The Real Boiler Room

Hollywood's International Currency Management specialized in trading foreign currency -- and helping clients' money disappear

He hung around asking questions for most of the morning until Needle finally kicked him out and told him never to come back. "Another red flag went up in my mind," Christensen says in testimony. "What kind of business would run the clientele out the door? Were they scared I was going to find some incriminating things happening here? I mean, what? This was crazy."

Before he left Florida, it got worse. Needle threatened to pull all of Christensen's trades out of the market unless he could come up with another $100,000. That meant Christensen would have to suck up losses of $135,000 with no chance of regaining ground unless he came up with more money. He told Needle he didn't have $100,000, that he could maybe scrape up $75,000 if he had a few days to work on it.

Christensen wrote a postdated check for $75,000 and went home.

Ellis Kahn bought his Golden Beach home for $600,000 in 1987
Joshua Prezant
Ellis Kahn bought his Golden Beach home for $600,000 in 1987
Howard Needle had been fined repeatedly for commodities violations before opening ICM in 1997
Howard Needle had been fined repeatedly for commodities violations before opening ICM in 1997

As harrowing as it was, his experience is not unique. Court files show some 200 people lost most or all of their investments with ICM. The lucky ones are out less than $10,000, the less lucky $100,000-plus.

ICM clients aren't the only ones who've come up short. In September 1998, partners Needle and Ellis Kahn sold the company to another trader, Mark Singer, who renamed the company Forex Fidelity. (Singer did not respond to inquiries at his Weston home or his lawyer's office in Fort Lauderdale for this story.) Three months later his accountant discovered the books were short $700,000, according to court files. Singer quickly filed bankruptcy.

Bad for him and everyone who did business with ICM. Good for the public. The case touched off a flurry of legal action that sheds light on a growing South Florida industry that would rather keep its activities hidden.

For the year it operated, ICM/Forex Fidelity was one of about two dozen foreign-currency exchange firms that call Broward County home. Some of them may be aboveboard, but people who monitor these things think most are simply boiler rooms filled with salesmen reading scripted pitches over the phone to separate the unwary from their cash. "I have not found one that legitimately trades foreign currency," says Joe DiGennaro, a Broward-based banking investigator with the state comptroller's office. "Just about anyone that invests with them has no chance of making any money."

Why not? Because for the most part, the money is never invested. More often it ends up in the pockets of the people who run the boiler rooms or out of reach of U.S. authorities in a Bahamian bank account. "People are encouraged to keep investing. When the person asks for their money back, the calling ends," says DiGennaro, describing a typical foreign-currency scam. "The money is collected in Florida, pooled, and sent offshore."

That's what federal investigators say happened in a case against three Broward County men who ran Unique Financial Concepts, a Boca Raton foreign-currency exchange house that stands accused of bilking clients out of millions of dollars in 1998. (A U.S. District Court judge granted an injunction against the company in 1998, but that decision is now on appeal.) And it's what was allegedly going on with ICM/ Forex Fidelity, according to court files. "No evidence has been found at this time that the Debtor ever invested any of its customers' funds," states a filing from the U.S. bankruptcy trustee.

Last December detectives from the Broward Sheriff's Office executed a search warrant and seized ICM/Forex Fidelity's records. No charges have been filed in the case, and investigators aren't talking. "There is an ongoing criminal investigation, and I am not at liberty to make any comments," says BSO detective John Calabro.

But in a roundabout way, Singer's own attorneys say more than the sheriff's department about why the investigators are interested in ICM/Forex Fidelity. Attempting to get Singer's business materials returned, his attorneys filed a complaint against the Broward Sheriff's Office. In it they write, "the defendants [BSO], upon information and belief, via communication between the Defendant Broward Sheriff's department and an associated counsel in this matter informed the Plaintiff [Forex Fidelity] that it was the Defendants' belief, that the trading activity was nonexistent."

Boiler rooms have been around these parts for decades selling everything from corn futures to penny stocks. There's a strip of such establishments in Boca Raton that federal investigators refer to as the "Maggot Mile." Foreign currency is simply the South Florida scam du jour.

Unscrupulous telemarketers aren't here just for the weather. They like the area's fast-money credo and steady supply of well-off retirees and the state's homestead laws that allow someone in bankruptcy to keep his or her home, no matter how much money he or she owes. The homestead act, which is supposed to protect retirees, also allows boiler-room operators to shield their own assets, says John Drohan, a New York attorney with more than a decade of experience trading on the Interbank market. "If you have creditors you want to evade, you can put money into your home," says Drohan. "Some of these predators have relied upon that act to protect their own assets while they prey upon others."

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