Dave Lieber is intrigued when he receives an invitation to attend a real estate seminar hosted by Tarek and Christina of hit HGTV show Flip or Flop. The event is packed with fans and hopeful real estate flippers, but instead of meeting their favorite stars, attendees sit through a pitch for get-rich-quick seminars costing thousands. Dave, a journalist for the Dallas Morning News, is so shocked at what he sees, he investigates further, uncovering a slew of unethical practices by Zurixx LLC, the seminar company, that ultimately attracts the notice of the Federal Trade Commission.
[00:00:01] Bob: This week on The Perfect Scam.
[00:00:03] Tarek and Christina's lending partners will fund 100% of the real estate you buy. Fund 100% of the rehab regardless of your credit or your background.
[00:00:12] They tell you you're going to get a car; you're going to get a nice expensive vacation. You're going to, all your money problems are going to be going away
[00:00:19] Dave Lieber: The whole goal is, is to get you to go back to that table, get on line, and pull out your credit card.
[00:00:26] Bob: Have you ever received a glitzy invitation to a hotel ballroom event or a free lunch offering you a chance to meet someone famous and maybe learn about a new business opportunity, you know, a colorful postcard, maybe an entire brochure with pictures of people having fun on a sailboat, maybe someone you know from television urging you to go and learn about the opportunity of a lifetime. Ever wondered what happens in those ballrooms? Well, today we're going to find out thanks to a man we'll call Dave. Dave lives near Dallas, and a few years ago he receives one of those postcards in the mail. It says he'll learn how to change his financial fortunes overnight. But it isn't the easy money that catches his eye, it's the TV stars.
[00:01:13] Dave Lieber: Well, I've gotten a few of them, but the one that I really liked the most was when, uh, Christina and Tarek from HGTV invited me to a hotel to learn how to flip houses.
[00:01:25] Bob: Yes, that Tarek and Christina. Tarek and Christina El Moussa from HGTV's Flip or Flop, a show about buying cheap homes, fixing them up and selling them for profit. Tarek and Christina might be the biggest stars on HGTV. So Dave, tempted by the chance to meet them decides to go. He's not alone. Plenty of Dallas area residents are drawn to Tarek and Christina like moths to a flame.
[00:01:56] Dave Lieber: About 60 people are in a room, you know, they're all fans of the, of the TV stars.
[00:02:00] Bob: Do you talk to any of them?
[00:02:02] Dave Lieber: Well, yeah, you know, I ask them why they're there, and they explain because they love the show, they love, they love the idea of flipping houses, and they want to learn how to do it. They want to become rich.
[00:02:14] Bob: They, they want to become Tarek and Christina, right?
[00:02:16] Dave Lieber: Yep.
[00:02:17] Bob: And they certainly relish a chance to get a selfie with the two TV stars, maybe a post for Instagram. That opportunity presents itself right away, sort of.
[00:02:27] Dave Lieber: I go there, and I just, oh have in mind that I want to see what's going to happen, and the first thing that happens when you get there is there's a big giant cutout of the TV star that you can stand next to and get your picture taken.
[00:02:39] Bob: But the life-size picture of the TV stars, well once the presentation begins, it's clear that cutout is as close as Dave or anyone else is going to get to Tarek and Christina that day.
[00:02:50] Dave Lieber: Well, somebody else comes out. He says, you know, he's a member of the, the Christina and Tarek team, and they can't make it, but they want to send their regards, and they'll, they'll show a little video. "Hey, I'm Tarek, and I'm sorry I couldn't be there today, but, you know, we're really busy filming our show, but you know, I trust this guy. He's one of my, my closest friends, and you know, he'll, he'll lead you through the whole program here that we've got today, but just want you to know that he's, he's one of our guys, and we trust him, so he's a good guy.
[00:03:20] Bob: As the lights come back up, the hosts urge the slightly disappointed attendees to stay right where they are. And they sweeten the deal.
[00:03:29] Bob: So at that point, does anyone get up and walk out because they feel mislead?
[00:03:32] Dave Lieber: No. No, because they promise if you stick around at the end, you're going to get a free gift, they don't tell you what it is, but there, there's going to be something coming soon.
