Fraud complaints over get-rich-quick scheme that based itself at east London mosque
- Credit: Archant
A global “investment” scheme that targeted the Muslim community over two years has left some people claiming to be thousands of pounds out of pocket.
The Muslim Entrepreneur Network (MEN) was launched in 2015 by two east London businessmen as an online resource for subscribers to learn from each other.
Early on the organisation partnered with two Canadian venture capitalists described as millionaires, Rafaqat “Rocky” Mirza and Aziz “Com” Mirza.
With their encouragement, from January 2017 members were encouraged to join what was described in video marketing materials as an “investment” scheme, the Leverage Program, which failed to deliver on several promises and saw millions of pounds transferred to a nexus of other companies across the globe.
Some 32 households in Barking and Dagenham, and 28 in Tower Hamlets and 34 in Newham, are thought to have paid into the scheme, and hundreds of thousands of pounds in refunds were distributed last year.
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One investor, who put in £10,000, said he believed: “They were marketing a product that either didn’t exist or hasn’t come to fruition.”
But those still running Leverage have stated it is both legitimate and ongoing, and that they have been the target of a “smear campaign”.
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An investigation by the Barking and Dagenham Post and sister titles has learned:
• At least 1,400 people parted with between £225 and £25,000 each to join the Leverage Program in 2017 and 2018;
• Scores of others invested in enterprises promoted by MEN and its directors, with one person from Redbridge stumping up £250,000;
• Investment cash was transferred to the Mirza brothers’ concerns overseas, with £1.8m alone transferred to Dubai;
• Cash brought in later for a separate venture appears to have been used to refund the first Leverage investors, apparently without investors’ being told;
• For six months in 2018 the organisation rented space at Al Madina Mosque in Victoria Road, Barking for use as its official premises;
• Would-be investors were drawn in on social media by a combination of religious terminology, hyper-marketing and the promise of “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunities.
Between January 2017 and January 2019 the total that people paid into the scheme is understood to have been between £3million and £4m.
One of the original co-founders, Harun Rashid, disowned MEN last year and when approached by this newspaper said he believed Leverage was “a ploy to rob the Muslim community”, an allegation the paper understands is strongly disputed by others involved.
Former members are still pleading for refunds they believe they are owed, and at least 18 people have submitted reports to Action Fraud.
The current organisers insist that Leverage has always been a “membership programme”, and everyone who should have had a refund has now had one.
Dame Margaret Hodge, the MP for Barking, said: “I have been working hard in recent years with representatives from mosques and community organisations across Barking and Dagenham to improve the governance practices in the Muslim community.
“These deeply worrying allegations uncovered by this newspaper need to be properly investigated. The exploitation of any community in this borough will not be tolerated. I know that all Muslim organisations will want to work to stamp out any bad practices and will be determined to properly protect the Borough’s Muslim community.”
How it began
In February 2015 Haroon Qureshi, 30, from Redbridge, and Harun Rashid, 38, from Dagenham, set up the Muslim Entrepreneur Network website.
Monthly subscriptions cost £19.99 and about 1000 people had joined by the first public event in December 2015.
Early on the co-founders partnered with “Com” Mirza, who describes himself online as a “serial entrepreneur, investor, mentor, philanthropist and dream chaser”.
The Canadian national introduced them to his brother “Rocky” Mirza, a 46-year-old from Ilford, who was presented as a “mathematical genius” and the “Steve Jobs of the Muslim world”.
On January 7, 2017, Mr Qureshi said on social media he was working with Rocky Mirza on a new project on behalf of MEN – the Leverage Program.
In various pitches seen by this newspaper Muslims were urged to pay £5,000 in return for “a profitable business” within 12 months and “financial freedom”.
If the scheme, described on video by Mr Qureshi as an “investment”, did not pay off, they were promised they would receive a full refund and a £1,000 goodwill payment – in this video he did not give a time limit for refund requests.
Mr Mirza was presented as the architect of Leverage and its leading figure, but he told us he did not take business decisions and was only acting as a consultant.
This was the beginning of Leverage, an amorphous “community” not backed by the Financial Conduct Authority that is still running in 2019.
Around 300 people initially signed up and were under the impression they would either work on collaborative ventures or receive a website built by MEN.
Members also agreed to take on unpaid work, mainly writing online articles about fitness and nutrition.
In May and August a second campaign got underway with a fresh wave of would-be investors now advised they were buying into a “fitness franchise”.
