Convicted pyramid schemer Shelly Cullen may be promoting new ‘investment’ – Commerce Commission

By Ric Stevens of Open Justice reporter of NZHerald

A woman who said she would make history as “one of the biggest scammers in New Zealand” is believed to back in the game, promoting a new scheme promising untold riches to would-be investors.

Shelly Cullen has previously promoted a pyramid scheme – an illegal form of “investment” that can leave most of the investors out of pocket when the scheme collapses.

Cullen is awaiting sentencing after being found guilty of five charges of promoting a pyramid scheme called Lion’s Share, in which 150,000 participants worldwide lost almost $17 million.

The verdicts were handed down by Judge Anna Skellern in the North Shore District Court on 12 April, after a judge-alone trial that went ahead without Cullen attending. She is believed to be overseas.

Now the Commerce Commission has alleged Cullen is linked to another bitcoin-based investment being marketed online and within New Zealand.

“Ms Cullen has been promoting a new investment opportunity known as ‘MaVie’,” said the Commerce Commission’s fair trading general manager, Vanessa Horne.

“The commission is urging communities to exercise caution around this and similar schemes.

“We think this is particularly important following the court’s finding that Lion’s Share was a pyramid scheme, and Ms Cullen’s conviction for promotion of that scheme.”

Although Cullen did not show up for her own trial, comments she had made in a Facebook Live video were viewed by Judge Skellern and quoted in her written decision.

“I am going to make history as one of the biggest scammers in New Zealand,” Cullen said in the video posted in January 2021.

“F*** the consequences, I ain’t scared.

“I jump from scam to scam because I can. What’s the consequences? $600,000 slap on the hand.”

The reference to $600,000 matches the maximum fine under the Fair Trading Act for promoting a pyramid scheme.

More than 200 potential investors in the MaVie scheme took part in an online meeting this week in which a promoter – not Cullen – suggested they could tap into millions of dollars of wealth generated by bitcoin for investments from $1000.

The Commerce Commission said the earlier Lion’s Share scheme targeted Māori and Pasifika communities in New Zealand during 2020 and 2021.

The participants in Monday’s MaVie online meeting also appeared to come largely from those communities.

The presentation gave the impression there are huge profits to be made through a relentless increase in the value of bitcoin and other cybercurrencies.

The Lion’s Share investment, which was found to be a pyramid scheme, was also supposedly based on cryptocurrencies.

83 percent of investors lost money

A pyramid scheme is a fraudulent way to make money based on an ever-increasing number of “investors”.

The initial promoters recruit investors, who in turn recruit more. The structure resembles a pyramid because the number of players increases at each level.

Sooner or later, however, the scheme runs out of people to recruit and collapses, leaving the latecomers out of pocket.

In the Lion’s Share scheme, more than 83 percent were found to be “losers”.

In the online meeting for the latest scheme, a woman designated as a co-host said there were people online from New Zealand, Australia, the Cook Islands and Cyprus. Members of Cullen’s family are understood to be in Cyprus.

Shelly Cullen was not obviously present in the list of attendees but the co-host described the online meeting as “Shelly’s community”.

The online meeting was given a presentation by a promoter, Neo Anderson, who described coming from a poor background in upstate New York and making a fortune out of bitcoin.

It is unclear if his name is real. The character Thomas Anderson in the 1999 science fiction movie The Matrix is known by his computer hacking alias, Neo.

Anderson did not reveal his face but showed the meeting a series of slides for a promotion called FinUp.

One of these slides directly linked FinUp with the MaVie scheme that was the subject of the Commerce Commission warning.

Anderson suggested investors could make millions of dollars through investing in the bitcoin-driven promotion.

At one point, Anderson used an online compound interest calculator to suggest that an initial investment of $1000 could grow to $1.2m in five years.

In fact, to achieve such a return an investor would need to make continuing deposits of about $1000 a month, and earn an interest rate of 8 percent per month, compounding every month.

But Anderson described his proposal as a “tool that attracts money”.

“Money is an energy, and if you have the energy which attracts money, then people will always want to bring it to you,” Anderson told the online meeting attendees.

“Now, you have a tool that attracts money, because it is a profitable tool that is making profits for the people.

“So, you are getting in the vibration of attraction to wealth, and you get yourself into that vibration and it starts to become contagious,” Anderson said.

“People want to be around successful people. People want to be around people that have a solid, strong mindset to generate wealth.”

The Lion’s Share scheme was also promoted through online meeting sessions, as well as on YouTube.

In one YouTube video in August 2020, Cullen claimed to have earned more than $150,000 in 11 days. The video attracted tens of thousands of views.

In September 2020, Cullen told an online meeting she had made $204,000 within five weeks.

In October 2020, Cullen posted a YouTube video in which she said the “Etherium” platform of the Lion’s Share scheme had paid out $15m and the “Tron” platform $12m.

Etherium and Tron are systems for crytocurrency trading.

A financial analysis made for Cullen’s district court prosecution found there were 116,383 participants in the Lion’s Share scheme on the Tron platform and the top 1 percent of them made 92.2 percent of the profit.

Overall, 12.4 percent were winners and 83.6 percent losers. The other 4 percent were “neutral”.

The winners made $10.363m between them and the losers lost $10.509m.

Pyramid schemes evolving

Vanessa Horne of the Commerce Commission said pyramid schemes were evolving with the use of social media and cryptocurrencies, and could give the appearance of legitimate revenue-generating opportunities.

“This case was a particular focus of the commission as 83 percent of participants lost money from the global [Lion’s Share] scheme, with the total lost worldwide estimated to be almost $NZ17 million,” Horne said.

“But it also highlights a much broader risk for Kiwi consumers.

“We take pyramid scheme cases seriously because of the harm they can cause in our communities.

“People are often misled about the financial benefits of membership and the level of risk.

“When these schemes collapse, the impacts on most of those involved and their families can be devastating.”

Attempts to reach Cullen for comment via social media have so far been unsuccessful.

Judge Skellern said in her written decision that no one involved in her prosecution had any contact with her after September last year.

“She has apparently left the country and not returned.”

The Commerce Commission, which was also the prosecutor in the Lion’s Share case, said it was “taking steps to contact international agencies” ahead of Cullen’s scheduled sentencing date in the North Shore District Court on 24 June.

The commission also said it had started sending out letters to those within New Zealand thought to be promoting MaVie.

The letters inform of the risks of participating in and promoting pyramid schemes, and which may give rise to a breach of the Fair Trading Act.

“We encourage all consumers to look closely at any investment opportunities before signing up,” Horne said.

“If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.”

– This story originally appeared in the New Zealand Herald.

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