Yukom Communications employees pretended to be from other countries, lied about their professional qualifications and adopted “stage names,” US authorities say. They falsely guaranteed returns of up to 40 percent. And they didn’t tell investors that the company handling their “binary options” trades only made money if its customers lost money, according to the FBI.

BinaryBook received customer deposits totaling nearly $99 million from the second quarter of 2014 through the fourth quarter of 2016 and returned just under $20 million to its clients during that period, according to records cited in an FBI agent’s September 2017 affidavit.

An email instructed BinaryBook sales representatives to target retirees, Social Security recipients, pension holders and veterans as clients, according to a court filing. Elbaz’s indictment says three victims were residents of Gaithersburg, Laurel and Annapolis, Maryland.

The scheme’s victims also include Eugene and Penelope Timmons, of Kansas City, Missouri. They dipped into life savings to invest approximately $110,000 through BinaryBook over nearly two years. They lost everything. “It was all a mess and a scam,” said Eugene Timmons, 82.

The couple thought they were talking to experienced brokers in London. Penelope Timmons, 72, said BinaryBook’s website initially created the illusion they were making money. “We couldn’t get our money out. All they kept doing was hand us off to other people,” Penelope Timmons said. “Once you realize these people have taken you, it’s very demoralizing and discouraging.”

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