Ephren Taylor Accused of $11 Million Christian Ponzi Scheme by SEC

PHOTO: Ephren Taylor is seen in this undated file photo.
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Ephren Taylor stepped up to the pulpit with the ease of preacher's son, taking the microphone at the New Birth Baptist Church in Atlanta, where the powerful pastor Eddie Long was introducing him to the Sunday morning crowd.

"Everything he says is based on the word of God," Long pledged to the members of his megachurch. But Taylor wasn't a visiting minister.

He was a financial adviser, one who claimed to have made his first million in his 20s. And he promised he could do the same for his fellow Christians.

"We're going to show you how to get wealth and use it for the building of his kingdom," Taylor shouted to the congregation one morning in 2009. It was all part of what he called his "Building Wealth Tour," which crisscrossed the country touting self-improvement, followed-up with private meetings with interested investors.

Some congregants from some of the most prominent mega-churches in the country, including New Birth Baptist Church and Joel Osteen's Lakewood Church in Texas, turned over their life savings to Taylor hoping to do good while doing well.

But the Securities and Exchange Commission said Taylor was actually peddling a Ponzi scheme that "swindled over $11 million, primarily from African-American churchgoers." Earlier this year, the agency entered a judgment against Taylor, ordering him to pay more than $14 million, which included money owed to investors and interest and fees.

Taylor, 31, first gained national attention with a rags-to-riches story of growing up dirt poor in Blackwater, Miss., before developing a video game that he said turned him into a teenage millionaire.

In a 2007 interview with ABC News, when asked how much he was worth, Taylor ventured what he said was a guess.

"Ballpark? Maybe $20 million on a bad day," he said.

His personal history, coupled with what he claimed was a philosophy of "socially conscious investing," made him popular with church congregations.

"He quoted scriptures," said Lillian Wells, who met privately with Taylor in 2009 after hearing him speak at New Birth.

Wells said Taylor convinced her to invest her entire life savings in a North Carolina-based real estate venture, which he claimed was turning around homes in inner cities. In exchange, she was promised a 20 percent return on her money.

But, Wells said, when she wanted to recoup her initial investment, Taylor disappeared.

"I couldn't get a hold of anybody," Wells said. "You just can't get them. That's it. You just couldn't get anybody."

Wells said she was forced to file for bankruptcy last September. She said she's not sure if she will ever get her money back, but she wants to see Taylor held accountable.

"We're suffering because of what he did. It needs to be stopped," she said.

Lisa Conway became suspicious of Taylor after she went to work for him in 2010. At first, she was excited to sell another type of investment City Capital was pitching, but soon she said she began to suspect the business was not on the up and up.

"I wanted to believe the answers were legit when we had the meetings," she said. But "I would see things that weren't appropriate."

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