TAMPA — He received 15 minutes of fame on the Extreme Weight Loss television show that reinvented his body.
Michael Giannulis then reinvented himself as a self-proclaimed, self-made millionaire and serial entrepreneur whose endeavors included a goat ranch.
But the Federal Trade Commission gave Giannulis a new label — alleged scam artist.
The FTC charged that Giannulis and his Utah-based partner Michael Williams bilked victims out of $31.6 million by selling online classes that fraudulently promised to teach how to start internet businesses. But the classes actually set up students to sell those same classes to others.
Giannulis and Williams denied guilt and no criminal charges have been filed, but in March they agreed to pay a civil penalty of $760,000 to the FTC and turn over personal items obtained through their business.
Those items include 13 gold and platinum rings, two Rolex watches and a motorcycle that will be auctioned at 1 p.m. on June 20 at 10221 Princess Palm Ave. in Tampa.
Via email, Giannulis said, he “made the business decision to settle with the FTC. We look forward to moving past this matter.”
According to the 38-year-old Giannulis’ personal website, he is part Greek and part Italian and grew up in Tarpon Springs. His Facebook page says he now resides in Trinity with a wife and two dogs.
In a December 2017 episode of the Up Rev Ninja podcast, Giannulis detailed that his “serial entrepreneurship” began at the age of 7 or 8 when he wrote and sold poetry.
While attending an unnamed “small bible school” in Illinois, a friend convinced him to invest in a goat ranch, Giannulis told the Live The Fuel podcast in April 2019. They purchased 500 goats, all of which were pregnant, he claimed. That venture failed and he returned to the Tampa Bay area, where his weight ballooned to as much as 540 pounds.
Giannulis petitioned to appear on ABC’s Extreme Weight Loss, where personal trainer Chris Powell helped people lose weight through exercise and nutrition over one year.
His episode was broadcast in 2012.
Court documents show that a year later, Giannulis ventured into what the trade commission says was a fraudulent business enterprise by hooking up with the Malaysia-based My Online Business Education, otherwise known as MOBE.
A commission complaint says MOBE was formed in 2011 and promised its online classes would “reveal a 21-step system that would show consumers how to easily start and operate an online business that would generate significant income for them.”
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There were five tiers of classes, ranging from Silver at $2,497 through Diamond at $29,997. Students were pressured to complete all levels at a total price around $64,000, court documents say.
But the classes were “designed to teach consumers how to sell the very same online education product to other consumers" and, in return, they received a commission from MOBE.
Such a scheme would not have been illegal, states the court documents, if MOBE was upfront about the true nature of the courses.
In 2018, the FTC shutdown MOBE, saying they earned more than $300 million through the fraudulent business.
“Most people who buy into the program and pay for the expensive memberships are unable to recoup their costs, and many experience crippling losses or mounting debts,” the FTC said in a statement at the time.
In February, MOBE agreed to turn over $17 million in assets to the FTC.
“We recovered MOBE assets from Australia, Malaysia, Costa Rica, Fiji and other foreign jurisdictions as well as here in the United States,” said Mark Bernet, a Tampa attorney who was the FTC-appointed equity receiver for the case. “This money will be made available to consumers to cover some of their losses.”
Giannulis and Williams earned more than $23 million through MOBE and the company awarded them the Rolex watches and rings now up for auction, according to court documents.
When MOBE was shutdown, Giannulis and Williams ventured out on their own.
“To find prospective buyers,” the FTC’s civil complaint reads, “the defendants created and launched online advertisements or ad campaigns” that claimed students would learn how to “generate thousands of dollars in monthly income online" and up to “$120,000 in the first year.”
One online commercial featured a former student claiming he earned $125,000 per month on average, according to the court documents, which added that the company targeted those 45 and older “worried about retirement and taking care of family.”
Giannulis told the Up Rev Ninja podcast in 2019 that consumers "want something that they perceive to be fast … that doesn’t mean that you have to make a promise that isn’t true. You just have to show them how doing it with you or your thing is going to happen for them faster than if they were on their own.”
As part of the settlement, the trade commission permanently banned Giannulis from “creating, advertising, marketing, promoting, offering for sale, or selling any business coaching program or any money-making method.”
Giannulis’ personal website promotes that he can help “business owners find freedom,” but offers no courses.
He has an website called Sanetris that offers 12 months of unlimited workout and nutritional videos for one payment of $37. On sanetris.com, the company’s address is listed as 19046 Bruce B. Downs Blvd.
The Tampa Bay Times visited that address. It is a UPS store.