This is the story of how an outer-suburban housewife convinced Australia’s biggest share registry company, Computershare, to transfer more than $15 million in blue chip stocks owned by a Bahamas investment company — to her.
Rachel Cowen is a 34-year-old mother of six children aged under 11 who lives in Hallam, a modest dormitory suburb east of Melbourne. She appeared at the Melbourne Magistrates Court for her committal hearing dressed in black pants and a lumpy mauve cardigan. She was accompanied by a friend from her church and wouldn’t have looked out of place at the after-school pickup almost anywhere.
Her road to riches started in late 2006 when she decided to go into business for herself and bought a money recovery agents business kit on the internet for $5235. The kit contained information on how to claim “unclaimed” monies from inactive bank accounts, mature fixed deposits, debentures, notes or life insurance policies, and dividends or interest payments.
Cowen opened a business bank account, a trading account with Citi Smith Barney, and started looking for unclaimed money.
In mid-2008 Cowen found herself fishing for information on the shareholdings of a company registered in the Bahamas, GH Kluge & Sons. She called share registry company Computershare and struck up a warm relationship with client services associate Sharon Woodley. They talked about their families, about Cowen’s husband being a truckdriver, and they agreed that Melbourne’s eastern suburbs reminded them of their home towns in New Zealand.
Cowen told Woodley she was a ‘money finder’, that original share documents belonging to Kluge had been destroyed in a flood in the Bahamas and the company had engaged her services to locate and deal with its shareholdings. She asked for a list of shareholdings and the Security Holder Reference Numbers (SRNs), which are like PINs.
On June 13, 2008, Woodley emailed Cowen a list of 33 shares registered in the name of Kluge. But she refused to send the SRNs. She told Cowen she needed authority from an authorised representative of Kluge.
A couple of days later Woodley received by fax a letter purportedly from a Jason P Kluge authorising Cowen to be the beneficiary of all shares and un-presented dividend payments.
Woodley emailed Cowen the SRNs for all 33 shareholdings worth then about $24 million.
Woodley then helped Cowen fill in a separate Standard Transfer Form for each shareholding transferring the shares into Cowen’s name.
Robert Evan George Kluge, the real company secretary of Kluge, has since seen the documents. In his statement, he said Jason P Kluge and Margaret Pizzo are not known to him or associated with the company or his family. He told police the notary public stamp is not a legitimate stamp of the Bahamas, and the wording on the stamp is odd.
Cowen took the forms and the original ‘authority’ letter to Computershare’s office in the inner Melbourne suburb of Abbotsford. After handing them over to Woodley, she headed upstairs with her to the cafeteria for coffee and a chat.
Woodley passed the documents to another Computershare employee, who got approval from her supervisor, and then processed the transfers. Simple as that. Cowen now had more than $15.7 million in shares in her name.
The next step was to sell the shares. She used her broker Citi Smith Barney who she had told she was selling the shares to recover a debt owed to her by Kluge. The broker checked that Computershare had put the transfer through, then sold the shares for $15,685,031.12 – and deposited the money into Cowen’s joint account she holds with her husband Roger.
Evan Kluge found out his company’s shares had been transferred until he received a routine holding statement by snail mail from Computershare in July. He sounded the alarm but by July 24 when Cowen was arrested and her assets were frozen, there was just $822,000 in her bank account.
Cowen told police that she believed the authority documents she presented to Computershare were genuine. According the police brief, she said that her business partner Raul Mari obtained all the signatures and authorisation from Kluge by visiting the company in the Bahamas.
Cowen told police had met Mari online in July 2006 when he had emailed her about an online business scam she was caught up in. They became friends and Mari, who — according to police, has been convicted in the United States for felonies and parole violations — won her trust. According to the police, Cowen spoke to Mari on the phone more than twice a day on average between January 1, 2007 and August 4, 2008.
She sent most of the money she collected to Mari. Ten million dollars was transferred to a bank in Florida into accounts in his name and the name of a company they jointly owned. She spent $3.5 million on three houses in Melbourne’s outer eastern suburbs and gave $500,000 to her evangelical church, Fruitful Vine Melbourne Church. She tried to give her pastors $50,000 but they declined.
The Victoria Police are alleging the money was handed over to her on the basis of her deception and Cowen has been committed for trial in the Supreme Court charged with 87 indictable offences of obtaining financial advantage by deception, dealing with proceeds of crime and making and using a false document.
There are also charges relating to a claim she made for $26,972.78 held by share registry Link Market Services in Kluge’s name. The sum represented an unclaimed dividend issued by Orica. On the strength of an alleged letter of authority from Kluge she provided to Link, Link gave her $26,972.78. She deposited it in her bank account and sent $13,000 to Mari.
Cowen has pleaded not guilty. Mari is free as a bird in Florida because the Police say they do not have enough evidence to charge him. The case will turn on whether Cowen knew what she was doing. Did she have the requisite intention to defraud the Bahamas investment company Kluge? Or was she Mari’s patsy?
If found guilty at trial by the jury, Cowen could be facing a long stint in jail; each of the 87 charges is punishable by 10 years imprisonment.
The matter is set down for a mention hearing in the Supreme Court on July 16.