Philly financial influencers accused of running real estate schemes

Even as an undergraduate at Drexel University, Benjamin Nelson knew he wanted “out of the rat race.”

On social media, he discovered that real-estate influencers Greg Parker Jr. — known online as Big Bizzneesss — and his wife, Danielle “Nikki” Morris Parker, offered an enticing option.

Against backdrops of private planes, luxury cars, and their palatial $2.3 million home in Fort Lauderdale, they shared their own rags-to-riches story of building a real estate empire from the ground up in North Philadelphia. They had gotten rich while investing in their own community, and promised to empower their 285,000 Instagram followers to achieve similar success.

The Parkers offered to reveal their secrets to cashing in on distressed real estate markets — for a price. They promoted investment seminars with tickets as low as $97, then offered a range of upsells: a VIP pass for $297; one-on-one mentorship for $5,000 or more; and the chance to invest in Greg Parker’s hand-picked properties at “rock bottom” prices.

Parker sought to create a sense of urgency. “Stay locked in,” he urged his viewers. “If you blink, you’ll miss it.”

After attending two seminars, Nelson, who was just 21 at the time and living in East Lansdowne, said he felt ready to dive in.

With money earned at his first job out of college, Nelson made what he described as a successful short-term investment with Danielle Parker on the rehab of a mixed-use building in Brewerytown. Then, in June 2020, he agreed to give $20,000 to Greg Parker (including $8,000 the Parkers had from his previous investment). According to Nelson, the money was to purchase a house in Cleveland.

But by the following February, the sale he had expected still hadn’t gone through — and Parker and his colleagues were ignoring Nelson’s calls.

“I keep getting the runaround. I just want to know what’s going on,” he texted Parker last year. “Playing with someone’s hard earned money is one of the worst things you can do.”

According to Nelson, Parker never replied.

Over the last two years, a growing number of aspiring real-estate investors have filed federal lawsuits in Philadelphia alleging that Big Bizzneesss is actually a big scam.

The lawsuits, brought under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, accuse the couple and their web of companies of taking thousands of dollars from clients for mentoring that never happened and property sales that never materialized, or selling them properties that — unbeknownst to investors — were condemned or burdened with unpaid liens. Several plaintiffs alleged in court that they were bilked into giving tens of thousands of dollars to Parker to purchase properties he did not own.

The Parkers did not respond to numerous interview requests.

Two of seven RICO lawsuits filed so far have been settled, while a bankruptcy filing in June by Danielle Parker’s company, Diamante Enterprises, put two more settlements on hold. In the court records, Parker portrays the company as seeking to make good on its obligations but battered by outside forces during the pandemic, when costs spiked and “lenders were not funding real estate transactions.”

Some plaintiffs said they have also fielded questions about Parker from a Cleveland-based FBI agent who specializes in pursuing white-collar financial crimes. A spokesperson for the Cleveland FBI office said it could not confirm or deny the existence of an investigation.

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Online, other personal finance influencers turned scam-busters have turned on the couple in recent months. During the critics’ Instagram Live streams, dozens more self-described victims have recounted stories of desperation and financial ruin.

Meanwhile, more lawsuits against the Parkers are pending in state courts in Philadelphia and Cleveland.

As for Nelson, he continued texting Parker and his representatives for months. He finally got several checks from Parker in September 2021, but the first one he tried to deposit bounced. Parker then wired him $5,000 — but ignored his pleas to return the rest of his $20,000.

In February 2023, Nelson filed a lawsuit in Philadelphia’s Common Pleas Court. He can’t afford a lawyer, so he’s representing himself.

Parker’s lawyer, Natalie Klyashtorny, said she could not comment on active litigation or confidential settlements, but added that Parker has “vigorously defended” against Nelson’s claim. In court papers, she argued that Nelson had not proven the existence of any contract with Parker for the purchase of any property.

In an August interview, Nelson said he had hesitated to take action because he was embarrassed about being conned. He hasn’t yet told his family about the loss.

He had also been holding out hope that Parker, whom he once regarded as a mentor, would make good.

“They were the people that introduced me to real estate,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting the person I learned the thing from to do that to me.”

A scam ecosystem

In October 2021, the Parkers hosted a big event at the Showboat Atlantic City that they promoted as the “All or Nothing Tour.”

A slick ad showed the Parkers framed by stacks of cash, with a yacht and a Rolls-Royce in the background. Surrounding them were the seminar’s other speakers, each with a different get-rich-quick pitch: how to start your own trucking company, open a car rental business, create your own financing company, run an AirBnB rental empire, or flip real estate.

To critical observers, those offerings are typical of a growing online ecosystem that preys on low-income, first-time investors.

