in Costa Rica, Nicaragua, UK

“Returns up to 895%” and other misleading statements from Property Frontiers about investments in EcoPlanet Bamboo and Silva Tree

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Property Frontiers is an Oxford-based investment firm. According to the company’s website, Property Frontiers is “an investment company with a reputation for offering the best-performing international property and alternative investments to both first time and experienced investors”.

One of the alternative investments that Property Frontiers promoted was EcoPlanet Bamboo’s plantations in Nicaragua. Property Frontiers told anyone who would listen that the returns would be huge. But it seemed almost like Property Frontiers was just making the numbers up. Here’s a selection:

  • In May 2011, Property Frontiers organised an investment seminar at the Hilton Metropole in London. A flyer for seminar promised returns of 895%.
  • In July 2011, the Oxford Mail ran a short piece that included comments from David Cox, then-director of Property Frontiers. “The bonds will allow people to invest at least £10,300 in the hope of obtaining a return of 503 per cent over 15 years,” according to the article.
  • In 2012, EcoPlanet Bamboo promised a 500% return over a 15 year period on an investment of US$50,000.
  • In November 2012, Ray Withers, chief executive and co-founder of Property Frontiers, asked his employee George Houlbrooke why he had invested in EcoPlanet Bamboo’s plantations. Houlbrooke replied,

    Well obviously not many people would call 600%+ ROI over 15 years a bad return and as an income generator you don’t really get much better than this.

  • By January 2013, the predicted return had fallen by more than half. Withers wrote on the company’s website that,

    The plantation lots in Central America are available on 15 year commercial leases from as little as $55,000 with 26% base case annualised returns. Realistic market returns are forecast to be considerably higher, at 293% or more over the 15 year term.

It all sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it?

In a series of posts on REDD-Monitor over the past few months, I’ve documented the unravelling of this investment.

And on 1 February 2017, Adrian Derbyshire wrote about the fund behind the investment, Premier Group (Isle of Man) Ltd on the Isle of Man Today website. The headline is “Savers lose millions as funds collapse”, and the article ends with this advice:

Michael Weldon of the FSA said that any investor who felt they had been mis-sold investments should consider making a formal complaint to their financial adviser.

“Help Save The World With Carbon Offsets, Says Property Frontiers”

Back in 2009, Property Frontiers was pushing investments in a carbon offsetting scheme in Costa Rica. Here’s the start of one post on the company’s website:

If you ever wanted to be a superhero and save the planet, now’s your chance to act cool and slow down global warming with carbon offsetting, according to property investment consultancy Property Frontiers.

And here’s Withers telling us how the deal works:

In the case of Property Frontiers the product is a SIPP approved strip of land in the Costa Rican rainforest. The minimum investment of $12,000 buys a strip worth 200 carbon credits. British families output 18 metric tonnes of greenhouse gasses per year on average, which would leave 182 carbon credits to sell each year.

Property Frontiers put out an Investment Prospectus about the investment. Ben Jefferis, Sourcing Manager at Property Frontiers described the scheme as a “stable and sustainable investment”. He forecast returns of 16.6% per year.

The prospectus is full of the same sort of arguments in favour of buying carbon credits as investments that many boiler room scam companies used to persuade people to part with their cash:

The credit prices are expected to increase steadily according to market trends, thus your annual return should increase year on year.

“Carbon will be the world’s biggest commodity market, and it could become the world’s biggest market over all” – Barclays Capital

Property Frontiers tells us that the return on carbon credits will be 7.5% per year.

“Example returns at 20 years: 180 credits have yielded net $77,948.43. Land could then be sold at $70,112 assuming it is sold at 10% yield. Potential profit for initial $12,790 investment is: $135,279.43.”

Property Frontiers give figures for the price of carbon credits for the next 40 years. I’ve plotted the figures on a graph (years along the x-axis and the value of the carbon credits in pounds on the y-axis):

Sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it?

Red flags

This graph reminds me of a very useful post by David Marchant on OffshoreAlert. The post is titled “How to Identify Red Flags in Investment Schemes”, and it starts as follows:

As an investigative reporter, the easiest financial crime for me to detect is a Ponzi scheme. Any investment scheme with a performance chart that is essentially a diagonal line trending upwards with little or no meaningful variation over many months is a Ponzi scheme and, as such, doomed to failure.

The level of returns do not meaningfully fluctuate because they are not related to profits or losses from any underlying business activity, as is the case with legitimate enterprises, but are paid from new money coming into the scheme. When the level of new investments inevitably drops below the amount needed to meet redemptions, operating costs, and pay-outs to insiders, it collapses.

When conducting due diligence, it doesn’t matter who is behind such a scheme. The names and professional backgrounds of management and directors are irrelevant and it is of no consequence if they don’t show up in your KYC database(s). A diagonal line equals fraud, end of story.

