Your weekly ScamWatch

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A roundup of alleged cons, frauds and schemes to watch out for.

Investment fraud – A West Covina woman has admitted that she operated a Ponzi scheme that defrauded more than 150 investors of nearly $7 million, according to the U.S. attorney’s office. On Monday, Guadalupe Valencia pleaded guilty to mail fraud, wire fraud and tax fraud charges related to two Downey-based companies she operated, Real Estate & Loan Consultants and R.E. Equity Group, it said. Prosecutors alleged that she defrauded investors from 2001 to 2009, telling them she would use their money to buy real estate or make small-business loans. Instead she used the money to support herself and to make interest payments to early investors, prosecutors said. Valencia is scheduled to be sentenced May 23. She faces a maximum of 86 years in federal prison and a $1.5-million fine.

Trial memberships - The Federal Trade Commission has sued a company that it says made millions of dollars by luring consumers into trial memberships for money-making schemes and then repeatedly charging them monthly fees for memberships they never signed up for. The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in federal court in Las Vegas, seeks restitution for victims and a court order barring I Works Inc. and its shell companies from continuing the alleged practices. “No consumer should be sucker-punched into making payments for products they don’t know about and don’t want,” FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz said. The FTC’s complaint alleges that the companies said they would charge customers only a small shipping and handling fee but instead charged one-time fees of up to $129.95 and monthly recurring fees of up to $59.95.

Property loans – Two brothers from Sylmar have been arrested on charges that they defrauded lenders out of more than $5 million by obtaining loans on properties that they did not own and by fabricating documents to support their claims, the U.S. attorney’s office said. Henrik Sardariani, 42, and his brother Hamlet Sardariani were arrested Tuesday morning at a restaurant in Brentwood. A federal grand jury indicted the brothers Dec. 17 on charges of conspiracy, wire fraud and identity theft. The indictment accused them of creating fraudulent deeds of trust and corporate records to make it appear that they held title to properties for which they obtained loans.


Death and taxes – A Southern California man has been sentenced to 37 months in prison for conspiracy to defraud the United States, according to prosecutors from the Justice Department’s tax division. Ather Ali of Diamond Bar admitted to filing at least 250 false returns in 2002 and 2003 with the Internal Revenue Service, using the names and Social Security numbers of dead people. The returns claimed more than $2 million in refunds, but the government rejected the bulk of the claims. Ali was also ordered to repay the IRS the nearly $250,000 in refunds he received.


Dec. 19: Online shopping, stealing from kids, sweepstakes fees

Dec. 12: Charities, telemarketing, price fixing

Dec. 5: Payday loans, counterfeit goods, bank worker

-- Stuart Pfeifer