The main recruitment ‘webinar’ took place in September 2017, with people encouraged to overcome the “poverty mindset” in order to take part.
Mr Mirza told viewers: “As we make you profitable within the first year we want to make sure we can take you to a level where you are able to leave your job.”
Approximately 1,100 more people, dubbed the L5000, then handed over between £1,500 and £25,000 on various new investment plans.
Leverage is not a legal entity and never has been, and the fitness franchise eventually stalled, with no financial gain to those who took part.
And at the same time, at least in part on Rocky Mirza’s instructions, £2m of investment cash was transferred to the Mirza brothers’ existing businesses and partners around the world.
The current bosses of Leverage say this money was for contracted services.
While Leverage was under way a spin-out company, Empty Trip, was registered in October 2017.
Empty Trip was a planned mobile phone app for taxi and private hire drivers to book fares on for their empty return journeys.
Twelve people paid a total of £291,618 into the project, gathered and promoted by Harun Rashid, who was then acting as CEO, who drew in funds from his own friends and family for the venture.
He told this newspaper that in his view these funds were “investments”.
The investors included the head of an Islamic school and a former leading figure in the British Muslim Forum.
This newspaper has seen evidence indicating that the bulk of cash invested in Empty Trip was moved into accounts associated with MEN and Leverage between April 2018 and October 2018, leaving just £7,499 in the Empty Trip account by October 30.
Ali Amin, a 40-year-old investor from Bedfordshire, said it was Harun Rashid’s initial passion for the app that convinced him to put in £33,120.
He said: “Because of Leverage and all those people working on it, I thought it was going to be successful.”
The current director of Empty Trip is Rocky Mirza’s nephew Azim Nawaz Shah, and his wife Amandeep Aujla holds 95 per cent of the shares.
Rocky Mirza said he did not know what paperwork accompanied the sale of “franchises” but said internal investigations had since been carried out into the running of Empty Trip.
In a publicly-available video online, Rocky Mirza claims the app had been valued at $100m, but when prompted by this newspaper he said he did not recognise the sum and could not comment.
“It’s going to be painful”: The principal investor
The main investor in Empty Trip was a 53-year-old living in Redbridge, who is currently taking legal advice after not receiving a penny back.
The man, Mr Ali, said he invested £150,000 in April 2018 after several meetings with Mr Rashid and Mr Rocky Mirza, during which he said he did not see the relevant paperwork.
To his knowledge, no anti-money laundering checks, Know Your Customer (KYC) checks or Sophisticated Investor forms were advanced before he made the three £50,000 payments.
He said: “Had I had not met Rocky through a trusted source I wouldn’t have given him the time of day. He came across as quite convincing and was talking in a manner that demonstrated technical knowledge.
“I liked the Empty Trip proposition; on paper it was a bloody brilliant idea. And when I look at other past dealings I have had I’ve not necessarily had a contract.”
In August 2018, as he and family were preparing for Hajj, the Islamic holy pilgrimage to Mecca, Mr Ali was offered another opportunity by Mr Rocky Mirza.
Their accounts of what this was for now vary, with Mr Ali saying he was invited to “piggyback” on an investment into a cryptocurrency exchange, and Mr Rocky Mirza saying Mr Ali had purchased a share of his equity in “another company”.
The site Mr Ali invested in was bdaq.io, which is no longer live on the web.
While there is no proof of who owned bdaq.io, this paper has obtained proof that the domain name of bdaq.co.uk was registered by Mr Rocky Mirza’s wife.
On the website of a very similarly-described venture, bdaq.com, one page inexplicably lists links to promotional copy about personal trainers of the type written by Leverage members for the now-defunct fitness franchise. Every page states that ‘Group Boards’ are being viewed in Dubai, at all times.
Mr Ali paid £100,000 in four transactions to a bank account in Mr Mirza’s wife’s name.
And within days of Mr Ali’s transaction, £100,000 was wired from her account over to Stripe: the payment platform being used to process refunds to Leverage members.
Since the transfers were made the investor has been trying to find out where the money went and is looking into ways to get it back, including taking legal action.
Mr Ali said: “I feel duped and conned, but I am a successful investor. For some people £100,000 is ten times their life savings.”
Where did the money go?
A paper trail seen by this newspaper indicates vast sums of cash from Leverage and Empty Trip shifted between accounts and was transferred to ventures around the world.
During the 2017/18 financial year, a total of £1.7m was transferred from the MEN bank account to the Dubai-based Trainer Sports Exhibitions Organizing, which is owned by Rocky Mirza’s brother, Arif Mirza.
