3 fake pastors made $28 million in a financial literacy Ponzi scheme called '1st Millions' and tried to scrub an online article about a previous Ponzi scheme right before they were caught: DOJ

  • Three fake pastors in Maryland said it was 'God's mission' for them to help others build wealth, according to the DOJ.

  • Two were convicted after scamming 1,200 people out of $28 million in the process.

  • On Thursday, two were sentenced on securities fraud charges. The third person fled the country.

Three men who posed as pastors and financial advisors ran a Ponzi scheme that netted them close to $28 million before massive bank account overdrafts blew their cover.

According to the Department of Justice, Maryland man John Erasmus Frimpong was sentenced to nearly 10 years in prison on Thursday while a co-conspirator, Arley Ray Johnson, was sentenced to six years on conspiracy to commit wire fraud, conspiracy to commit securities fraud, and securities fraud charges.

The third alleged co-conspirator, Dennis Jali, fled to South Africa in May 2019, the same month that the money started to run dry, the DOJ said in a statement. He was arrested in South Africa, per the DOJ.

The three men launched a phony financial literacy and wealth management firm titled "1st Millions" in August 2017, telling investors that they were investing in forex and crypto ventures and promising monthly returns on investments as high as 35%.

They frequented churches, hotel galas, and upscale events to recruit at least 1,200 victims who poured in millions of dollars, and lied by saying that they were licensed traders under the laws of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, prosecutors said in an indictment.

A lawyer for Frimpong did not immediately return Insider's request for comment.

The three men "presented themselves as 'pastors,' and told prospective investors that 1st Million's work was in furtherance of God's mission in that it helped churches and their members achieve personal wealth and financial freedom," prosecutors said in court documents.

Once several shell companies were established, the men siphoned investor money to new bank accounts and did not invest the money in financial markets, according to the DOJ. The men also recruited "agents" who were promised higher return rates for recruiting new investors, regardless of market volatility.

The men orchestrating the scheme lived lavishly as they conned more investors, with one spending $27,000 on an Audi, $20,000 on a Porsche, and $78,000 on private jets — including a flight from Charlotte to Washington, DC with five passengers.

By February 2019, the men struggled to keep the semblance of success by way of sending agents and investors fake monthly return checks, all while one Bank of America account was hit with overdraft fees of over $100,000.

In the ensuing weeks, the men traveled to other luxury hotels and religious symposiums, promising to help people "build money," under the "auspices of God," prosecutors said in an indictment.

Until May 2019, the three had continued to recruit investors, prosecutors said in an indictment.

That month, they told a group of investors that a new law had caused Bank of America to stop working with 1st Millions, but that the investors' money was safe. Frimpong continued helming the scheme into after the spring of 2019, per the DOJ.

As the pressure mounted, one of the alleged co-conspirators, Dennis Jali, tried to pay for a digital forensic service to place news reports of a Ponzi scheme he operated in South Africa on the last page of Google search queries for his name, or to be scrubbed from the internet entirely.

By the end of the month, Jali had fled the US.

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