Agents used Irvine office as a storefront to arrest network of brokers and equipment vendors who allegedly bilked lenders for $20 million.
By JOHN GITTELSOHN
THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
Comments | Recommend
For 10 months, a sixth-floor office in Irvine served as a storefront for FBI agents working undercover on "Operation Lease Fleece," trying to crack equipment leasing schemes that allegedly defrauded banks of more than $20 million.
The storefront was wired with audio and video equipment, recording the agents – who posed as businessmen desperate for cash, bank representatives or inspectors of leased equipment – as they unraveled a nationwide scheme centered in Orange County.
On Wednesday, federal prosecutors announced they filed charges against 23 people in the scheme, including 13 from Orange County.
"Hundreds of bogus equipment-lease packages with fake invoices were presented to financial institutions," according to Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles.
Those institutions, according to the FBI, include some of the biggest names in finance: Citicapital, the leasing division of Citibank, Wells Fargo, GE Capital, American Enterprise Leasing, Key Bank, Main Street Bank and US Bank.
According to prosecutors, companies such as CapitalWerks of Santa Ana and Brickbanc Capital of Costa Mesa, arranged high-cost loans to small businesses by using money that was supposed to purchase office equipment for leasing to the small businesses. Instead of buying the computers and other equipment, CapitalWerks and Brickbanc allegedly provided no equipment or low-cost computers – referred to as "blinky boxes" – reaping large commissions while saddling the small businesses with big debts.
Among the defendants, who will make court appearances in coming months on charges such as mail fraud and wire fraud, is James Raeder of Mission Viejo, president of CapitalWerks and its affiliate Preferred Lease. Raeder expressed mystification when reached by phone Wednesday.
"I don't know what you're talking about," he told a reporter when the charges were explained.
U.S. companies spent $250 billion leasing equipment in 2006, signing 20,000 new leases each day, according to the Equipment Leasing Association.
Legitimate equipment leases are structured like business loans, with a broker matching equipment and funding to the client. The equipment lessee then makes monthly payments to the bank or other funding source. At the end of the lease period, the lessee either returns or purchases the equipment.
Banks use the equipment as collateral in case the client fails to keep up with payments. To protect against scams, the banks check by phone – or occasionally with site visits -- to make sure the equipment has been delivered and installed.
The default rate on the deals was typically 35 to 40 percent, compared to a usual default rate on equipment leases of 1 to 3 percent, according to the FBI.
One victim of the scam was Bob Blanchard, owner of Providence Telephone and Internet Co. in North Smithfield, R.I., who launched a private crusade to bring the alleged scammers to justice.
Blanchard said he received a call in late 2005, at a time his small company needed a new computer server. Blanchard said CapitalWerks conducted a credit check and found his company qualified for a $77,000 lease. He paid $7,500 to set up the lease, but was later informed he didn't qualify. CapitalWerks refused to refund his money.
Blanchard collected all the evidence he could find on the leasing scam: recording phone conversations, saving emails, combing the Internet for information on people working for CapitalWerks. He mailed small checks to the company, described as "refunds" for overcharges on their phone bills, and used the canceled checks to gather clues on CapitalWerks' bank accounts and related companies. He created a Web site dedicated to outing the company.
"I believe they robbed me, not with a gun but with a phone and the internet," Blanchard said. "They don't take the law seriously. They laugh at you."