Young Filipino is King of Boiler Rooms
by SHEILA SAMONTE-PESAYCO
THE OPERATOR of what could be the biggest scam syndicate in the world is a Filipino, authorities in various countries say.
Just 30 years old, Amador Apungan Pastrana, has become the face of 21st-century high-tech fraud. According to authorities here and abroad, he is the brains of a global network of boiler room operations that have duped hundreds of thousands of investors with little knowledge of the financial market, but with lots of money to spare.
Pastrana's alleged victims include 4,000 people who lost $35 million they invested in one of his shell companies, thousands of retirees in Australia and New Zealand, and nearly 700 South Africans who lost a total of $28 million, of which $5 million belonged to businessman Lino Leoni, one of the owners of the renowned DeBeers diamond company.
Accounts in the Internet and Australian newspapers say Pastrana has already amassed some $6 billion in a mere eight years, a wealth accumulated largely from running at least 150 boiler rooms in nine countries. But his operations have also earned him the ire of the police and the Securities and Exchange Commissions (SECs) in the Philippines, Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada and in some European countries. None, however, has managed to catch up with the slippery Filipino.
Pastrana, who maintains posh homes in Manila and Los Angeles, is now on the watchlist of authorities in many countries, including the Philippines. The US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has also begun to investigate his activities. Police in Austria want to talk to him, as well as to US national Regis Possino, a disbarred lawyer convicted of fraud and drug dealing, and shady Saudi Arabian businessman Adnan Khashoggi. Media reports say the three men were members of a consortium that bought a small Viennese bank without a brokering license, and then turned it into a boiler room.
But Tomas Syquia, acting director of the Compliance and Enforcement Division of the Philippine SEC, says building a case against the international syndicate is difficult because of the complexity of the modus operandi. Most of the victims are all overseas, making it hard and costly to gather information and court evidence.
As of this writing, the PCIJ has yet to hear from Pastrana or his legal representatives in Manila, to whom the Center sent a written list of questions.
Still, James Martin, director of Sydney-based Stock Investigation Research Society (SIRS), a network of victims of boiler room operators, says, "He (Pastrana) is the Henry Ford of boiler rooms. He has taken it into mass production scale like no one else."
Called "boiler rooms" because they usually work out of cramped office spaces with desks and telephones and apply high-pressure sales pitches on their victims, operations like that of Pastrana's can be found in practically every continent. Each office has an army of telemarketers that call up retirees, pensioners, lottery winners - anybody who's neither a banker nor a broker - who are thousands of miles away, and more than likely in another country. The glorified telemarketers then pitch stocks of "pinksheet" companies, or those whose shares sell for a fraction of a penny, listed on the unregulated Over-the-Counter Bulletin Board (OTCBB) of the US NASDAQ.
These boiler rooms hire expatriates with Western accents who present themselves as hotshot brokers of securities firms that have impressive-sounding names such as Morgan Lynch (a cross of US investment banks J.P. Morgan and Merrill Lynch), Griffin Securities, Muller & Sons, Dukes & Company, and Knowle & Sachs. They send out glossy newsletters, put up Internet sites and pester the potential victim with follow-up calls until he agrees to part with his savings and buy the stocks. Clients, who plunk down amounts that range from $1,000 to $5 million each, then receive instructions on how to send the payment by telegraphic transfer to a bank overseas.
The companies collapse their operations after six months to a year or when too many clients itching to see returns start burning their phone lines. But like zombies, the firms come alive again in another office address or in another part of the world, using a different name and another set of incorporation papers. Often, too, the salespeople would say they are calling from Bangkok, Hong Kong or China, even if they are making the calls in, say, Manila.
Clients who try to cash in on their investments are never successful. More often than not, the boiler rooms do not really buy the shares and merely pocket the money. When the clients run to their respective SECs for help, they find out they have put their trust in obscure companies that do not even hold a license to trade stocks or a legitimate office address. Their phone calls go to business centers paid to render secretarial work and receive calls that are automatically re-routed to the boiler room's landlines.
Engineer Peter Harvey, who lives in the remote town of Kondinin in Western Australia, admits losing $150,000 from investing in OTCBB shares offered by boiler rooms allegedly owned by Pastrana. In an e-mail interview, Harvey recounts how he was first "sold" shares of companies believed to be part of Pastrana's own pinksheet empire, and then later told that his account was being transferred to another firm - and then another.
As Harvey tells it, he had first dealt with First Federal Capital, a company operating in Makati but based in Palau, in 1997. A year later, he was told his account was being transferred to Pryce Weston, which had supposedly bought First Federal. In 1999, another company called Saxon and Swift, which also had offices in Vanuatu and Hong Kong, took over Pryce Weston.
Harvey says the same thing happened with Bradshaw Global Asset Management, another boiler room company then based in Makati but with a representative office in Rancho Sta. Margarita in California. Some time in early 2000, Bradshaw's operations were taken over by Newport Pacific Securities and Management, also based in Makati. According to Harvey, Newport eventually ceased operations, and his account was moved to Gibson and Peterson Company, based in Bangkok.
"I even flew over to the Philippines to meet them and have a look at their operations," says Harvey. He says he did not find anything suspicious at the time. Now, though, he has only one word to describe these companies: "parasites."
Yet while Pastrana seems to be the present king of boiler rooms, he was not the inventor of this elaborate scam. Experts say boiler rooms began more than a decade ago in the United States, particularly in Florida, where they reportedly flourished due to lax investment rules there as well as the large population of retirees.
