Hay River victim may get cash back after stock market scam

Debra Buggins says she was pressured by a collection agent to invest in Great Pacific International to pay off her student loan. She may have been one of many victims in a stock-manipulation scheme.

Debra Buggins wants others to be wary of investment offers

Debra Buggins, 58, says she wants people to be careful about how they invest their money. (Submitted by Debra Buggins)

A potential victim of a stock market scam says she wants others to be skeptical if they receive an offer to invest their money. 

Debra Buggins of Hay River, N.W.T. received a letter from Ontario's Attorney General in early May. It said she may have fallen prey to a scam that swept up unsuspecting debtors, and that she could be entitled to compensation.

It wasn't until she got the letter that she realized she was entitled to justice after she lost thousands of dollars in a market she doesn't understand.

"I thought, wow," she said. "That was a scam!"

Stock manipulation

The scheme involved five B.C. residents who manipulated the price of two stocks on the TSX Venture Exchange: OSE Corp. and Great Pacific International. According to B.C. securities regulators in 2015, the residents made more than $7 million by selling OSE shares to unsuspecting buyers.

Those buyers were often already facing financial difficulties.

According to a 2011 settlement between the Ontario Securities Commission, Phoenix Credit Risk Management Consulting Inc. and others involved, clients were often referred to the debt management services company based in Richmond Hill, Ont. through collection agencies.

The five B.C. residents behind the stock manipulation scheme made more than $7 million by selling OSE shares to unsuspecting buyers. (Mike Laanela/CBC)

The agreed statement of facts says debtors "were encouraged to unlock their funds and pay their debts" then encouraged to invest the rest of their money in OSE or Great Pacific International shares. 

But that's not exactly how Buggins remembers being roped into the scheme.

In late 2007, she told CBC, a collections agent was hounding her over an old student loan. She doesn't believe it was Phoenix and said she thinks it was a Vancouver-based company. 

Buggins said she was under pressure when she told the agent she had money tied up in pension funds.

She remembers the agent putting her on a three-way call with an investment company, and convincing her she could liquidate her money and pay back the loan if she invested $24,000 of pension funds in Great Pacific International. 

"I was too stressed out at that time. I just trusted this lady I was talking to, that she was really trying to help me — and I was just, in my mind, wanting to get this paid off," she said. "She got me."

After Buggins did invest, she couldn't figure out how to take the money out. She said it was confusing, but for a while the collections agents stopped calling and the stock was making good money. In the first year, she said, she got a dividend cheque for $1,000. 

I lost it all.- Debra Buggins

Eventually, however, the stock started losing money, and another collections agent started calling. Buggins said representatives from the investment company told her they couldn't advise her on what to do, so she watched as the money slowly disappeared until she had "nothing."

"I lost it all," she said, noting she felt resigned to her fate. "Can't keep crying over spilled milk. It was gone, it was gone."

Buggins eventually got a good job and paid off her student debt.  But she said it's still heartening to learn she might get some money back.

The Ontario attorney general has an approximately $2.96 million fund to pay victims. Buggins shared photos of her letter from the attorney general with the CBC, which says she may be entitled to some of that funding. 

Buggins is telling her story so that others in tough financial situations will think twice when someone offers to help them solve their money problems..

"Don't let your stress get the best of you," she said. "Question everything."