[00:03:41] Bob: The hosts then launch into their presentation. To Dave's surprise, there is not a lot of talk about house flipping, not at first anyway.
[00:03:49] Dave Lieber: Well, they just, they don't go right into it, they work their way into it slowly by laying out this scenario about all the riches that are going to come your way. How you're going to become a millionaire? How you're going to, you know, your friends are going to love you. You're going to have a boat; you're going to go on vacations. And so they paint this picture of wealth and then they ease into the particulars.
[00:04:12] Bob: How do you get that wealth? The boats, the friends, the lifestyle? Well, by flipping houses using other people's money. It's easy. The hosts are working with a company named Zurixx. And here's what the company typically says to people like Dave who attend hotel meetings all around the country.
[00:04:30] Tarek and Christina's lending partners will fund 100% of the real estate you buy. Fund 100% of the rehab regardless of your credit or your background.
[00:04:39] Our students are making right now anywhere from 60 to 150,000 dollars per flip...
[00:04:45] We have our own group of private money lenders who will put up 100% of the money to fund your real estate deals, including rehab with no regard to your personal income, assets...
[00:04:55] A single mother who spent 20 hours of work earned a $42,000 profit on her first deal from start to finish.
[00:05:01] When Brittany joined us, she was living in her car. The first year she did four deals, made about 300 grand, using other people's money.
[00:05:09] If it doesn't work for you, we still give you $2000 back. This is really a no-lose situation, as long as you try it.
[00:05:16] Bob: Wow, they really make it sound like you can't lose. So, how do you sign up, Dave wonders? The answer, with your credit card, or maybe several credit cards.
[00:05:29] Dave Lieber: So they tell you that for a low price of say $2000, you can come back in a couple of weeks and go to the, the three-day, or the two-day seminar that they're going to have, and then that seminar could also lead to the next level which could be, you know, even more instructions on how to flip houses and everything, but they also promise you that they're going to help you find investors, and they're going to be there for you and they're going to work with you and they also promise a money-back guarantee if you're not satisfied.
[00:05:55] Bob: That next level, it can cost tens of thousands of dollars to attend, so much for the free seminar. And to get started, the crowd is told, all you have to do is march to the back of the room.
[00:06:08] Dave Lieber: And in the back, they'll have a bunch of tables lined up, and they'll have some people, and they'll usually have a sheet that covers what’s ever on the table, so you don't see what it is, but what it is is a bunch of credit card machines. The whole goal is, is to get you to go back to that table, get on line, and pull out your credit card.
[00:06:27] Bob: So what happens when the guests are invited to plunk down their credit cards?
[00:06:30] Dave Lieber: So if there's 60 people in the room, maybe 30 of them are back there paying $2000 each, so they're making $60,000 for, you know, right off the bat.
[00:06:39] Bob: You saw 30 people go put their credit card in these machines?
[00:06:42] Dave Lieber: Yeah, I mean I've taken pictures of the line, and it's, it's a crowd.
[00:06:47] Bob: Wow.
[00:06:48] Dave Lieber: It works.
[00:06:50] Bob: Some people in the room don't have enough credit limit on their cards to pay the full $2000, that's okay, the hosts say. They give instructions on how to call the bank and get a higher credit limit. Dave is astonished by what he sees.
[00:07:03] Dave Lieber: You know, it always shocked me how much of the room gets up and moves to the credit card machines. I mean it's a lot of people in the room. And they're very, they're not suspicious about it as I am, because they've been, in a sense, hypnotized by all the promises that can come their way if they just participate in this program.
[00:07:23] Bob: But Dave isn't hypnotized. He doesn't plunk down his credit card or call asking for a higher limit. Instead, Dave goes home and tells his editor about his lunchtime meeting. And then, well, then things really change for Tarek and Christina and Zurixx, and even HGTV, because Dave isn't a regular consumer. Dave is Dave Lieber, an investigative reporter for the Dallas Morning News, who writes the watchdog column twice a week.
[00:07:54] Dave Lieber: Yes, I'm the watchdog columnist, so I expose uh questionable practices in business and government.
[00:08:01] Bob: How long have you been doing that?
[00:08:03] Dave Lieber: Let's see, I started the Watchdog Column in 2005. The mail is just overwhelming.
