How a Soviet emigré tied to Miami Beach's 'B-girls' scam became Grenada's man in Moscow
By AARON BREZEL | Miami Herald | Published: August 24, 2019
MIAMI (Tribune News Service) — He's been called the "poster boy for the American Dream" – and for good reason. An immigrant kid from Brooklyn, he became general manager of a Nobody Beats the Wiz electronics store at 17. The business journal Inc. crowned his credit card processing business the fastest-growing company in America. And when that venture, Unified Payments, was bought out, the corporation that acquired it, Net Element, made him its CEO.
But he has also been arrested on a charge of mortgage fraud – the charge dropped and later expunged. He's been sued at least seven times for breach of contract, including by his own lawyer. Since he took over, his new company has lost over 98% of its share value and for a time faced delisting from the Nasdaq.
He's brushed up in close proximity to a rogue's gallery of South Florida's most infamous financial fraudsters from the former Soviet Union, without ever getting in trouble with the law himself – save for the arrest that was wiped clean. These include husband-and-wife land-development scammers Victor and Natalie Wolf and the roguish perpetrators of the "B-girls scam," in which drunk men in Miami Beach were hustled out of thousands of dollars in credit card charges at the Caviar Bar and other Russian-themed drinking holes. And a friend and fellow Soviet emigre, Felix Filenger, who was sentenced to six and a half years for organizing a massive insurance fraud ring.
His name is Oleg Firer. He is a classic Miami success story. And now he has a new and impressive title, "Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary," after being named envoy to Moscow – oddly enough from the island nation of Grenada, which is more than 1,500 miles from his home in the Eastern Shores section of North Miami Beach. He scored the diplomatic post after making friends with the son of Grenada's prime minister.
In the Caribbean, he is branching out into cryptocurrency and a technology called blockchain, a digital ledger used to record transactions across many computers. And he has been accused by a news organization of helping the Russians gain a stronger foothold in the islands, even grabbing hold of Grenada's nutmeg industry, generating the headline "Is Grenada's iconic nutmeg production now in Russian Hands?"
It's been a long, strange journey for Firer, named one of 40 under 40 by the South Florida Business Journal in 2016 (he's now 41) and one of its 150 "power leaders" the year after that. He can point to a string of flattering profiles, from Forbes (one of "Five Incredible Entrepreneurs") to Poder ("Most influential people in Miami") and Smart Business Magazine ("How Oleg Firer built America's Fastest Growing Company").
"Oleg is a brilliant man," said Dayan Martinez, head of investor relations at Net Element, Firer's main company, and manager at several of Firer's other companies.
"A very kindhearted person," said Rabbi Zalman Lipskar of The Shul in Bal Harbour.
He's part of the colorful tapestry of South Florida's large, entrepreneurial Soviet diaspora, many of whom, like Firer, wound up in Florida by way of Brooklyn.
Firer's Miami story began just as those of Victor and Natalia Wolf were ending. The Wolfs, like other fraudsters during the South Florida real estate boom, made a fortune flipping properties. Operating out of their home in North Miami Beach on the Intracoastal, entertaining investors on a luxury yacht, they sold stakes in developments in Texas and Florida that went bust. Investors and lenders lost more than $20 million. As the house of cards collapsed, the Wolfs fled in 2006 in the middle of the night – but not before transferring title of the vacated house, mortgaged to the hilt through multiple lenders, to G & G Property Investments.
Firer had acquired G & G, which deeded the home to Firer, who moved in.
When Firer sought a mortgage on the home, he ran into trouble. In an affidavit signed by a state attorney investigator, he was accused of grossly inflating its value _ by $1 million _ and misrepresenting $850,000 as an asset rather than as the proceeds of a loan from a business associate. Firer was arrested on two counts of mortgage fraud and hundreds of thousands of dollars were seized, most of which would be given back when the charges were dropped. The records have been sealed, although the Miami Herald has examined them.
Because of the multiple mortgages, a legal war erupted over ownership of the home. It continues to this day, 12 years later. Among the odd twists: Firer is now suing himself as a representative of one of his business associates' companies.
Today, the home where the Wolfs ran their racket looks from the outside much like it did back then. Four classical statues of robed women border the street. Thin ionic columns support the portico. A pair of painted gold lions guard the front door. Firer says that he and his family live there part time.
"That was probably the biggest mistake that I have ever made," Firer said of his decision to take possession of the house, because of how it has tethered him to the Wolf saga. "For some strange reason, I am being tied to these jokers."
The "jokers," their whereabouts unknown, remain on the FBI's most wanted list for white collar criminals.
Did he even know the Wolfs? In an interview with the Herald, he denied meeting the infamous pair.
However, in a 2007 civil suit deposition, Firer said he had indeed met Victor Wolf in the summer of 2006. According to the deposition, Firer and Victor Wolf had a lengthy meeting to discuss a loan and later went for lunch at a sushi restaurant.
When this discrepancy was pointed out, Firer demurred.
"A lot of people came to me for loans, and it was possible that he was one of the people."
Three years after finding himself tangled up over the Wolfs' former house, Firer's name was brought up in federal court in connection with the South Beach bar girl scam organized by an admitted Russian mobster.
