A trail of deceit has produced fake 2014-15 contracts for several American basketball players for the Aomori Wat’s, The Japan Times learned during a one-month investigation of alleged fraudulent agents.
This was known first: The Wat’s, a second-year franchise that had a winning record and earned a playoff berth in their first season, posted an Aug. 1 news release, written in both English and Japanese, on the team’s website. It provided the first public notification about the problem. The headline appeared this way: “(WARNING) Important notification to overseas players.”
Grey Peterson, with a listed phone number from Britain, and Anthony Newhouse were cited as “fake agents.” Emails for both individuals were listed along with what the team reported as a phony email address used for false representation of the team.
In an Aug. 16 update, the Aomori website report claimed that Isaiah Jackson is another fraudulent agent. The report listed a mobile phone number for him in South Africa.
The names of the agents do not appear in a directory of representatives certified by FIBA, basketball’s world governing body.
So how did Peterson, Newhouse and Jackson show up on Aomori’s radar?
The known nexus of the scandal involves four recent college players from smaller schools: West Virginia Tech, Youngstown State, Armstrong Atlantic State and St. Catharine (Kentucky) College, and a recent high school graduate who attended Arsenal Tech High School in Indianapolis. And there may be many more players who have been targeted.
Here are some key developments in the story:
■ The FBI’s Baltimore office was contacted last week about the situation and its connection to Silver Spring, Maryland (see below) but chose not to comment.
■ Interpol was sent an email with descriptions of the alleged fraud two weeks ago, but didn’t respond to a request for comment.
■ FIBA has issued a warning about Jackson, according to multiple sources who follow global basketball.
Benjamin Cohen, FIBA’s governance and legal affairs senior manager, acknowledged that fraudulent agents are a growing problem for pro leagues around the world. He also offered some cautionary advice for dealing with agents.
“We are unfortunately aware of the increasing number of persons who act fraudulently by using FIBA agents’ credentials and get players into paying them a fee with the promise that they have found them a club to play for,” Cohen wrote in an email to The Japan Times. “Upon being notified of this fraud, FIBA immediately informs the relevant national federation(s) as well as all FIBA-licensed agents. Players should in addition notify this fraud to the relevant police authorities as this is very often a criminal offense that goes beyond the scope of FIBA’s disciplinary regulations.
“FIBA encourages clubs and players to be careful when they receive offers from agents and to always carefully check the agent’s credentials — the list of all FIBA-licensed agents is published on www.fiba.com — with FIBA and the relevant national federation(s) before proceeding with the signature of a representation contract or the payment of any fee required by the agent.”
There are only 450 available jobs for players at any given time on the NBA’s 30 teams. But there are dozens of pro leagues, big and small, around the world, and several thousand players looking for a chance to earn a paycheck playing the game.
To showcase their talents and gain attention from pro scouts, agents and team executives, players compete in summer leagues, scouting combine tryouts and also use YouTube to post highlights of their individual skills.
Guards Omar Skinner (St. Catharine alum) and Terrale Clark (West Virginia Tech), forwards Damian Eargle (Youngstown State) and Darius Morales (Armstrong Atlantic State in Savannah, Georgia) and guard/forward Deoun Williams (Arsenal Technical High School) all have highlights currently posted on YouTube. Which, in turn, provides a way for their names to be out in the open for anyone to see, including agents accused of fraud and their associates.
A man named David Iverson identified himself as a scout who worked for Jackson, several of the players confirmed in separate interviews.
Meanwhile, five present or past bj-league players who are listed as Facebook friends of Iverson told The Japan Times they don’t know who he is. Of course, networking and increasing one’s “friends” list on Facebook can be a status symbol these days, without even a thought about privacy or security.
Iverson contacted Skinner and Clark about basketball jobs in Japan after seeing their YouTube highlights, according to Clark, who attended a showcase camp on June 1 in Los Angeles along with Skinner.
“David Iverson follows a lot of basketball players on Facebook,” Clark added in an email. “He told me was a scout to help agents and teams for players.”
Iverson didn’t respond to several email messages sent to his Facebook account. Jackson didn’t answer several telephone messages left by The Japan Times.
After Clark, Eargle, Morales, Skinner and Williams had made initial contact with Jackson, he sent each of them, and possibly more players, the following message:
“This is to notify you that I got a message from the team and there is a document which you have to obtain,” according to emails obtained by The Japan Times. He claimed the document is called the “U.S. Japan File/IV Entrance Order.”
This document doesn’t exist.
But Jackson claimed this document is “mandatory . . . because it will go a long way to back your right and interest while in Japan without any problem.”
Four players have confirmed via email that Jackson sent them this order. The emails claimed the charge for the document is $389.77, and that it will take four working days to process.
According to more than a dozen emails sent by Jackson, which repeated the same instructions to the aforementioned players, payment for the documents was ordered to be made using MoneyGram to a person listed as Jean F. Nance at a residential address in Silver Spring, Maryland. This newspaper has been unable to reach Nance for comment.
