LANSING (WWJ) – Two West Michigan men accused of defrauding investors in a $9 million Ponzi scheme have pleaded no contest to racketeering charges.

The state attorney general’s office announced Friday that 60-year-old Jeffrey Ripley, of Sparta, and 61-year-old Danny Lee VanLiere, of Grand Rapids, also pleaded no contest in Ottawa County Circuit Court to two counts of selling unregistered securities. They’re both due back in court for sentencing on June 21.

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Attorney General Bill Schuette said from July 2006 through January 2012, Ripley and VanLiere ran the scheme under the name API Worldwide Holdings LLC, promising huge returns on investments.

Ripley and VanLiere defrauded at least 140 victims of approximately $9 million by selling fake securities, Schuette said. The two men promised high returns on money invested, but never delivered on their promises to victims. Investigation revealed that victims were defrauded of amounts ranging from $3,000 to $600,000 each.

Schuette said Ripley and VanLiere preyed on elderly victims by convincing them to cash in certificates of deposit (CDs) and other legitimate investments in order to invest the proceeds in API Worldwide. Court records show that Ripley and VanLiere tracked maturation dates of CD’s for some victims, so they could make contact and persuade the victims to transfer the funds to API Worldwide immediately after the CD matured.

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Investigation revealed that although some investors did receive a return, those returns were derived from other investor’s funds, the trademark of a Ponzi scheme. None of the victims received any returns on their “investments,” and some even lost their life savings to the scam.

“Financial scams that target the Greatest Generation can devastate the lives of our parents and grandparents who worked so hard to provide for their families,” Schuette said in a statement. “The message here is clear – if you break the law, there are consequences. We will bring justice to criminals who target and exploit our most vulnerable citizens.”

Schuette encouraged seniors to exercise caution before investing their money with those who promise exorbitant returns. Key tips to avoid falling victim to a Ponzi scheme or investment fraud include:

  • Check out your broker or adviser. Confirm that your broker and financial adviser is registered and in good standing. Contact the Bureau of Commercial Services with the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs, at 517-241-6345, to check out your broker or adviser.
  • Beware of strangers touting strange deals. Trusting strangers is a mistake anyone can make when it comes to their personal finances. Almost anyone can sound nice or honest on the telephone. Say “no” to any investment professional who presses you to make an immediate decision, giving you no opportunity to check out the salesperson, firm and the investment opportunity itself. Beware of anyone who suggests investing your money into something you don’t understand or who urges that you leave everything in his or her hands.
  • Take your time – don’t be rushed into investment decisions. Salespersons who use high-pressure tactics to force an investor into an immediate decision are almost always pitching frauds. They don’t want you to think too carefully or find out too much because you may figure out that it’s a scam.
  • Keep tabs on your investments. Be wary when a financial planner says “leave everything to me,” or “the plan is too complicated to tell you.” Everything should be clear and explainable to you.
  • Monitor the activity on your account. Insist on receiving regular statements.
  • Ask Questions. Never be embarrassed or apologetic about asking questions for trading activity that looks excessive or unauthorized. It’s your money, not your broker’s.
  • Keep Diligent Records. Keep all of your records relating to your investments, including notes of conversations you have with brokers, salespeople, and financial advisers.
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A no contest plea is not an admission of guilt but is treated as such for sentencing purposes.