The Bar-Girls racket – "B-girls" for short – was a highly organized operation that employed young women recruited from Eastern Europe. Their job was to lure tourists from swank hotels, beckon them to visit seedy, Russian-themed bars and ply them with drinks until some could hardly stand, then trick them into charging thousands of dollars of overpriced booze and caviar on their credit cards. The mastermind was Alec "Oleg" Simchuk, the Russian-born gangster, a naturalized citizen.
A weatherman from Philadelphia recalled meeting up with a group of the "B-girls," having a few belts and then waking up the next day in his hotel room, fully clothed, his shirt stained with wine. One of the B-girls called and said she had his sunglasses. They met again and it was a replay of the night before. He would eventually get a call from American Express, detailing a two-night tally of $43,712.25, including $2,480 for a painting.
Credit cards were essential to the B-girl operation. In order for the scammers to get their money, they had to have a credit card processor serve as the middleman between them and the banks of their victims. This processor would open a "merchant account" for the bars, enabling them to accept cards and, in effect, vouching for the legitimacy of the businesses. In return, the processor would receive a percentage fee off of every card swipe – a standard practice in that industry. On the witness stand in the B-girls trial, a man named Stanislav Pavlenko described his role in setting this up.
According to Pavlenko's sworn testimony, he was directing operations at Firer's venture capital business, Star Capital Fund, while he was setting up the credit card processing for Caviar Bar. Like Net Element and Unified Payments, Star Capital Fund lists its address as the same commercial building, a few blocks from Firer's house.
In his testimony, Pavlenko said he was working in the main suite, 705, when Firer himself directed an assistant, Yuliya Khazak, to help him create the merchant account.
"She was assisting me and – at the request of Oleg Firer, the co-chairman of Star Fund (sic). We were sharing with her the same office and I was passing my special knowledge on (sic) her."
Simchuk, the gangster, testified as to how he owned the Caviar Bar, opening it with the help of Pavlenko, who then helped him establish the credit card account. Evidence indicated that Firer's assistant submitted letters to American Express defending the fraudulent charges.
As with Victor and Natalia Wolf, Firer was, at first, emphatic in denying that he had ever worked with Pavlenko.
"There's nothing in this world that could tie me to being a business associate of Stan Pavlenko, at any point in my career or in my life," Firer said.
When the court testimony about his assistant was brought to his attention, Firer called that "hearsay."
Khazak, who was not charged, declined to comment.
"It's not our business to go and police what they sell at that club," said Firer, who likewise was not charged. "It's the business of federal and local authorities."
Phillip Parker, founder of industry watchdog website cardpaymentoptions.com, disagreed with that self-assessment, calling it "patently false."
Companies are often held financially accountable by a bank when they run credit cards through a business that is generating fraudulent transactions, Parker said. On occasion, he added, they can even be held legally liable.
Firer affirmed that he did know Pavlenko on a personal level. The two were acquainted from their time in Brooklyn. And Firer said when he first moved down to North Miami Beach, Pavlenko was a helpful resource.
"He told me about certain places, where to go," Firer said.
Pavlenko was sentenced to six and a half years in the caper, only to later go free because the judge made a mistake in issuing the jury instructions. A condition of his release was that he return to Russia. Another man convicted in the B-girls case, Albert Takhalov, was sentenced to 12 years, but he too saw his conviction thrown out because of the problem with the jury instructions.
Takhalov currently works in the same field he allegedly abused. His company, Discover Data, is a registered agent of Unified Payments – now controlled by Firer's Net Element.
When the Herald called Discover Data and requested customer service, a representative from Unified Payments answered.
"If there is somebody that was convicted of credit card fraud, chances are they don't have registration with us," Firer said.
The most recent leg of Firer's journey takes him down to Grenada, where he has served as ambassador to Russia since 2017.
According to Firer, he was first invited down to the island by the Grenadian government to explore applications in telemedicine – allowing doctors to interact virtually with patients – in the Caribbean.
While in Grenada, he got to know Olinga Mitchell, the son of Prime Minister Keith Mitchell. Firer was granted Grenadian citizenship by virtue of investing in the island, according to the news agency Caribbean News Now!
Firer became Grenada's first ambassador to Russia since the two countries reopened diplomatic relations in 2002, the embassy's website states. He got to present his credentials to Vladimir Putin in a ceremony that produced a keepsake photograph. Firer's ascension came at a time when some Caribbean journalists and local activities had raised issues with Russia's expanding influence in the region.
Among them was Caribbean News Now!, which would go so far as to suggest that Firer was helping the Russians gain control of Grenada's nutmeg production.
That story may have struck a nerve. After its publication, Caribbean News Now! reported that a mysterious computer programmer/hacker reached out and offered $5,000 to have the article taken down from the agency's website. When Caribbean News Now! declined, the programmer allegedly hinted he would conduct a cyberattack.
"I like going to Grenada," said Firer. "I spend time there. My family spends time there. ... It's a country I really fell in love with."
Hack or no hack, the Caribbean News Now! website remains up and running.
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