After the paperwork is finalized, he wrote, it will be sent to the player via DHL, and then the team can authorize the contract, and after that send a round-trip airplane ticket to Japan.
On Aug. 21, Jackson emailed Eargle with an attachment for a Delta Airlines round-trip airplane ticket, leaving Raleigh-Durham Airport with multiple transfers en route to Aomori. The printed cost: $2,441.80.
The flight itinerary, however, listed the passenger’s name as Johnson Morerenze. (Using Google, Yahoo and Bing online search engines, this name doesn’t appear anywhere.)
On Sept. 1, Eargle told The Japan Times that Jackson had repeatedly emailed him. “He (Jackson) tried to give me a fake ticket and he’s still saying they want me there,” Eargle added.
Email, fueled by the Internet, is a tool used in illegal activities, and thus becomes part of a broader problem that government agencies monitor.
Since its establishment in 2000, the Internet Crime Complaint Center (the IC3), operated by the U.S. government, has documented records of Internet-related crimes.
In a news release issued on May 19, the IC3 reported, “Over the last five years, the IC3 received an average of nearly 300,000 complaints per year. The complaints consist of a wide array of Internet scams touching victims of all nationalities, ages, backgrounds, educational levels, and socio-economic levels.
“In 2013 alone, the verifiable dollar loss of complaints submitted to the IC3 totaled nearly $800 million. The total dollar loss claimed from all complaints over the life of the IC3 exceeds $2 billion.”
Aomori started to become aware of the aforementioned problems in mid-July, a Wat’s team spokesperson confirmed in a recent interview. The team’s staff had never dealt with a situation like this before, so it asked for help to handle it.
“We weren’t sure what we were supposed to do on this, so we consulted with the league and the Japan Basketball Association for instructions,” the team official said. “This matter has reached FIBA through the league.”
The team official called it a “sad thing and an aggravating thing,” and expressed remorse for the players who have had their hopes quashed by frauds.
“We feel sorry for the players involved,” the source said. “But we asked FIBA and the JBA to provide warnings as well as share as much information as possible so anything like this would never happen again.”
The source said the club is “unaware of other clubs” being targeted in this scam.
“We are going to take necessary actions based on the suggestions from the league and the association (JBA), but it’s extremely unfortunate that the name of our team has been exposed in this way,” the team official stated.
League spokesman Akihiro Ejima said that based on the Aomori problem the league has issued emails to all teams informing them of the developments.
He added: “We have reported what kind of things have happened to the JBA with our players’ administration.”
For now, Ejima stated, the league is viewing this as an in-house matter.
“We don’t know if we are going to announce this to the general public,” he said. “We don’t plan to do so as of now.”
Ongoing discussions, including with the JBA, he noted, are focused on whether the league will post a message about the issue on its website.
The Japan Times has obtained copies of contracts emailed from Jackson to several players. All of them contained identical financial figures ($56,000 base salary, or $8,000 in monthly installments) and terms that were verbatim.
The contracts did not include the official bj-league trademark, the team logo nor the standard order of point-by-point statements featured on the league’s official contract, aka uniform player agreement. The contracts claimed the regular season ends in March; it actually concludes at the end of April.
The contracts promised the team would pay a $1,000 bonus for winning a home game, and the same amount for a road victory. The team didn’t award bonus payments last season for each victory, four players from the 2013-14 Aomori squad told this newspaper. Furthermore, it’s an additional cost the team would not agree to, league sources said.
Skinner, the former St. Catharine player, sought overseas opportunities this summer. Iverson reached out to him via Facebook and said “he could get me a spot on a team in Japan,” Skinner recalled in an email to The Japan Times.
Iverson referred Skinner to Jackson, and the player informed the latter of his interest in a potential job in Japan.
“When Isaiah got back in contact with me, and told me some information it sounded real good to me,” added Skinner. “I mean this being my first year out of college. I don’t really know much about the overseas business. The thing that made me question what he was saying, was he was talking about me getting way more money than what I was expecting, being as though it’s my first year.”
Most bj-league players don’t make $8,000 per month, though an elite few have commanded salaries of $10,000 per month, according to league insiders. (The league does not publicize or disclose salaries.)
Clark, the former West Virginia Tech player, expressed similar surprise in the financial figures that Jackson passed on to him. He wrote in an email, “It was too good to be true. With the match bonus and everything.”
Morales’ father, Felipe, said Jackson used the iPhone app FaceTime to contact his son. Now, after that experience, they are more cautious in their search for potential basketball jobs for Darius.
“We learned a good lesson and are now seeking a good agent to represent Darius,” Felipe Morales wrote in an email.
Others don’t learn that lesson until it’s too late.
“Unfortunately these types of fraud are very common in international basketball,” said Ian Singer, a FIBA-licensed agent who has represented players in the bj-league for several seasons.
“People prey upon players who are ‘desperate’ for professional basketball playing jobs. What invariably happens is the the perpetrator convinces the player to send him money for ‘administrative fees.’ The player, who is eager and excited, acquiesces with the hope that it means he will be able to play professional basketball. The fraud is then complete.”