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Fraud inquiry spans the globe

TAMPA — The to-do list on Paul Robert Gunter's computer memory was succinct.

"Houseclean — all Escrow files — all hard drives — fax machines."

"Destroy Leftover Paperwork."

And, "Research Switzerland as a home for Escrow accounts."

British authorities found it among others in Gunter's computer memory last year during an investigation that led to Thursday's arrest of the 58-year-old Odessa man and his 25-year-old daughter, Zibiah Gunter of Oldsmar.

The Gunters are accused of helping hijack the identities of 54 publicly traded companies and selling bogus stocks to victim investors in Ireland and Great Britain.

The international scheme netted $70-million for the conspirators, according to a criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court Thursday.

And though the Gunters are the only ones behind bars at the moment, court documents indicate the father-daughter team were likely not the biggest moneymakers in what federal investigators describe as a three-year-old investment fraud and money laundering conspiracy.

At least four other people were involved in the elaborate business arrangement, which had tentacles in Spain, Texas, New York and Costa Rica, according to the federal complaint.

An international web

While the Gunters headquartered the operation out of offices in Palm Harbor and Clearwater, a U.S. Secret Service agent said, their associates included two Houston lawyers, a Costa Rican business man identified in the court filing as "Larry Hart" and another person, referred to by the investigator only as "Conspirator 4," "Rich" and "RP."

According to a filing by M. Anthony Magos, a special agent with the U.S. Secret Service, who investigated the scam, the father-daughter team appeared to have acted as a clearinghouse, handling the wire transfers into the companies from victim-investors, and disbursing the funds from Tampa Bay area banks to their partners in Texas, Costa Rica and elsewhere.

The scheme targeted retired or semiretired investors in the United Kingdom who received unsolicited phone calls from people offering shares in companies with little to no risk, "almost guaranteed to increase significantly," the court document says.

The callers, described as "persistent" and "persuasive," and appeared to work from "boiler rooms" based in Spain — call centers investigators linked to Paul Gunter after reviewing the contents of his laptop and other computer software.

It appears the scam originated with the Costa Rican associate, identified by investigators as "Conspirator 1," and a Houston lawyer , known as "Conspirator 5."

In 2005, according to the federal complaint, the attorney hired a second Houston lawyer, "Conspirator 6," to help execute the legwork of hijacking the identities of dormant companies, renaming them and making them appear to have a market history potential victim-investors could refer to when deciding whether to buy.

Federal investigators said Conspirator 6 explained the mechanics of the scam this way:

Once victims agreed to purchase shares, they were told to sign agreements and fax them to numbers with Florida area codes, 813, 954 and 305.

The victims wired money to one of 80 bank accounts connected to the scheme, all of which list the Gunters as signatories, according to the complaint.

Zibiah Gunter arranged to have blank stock certificates shipped from a Manhattan apartment to her attention at an address in Palm Harbor. When mailed to the victim investors, the stock certificates had a return address of 7914 U.S. Hwy. 19 N in Port Richey.

It is a pawn shop.

Sensing a problem

Victims who purchased the fraudulent stock received letters advising them they would be charged a fee of either $50 or 1 percent of their investment. The remaining 99 percent, the victim would assume, would go to the company in which they were investing.

According to the investigation, those letters originated with Paul Gunter. His computer memory stick included an e-mail contract from "MobileStream," one of the hijacked companies, stating the 1 percent agreement on letter head bearing the same pawn shop return address.

His computer records also contained a spreadsheet investigators believe outlined a plan for 60 percent of the money from one bogus business to go to cover the "boiler room" costs, 1 percent to Paul Gunter, 11 percent to "Larry," 13 percent to "Rich" and 15 percent to another category labeled "retain."

Gunter's computer records on another hijacked company show "Rich" and "Larry" each getting 7.5 percent, while "Escrow" — which investigators believe is Gunter — gets 2 percent. Of the remainder, 60 percent was designated to "guys" and 20 percent to "company."

In October 2006, the Ontario Securities Commission suspected something was wrong with a wire transfer of $2.3-million to accounts for which Gunter was the signatory. The government determined the shares were distributed illegally and last month directed the money be returned to the original UK investors.

The experience appears to have left an impression on Gunter. In a document found in the computer memory, authored by "Paul" titled "STRICTLY PRIVATE — Gentlemen, Happy New Year," the writer promised strengthened anonymity "in the interests of security and longevity" in 2007.

But, he wrote, "With the tightening of banking regulations and the seeming paranoia surrounding money laundering and terrorism, I would inform you that ... we regret we cannot be held liable for any loss that may arise."

The task now, federal officials say, is to track down the rest of the money.

"Those two are the only two charged right now," said special agent John Joyce of the U.S. Secret Service in Tampa, "but this investigation is still active and we have not ruled out other arrests in the future."

Staff writer Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at rcatalanello@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3383.

Fraud inquiry spans the globe 03/14/08 [Last modified: Monday, March 17, 2008 3:22pm]

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