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Task force warns against investment fraud
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As economic woes continue to hit families, residents should remain wary of possible investment fraud schemes, especially during the holidays, said officials with Atlanta's Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force.

Task force members reminded consumers as they released regional results this week of "Operation Broken Trust," a nationwide operation that targeted investment fraud across the country during the past three months.

President Barack Obama launched the task force on Aug. 16 to prosecute financial crimes, and officials across the country have taken on 231 criminal cases and 60 civil enforcement actions. In the Northern District of Georgia, which covers the northeastern and northwestern corners of the state, Atlanta and Newnan, the operation has involved 10 defendants and more than $30 million in financial losses.

"We are proud to be part of an operation focused on protecting members of the public and their hard-earned savings from financial predators," said Northern District U.S. Attorney Sally Quillian Yates. "Atlanta is an epicenter of business, capital and population growth, but along with this expansion, we have seen an increase in stock fraud schemes, insider trading, embezzlements and other frauds by supposed investment professionals."

In August, a federal grand jury indicted Geoffrey Gish, 56, of Marietta and Myra Ettenborough, 55, of Roswell for fraud and conspiracy in Gish's Marietta-based business Weston Rutledge Financial Services. The indictment claims the two lied to investment clients about how their money would be spent and how much their earnings were generating, raising nearly $30 million from Georgia residents with only $1 million in their accounts when the firm was shut down by securities regulators.

In September, Robert Duncan, manager of Atlanta-based hedge fund Seaside Partners Fund, pleaded guilty to a $3.5 million investment fraud scheme against several Georgia residents. He used investment dollars for his own business and personal expenses and created fake account statements to show that their investments were doing well.

In October, a federal grand jury indicted Jon Edward Hankins, 38, of Knoxville, Tenn., for operating an investment fraud scheme under two organizations, the Banker's Trust and Annuity Strategic Arbitrage Fund and the Christian Financial Brotherhood. While serving a sentence relating to a previous securities fraud conviction, he solicited investments from several people, including a $100 million hedge fund he managed.

Though none of Georgia's 10 cases directly involved Hall County, residents should remain aware, particularly around the Lake Lanier area.

"Atlanta is the economic engine of the Northern District, but northeast Georgia is seeing an increasing retirement population and amount of wealth, which is a target population in terms of victims," said Justin Amand, assistant U.S. attorney and Atlanta's deputy chief of economic crimes.

"Atlanta is a top 10 city nationwide in terms of Fortune 500 businesses, and the number of investment professionals and investment firms have increased. Northeast Georgia is exploding in population, investment fraud, victims and dollar amounts."

The uptick in fraud is linked to the nation's financial downturn, and officials started the nationwide crackdown to fight the "crisis of confidence" plaguing the economy.

"It's always been a priority to address fraud and stamp out where we can," Amand said. "If consumers can't feel safe where they have invested and saved money, that's going to be a further drag on the economy as it tries to come out of the doldrums."

After the success of the three-month program, Operation Broken Trust members are looking forward to keeping the efforts moving.

"It remains a substantial focus of ours to identify these frauds and stop them at an early point before too many people lose too much money," Amand said.

"We ask folks to keep vigilant and look carefully at opportunities to invest money."

If something looks too good to be true, it probably is, he added.

"We encourage folks to ask questions and report anything that sounds fishy," Amand said. "With the embarrassment factor, people don't want to admit they were fooled, but if they had spoken up early on, it would have been caught sooner. The reality is, a lot of smart people fall for these things."

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