SEC: Ponzi scheme suspect cost clients $2.3 million

Houston couple says they've lost life savings, were forced to pawn wedding rings

By Courtney Gilmore - Anchor/Reporter

HOUSTON - A Houston couple has filed a civil lawsuit against their financial advisor after they lost their retirement and life savings.

Al and Angela Caligone claim Delsa Thomas, a Dallas money manager, steered them toward fraudulent investments and lied about their return. After an 18 month investigation, the Securities and Exchange Commission is involved and has filed its own civil lawsuit alleging Thomas cost her clients $2.3 million.

"A lot of the money was misused, and it appears intentionally so," said David Woodcock, the Fort Worth Regional Director with the SEC. "It wasn't just her clients in Houston, but she made investments for with two people in Andorra, a couple in Canada, a real estate company in San Antonio, and her church in Irving, Texas. During our investigation we began to noticed patterns," said Woodcock.

The Caligones' relationship with Thomas began four years ago while Thomas was working for an investment firm.

"She not only was our financial advisor, but we considered her a friend," said Angela Caligone. "She has been to our church, to our home, and we've been to her home in Dallas, and her church. We just can't believe this would happen. She knew we weren't trying to use the money to get a bigger house or car. We wanted to pour our time and money into our non-profit that benefits teen girls in our community, but now that we have nothing left everything has been put on hold," said Caligone.

The couple said Thomas persuaded them to retire early and make their first investment for $250,000 in July 2010. In August they began to receive monthly "interest checks" for $3,700, but after December, the checks stopped.

"That's one way to keep people happy by giving them checks every month," said Woodcock. "Some might think the money is coming from investment profits, but in many cases the money is coming from what are called ponzi payments. This is when you take later investor's money and you give it to earlier investors to make the earlier investors think their investment has turned out well. It's a way to keep the scheme going," said Woodcock.

"We would call about the checks and we would hear promise after promise. They would tell us, 'You'll get the money on Tuesday,' then Tuesday would roll around and they would say, 'You'll get the money on Friday.' There was so much stress, because we didn't have any money coming in and we couldn't get a straight answer out of anyone," said Al Caligone.

In February of 2011, the couple said Thomas persuaded them to use the last of their savings, $55,000, and make another investment.

"She said we would get our money back in 90 days and promised a $100,000 return. We had no reason, at this point not to trust her, because of who she worked for and the fact that she prayed with us about our financial decisions," said Caligone.

The Caligones still have yet to receive any payment from their latest investment with Thomas. Al worked for AT&T for 29 years, and worked two jobs at some points to build a sturdy foundation for his family. He has lost all of his retirement, which he said totals $305,000.

"We were about to lose our home. At one point we were down to our last roll of toilet paper before a family member stepped in and helped us. We would live day to day, some time eating just one meal. At first it was hard for us to say anything about our situation. We were hoping it would get better," said Al Caligone.

After losing their trust and their savings, the Caligones say they went through a myriad of emotions, including grief, guilt, and shame.

"How could we tell our family and our friends that this was happening? How do you tell someone that you gave your money away and now it's gone?" said Angela Caligone.

According to the SEC, this kind of fraudulent scheme happens more often than you might think.

The Trust Factor

"It becomes easier to give your money away, without questioning where that money is going, if you have something in common with the advisor. Often what we'll see is an advisor using their relationship and similarities to pull their clients in. Whether it's ethnic, religious, or others, they will use those similarities as tactics to build up a trust, and then misuse that trust," said Woodcock.

Court documents reveal Thomas pushed her church, DFW New Beginnings, to invest $405,000 and then $420,000. Church officials have not received any money directly related to those investments. The lawsuit also highlights a San Antonio real estate development company, which placed $1 million in her hands to invest. The investigation also revealed she persuaded two Canadians to invest $190,000, and promised to repay the investors their principal plus 10 percent within five to 10 days.

According to the complaint, Thomas used at least $290,000 on personal expenses. While she was going to the bank, the Caligones were going to the pawn shop. The couple said they had to pawn several items, including their wedding rings, to stay afloat.

Local 2 spoke to Thomas over the phone and she had no comment.

Thomas asserted her fifth amendment privilege, and has not cooperated with federal agents during the investigation. Thomas may face criminal charges pending the outcome of the federal investigation, officials said.

Research potential investment decisions

If you are thinking of making an investment, the SEC said it's best to do your research.

Here are some helpful websites to learn how to protect your finances:

Red flags to watch out for:

  • An advisor who tells you the investment is low risk, but you will get double digit returns.
  • An advisor who cannot fully explain the "complexity" of the investment. Do not be afraid to ask questions.
  • Know your advisor.

Use these websites to research the advisor and the investment: