Bogus Glasgow venture capital firm nets a fortune

Icon's website. Picture: Contributed
Icon's website. Picture: Contributed
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Police are investigating a Scotland-registered venture capital firm which investors say has duped them out of hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Icon Group, which lists a Bill Icon as its only director and claims to be based in a rented office block in Glasgow city centre, is accused of taking fees to set up financial loans worth millions – then disappearing without trace.

Wes Robinson claims Icon ' registered at Hope Street, Glasgow ' has �154,000 of his money. Picture: Contributed

Wes Robinson claims Icon ' registered at Hope Street, Glasgow ' has �154,000 of his money. Picture: Contributed

Scotland on Sunday can reveal that the firm, also known as Icon Universal Investments, has used fake personal profiles and falsified banking documents in a bid to swindle international investors.

It has also claimed that it is backed by Scottish financial giant Aberdeen Asset Management – which the FTSE 250 firm denies.

Wes Robinson, a Canadian businessman living in the Cayman Islands, claims Icon has made off with $192,000 (£154,000) of his cash, after failing to provide a $40 million credit line in the form of an asset-backed note agreed by the firm.

Robinson, who has worked in the investment business since 1985 and decided to use Icon to acquire the money to invest privately for his family after being approached by a representative of the firm in North America, said he believed the company had set up “one of the most elaborate” scams he had ever come across.

What can the victims report? That a fake person who never existed had taken all of their money?

Icon Group’s website, which lists its registered address as 93 Hope Street in Glasgow, features a fake professional history lifted from a legitimate American company and uses a false photograph of its president Bill Icon.

A second financial services professional based in the UK has revealed that one of his clients has been duped by the company.

“I’ve been an investor for a long time and I’ve been burned a couple of times, but this is one of the most elaborate I have seen,” said Robinson. “I have been hoodwinked by some of the biggest and baddest on Wall Street and this is one of the worst.”

Icon Universal Investments was incorporated in May 2016 with Bill Icon the only listed director – nine months after a previous incarnation of the firm, Icon Investments Worldwide, was dissolved.

One of Icon's fake documents. Picture: Contributed

One of Icon's fake documents. Picture: Contributed

Under UK law, the identities of business people who register with Companies House are not checked, leaving the system open to companies being set up by false directors or using fraudulent addresses.

Bill Icon is listed as living at an address at Hertford Avenue in Glasgow’s West End, although electoral roll searches do not show anyone of that name as having any links to the property.

The homepage of Icon Investments lists a comprehensive history of Icon’s apparent financial accomplishments, including chairmanship of the non-existent “Export-Import Bank of the Scotland” and founder of “Sutter Hill Ventures in Glasgow, Scotland”. A real venture capital firm called Sutter Hill is actually based in Palo Alto, California.

It also says Icon began his venture capital career in 1962 - when, according to his 1954 date of birth listed on Companies House, he would have been just eight years old.

The information is lifted, word for word, from the website of a legitimate venture capital firm, Draper Richards LP - with the name Draper replaced by that of “Icon”.

The website states: “The Icon name is well known in the venture capital industry. Bill Icon’s father, General William H Icon, Jr, became the first professional west-coast venture capitalist when he founded Icon.”

It even uses the same black and white image utilised on the “history” page of Draper Richards - of William H Draper in 1960 - but claims it is a photograph of “William H Icon”.

It also features a headshot photograph purporting to be company president Bill Icon - which is actually an image lifted from the internet of Dick Ziegler, a baseball coach in Denver who was knocked over in a hit and run accident four years ago. Meanwhile, a photograph of “Patrick Greenwood”, the managing director of Icon, who the website claims is based in Zurich, Switzerland and Doha, Qatar, is an original image of Don Plaisted, a former employee of Draper Richards.

There is nothing to suggest that Draper Richards has any knowledge that its information had been utilised by Icon. Attempts to contact the firm and Plaisted have not been successful.

Robinson was approached two years ago by a man claiming to be called Duncan Matin Ellis, who said he was a representative of Icon Investments living in Beverly Hills in the US. Robinson spoke on the telephone to Bill Icon, who assured him that Ellis was one of his employees and that he was a qualified underwriter and broker.