[00:08:08] Bob: People are so desperate to have someone on their side, right?
[00:08:10] Dave Lieber: Well, they've exhausted all possibilities when they write to me. They, they basically come to the end of the line.
[00:08:15] Bob: And the Dallas Watchdog is about to blow the lid off Tarek and Christina's hotel meetings with his mighty pen. So he tells his editor all about what happened in the ballroom.
[00:08:25] Dave Lieber: I tell him that I went to this hotel seminar, and I didn't get to meet Tarek and Christina, but I got to see the scheme that they were running through their popularity on HGTV.
[00:08:35] Bob: Dave's boss loves the story, and like any good reporter, Dave reaches out to Tarek and Christina before publishing his piece, and well, I'll let him tell you how that went.
[00:08:45] Dave Lieber: So I reached out to Tarek and Christina because Tarek has a phone number that you can call and leave a message. So I left a message. And then I called the head of the, the company that they were doing this with, and he explained to me how he understood that some people might show up at these events thinking that they were going to meet the TV stars, and then what he did was really slick. He arranged for Tarek and Christina to send me a YouTube video apologizing for not being there, explaining that they were working on houses for Habitat for Humanity, and that they hoped that they'd get to meet me sometime in the future when they come to Dallas/Ft. Worth.
[00:09:18] Bob: This was a personalized video?
[00:09:20] Dave Lieber: Yeah, yeah, which I posted, you know, on the internet and it was, it was very sophisticated public relations on their part.
[00:09:28] Bob: Here is what that video sounds like.
[00:09:31] Hey, Dave, this is Tarek, this is my wife, Christina. And we’re really sorry we couldn't make it to the event, but we're here today with Habitat for Humanity along with the Success Path team, working on building a beautiful house for a deserving veteran, and uh we just love giving back to the community. That's what we do. We're in real estate. We improve homes, um, and everybody is at the event today, and um, they deserve it.
[00:09:54] So maybe we'll see you at a future event, Watchdog.
[00:09:57] Bob: Maybe we'll see you at a future event. Sounds friendly enough, but it doesn't sound like they were taking Dave's story too seriously. But Dave sure did, and it's a good thing. At about the same time Dave was hearing his pitch in Dallas, here's what another group heard in Georgia. Not only are Tarek and Christina El Moussa going to give you a professional education, not only are they going to give you a list of all their lending partners to fund all your deals, plus to rehab regardless of your credit, not only are they going to give you the cash buyer's list, so you have the buyers, but they're going to guarantee that you or your partners close the deal within 3 months, or you get your money back.
[00:10:38] Bob: So Dave publishes his story, and the impact is far wider than Dallas.
[00:10:43] Dave Lieber: And you know, I write it up, and when I wrote that particular story up, I believe it got a half a million page views. It just spread all over the country really quickly within a day. Because that's how powerful HGTV is, and that's how powerful Tarek and Christina are as TV stars.
[00:11:00] Bob: It, it got picked up by other media outlets, right?
[00:11:02] Dave Lieber: Yeah. A lot of women's magazine websites picked it up. And to see the clicker that day counting, uh showing the number of internet hits, I've never seen it happen that fast. You know, a half a million hits in like 24 hours.
[00:11:17] Bob: The story spreads across the internet. People suddenly start questioning why HGTV lets its stars lend their fame and credibility to programs like this. HGTV tells Dave that Tarek and Christina are working independently on the hotel ballroom seminars, and they distance themselves from the events.
[00:11:35] Dave Lieber: At that point, they were saying we don't have anything to do with this, and that's a separate enterprise from us. But it was beginning to, it was so prevalent, and there were so many of their, their stars were doing this that it became to reflect poorly on HGTV.
[00:11:50] Bob: The story has immediate impact on Dave's readers too. I'm guessing when you did this column, you probably got flooded from readers right, with them saying, look at this invitation I got.
[00:11:59] Dave Lieber: Yeah, I actually heard from a few people that had, you know, spent money on this and felt like they had been scammed.
[00:12:05] Bob: That's just really frustrating. Because as you pointed out when we, we didn't talk enough about it's, there's a $2000-ish three-day seminar, but the point of that is to get you to plunk down $40,000 on something even more elaborate, right?
