Very few things anger me more than learning that “professionals” in the infertility industry have robbed their clients blind. What makes these criminal acts so egregious is that in addition to depriving their clients of their life savings, they are stealing something even more precious – their hopes and dreams.
Many in the industry are aware of a surrogate and egg donor agency called B Coming. What many may not know is that B Coming has dozens of couples who have alleged that they provided the agency with tens, even hundreds of thousands of dollars, and were provided with nothing. Zilch. Not a surrogate, not an egg donor, not even the courtesy of an explanation. Our office alone is representing more than a dozen clients who have claimed to have been defrauded by this agency. We have already obtained one judgment, in excess of $120,000.00, against B Coming on behalf of a Taiwanese client.
Take a look at the B Coming website and you will not even find a physical address, just a P.O. Box. Many years ago, another agency called Options concealed their office location as well. I recall during a break in a 60 Minutes interview being told by the producer of the segment that Options required 60 Minutes to sign a non-disclosure agreement, promising not to reveal the address should they film at the location. Thereafter, I confronted the owner of Options at a Resolve conference and asked her why the secrecy. In an incredible moment of candor, she explained to me that she did not release the address because of concern about being located by process servers. Not too long afterward, Options was out of business and its clients funds gone.
Interestingly enough, B Coming managed to evade service by our office for several months. As fate would have it, they showed up at ASRM’s annual meeting in Washington, D.C. and we effected service in the middle of the conference. Not surprisingly, they packed up their booth and missed the final two days. Nevertheless, they continue to operate today and attempts to attract the attention of law enforcement has failed as most of their victims are foreign nationals.
This leads me to the newest fiasco to rock our industry. Word has it that the Michael Charles Group has shuttered their doors and absconded with their clients’ trust funds with the FBI in hot pursuit. For those unaware, the Michael Charles Group was a popular escrow company for several surrogate and donor agencies. A visit to the Michael Charles Group’s website results in a page that simply says “no resource” which would by ironically funny if they had not just dashed the dreams of uncounted couples seeking to have families as well as their surrogates and donors who may not receive their compensation or expense reimbursement. For those interested, you can still see the rest of the Michael Charles Group website by going through the back door as they did not think to take off any other pages but the home page. Parenthetically, Michael Charles’ website claims that they are a “bonded corporation with all funds being held in federally insured accounts.” It will be interesting to find out if they had any kind of fidelity bond insurance or if they were being disingenuous and only referring to FDIC insurance. I would also like to find out if there really is an individual by the name of Michael Charles or if it was a fictitious artifice to lend credibility along the lines of a Charles Schwab or E.F. Hutton.
I have also been hearing from couples that are using SurroGenesis USA, a surrogate and donor agency that is inexplicably intertwined with the Michael Charles Group. According to these couples, SurroGenesis was using Michael Charles and their funds are gone, leaving them with no ability to pay their surrogates, egg donors, insurance premiums, etc….. While this case is only just now unfolding, there appears to be more than just a casual connection between SurroGenesis and Michael Charles and it will be interesting to find out of their potentially incestuous relationship was ever disclosed to the couples who entrusted their funds to this financial group.
In doing a bit of digging, we have learned that the CEO of SurroGenesis USA, Tonya Collins, is the Agent for Service of Process for the Michael Charles Group. While the California Secretary of State does not have the Statement of Officers available online, it would not surprise me to learn that Ms. Collins is more than just the Agent for Service.
I also took a look at SurroGenesis’ website and came across something that gave me pause. SurroGenesis claims to have 60 locations throughout the world to service their couples. I was initially impressed at the size of this organization but a bit perplexed because while I had heard of them, I had no idea they were such a large and well-funded organization that had a true global reach. But then I noticed that they claim to only have 8 employees according to their website. So 60 “locations” and only 8 employees? It shouldn’t take long for the alarm bells to go off so when we looked at the 60 different “locations” we found that they had assigned an individual staff member to multiple locations. As an example, Ms. Collins appears as the Director for, among others, Alaska, Modesto, Wisconsin, Virginia and Brazil! Even Dr. Manhattan from the Watchmen couldn’t possibly be in all those places at the same time. Even more disconcerting is that in going through randomly and looking at several of their “locations” we discovered that they are nothing more than P.O. Boxes.
So why go to such lengths to create this facade? Clearly SurroGenesis wanted to portray itself as a substantial company with an international reach and the kind of resources necessary to achieve results for their clients. I have no doubt that many couples impressed by the “magnitude” of their operation, entrusted their hopes, dreams and money to SurroGenesis. Just like investors did with Bernie Madhoff.
Today, these couples are facing canceled cycles or the uncertainty of not knowing what will happen with their ongoing pregnancies. I have already learned of one case where health insurance was lost because the premiums were not paid. So in addition to the Intended Parents now having to find a way to meet their contractual obligations to their surrogate with their funds gone, they also may have to pay all the medical bills because of the loss of coverage.
It is incumbent upon our industry to do more to regulate ourselves. It is inconceivable that establishments, built upon a house of cards, can be allowed to operate. The community as a whole needs to identify these programs and do a much better job of warning patients and clients about the dangers of these programs.
For those Intended Parents and Surrogates who are being affected currently, I implore you to seek out independent counsel. If your attorney was provided to you by the agency (or has an ownership interest in the agency), I strongly encourage you to find someone else immediately. Preserve whatever documents you have. In addition to contacting law enforcement, you need to get in contact with your surrogate, donor and/or couple to see what you can do to salvage your relationship. Speak to your physician about the options available to you. Print out copies of the agency’s websites before it disappears or is altered. I have already found disturbing signs of an agency editing their website in the last week to avoid potential scrutiny. Fortunately there are resources on the internet where you can find the archived pages, but it is still good practice to collect all the information you can now.
For those considering an agency; be wary. Do not be impressed by a flashy website or professionally produced DVD. That is all marketing. Look beyond the smoke and mirrors and speak to your Reproductive Endocrinologist or their nurse coordinator to get the real skinny on the agency. Seek out independent mental health professionals and attorneys who are not affiliated with the agency to find out their experience. Be wary of community forums that tout how wonderful these programs are because many of them are sponsored or even operated by these agencies. If the SurroGenesis/Michael Charles abomination has taught us anything it is that there are potentially undisclosed relationships between organizations which, had they been disclosed, would have materially affected a client’s decision. Try to speak to Intended Parents and Surrogates who worked with the program to find out what their experiences were. Lastly, contact the Better Business Bureau to find out if their are complaints against the agency you are considering.
Sadly, it is too early to know how many lives will be affected by the Michael Charles Holding Company debacle. We are only beginning to learn about the number of agencies that were using this company (very possibly unaware of what was taking place or their affiliation with SurroGenesis) to administer their clients’ trust accounts. They say that sunlight is the best disinfectant and hopefully we can start weeding out these programs before too many other people fall victim to their unscrupulous business practices.
UPDATE: Since I posted this, I have learned that there are more than 33 victims of this fraud and the embezzled funds exceed $1,000,000.
UPDATE II: I have been informed that there are now 2 other agencies who had placed their clients’ trust funds with Michael Charles Holdings.