San Diego-area families say they lost thousands of dollars after investing in an emerald mining operation out of Brazil. Now investors are being warned about that company's legitimacy.
As Pietra Verdi started to shut down, investors say they were told to not worry.
"They told us everything looks good, we should trust the business, trust the business, there are profits for years," said Jasser Perez Lopez, who invested tens of thousands of dollars.
Lopez emigrated from Cuba seven years ago. Since then he'd been saving money working security, ridesharing and as a delivery driver. He says last year he invested all of his savings into what he thought was a way out of the daily grind.
Get San Diego local news, weather forecasts, sports and lifestyle stories to your inbox. Sign up for NBC San Diego newsletters.
Here's how the scheme worked. Pietra Verdi was based in Brazil but contracted a group in Costa Rica to advertise the company. That group's advertising and word-of-mouth eventually reached families here in San Diego.
"I saw results in the first few days, within the first few months," said Lopez. "It was paying out well and I thought I'd go all in. Since I had my savings and felt that everything was legitimate, I also began to borrow money and use credit cards."
Lopez would purchase bitcoin then send it to Pietra Verdi. Screenshots of the website show he had transferred more than $70,000, making $40,000 in profit. He says those results were so promising he maxed out his credit cards.
"I kept borrowing money, kept investing and reinvesting," said Lopez. "Whatever I would make, I would reinvest."
Not only did Lopez put all his money into the company, he also invited others to join as well.
"I saw it work, I saw he was making money," said Jose Hernandez, a good friend. "I jumped on the opportunity."
Hernandez said he invested $5,000, but then in November everything came crashing down.
"The group that got us into the business disappeared," said Lopez. "Everything disintegrated, everything, everything."
Pietra Verdi had been sending videos to its investors showing raw emeralds, jewelry and a device they claimed could detect raw emeralds. So NBC 7 reached out to a gem expert who has visited the Brazilian emerald mines. He said they are clearly fake.
"There is nothing in the world that exists that can detect a gem or mineral deposit with a twirling satellite dish or something," said Joshua Hyman, the gemologist. "It's completely made up."
Hyman says he has seen emerald mining ventures in Brazil and thinks Pietra Verdi is not legitimate.
"It's a major venture," said Hyman. "Walking around with a machine like that in the video, it flies into the face of logic."
NBC 7 tried to contact the company many times but received no answer. The Costa Rican government is warning future investors against working with the company, and news reports identify it as a likely Ponzi scheme shut down by the Brazilian Government. We also reached out to the Brazilian Federal Police to confirm whether the company was shut down. We're still waiting for a response.
But Lopez and his friends are still out thousands of dollars.
"I'm drowning," said Lopez. "I can't accept that I've lost my life savings, that I've caused other people to lose their money."
If you see fraud or a scheme, you can report it to the FTC here. The FBI says you can also report investment fraud on its website here. If it took place over the internet, you can also report it to the Internet Crime Complaint Center.