Separately, £74,051 was paid to a neighbour of Rocky Mirza in Ilford who was acting as an accountant, while £76,500 was paid to an employee in Banjul, Gambia.
Other amounts were sent to an account in Jersey and to a telecoms firm in Berkshire on behalf of Rocky Mirza’s website-generation hub and call centre in Islamabad, Pakistan.
It is understood that some of this was being spent on outsourced services on behalf of MEN, but in that entire period just £149,976 came back from Rocky Mirza’s brother’s company to MEN’s bank account.
The HSBC account was closed by the bank in summer 2018.
Separately, in April and May 2018 some £180,000 was transferred from the Empty Trip bank account to MEN, just as the time Mr Rashid said refunds were hitting “fever pitch”.
A further £20,000 went to Atkamom Ltd, a bank account used to provide Leverage members with sporadic ‘gifts’ of £200 a month.
In summer 2018 more than £30,000 appears to have been transferred from Empty Trip to spend on Facebook marketing for a fresh money-making enterprise, KidBizo.
By contrast, just £20,075 of the money paid into Empty Trip was spent on the app itself - on areas such as back-office functions, TFL licence applications and freelance work.
Finally, on Monday, September 3 last year, two amounts of £12,501 and £12,500 left the Empty Trip account, marked as refunds for two people who had put in £49,000.
Bar one individual, these are the only known to have had their money returned to them from that account, for any reason.
The logged recipients were Ashfaq Siddique, then-director of Empty Trip and secretary of Al Madina Mosque in Barking, and his brother Ishtiaq.
Ashfaq Siddique denies any knowledge of wrongdoing but has so far declined to comment on the record.
Between March and November 2018 the registered base of operations for MEN was Al Madina Mosque in Victoria Road, Barking, where the organisation rented space.
Mosque secretary Ashfaq Siddique was the director of Empty Trip between October 2017 and October 2018.
Mr Siddique, a former policeman with Scotland Yard and trustee of the Barking and Dagenham Youth Zone, was also an early proponent of Leverage and at one event talked onstage about his relationship with the Mirza brothers.
In a later video seen by this newspaper he told viewers: “Brother Rafaqat [Rocky Mirza], alhamdulillah [praise be to God], has a very fertile mind. He has been blessed by Allah... with a wonderful brain.
“He has come up with a project that I believe will help us plan for the future, secure our ability to do more for our communities and help us to set objectives and work towards goals.”
Mr Siddique did not comment on the allegations but it is understood he kept a close relationship with MEN out of concern for the founders and the community, and to get the organisation on the right track.
Separately, Al Madina published online material suggesting it was in partnership with MEN, including a video calling on UK mosques and Islamic institutions to sign up to a “debt-free initiative”.
Would-be signatories were promised “one hundred per cent halal [permissible in Islam] residual income… for your establishment and community”.
It is understood that the “debt-free initiative” is no longer going ahead and when contacted for comment, a representative for Barking Muslim Association said the mosque and MEN’s relationship was purely that of landlord and tenant.
They said a “smear campaign” had been run against Al Madina and Mr Siddique, adding: “Trustees would like to emphasise firstly, that they have never been directly involved, as representatives of the British Muslim Association, in the business activities of any of their tenants.
“Secondly, that Mr Ashfaq Siddique has served the local community in Barking with excellence for more than 30 years.
“And thirdly, that the leaders of the smear campaign should be ashamed of their intentions and actions – of which ultimately, on the Last Day, God will be the Judge.”
MEN’s accounts are now 18 months overdue.
In early 2018 a catalogue of allegations began to surface online about MEN, including the suggestion it was a ponzi scheme: a type of scam offering returns on investments into businesses that are never set up with older investors later paid off by with the money acquired from new ones.
Mr Mirza told the [paper]: “A ponzi fraud by definition is entirely reliant on ongoing replenishment of capital with fresh recruitment of investors…Even on a casual inspection MEN does not fulfil the basic requirements for ponzi fraud structure.”
In a video response on March 19, 2018, Mr Qureshi publicly addressed the claims, saying Leverage could not be a ponzi scheme because it was no longer accepting new members. He added: “I will challenge you, find one person that we scammed. One person. You won’t be able to.”
On Wednesday: Former Leverage members speak out
PLUS How MEN used social media to attract investors, what next for Leverage and the Mirza brothers, and what the founders have told us