SIRS's Martin reckons boiler rooms boomed soon after 1990, when the US SEC allowed the trading of the so-called ''Regulation S" shares. The policy, meant to respond to the increasing globalization of the capital markets, allows the sale of securities not registered with the US SEC to be sold to offshore investors. But Martin says what it has really done is to allow boiler rooms to mislead investors outside of the United States. These investors are led to believe they are being sold shares in legitimate US companies, and that the transactions have the seal of approval of US regulators. Coming at a time when stock markets were doing very well, the boiler rooms hit pay dirt in the hundreds of thousands of people eager to invest even their nest eggs.
When the FBI conducted a major sweep in the early 1990s, the boiler rooms simply moved their operations outside of the United States, eventually choosing countries that had no extradition arrangements with US law enforcement agencies, or with weak rules of law. Many of the boiler rooms thus set up their "dialing" offices in Canada, Hong Kong, the Bahamas, Panama, Costa Rica, Liberia and South Africa. Some apparently wound up in the Philippines, with one of them eventually employing Pastrana.
A BS Computer Science graduate of Trinity College in Quezon City, Pastrana had first worked as a crewmember in a McDonald's outlet before he chanced upon a newspaper ad for telemarketers in a Makati-based firm called Griffin Securities. It turned out to be a boiler room operation, but Pastrana lasted long enough in the company to master the "business." Some of his former employees were told that Pastrana took some vital diskettes with him when he resigned from Griffin. They believe he used these to help set up his first company, which became First Federal Capital.
According to the Philippine SEC records of AAP Management, Inc., his flagship company, Pastrana managed to have more than 10 companies in just a span of five years. It is believed these companies form part of his "legitimate" business and still do not include his boiler rooms. Among those listed as his previous positions were managing director of First Federal Capital, Inc. and president of Mendez Prior Hall, which authorities raided and were able to seize documents from showing the extent of its boiler room operations.
Today, Pastrana is said to own more than 100 boiler rooms and shell companies around the world. Some of them are incorporated in small tax-haven territories such as the Bahamas, Belize, British Virgin Islands, Mauritius, Cayman Islands, Western Samoa, Turks and Caicos, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Island of Nevis, and the republics of Liberia and Seychelles. Those in the United States were incorporated in Nevada, Florida, Delaware and South Carolina.
Martin, who says he was duped by Pastrana in an even more complicated way, has also received reports that Pastrana in the early 1990s had crossed paths with Sherman Mazur, a German national who was then running boiler rooms in the United States. In 1993, Mazur was sentenced to five years in prison in California for securities fraud. While he was serving time, Mazur reportedly passed on the management of his boiler rooms to Pastrana, "whom he trusted," says Martin. "But Amador not only took over these boiler rooms, (he) set up more."
Records obtained on Pastrana's US corporate empire as of June 2000, though, lists only seven OTCBB-listed companies created out of a series of reverse mergers and acquisition of dormant firms. The results are several holding companies operating only on paper, usually with the same corporate secretary, Roy Rayo, or Filipino lawyer Claudine Montenegro whom Martin also sued for practising in the US without a license.
The seven US holding companies are neatly spread out into different sectors. Apart from Digital Reach Holdings Corp., which takes care of investments, there is Key Holdings Corp., which was incorporated in Nevada, but is an "online gaming company based in Antigua or Dominican Republic." Netsat Holdings Ltd. is said to focus on telecommunications and Internet service, Your Future Holdings Inc. on educational development and technology, Labco Pharma on pharmaceuticals, and another Cayman-based holding company for food. There is also Stratasys, once owned by Martin but is now Pastrana's, which is a Bermuda-based holding firm supposedly handling software development.
The shares of these companies are listed on the OTCBB, which is highly vulnerable to price manipulation. Not surprisingly, these nearly worthless company stocks are among the offerings of Pastrana's boiler rooms. Harvey himself says he was among those who loaded up on Labco Pharma shares.
While the clients of his operations permanently part ways with their money, Pastrana has yet to stop raking it in. According to one of his former employees here in Manila, his companies' tills rang up a total of some $5 million a day in 2000. Other ex-employees say more than a third of that automatically went to Pastrana while only a tenth was used to buy legitimate stocks in behalf of clients.
A former resident of a squatter community in Guadalupe Viejo in Makati, Pastrana is now said to own a $2.8-million apartment penthouse on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, California.
"He also bought his mother a lovely gift: a $14-million house in Rancho Santa Margarita in Mission Viejo, California," says Martin. "A very nice son, don't you think?"
In the Philippines, his properties reportedly include two luxury condominium units in the high-end Essensa East in Taguig, a villa with a view of the sea in Caylabne Bay, the Winners restaurant on Arnaiz Avenue in Makati, and units at The Peak, also in Makati. Authorities hot on Pastrana's trail say some of the properties have been placed under the name of his front companies such as Euro Pacific Trade Inc., or those of members of his immediate family.
Pastrana's megabucks have also found their way into listed conglomerates such as Hong Kong's Hutchison Whampoa Ltd., as well as Singapore Telecoms, US metal producer Alcoa Inc., Pacific Cyberworks of Hong Kong, and US semiconductor firm Intel.
United Resources Asset Management Inc., which was set up in May 2000 and acted as investment manager for the entire Pastrana group of companies, had a portfolio of $200,000 invested in these stocks. In its first year of operation, the company targeted an investment of over $20 million a year, according to AAP Management records.
Some of his associates say that despite his supposed riches, Pastrana still has some simple joys, among them buying brand-name shoes at bargain prices in either Bangkok or Hong Kong. But he is also known for e-mailing his personal secretary to keep replenishing his stock of blue and black Mont Blanc pens, as well as showing off the results of his latest liposuction or the wonders cosmetic surgery has done on his face.
Obviously, too, Pastrana is making good a promise his former associates say he made to himself several years back. When he was still a struggling college student, Pastrana was said to have sworn in true Scarlett O'Hara fashion: "I shall never go hungry again."