[00:12:19] Dave Lieber: Right.
[00:12:20] Bob: Often after some bad publicity, stories like this end right there. The programs just kind of fade away, but in the case of Zurixx, Lieber's story has got enough attention that federal and state officials start looking into the company. And in 2019, three years later, the Federal Trade Commission and the Utah State Attorney General's Office where Zurixx is located, sue the company. A federal judge in Utah issues a temporary restraining order and then a preliminary injunction. Their investigation alleges some pretty bad behavior. A Federal Trade Commission press release says, quote, "From start to finish these defendants used the promise of easy money and in-depth information to lure consumers down a path that could cost them thousands of dollars and put them in serious debt. When a company tells consumers they have the secret to get rich with little work, we encourage consumers to take a hard look at what's really being offered." The programs worked so well that the FTC said in its amended complaint filed in 2021 that Zurixx had received net deposits of $530 million dollars, and claims to have made 70,000 sales. But for all that money, all those consumers got almost nothing according to the agency. The FTC said, "In numerous instances at the free event, Zurixx teaches consumers very little, if anything, about how to make thousands of dollars in profit by investing in real estate. Instead, Zurixx uses the free event to sell its three-day workshop which it advertises as retailing for $5995. It routinely uses misrepresentations to convince consumers to pay the discounted price of $1997 for the workshop, a price Zurixx represents is available only at the free event." The FTC also makes a point to say how hard it was to get that promised "you can't lose" refund. The details are spelled out on a form called a "Guarantee Certificate" that is slipped into the paperwork. That form said, "To be eligible for a refund under Zurixx's six-month guarantee, the consumer must make more than 25 offers within the time period, and make 15 offers under the guidance of Zurixx's resource line help desk associates if in the first 10 offers the consumer has not made three times the purchase price of the three-day workshop." Zurixx is now in receivership, meaning it's out of business, and a court-appointed official is trying to see what kind of assets are left so some money can be returned to victims. Back in 2019, when the first FTC lawsuit was made public, HGTV told the Dallas Morning News that quote, "HGTV, its sister networks, and its parent company are neither associated or affiliated with Zurixx, nor are we involved in any of our talents' personal business associations with Zurixx." When I reached out to the company right before this podcast, it told me simply, HGTV reports no update to its previously provided statement on this topic. We tried reaching out to Tarek and Christina too, but their agents did not respond. They are still busy. The couple got a very public divorce in 2018, but their affiliation with Zurixx didn't seem to hurt them, Dave says.
[00:15:47] Dave Lieber: It did put a dark cloud over their reputation because they still are HGTV's biggest stars.
[00:15:54] Bob: Dave says most of these hotel ballroom programs follow the same pattern.
[00:15:58] Dave Lieber: I went to a women's only conference. And so I was like the only guy in the room. And um, they didn't kick me out or anything like that, but I began to see a pattern, because I've gone to these things for vending machine salespeople, tax lien specialists, travel clubs, real estate flippers, stock option traders, and investment advisors. So the first part of it is the lure. They say, you know, Christina and Tarek from HGTV are going to be here, so that would get you there. But then when you get there, you have the substitute, and he's a charming, funny, fast-talking guy. You know, and in Texas they throw God in, they say something like, "My daddy was a preacher." And then the next part of it is the reward where they build towards the big pitch. They tell you you're going to get a car; you're going to get a nice expensive vacation. You're going to, all your money problems are going to be going away. I remember one guy said, you know, dreams come true. It was like Disney. And then they give, after a half an hour warmup, then they give the big pitch, what they're selling, and you know, right away you can feel your mind going, ooh, that sounds good. And then they have the setup which are those tables in the back with the tablecloths hidden, hiding the credit card machines. And then they, they get you to sign up through the deal, and they promise the money-back guarantee which is hard to get because you have to prove that you went through the whole system to get it. And then, and then they give you the gift. And I have a list here of some of the gifts. I got a woman's watch with a white band at that women's only conference. And then try and sell you an, an even bigger seminar to go to later on. It's like multi-steps, each one is more money than the previous one.
[00:17:32] Bob: Steve Baker is a former Federal Trade Commission lawyer and he's seen all kinds of problems with free lunches and hotel seminars. They usually come with high pressure tactics.
