On December 20, 2013, the SEC aannounced charges against a woman and her stepson for their involvement in a North Carolina-based Ponzi and pyramid scheme that the agency shut down last year.

The SEC alleged that Dawn Wright-Olivares and Daniel Olivares, who each now live in Arkansas, provided operational support, marketing, and computer expertise to sustain ZeekRewards.com, which offered and sold securities in the form of “premium subscriptions” and “VIP bids” for penny auctions.  While the website conveyed the impression that the significant payouts to investors meant the company was extremely profitable, the payouts actually bore no relation to the company’s net profits.  Approximately 98 percent of total revenues for ZeekRewards – and correspondingly the share of purported net profits paid to investors – were comprised of funds received from new investors rather than legitimate retail sales.

Wright-Olivares and Olivares agreed to settle the SEC’s charges.  In a parallel action, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of North Carolina today announced criminal charges against the pair.

Pyramid schemes are a type of investment scam often pitched as a legitimate business opportunity in the form of multi-level marketing programs. According to the SEC’s complaint filed in federal court in Charlotte, N.C., the ZeekRewards scheme raised more than $850 million from approximately one million investors worldwide.

The SEC alleged that Wright-Olivares served as the chief operating officer for much of the existence of ZeekRewards.  Wright-Olivares helped develop the program and its key features, marketed it to investors, and managed some of its operations.  She also helped design and implement features that concealed the fraud.  Olivares managed the electronic operations that tracked all investments and managed payouts to investors.  Together, Wright-Olivares and Olivares helped perpetuate the illusion of a successful retail business.

The SEC’s complaint charged Wright-Olivares with violating the registration and antifraud provisions of Sections 5 and 17 of the Securities Act, and Section 10 of the Exchange Act and Rule 10b-5.  The complaint charged Olivares with violating Section 17 of the Securities Act and Section 10 of the Exchange Act and Rule 10b-5.  To settle the SEC’s charges, Wright-Olivares agreed to pay at least $8,184,064.94 and Olivares agreed to pay at least $3,272,934.58 – amounts that represent the entirety of their ill-gotten gains plus prejudgment interest.  Payments will be made as part of the parallel criminal proceeding in which additional financial penalties could be imposed in a restitution order.