Of course, Property Frontiers’ ever increasing carbon credit values don’t give a diagonal line. Instead, Property Frontiers wanted potential investors to believe that carbon credit prices would increase exponentially. For at least the next 40 years. Clearly this is nonsense.

The reality is that the price of voluntary carbon credits has fallen since 2009. In 2015 the average price of a voluntary carbon credit hit an all time low of US$3.3. And there is no secondary market for voluntary carbon credits.

Here’s what the unfortunate people who invested in this scam received:

Of course it’s not worth the paper its printed on. Silva Tree, the project developer, has appeared twice on REDD-Monitor:




As Dutch journalist Okke Ornstein points out again and again on his blog Bananama Republic, Silva Tree was a scam.

The investment involved another one of REDD-Monitor’s regulars: Citadel Trustees.

Citadel Trustees was lurking in the background of a series of UK investment scams involving sales of carbon credits as investments. In the Costa Rica investment scheme, Citadel Trustees held the lease on the land, according to Property Frontiers’ Investment Prospectus.

On 1 April 2014, Citadel Trustees changed its name to Highpoint Trustees. It is now in liquidation.

Property Ventures also promoted investments in Silva Tree’s Paulownia plantations in Panama.

Returns up to 895%!

Here’s screenshot of the flyer that Property Investmets put out to attract potential investors to its Bamboo Investment Seminar in 2011:

In his post about red flags and investment schemes, David Marchant writes,

When evaluating the credibility of an investment product, it is important to understand that, even in good-faith schemes, anyone who solicits money from third-parties does not know whether an investment will grow, shrink or disappear. If they had a sure thing, they would put their own money into it and not solicit funds from others. All projected and simulated returns are worthless and their inclusion on marketing material is a red flag.

 

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  1. Should there be a law for this false advertising of returns. Would be relatively easy to implement!

  2. I have been informed of this article and wanted to clarify some of the misunderstandings and defend some of the comments within it. I fully appreciate that many of you will be frustrated and unhappy (like myself) about the delays, but I need to make clear our position and explain what our focus is to set the record straight.

    I founded Property Frontiers back in 2004 due to the fact I personally had a bad experience investing overseas. I strove to build a company offering a professional service, that did its research and due diligence, and focused on treating clients fairly with no hard-sell. We have never been involved in, or taken on projects, which we believe fundamentally don’t stack up; we only take on developments where solid fundamentals exist, and we would never knowingly choose to work on a project where we didn’t believe in the developer. We always conduct base-level due diligence to check the individuals and/or team we work with has a track record, owns the land and has relevant titles in place. On top of this, if I would not personally invest, if there are any doubts at the time – whether factual or gut feel – we simply do not bring a project to market. Ethics aside there is obvious good business sense in us selecting and working with developers that deliver on their forecasts.

    This is also why I was on the founding committee of the AIPP and sat on its board for many years: to try to bring professionalism, self-regulation and some form of protection for clients to the industry.

    We absolutely do our best to minimise any potential risks or downsides for our investors, but to be clear, we have no more control over events than any other investor in this scheme and we do highlight our position clearly in our Terms of Business. The developer’s contractual obligations are to the investors rather than to us and so we seek to persuade and clarify points from a somewhat outside position.

    I am sorry that these developments did not go to plan, but we genuinely did not have any doubts and would not have introduced them if we had any inkling of problems. We honestly believed in the plantations and most certainly never made numbers up. The EcoPlanet numbers quoted relate to the different types of investment that were on offer, and they varied by the length of lease of term of bond offered across the different plantations. The numbers were indeed provided to us by EcoPlanet but were substantiated from independent sources, including a report by Florencia Montagnini at Yale Climate and Energy institute. It is also worth noting that EcoPlanet’s forecasts passed extensive independent due diligence from Premier Group and the World Bank’s MIGA programme along with a number of other assessments.

    I personally invested a lot of time, effort and money into EcoPlanet and honestly think there is still a huge opportunity in the assets (as demonstrated by external valuations). There have been various issues with Premier Group and EcoPlanet, and its Directors, that have been mentioned on other posts on Redd-Monitor. We are working with a group of investors along with Premier Group, EcoPlanet and representatives of the FSA in the Isle of Man to try to secure the future of this project and the further investment that is needed to get the business back up and running, so I hope that there will be a solution that provides investors with a respectable return over time. I am also heavily invested in this project and the Eco Resources Fund as I believed in the assets.

    We believe the criticism in your article is unfair, inaccurate and mis-aimed. I feel we should be working together to find solutions as opposed to throwing accusations, and we will continue to strive to find a solution and use any influence that we have to achieve that.

    Ray

  3. This AIPP is not a regulatory body at all. It is a bogus marketing device used by fraudsters to defraud innocent victims. Many members if this cartel were/are involved in high profile scams. The hardest sanction they can do is the expulsion of their member which they never did AFAIK. Complaining to them is giving your munitions to the crooks.
    Just have a look to their last awards: http://aipp.org.uk/aipp-awards/aipp-awards-2013. Ecohouse (http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/news/uk_news/National/article1522335.ece?shareToken=9fdaa210016a09881557fc10ce0565b2) one of the biggest scams ever! awarded twice, Colordarcy who sold this scam and others awarded and commended and of course PropertyFrontiers as usual. They claimed the jury was independent but the members included Xavier Wiggins marketing director of Ecohouse! (AIPP removed this section from their website but we still have a copy). This Wiggins was also owner of OPP, who gave awards to Ecohouse and other high profiles scams like NDD (http://www.ponzitracker.com/main/2015/5/5/sec-busts-62-million-man-camp-north-dakota-ponzi-scheme.html), etc…And recently head of distribution of ourspace: (http://www.redd-monitor.org/2017/01/17/bar-works-the-return-of-renwick-haddow/#comment-2575379). And Godness knows what else!
    “Ethics aside there is obvious good business sense”. This is outrageous! Please check their website http://www.propertyfrontiers.com/understand-us/get-to-know-us : Sales Director Marcus Vassiliou who “ensures that the sales teams in London and Oxford maintain the company’s high standards of practice and ethics and focus on building long-term relationships with the clients with whom they interact.” Here is his profile: https://www.linkedin.com/in/marcusvassiliou/. AIPP new member Sales, ecoinvestments (who sold dodgy REDD investments) Sales and Marketing Manager. And surprise! NDD Head of Sales and business Development. NDD a ponzi scam with miss appropriation of investor’s money. They sold US securities without being licensed. The scam promised up 45% return but they paid up to 20% undisclosed commissions to a cartel of unscrupulous agents who sold it. And this is how Vassiliou describes his role “Sales grew from an average of 35 units per month, to over 100 per month during my leadership, with over $80m of gross sales income generated under my leadership“. $80 millions scam and misery and 20% of it the British property mafia.

    I’ve been victim of many scams in UK and all the fraudsters are connected but it seems British corrupt authorities cannot google! I spent three years seeking justice but it appears that the scam industry in UK is protected. The above is just a small part of my ordeal/discoveries I can write books about this scam playground…It is not a country as one can expect!

  4. Crocodile tears from Ray Withers.

    Ray, if you want to get any credibility you’d refuse to have anything to do with the OPP and AIPP and their awards. But you don’t because you know they’re excellent for herding the sheep, sorry I mean generating business from potential clients.

    How many proven scam firms have both the OPP and AIPP given out awards to in the past?

    Surely that cannot be a coincidence as the 2 organisations make out they’re experts in the property game so they should be able to spot a potential scam from a long way off as most of these scams are very very similar?

    How do the proven scam firms manage to win these awards or even get membership to the AIPP/OPP? Perhaps there might be a clue when looking into how much the firms pay in advertising/marketing to the AIPP/OPP before they win the awards? We all know how they get membership, just sign a cheque.

  5. I would also like to state that I have bought an investment off Ray Withers in the past, and am still suffering the effects today.

    His sales staff mis-informed me of the investment fundamentals, and I only found out after paying a non-refundable reservation fee. Ray, if you’re reading this, I have email evidence to back this up – so for your own sake do not try and deny it. I was 19 at the time.

    I know this industry, and they charge the developers (or fraudsters) behind these schemes enormous commissions – and that begs the question, why do the developers use them? Because they are a well-oiled sales machine, that have no issue presenting very attractive returns which are unlikely to be realised, and present them as low risk. It works because their investments are usually low-entry point, and therefore can sell to wealthy investors in the UK and internationally, without them doing much due diligence.

    I know of multiple projects they have sold where construction never started, in Manchester, Liverpool and London, in residential/student accommodation and hotels. And that’s just the ones I know about.

    It seems to me they had some successful years, particularly during the poor economic climate where residential was unattractive, allowing them to push ‘alternative investments’. Looking at their projects these days, I think the party is over. They also moved into a much cheaper location in Oxford to save on overheads.

    This pleases me.

  6. ‘I personally invested a lot of time, effort and money into EcoPlanet and honestly think there is still a huge opportunity in the assets (as demonstrated by external valuations).’ This comment just shows how much due diligence and care goes into PF’s investments. Complete Bogus ! Avoid buying investments from them, they will market investments that they can get ‘good commissions’ from dodgy developers most of the time (Who most of the times are at pre planning stage)