SEC charges eleven Forsage scammers with securities fraud
The SEC has charged eleven Forsage Ponzi promoters with securities fraud.
The SEC claims Forsage is a $300 million dollar Ponzi scheme.
Forsage owner Vladimir “Lado” Okhotnikov is among the eleven defendants.
The SEC’s complaint was filed on August 1st and names the following defendants:
- Vladimir “Lado” Okhotnikov (right, public face of Forsage, Russian national living in Georgia)
- Lola Ferrari (pseudonym, claims to be the “goddess” of Forsage, Russian national living in Indonesia)
- Mikail Sergeev (aka Mike Mooney, Gleb and Gleb Million”, Forsage Development Director, Russian national living in Moscow)
- Sergey Maslakov (main Russian promoter, Russian national living in Gelendzhik or Moscow)
- Samuel D. Ellis (Forsage YouTube shill, US national living in Kentucky)
- Mark F. Hamlin (Forsage YouTube shill, US national living in Virginia)
- Sarah L. Theissen (Crypto Crusaders admin, US national living in Wisconsin)
- Carlos L. Martinez (Crypto Crusaders co-founder, US national living in Illinois)
- Ronald R. Deering (Crypto Crusaders co-founder, US national living in Idaho)
- Cheri Beth Bowen (right, Crypto Crusaders co-founder, US national living in Mississippi) and
- Alisha R. Shepperd (Crypto Crusaders co-founder, US national living in Florida)
The SEC alleges the eleven Forsage defendants
created, operated and maintained an online pyramid and Ponzi scheme through Forsage.io.
Vladimir Okhotnikov, Lola Ferrari (below), Mikhail Sergeev and Sergey Maslakov are identified as Forsage founders.
The Founders perpetuated Forsage and its smart contracts through aggressive online promotions and continuous development of new investment platforms.
During the relevant time period, the Founders raised funds from retail investors in the United States and across the world through the unregistered offer and sale of securities in Forsage.
In connection with the offer and sale of those securities, the Founders engaged in a scheme to defraud investors and further engaged in practices that operated as a fraud or deceit upon those investors.
Samuel Ellis (below), Mark Hamlin and Sarah Theissen are identified as Forsage promoters;
During the same time period, the Founders engaged individuals in the United States – Defendants Samuel D. Ellis (“Ellis”), Mark F. Hamlin (“Hamlin”), and Sarah L. Theissen (“Theissen”) (collectively, the “Promoters”) – to promote Forsage on Forsage-hosted platforms, including the Forsage Official YouTube channel and Forsage’s education tool, the Forsage Academy.
In doing so, the Promoters engaged in the unregistered offer and sale of securities in Forsage.
Theissen, Carlos Martinez, Ronald Deering, Cheri Bowen and Alisa Shepperd are alleged to have
led the largest Forsage promotional group in the United States.
In doing so, the Crypto Crusaders engaged in the unregistered offer and sale of securities in Forsage.
In addition, by promoting Forsage in the United States, the Crypto Crusaders engaged in a scheme to defraud investors and further engaged in practices that operated as a fraud or deceit upon those investors.
The Crypto Crusaders were the most successful Forsage promotional group in the United States, largely because they emulated the Forsage marketing strategy created by the Founders. Indeed, the Crypto Crusaders YouTube channel and Facebook group have had over 75,000 subscribers
As to Forsage itself, the SEC alleges it’s
a textbook pyramid and Ponzi scheme. It did not sell or purport to sell any actual, consumable product to bona fide retail customers during the relevant time period and had no apparent source of revenue other than funds received from investors.
This tracks with BehindMLM’s coverage of Forsage beginning April 2020.
To date BehindMLM has tracked six iterations of the Forsage Ponzi scheme:
- Forsage (April 2020)
- Fortron (September 2020)
- ForsageTron (March 2021)
- Forsage XGold (March 2021)
- Forsage BUSD (May 2021) and
- MetaForce (July 2022)
Interestingly, the SEC notes a split between Okhotnikov and his fellow co-founders earlier this year.
On or about March 7, 2022, there was a split among the Founders of Forsage.
Okhotnikov on the one hand, and Ferrari and Sergeev on the other, differed on the direction of Forsage, and Okhotnikov apparently was cut off from access to Forsage.io and the Telegram channels, among other things.
Okhotnikov retained control of the Forsage Official YouTube Channel, however, which he used to create videos criticizing his former partners.
Soon thereafter, the two sets of Founders created their own matrix marketing platforms: Ferrari and Sergeev launched “Express Smart Game” and Okhotnikov created “Meta Force”.
Both platforms are variations of the compensation and recruitment structure used in Forsage and both represent efforts by the Founders to perpetuate the flow of funds into Forsage and to recruit Forsage investors into these new platforms.
