Denise Zahn heard a radio ad for a book that would turn her into a millionaire.
The high school English teacher, who wanted to retire and spend more time with her mother in Ohio, figured it was worth a shot. So she dialed the toll-free number and ordered a courtesy copy of The Millionaire Maker by self-described "money expert" Loral Langemeier.
Days later, the calls started. A salesman talked to Denise and her husband Gary, a former IT director, for two hours. The Tarpon Springs couple agreed to pay $15,495 to join Langemeier's "Fast Cash Coaching," billed as an online program to help clients launch profitable businesses.
"Ordinary people all over the world become Millionaires every day," Longemeier's Live Out Loud website declares, "because they follow a proven formula, that when followed strictly, creates success EVERY TIME!"
The Zahns believed it. They wanted to sell books, flags and toys online.
"Over and over again," Denise Zahn, 63, said, "we were told if we followed every step and did everything they said, we would become millionaires."
But the next steps, according to a June lawsuit the Zahns filed against Live Out Loud in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court, cost them more than $50,000, ruined their credit and didn't return a cent.
Now the couple is considering bankruptcy.
Langemeier's international operation — which includes a "Millionaire Makeover" tour, "Big Table" courses where clients pay nearly $9,000 for investment advice, rhetoric-packed stints on Dr. Phil and "energy" jewelry — peddles false hope, said Charles D. Radeline, the Zahns' attorney.
"If this could happen to Denise and Gary — intelligent, college-educated, well-spoken people — it could happen to anyone," Radeline said.
The case for fraud and civil conspiracy, according to the lawsuit, was built over months of confusing transactions in 2011: Radeline believes Langemeier's Live Out Loud company passed the Zahns' contact information to at least four companies. Salespeople who claimed to be affiliated with Live Out Loud repeatedly called the Zahns with the "next step" toward becoming millionaires, they said.
"We kept hearing 'you have to do this and this and this for anything to work,' " Gary Zahn, 58, said.
The salespeople offered services that were unnecessary and could have been done far more cheaply by local lawyers, Radeline said. The Zahns paid thousands to establish two LLCs, two "virtual offices" and nearly $100,000 in corporate credit — all before defining a clear business concept, he said.
"We just did not know what we were doing," Gary Zahn said, "and I can't believe we trusted these people. We got sucked in fast. And I felt like I couldn't stop with each step because we had already invested so much."
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Langemeier, who records show is 48, was raised on a farm in Mead, Neb. Her father was a 4-H leader for 25 years, according to an obituary. Her mother runs a cake and catering company.
She graduated from Nebraska Wesleyan University with a finance degree in 1987 and got a master's in exercise physiology from the University of Nebraska at Omaha in 1989. Her website says she worked for Chevron until she started a consulting business.
The rest is infomercial history. Langemeier has written fiscal-help books and appeared on an array of local morning shows. This month, she's in Orange County, Calif. for a "3 Days to Cash" workshop." She is scheduled to give the same seminar in Fort Lauderdale in November.
But has the Millionaire Maker made millionaires?
"We have helped over 6,000 people across four countries in the past year alone and our company has continued to grow worldwide," a Live Out Loud representative said by e-mail. "Our community represents dozens of nationalities."
Langemeier did not return phone calls or messages from the Tampa Bay Times. When repeatedly asked, her company representatives did not provide names of clients who found success using a Live Out Loud program.
A California "wealth coach" who endorsed Langemeier on her website, claiming to have become a millionaire in nine months under her guidance, also did not respond for comment.
Nevada attorney Adam Hosmer-Henner, who represents Langemeier, filed a motion to dismiss the Zahns' lawsuit and declined to answer questions from the Times.
"Please consider this an official cease and desist request," a LOL representative said by email. "Please refrain from contacting any family members, partners or employees of Live Out Loud or Loral Langemeier from this point forward. Any future contact from yourself to the parties listed will be considered harassment and will be responded to accordingly."
In the past four years, Langemeier's financial dealings have tangled her in several lawsuits across the country.
An Oviedo woman sued Langemeier and LOL in 2009 for misrepresentation and fraud. Court records state Darrah Mittag met Langemeier at a seminar in Phoenix and was persuaded by LOL staff to invest $50,000 in a "low-risk" property to earn 17 percent interest. The deal fell through and, according to the lawsuit, Mittag learned Langemeier and LOL had been paid $280,000 for "endorsement" of the property to investors. The case was settled.
The same year, a group who attended LOL's "Big Table" events in South Lake Tahoe, Calif., sued Langemeier for fraud and deceit. Langemeier, the lawsuit alleged, used the events to "solicit substantial investments by participants in purported opportunities in which Langemeier has a personal financial interest." The case is on appeal.
In a 2010 lawsuit, a South Carolina couple claimed LOL coaching cost them at least $2 million. Langemeier charged thousands for "wealth-building and investment seminars" and "exclusive access to lucrative investments," the plaintiffs, Steven and Elisabeth Lenes, alleged. She then, according to the lawsuit, promoted "highly risky, unproven investments from which she received undisclosed kickbacks." They settled last year.
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Unless you win the lottery or a sizeable inheritance, there is no such thing as getting rich quick, said Chuck Malkus, a financial author and president of a communications firm in Fort Lauderdale.
"Too often, people — smart, educated people — are quick to respond to something they hear on the radio or from a neighbor or from someone at church," said Malkus. "They don't want to miss out.
"Before trusting anyone with your money, look for the warning signs. Is this person aggressively advertising their services? Does this person make huge, exciting promises . . . When you Google this person's name, do you find complaints?
"I found 30 complaints about 'The Millionaire Maker' just by Googling her name."
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Last month, the Zahns started settlement negotiations with three of the companies whose salespeople called after they signed up for "Fast Cash Coaching."
One agreed to mail them a full refund.
But Langemeier's Live Out Loud enterprises "are ready for a fight," Radeline said.
"It doesn't make sense to me because she was essentially the springboard of all this," he said. "She started this and brought a lot of pain to my clients."
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.