If you want to make a small fortune in the wine business, start with a large one, the old adage goes. And yet that hasn’t stopped a generation of optimistic investors from chasing the lure of trophy wines with astronomical appreciations. But there’s another easy-money scheme millennia older than investing in wine: good old-fashioned fraud.
And what a winecrime pairing they make. The latest affront comes from the U.K. by way of Cleveland, where one Casey Alexander, a British citizen, was arrested June 14 by the FBI and charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Along with unidentified co-conspirators (some of whom are cooperating with authorities), Alexander stands accused of orchestrating a scheme that swindled more than $13 million from more than 150 victims through promises of up to 50 percent returns on investments in collectible wines and whiskies.
The purported scam, as detailed in an affidavit by FBI agent Matthew Scalisi, involved setting up three LLCs (Charles Winn, Vintage Whisky Casks and Windsor Jones) in Delaware and cold-calling potential victims, many of them elderly, to convince them to invest. Alexander’s alleged crimes came to light in April 2020, when the son of an 89-year-old Ohio resident called Cleveland’s Highland Heights Police Department to report that his father was defrauded of more than $300,000 during an 18-month period. The victim believed he was investing in rare dessert wines. Investigators uncovered similar complaints of someone with a British accent using various assumed names, among them “Michael Phelps” (?!), promising outsized returns on investment in rare wines and whiskies, including Craigellachie Scotch.
"[Representatives from Charles Winn, Vintage Whisky Casks and Windsor Jones] claimed they could identify and purchase a portfolio of fine wines and/or whiskies on behalf of investors, which would be held in a bonded warehouse within the United Kingdom until sold for a profit," Scalisi reported in his affidavit. The suspect companies’ websites include images of Bordeaux first-growths and videos with Master Sommeliers pulled from other media.
By May 2020, the FBI agents had a cooperating witness and were able to stop more than $450,000 in checks from being deposited by the suspect companies. An unidentified participant in the scheme who is now cooperating with the investigation was arrested in May 2022, and Alexander was arrested after traveling to Cleveland earlier this month, allegedly to solicit a whisky investment from a potential victim.
Alexander has been released on a $50,000 bond, and his lawyer has not responded to request for comment. Thus far, just $250,000 of the $13 million invested in the apparent wine and whisky scheme has been recovered.
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