RALEIGH, N.C. (CN) - Ephren Taylor, a self-proclaimed "minister, financial guru ... and philanthropic rock star," led Ponzi scams that sucked millions of dollars from working-class, "socially conscious" people, primarily minorities, who did not know they were throwing their money away on nonexistent or failing businesses and illegal gambling operations, the alleged victims say in a federal class action.
The class claims Taylor and his co-conspirators are still running Ponzi schemes under new corporate identities.
A Google search of "Ephren Taylor" this morning (Wednesday) turned up more than 64,000 hits, many of the top ones linking to his work as an "entrepreneur."
Lead plaintiff William Lee, of Raleigh, sued Ephren Taylor, Wendy Connor, Dwayne Connor, Information Enterprises Unlimited, City Capital Corporation, four other alleged corporate shells and three other people.
Lee and two other named co-plaintiffs say they represent thousands of people swindled by Taylor.
Lee claims Taylor and his co-conspirators "intentionally targeted and induced hundreds of thousands of innocent, working class, church-going, 'socially conscious,' mostly minority and African-Americans to transfer and invest their hard-earned money in defendants' companies with a false sense of security that their money was insured, protected and invested by persons in legitimate, no risk, multi-million dollar, profitable, 'leading' public and private companies with 'the highest ethics,' and an overriding sense of social responsibility."
Lee says many investors lost their life savings and their 401(k) and IRA retirement accounts. He says the defendants were not licensed or registered to sell securities or provide investment advice.
The class claims Taylor and his associates used various shell corporations, including City Capital, to run several investment scams. The defendants persuaded their victims to invest in apparently legitimate ventures such as real estate, financial services, oil and gas, and sweepstakes machines, according to the 109-page complaint.
Lee says he invested $160,000 in City Laundry, one of Taylor's shell companies, after being told he could recoup the money he had lost in the stock market crashes of 2006-2008 by betting on the defendants' high-return investments.
Lee says the defendants failed to disclose that City Laundry leased most of its equipment - until they asked him to sign a personal guaranty on the lease.
Lee claims the defendants denied him access to the company's books, refused to return his money when City Laundry was sold at a loss, and made him sign a confidentiality agreement to discuss settlement of the City Laundry debt.
He says that after City Laundry's creditor obtained a $133,000 judgment against him, as personal guarantor, the defendants still refused to settle the debt or return his investment.
According to the complaint, Taylor lured investors by touting himself as a "self-made millionaire at 16" and as a "'minister,' financial guru, investment wizard, multi-million dollar business manager and philanthropic rock star."
Taylor, the son of a Missouri minister, claimed that a company he launched with a high school partner in 1998 made him a teenage millionaire, according to the complaint.
Lee says Taylor repeatedly hawked his "success story" to the media and used his perceived affiliation with his father's church to attract church-going investors.