[00:17:43] Steve Baker: They hope that if they've got you there in person, that you'll be more susceptible to pressure, and may end up spending money with them. So whether it's a financial opportunities, or, or something else, all, a lot of these free seminars you have to be very careful about. I recently heard about one last week where they actually forced people to sign something promising not to tape record any of the presentation. And that's worrisome, obviously, because it suggests that they might not want people to be able to prove claims that are made orally, because there wouldn't be any paper with the writing with these sorts of things. And that should make people pretty nervous.
[00:18:28] Hotel and free lunch meetings remind Steve of notorious timeshares sales tactics.
[00:18:35] Steve Baker: Well I certainly heard stories about timeshare presentations where people are um, pressed, that they're strongly discouraged from even leaving the room to go to the bathroom, they're pitched -- I've been subject to these -- where they pitch you that there is no obligation, you can walk out anytime, you don't have to buy anything. And then they get really angry if you don't buy something at the end of it. And people are really report, a report I've heard, I've seen pretty high pressure pitches on trying to get people. And if people say they're not going to do it, then sometimes they offer them a discount supposedly, um, on what this thing is, for less money or restructuring it. And it, you know, they can become very high pressure very quickly. So the best way to avoid being subject to that high pressure stuff is just don't go.
[00:19:28] Bob: It's easy to convince yourself that you are strong willed, and you'd never be persuaded to sign up for a $2000 program after a 30-minute talk. But it happens all the time. Steve and I talked about how some of these salespeople are really like magicians, only it's your money they're pulling out of a hat.
[00:19:47] Bob: I love the metaphor of the magician and the magic trick. A long time ago someone suggested to me that you know we're all children inside, and we actually want to believe in magic, and so when you go to a magic show, you're predisposed to go along with it, because that's more fun than sitting there like a skeptic saying, what's the trick here. And sometimes scam artists are, are like magicians in that way.
[00:20:12] Steve Baker: Yeah, they really are. And I like to say, you just don't know where to look. Even if you know with a magician, you don't know if it's a simple trick what they're doing, or whether it's very complicated behind the scenes. You just don't know where to look. And they are masters of misdirection.
[00:20:28] Bob: And we want to believe, right? We want to believe that there's an easy way for us to make a lot of money.
[00:20:32] Steve Baker: Right. Well a lot of scams are, are, are based on exactly that premise. And they tell us things we want to believe. And uh, you know, and your, your guard is, is down some when that's the case.
[00:20:44] Bob: Steve also said, you can't overstate the importance of a celebrity endorsement, or better yet, the promise of getting to meet a celebrity at a sales event like this.
[00:20:53] Steve Baker: And I think it's very important to people, and I, I think if nothing else that people have got a little bit of curiosity, well I'll just go by, I'll see Fred who I see on TV all the time. It'll be interesting. I don't have to buy anything. And then they end up getting ripped off.
[00:21:09] Bob: Let's get back to house flipping, because house flipping is still a thing. And if you believe some housing market observers, today's high prices remind people of the 2005 to 2007 housing boom which is followed by a housing bust, followed by a bunch of empty houses suitable for flipping. So Baker wants you to know house flipping can be profitable, and it's perfectly legal, but it's not easy, not at all.
[00:21:35] Steve Baker: I have people who flip houses, but I don't know anybody that gets rich at it. What people think is that okay, I can use my elbow grease, I can, I'm, I'm, I'm halfway handy. I can buy a place and just do some basic cosmetic fix-ups and in the meantime, and then turn this thing around and sell it at a profit. What they don't think of sometimes is if you buy a house that you're not living in, you've got to be paying the mortgage on it while you fix it up, and you're not going to have any rental income while you're fixing it up. And that can take a several month period and then you hope that there's actually a buyer where you can make more money at the other end of it. Um, I think it's, it's not nearly as profitable as it, it can be made to sound like. It's often difficult for people. So it sounds good. People think I'm willing to work, if I just work hard and do this, I'm going to be able to make some money. I think the truth is that it's a lot iffier proposition and the whole financing thing is a really an important part of it.
[00:22:40] Bob: If you are tempted to attend a pricing training class about house flipping, Dave points out that most of what you learn is available for free, to anyone.