In addition to mimicking many aspects of the Forsage matrices, Express Smart Game is directly connected to Forsage.
Meta Force – also called New Forsage and Force – is an evolution of Forsage on a new smart contract.
Another interesting part of the SEC’s lawsuit is the Forsage Ponzi denials.
When confronted with allegations that Forsage was operating as a pyramid scheme, the Founders, Promoters, and Crypto Crusaders expressly denied the allegations and falsely assured investors that Forsage was a legitimate operation.
BehindMLM reported on Lado Okhotnikov claiming securities regulators “don’t understand the law” in April 2021.
And the Crypto Crusaders were blunt about their recruitment strategy with investors – that is, negative statements about Forsage were not tolerated and they warned investors that if they complained or failed to recruit additional people into Forsage, they would be removed from the Crypto Crusaders’ Facebook groups.
Anyone promoting or observing promotion of MLM crypto Ponzi schemes should be familiar with this behavior.
Despite this aggressive promotion of Forsage as an income-generating opportunity, the significant level of earnings Defendants highlighted was not representative of the profits most investors generated.
Indeed, the “financial freedom” Defendants touted simply was not attainable for most investors given that Forsage operated as a pyramid scheme.
In fact, as with most such schemes, the wealth was concentrated primarily at the top of the pyramid, with Defendants, who held earlier Forsage IDs, benefitting at the expense of later investors.
Another common tactic of MLM crypto scammers is to pretend their scams are dEcEnTrAlIzEd. This ignores the fact that they aren’t by virtue of having been set up by an individual or group of individuals.
The Founders remained deeply involved in Forsage’s operations and continued sustainability during the relevant time period, despite claiming to investors that Forsage was “the world’s first 100% decentralized matrix project” through the Forsage Marketing Materials and
Indeed, the Founders created and launched the smart contracts underpinning the entire operation, maintained the infrastructure to sustain the scheme, and played a central managerial role in ensuring the operation and success of the Forsage Investment Platforms, including the introduction of Forsage BUSD as the newest investment opportunity to keep the scheme afloat.
The notion that MLM crypto scams create and run themselves is a lie.
Here are just some of the lies the Forsage defendants told their victims:
On August 17, 2020, Maslakov posted a video on YouTube denouncing the Philippines Commission’s investigation as “nonsense” and that “all people who have a common sense laughed at this.”
He claimed that “Forsage is not engaging in investment-taking activities.” Maslakov then proceeded to dismiss the scheme allegations as being purely motivated by what he termed as “something [the critics] can’t control” which makes them accuse Forsage of “mortal sins.”
On September 7, 2020 and October 8, 2020, in videos posted on YouTube for the Forsage Academy and on his Facebook page, Hamlin specifically described investments in Forsage as “absolutely real” and “absolutely legal” and that Forsage was “not an investment scheme.”
He went on to state to his audience: “Goodness gracious man, we begin to share this smart contract and what it can do and then you have other people with their negativity because they have a lack of knowledge and they want to put that negativity on you.”
On October 25, 2020, Deering released a 10-minute video on YouTube during which he explained why Forsage was not a scheme.
According to Deering, Forsage “doesn’t have a single thing in common with [a] scheme” because “nobody can take your money;” Forsage is “100% decentralized;” and the “requirement of a material product is an obsolete stereotype.”
Deering went on to advise his audience that they should “look up what [a Ponzi/pyramid scheme] is and then go learn about it before you open your mouth and start badmouthing something.”
On February 10, 2021, Martinez interviewed a guest who denied Forsage was a scheme, and he confirmed his guest’s view.
On February 18, 2021, Ellis told his followers in a YouTube video that “[w]e can overcome [objections] that [Forsage] is a pyramid. . . . I don’t know why people would get that objection [that this is a pyramid scheme], unless they’re talking about bringing it up themselves. But if you treat it and talk about this as a business – which it is – that it could make you millions of dollars, then people aren’t even going to focus on that negativity.”
Okhotnikov participated in an interview on February 27, 2021 with Forsage Indonesia which was later published on YouTube. In response to the question as to whether Forsage was a scam, Okhotnikov stated: “Forsage is an antipyramid.”
A few weeks later, Okhotnikov participated on another panel for Forsage Philippines that was published to YouTube on March 6, 2011, during which he specifically addressed the accusations made by the Philippines Commission:
“Many of you have heard of the claims of the Philippines Securities Commission. At least I’ve heard of strange claims. Forsage has
nothing to do with either securities or investment.
As you know, Forsage is absolutely outside the purview of the SEC.”
Two days after that, Bowen hosted a webinar on the Crypto Crusaders’ YouTube channel where she advised her audience not to list Forsage’s name in any Facebook posts because, according to Bowen, people would Google Forsage and see videos and articles that it was a Ponzi scheme.