“I thought, ‘$50,000, what have I got to lose?’ said Robinson, 54, who retired five years ago. “Especially as written into the contract was that if they didn’t get me my money, they had to pay me the $50,000 back, plus one per cent. Some of my most exciting transactions have been out of the blue like this. I’m not as sceptical as some might be because I’ve had a lot of successes.”

During his dealings with Icon, Robinson was sent various documents purporting to be official letters from institutions including Citibank’s Hong Kong office.

One, sent in July 2016, asks Robinson to pay an extra $600,000 as “monetisation charges” for the transaction to proceed.

Citibank has told Scotland on Sunday that it does not have any knowledge of the documents. It is understood that no-one with the name of the signatory on the bottom of the document – Wu Lin Chan – works or has worked for the company, while the Citibank office address used was not the correct one for the company’s corporate banking department.

Robinson also received documents supposedly sent via a broker, Polestar Link in Birmingham, which is listed at Companies House at a residential address on Harborne Road in the city’s leafy Edgbaston district which is the registered office of more than 2,000 separate companies.

When Robinson started to chase up “Mr Icon”, after he had still not received the money more than a year after initially signing the deal with the company, he received abusive emails in response – the latest as recently as the beginning of April. It was then he decided to report the matter to Police Scotland.

Robinson said he wanted to expose the scam to protect future potential investors.

“What I would hate would be if someone was putting their last $50,000 on a dream and got hammered by these people,” he said.

David Bell, a financial consultant from Portadown in Northern Ireland, said he had first been made aware of Icon when the company’s first incarnation, Icon Investments Worldwide, was registered with Companies House in late 2013.

“An IFA brought us the documents and I took a look,” he said. “This kind of financial instrument is becoming quite standard these days; this idea of using letters of credit is valid. It is something which China has been using for years, but is now more widespread.”

But alarm bells quickly rang when he began to investigate the company.

“We came to the conclusion that we did not want to do business with them because we were not confident with the people involved or anything about it,” he said, having realised that a lot of the information on the website appeared to be fake.

Three years later, however, a US-based client of Bell’s mentioned he had used a Scottish company called Icon to gain credit through an asset-backed note – similar to that agreed with Robinson.“They told us they had dealt with Icon and had paid them close to £1 million for a [financial] instrument that had not been delivered,” he said.

Phone numbers given to Bell’s clients which appeared to be temporary internet numbers have since been closed down and profiles of individuals they were told they were dealing with have disappeared from LinkedIn.

The Scottish Assessors Association website does not list Icon Group or any of its directors as an occupant of the serviced office block at 93 Hope Street.

Bell, whose company, Changing Thoughts, advises on financial transactions, said his clients considered reporting the company to the FBI in the US but decided to let the matter drop.

“It is very difficult in a situation like this for people to be caught,” he said. “What could they report? That a fake person who had never existed had taken their money?”

He added: “There are a number of them [companies like this] out there. A lot of people are taken in because it looks good. But because it is all online, people do not do their due diligence in the way they would if they were meeting face to face.”

Bell said that his client, who did not want to be named, had been told that Icon was backed by Aberdeen Asset Management, one of Scotland’s biggest financial services names.

A spokesman for Aberdeen Asset Management said: “This company has nothing to do with us.”

HSBC said it could neither confirm nor deny that account numbers with an HSBC sort code quoted by Icon on documents sent to Robinson were legitimate bank account numbers.

A spokesman said: “Where we are made aware of suspicious activity on an account we take appropriate and timely action.”

A spokeswoman for Police Scotland said enquiries were at an “early stage”. She added: “The enquiry is being assessed for jurisdiction and criminality.”

All calls to Icon Group and an email requesting comment sent to an address belonging to a Leon Matin – who claims on professional social network Viadeo to be an investment broker for Icon – have gone unanswered.

Attempts to speak to the residents at Hertford Avenue, Glasgow, which is listed as Bill Icon’s address in a document filed with Companies House, have been unsuccessful.