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* Firm accused of carbon fraud still operating despite warning
* Australian regulator blacklists telemarketing firm
* CO2 verifiers say misrepresented by company
By David Fogarty, Climate Change Correspondent, Asia
SINGAPORE, March 26 (Reuters) - A firm accused of defrauding Australian investors of A$3.5 million ($3.2 million) in a carbon investment scam and blacklisted by the nation’s securities regulator is still operating and may face legal claims.
The case risks denting the reputation of the unregulated voluntary carbon offset market, which has been damaged in the past by allegations of fraud and double-counting, although market players said its small size meant it wouldn’t have a big impact.
Since mid-2009 more than 100 people have told the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) they have lost money after being duped by an aggressive telemarketing scheme run by WesternField Holdings Inc.
The state-backed ACCC has labelled the firm’s carbon investment offerings a scam that preys on investors’ desire to do something good for the environment.
WesternField’s website (www.western-field.com) lists a Tokyo business address, a string of emission reduction projects in Asia since 2001, an impressive line-up of managers and consultants, and a prestigious environment award in 2004.
However, the organisation that gives out the annual award didn’t start doing so until 2006.
A check of WesternField’s weblink shows the domain name was created in May 2009 and internet searches show no record of the company prior to 2009. The management office of the Tokyo tower listed as the firm’s address has no record of them.
WesternField describes itself as a leading developer of high quality greenhouse gas reduction projects.
“It is increasingly clear this is a well-constructed scam using a fake website and claiming fake links to legitimate organisations or environmental standards and where the ultimate location is very difficult to determine,” ACCC deputy chairman Peter Kell told Reuters by telephone.
“If you’re an investor who’s heart is in the right place, who wants to make an environmentally friendly investment, then these sorts of offerings can look very tempting,” he added.
The ACCC said potential investors are cold-called by people with North American, British or New Zealand accents and promised large returns for short-term investments in carbon credits.
Investors could view their carbon "investment certificates" through an independent website registered to CTR Limited (carbontrustregistry.com), purported to be in Hong Kong.
Calls to the number listed on the website were unanswered.
Kell said some investors have complained that they have been unable to obtain their certificates and that requests to sell their investments or get their money back were ignored.
Investors were asked to send money to a Taiwan bank account.
The Australian Securities and Investments Commission has blacklisted WesternField, accusing it of investment fraud.
During a series of calls to WesternField’s Japanese telephone number this week, a man named Jay Cutler told Reuters that founder and CEO Stephen Westernfield was either in the United States, in meetings or had left for the day.
None of the other members of the team were available.
Cutler, who said his role was just to answer the telephone, refused to comment on the blacklisting or accusations of WesternField running a telephone scam.
“I’ve assured people just like I’ll assure yourself, we’ve never cold-called a potential investor yet. We’ve engaged on a number of occasions independent marketing firms who have, canvassed I guess is the right word, potential investors,” said Cutler.
He said investors are told that they are not issued with certificates. “The holdings are held electronically with an independent body the Carbon Trust Registry.”
Carbon Trust says on its website that it is a registry for credits issued by the Voluntary Carbon Standard (VCS) Association, an industry-respected offset verifier.
But Jerry Seager, program manager for the association, told Reuters that Carbon Trust was not an authorised VCS registry. “We are aware of this website and are taking legal advice,” he said in an emailed response to questions.
He added that he had not heard of WesternField and that they were not listed as project proponents for any VCS projects.
WesternField Holdings says it has completed a variety of clean-energy and forestry projects in Asia since 2001 that have been approved under VCS as well as the Gold Standard Foundation.
Gold Standard said it had not heard of WesternField either. It said the firm would face action from the foundation for any misuse of its brand. Cutler declined comment on the allegation.
Grattan MacGiffin of MF Global, one of the largest brokers for voluntary offsets, said the case would not hurt the market, worth about $700 million in 2008.
“The market has a good reputation now for transparency and integrity. There will always be potential for bad actions on the fringes but typically it’s very uncommon now,” he said. (Additional reporting by Chisa Fujioka in Tokyo; Editing by Michael Szabo and Michael Urquhart)