Ellis further stated in another YouTube video on March 11, 2021 that the content of the materials in the Forsage Academy was to “make sure that governments and officials understand that we’re not some scam, a pyramid scheme.”
On April 5, 2021, Martinez specifically addressed the Montana CSI’s cease and desist order in one of his weekly webinars on the Crypto Crusaders’ YouTube channel, stating that it had “no basis” and that the Montana CSI “doesn’t understand crypto at all.”
He went on to assure his audience that “Forsage leadership” was looking into the matter to get the cease and desist order “removed.” One of his guests also denied that Forsage even involved an investment contract, and that both the Montana CSI and the Philippines Commission just made allegations that Forsage was a scheme – but neither authority had “proven [Forsage] guilty.”
Deering participated in the April 5, 2021 webinar hosted by Martinez, and Deering addressed the Montana CSI’s findings by noting “everything that they say in there is not correct.”
One of the Crypto Crusaders’ group investors raised concerns with Shepperd that Forsage was a scheme.
After the investor complained publicly about it, Shepperd blocked the investor from the group’s Facebook page.
BehindMLM routinely comes up against these types of rhetoric and denials when reporting on MLM crypto Ponzi schemes.
Here’s another example from Forsage’s official Medium account, published back in late 2020;
The SEC alleges that, as of May 2022,
- 1.05 million participated in the ethereum versions of Forsage;
- 455,246 participation in the tron iterations; and
- 434,992 participated in the BUSD iterations.
With respect to the flow of money from victims to Forsage’s creators and top promoters;
- Vladimir Okhotnikov and the other Forsage founders received at least $4.8 million;
- Okhotnikov and Mikail Sergeev received another $433,909 through siphoning of funds outside of Forsage;
- Lola Ferrari received an additional $256,731 or more;
- Sergey Maslakov received an additional $110,741 or more;
- Sam Ellis received at least $72,405;
- Mark Hamlin received at least $565,828;
- Sarah Theissen received at least $130,118;
- Carlos Martinez received at least $462,925;
- Ronald Deering received at least $267,075;
- Cheri Beth Bowen received at least $303,00; and
- Alisha Shepperd received at least $549,075
Defendants knew, or were reckless in not knowing, that Forsage was an illegal pyramid scheme.
Defendants had previously participated in other MLM projects and knew, or were reckless in not knowing, that Forsage did not sell or offer to sell any product to bona fide retail investors – that is, individuals who are consumers of an actual, consumable product and not participants in an income opportunity.
In that regard, Defendants knew, or were reckless in not knowing, that Forsage was not engaged in any bona fide retail sales. Instead, it was focused solely on the sale of the right to participate in an income opportunity.
In addition, because the proceeds raised through sales of slots derived from investors who recruited additional investors, the payouts under Forsage’s compensation structure were made based solely on investments from the later investors.
In using these later investments to pay earlier investors, Defendants knew, or were reckless in not knowing, they were operating a classic Ponzi scheme.
The SEC has charged the Forsage Defendants with
- unregistered offers and sales of securities in violation of the Securities Act;
- fraud in violation of the Securities Act;
- fraud in violation of the Exchange Act; and
- fraud in violation of the Exchange Act;
The SEC is seeking an injunction against the Forsage Defendants, as well as disgorgement of ill-gotten gains and a civil penalty.
Defendants Sam Ellis and Sarah Theissen have already settled the fraud charges against them.
Without admitting or denying the allegations, two of the defendants, Ellis and Theissen, agreed to settle the charges and to be permanently enjoined from future violations of the charged provisions and certain other activity.
Additionally, Ellis agreed to pay disgorgement and civil penalties, and Theissen will be required to pay disgorgement and civil penalties as determined by the court.
Both settlements are subject to court approval.
At time of publication the SEC’s case isn’t on Pacer yet. I’ll check back later today for a docket update.
Update 4th August 2022 – Case is up on Pacer so I’m able to track it now.
Looking at the docket the SEC filed a Motion for Judgment by Consent for defendants Samuel Ellis and Sarah Theissen on August 2nd.
A hearing is scheduled for August 9th.
I’ll cover the likely acceptance of the settlements on that date, but it looks like we’re going to have to wait for monetary amounts:
The proposed judgment further provides that monetary relief sought by the SEC – in the form of disgorgement, prejudgment interest and a civil penalty – shall be determined by the Court at a later date on the SEC’s motion.
We anticipate moving for such monetary relief after the claims against the remaining Defendants are resolved.
Lado Okhotnikov hasn’t surfaced since the Complaint was filed but has scrubbed his FaceBook of MetaForce content.
Okhotnikov is in Georgia, who don’t appear to have an extradition treaty with the US. In any event nothing on indictments.
I’d be surprised if there weren’t any given the scope of Forsage fraud, but won’t be able to confirm anything unless arrests happen – or the indictments (if they exist) are unsealed.