[00:22:49] Dave Lieber: Yeah, and essentially what you're paying for, for example, is information, like hey, on the third Wednesday of every month, if you go to the courthouse steps and you buy properties that out of foreclosure for a very low price, you know, that kind of stuff is what they teach. They, they teach about tax liens and how to make tax liens work for you and, and then they also promise you that they're going to find you investors that are going to help you handle the flipping.
[00:23:13] Bob: So, so there's information to be had, um, but you, you know, one of the things I try to do if I can is, is not just tell people about this, the last scam, but maybe about the next one. So, so maybe the next one won't be two TV stars telling you to come this weekend to flip houses. Um, but there probably will be more house flipping scams, right? So I, what kind of things do you think listeners should look out for if they get a pitch, anything like this?
[00:23:42] Dave Lieber: Well, I don't think they should do it because the information that they're going to get from these seminars is available for free in a public library. You know, there's a lot of great real estate books on how to do this, and there's also web pages by good organizations about real estate, so you really don't have to spend 10 or 20,000 dollars to go to these seminars to learn it. You could just spend a few hours in a library reading.
[00:24:06] Bob: So really, the best thing you can do with one of these hotel ballroom invitations is, throw it into the recycling bin. Even if you think you're going to get a chance to meet a famous TV star or athlete, but what if you're dealing with a family member or a friend who really wants to go?
[00:24:22] Dave Lieber: Well, we have that situation with uh an elderly relative who's very susceptible to this stuff, and you know we, they don't really listen. Uh, that's the problem. But you really, really try hard to convince them that this is a waste of their time and a waste of their money. And if they insist on going, then I think you would probably want to go with them and you would want to hold that purse that they have shut so that they can't open it, and just, they would just come for the enjoyment of it and listening, and hearing it, and then, you know, you'd analyze it and you'd take them, you, you'd whisk them away before they could actually pull out their credit card. But in these particular cases, though, it's not, it's not really elderly that, that only show up at these things. It's just middle class, uh, working people that, that, that come to these things because they just want to be able to live a better life.
[00:25:12] Bob: People buy lottery tickets every day, right?
[00:25:14] Dave Lieber: Right.
[00:25:16] Bob: Uh, I think that is wonderful advice that if you can't talk them out of going, then go with them, and hold their purse closed.
[00:25:22] Bob: After that great piece of advice, I had planned to end my interview with Dave, but he pointed out that I forgot to ask him about something very important. Remember the host at the Tarek and Christina event, like hosts at many of these events, promised something to guests who stayed for the entire presentation. Well, it's okay if you forgot that part, I did too, and Dave corrected me.
[00:25:43] Dave Lieber: You left out the gift.
[00:25:45] Bob: Oh, I'm sorry, I did leave out the free gift.
[00:25:47] Dave Lieber: Well, my favorite gift was from Tarek and Christina, and it was a, like an .mp3 player that only had 1GB. So it only had enough uh space for about 100 songs. In today's world, you know, that's really no space at all. It's the cheapest, you know, made in China .mp3 recorder you could ever, ever imagine. And that was the great gift that we were going to get if we stayed to the end.
[00:26:14] Bob: Do, do you still have yours?
[00:26:15] Dave Lieber: Yeah, I think I have it in a box somewhere.
[00:26:17] Bob: (chuckles) With the 10 songs on it that can fit.
[00:26:21] Dave Lieber: Actually I was insulted because you know that's really not enough space to put anything on. It was, it was the cheapest, silliest little non-space .mp3 player that I've ever seen.
[00:26:34] Bob: That's amazing. Maybe you could fit one podcast episode on it.
[00:26:37] Dave Lieber: Yeah. Right. Which you could store The Perfect Scam on.
[00:26:50] Bob: If you have been targeted by a scam or fraud, you are not alone. Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360. Their trained fraud specialists can provide you with free support and guidance on what to do next. Thank you to our team of scambusters; Executive Producer, Julie Getz; Researcher, Haley Nelson; Associate Producer, Annalea Embree, and of course our Audio Engineer, Julio Gonzalez. Be sure to find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. For AARP's The Perfect Scam, I'm Bob Sullivan.
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