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securities fraud

The Ontario Securities Commission offices in Toronto.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Every year, Robin Brown performs a peculiar ritual: He types the words Momentas Corporation into Google and pores through the results.

He has good reason to keep checking back. In 2003, after moving to Canada with his wife and children, he got a phone call. On the other end was a salesman for Momentas Corporation, offering to sell him what the man called convertible debentures.

Mr. Brown, intrigued, asked Momentas to send him more information. "They seemed quite credible, the salesperson was extremely persuasive," recalled Mr. Brown, 50, now an executive vice-president at Toronto-based market-research firm Dig Insights. "So I invested. One cheque, $10,000."

It was a scam. Not long after investing, Mr. Brown received a letter telling him the securities he'd purchased were now void and worthless. "I felt very foolish, and was embarrassed to even tell my wife that this had happened," Mr. Brown said last week.

"It was horrible."

Mr. Brown is just one of a growing chorus of Canadians who have been swindled by white-collar fraudsters. A year-long Globe and Mail investigation has revealed the extent of their activities and how hard it is to keep them from doing it again. According to The Globe's data analysis, up to one in nine people found guilty of securities crimes go on to reoffend, and half of those do it again in at least one other province.

After realizing he'd lost his money, Mr. Brown kept tabs on Momentas. Eventually, the Ontario Securities Commission became aware of the scam and named four people including Howard Rash, one of the masterminds behind the company and now a known repeat offender.

During the OSC's investigation and hearings, which concluded in 2007, Mr. Brown expected to hear from someone in law enforcement. No one ever reached out to him.

"I felt like this was going on at arms' length, and there was no recourse for any of the victims of this scam," Mr. Brown said. "It was extremely frustrating."

He says he tried reaching out to authorities, but contends he was given the cold shoulder and told he would likely never see his money again.

"There was total indifference."

The Globe's investigation found that in many cases, fraudsters target seniors and pensioners, vulnerable people with sums of money available to them. But victims of securities fraud aren't limited to the elderly and naive: Anyone, pushed hard enough, can fall for the high-pressure sales playbook used by people such as Mr. Rash. That was the case with Mr. Brown.

Convicted swindler Michael Chomica knows that playbook well – he made a lot of money from his victims. After pleading guilty to three counts of fraud in 2013, he was sentenced to two years in prison by the OSC. Years later, he doesn't back down from the things he did. During a recent interview, he immediately asked, "have you seen The Wolf of Wall Street?"

"That guy's got nothing on me," he said.

Mr. Chomica has run scams since the early 1990s, and specialized in the "slop load," where a salesperson offers to take bad stock off your hands at a hefty premium in exchange for an upfront security deposit. He estimates that as much as $60-million likely passed through his hands.

"It's just a voice on the phone," he said of the victims he's left behind throughout his career. He sees securities fraud as a business with clear profit margins. "It's worth it to a guy that's a bust-out and has no future. … It's worth it to him to make several million dollars cash, tax free, to go to jail for eight months, isn't it?"

The Globe's investigation found that only 1.8 per cent of offenders receive prison sentences (for repeat offenders, the figure is higher, at 9.7 per cent), while most are hit with bans or fines that are difficult for securities regulators to enforce. Over the past few years, some regulators, including the OSC, started using specialized task forces made up of police, investigators and legal professionals. The task forces, Joint Serious Offence Teams (JSOT), were given a mandate to put the worst offenders behind bars. As of early December, Ontario's JSOT, launched in 2013, had laid charges in 38 matters and only 26 cases had been concluded.

Mr. Chomica thinks regulators aren't being tough enough, "It's a joke! And they all know that," he said, referring to the fraudsters operating in Canada today. He thinks the solution lies with stricter enforcement. "Put these guys in jail, then see what happens," Mr. Chomica said.

"If I get 20 years, I ain't doin' it!"

Asked if he's still running stock scams, Mr. Chomica laughed and said "no comment."

Though Mr. Brown lost $10,000 in the Momentas scam, he may have been one of the lucky ones. "The impact was probably not as great as most people who suffered these kinds of scams," he said. "For me, it's not that bad, because at that time I did have that lump sum available."

Ultimately, the OSC found that Momentas raised $7.8-million from 250 Canadian investors, and that Mr. Rash personally made $1.3-million. He was banned for life from trading securities in Ontario and fined $1.4-million.

Those fines were symbolic at best. The Globe has found that more than $1.1-billion in securities fines across Canada remain unpaid and regulators don't have the tools they need to collect. Mr. Rash still owes a total of $1.67-million in fines and penalties to the OSC for his part in the Momentas case and other offences. When reached, Mr. Rash said he never paid his fine because he didn't have the money.

Mr. Brown thinks Mr. Rash got off easy. "They get fined, it doesn't mean that much. There must be some harsher recourse to prevent them from basically accepting a fine and then just moving on. It seems that if they broke into my home and stole $10,000, there would be more of a consequence.

"I think there must be a way to prevent someone who is a known fraudster operating," Mr. Brown said. "There has to be some cross-Canadian co-ordination between these jurisdictions to prevent that."

More than a decade later, Mr. Brown still finds himself on Google searching for new information on Momentas.

He's long since lost any hope that the $10,000 will ever be returned to him, however.

"I guess I just kind of gave up on that and figured, 'Okay, that's not what happens in these cases.' You're kind of left to deal with it."