Jayson Thornton, a St. Louis-based financial adviser, hosts a YouTube channel called “Pocket Watching with JT.” In his view, Parker is similar to many other influencers who offer expensive books, classes and mentoring programs, leading to investment opportunities — but often landing clients in ever-deeper debt.

He said such offerings proliferated during the pandemic as the government pumped out stimulus checks, unemployment support and forgivable small-business loans — ensuring that their growing audiences suddenly had more free time to devote to social media, and more access to capital than ever before.

“Over the past four or five years it’s been the Wild West of criminals and convicts turning themselves into finance gurus,” he said. “Now, with all the stimulus and unemployment money running out, we’re starting to see the bubble pop and Ponzi schemes and pyramid schemes failing.”

Thornton said he first began hearing from his clients a few years back about such schemes, and the tactics gurus suggested they use to access credit: “They would say, ‘This sounds good. Is this something I should add to my portfolio?’ And I was amazed that they would even be swayed by this buffoonery. I would have to tell my clients, ‘No, you can’t do this. This is actually bank fraud.’”

That’s when he started his YouTube channel, and became one of a handful of online personalities devoted to exposing what they say are rampant scams. He also blames popular podcasts and radio shows such as Earn Your Leisure — a financial self-help show with 1.3 million YouTube subscribers — and the Breakfast Club for promoting the newly minted wealth influencers.

Parker was a featured guest on Earn Your Leisure in 2020.

The episode appears to have been removed from the program’s Apple podcast feed after self-styled scam-busters and YouTube personalities, such as Tony “The Closer” Robinson and Common Sense Eli, began posting online interviews with Parker’s alleged victims.

One was Ricardo Dopson, 56, of Brooklyn, N.Y., who said he first met Parker at a birthday party that Parker threw for himself in Philadelphia at the Met, a converted opera house, in 2019.

He said he borrowed money from his 401(k) to pay Parker $85,000 for the purchase and rehab of a Cleveland property, plus $5,000 to join his “billionaires” group and $10,000 to buy into a group investment. But he said he later learned that the Cleveland property had liens far exceeding its value and that Parker simply kept the money the group had gathered for their joint investment.

When he shared his complaints about Parker on Tony “The Closer” Robinson’s livestream, Dopson said, he was flooded with messages. “All these people are telling me how much money they lost” because of Parker, he said. “I thought I had it bad. I lost a little more than $100,000. People are telling me they lost $400,000, $450,000, half a million.” Dopson said he’s written off the loss. He doesn’t think suing would be worth the cost.

Thornton said gurus such as Parker appear insulated by the cult-like dedication of their disciples. Many victims don’t have the resources to hire a lawyer, and have no expectation that contacting law enforcement would help.

“Government agencies love big numbers. They love big names,” Thornton said. He said that means smaller-scale schemes don’t always attract prosecutors’ attention. “We’re not talking about billions of dollars. We’re talking about tens of millions. That’s impactful to a low-income community.”

Donald Trump as a role model

Parker often recounts a formative moment in his childhood in the city’s Brewerytown section.

In 1988, at age 13, he accompanied his parents to a Trump hotel in Atlantic City to see Mike Tyson fight Michael Spinks. There he caught a glimpse of Donald Trump as his security cleared a path through a crowd of VIPs so Trump could make his way to a prime seat.

“Every celebrity, they made like a walkway,” he said, during the 2020 Earn Your Leisure interview. “It might sound crazy, but that sparked me. … A lot of people are out here to make money. But having money and having power are two different things.”

From then on, Parker would cite Trump as his role model. Like the former president, he would go on to spin a personal legend of bootstrapping his way to wealth — weaving together fact and apparent fiction.

After what he described as “hustling” on North Philadelphia streets as a teen, then struggling to run a corner store, Parker says, he scrounged together money to buy his first Philadelphia property in 2005 for about $5,000.

The way he told it in lectures and interviews, he flipped the rowhouse for $75,000. He said he used the proceeds to buy eight more properties that week, and sold them all for at least quadruple the purchase price. Soon, he said, he was making “$150,000 a month.”

“It happened so fast,” he told in 2014. “One minute, I was in the street. … The next, I was a millionaire.”

More recently, Parker has described building a “$40 million empire.” But tracing the Parkers’ holdings is complicated, given their network of at least 30 limited liability companies (LLCs). City property records show that during the 2010s, Parker netted at least $4.4 million in real estate sales across at least 95 properties just in Philadelphia. And in recent years, as real estate prices rose here, the couple focused on cheaper markets such as Baltimore and Cleveland, where records show they bought and sold hundreds of properties.

Along with media coverage of their growing business, the couple also won public praise at home for philanthropic gestures, such as plunking down $140,000 cash in 2018 to save the North Philly home-turned-community-center of a man whose son had been murdered on his doorstep. In a news report, the Parkers framed the purchase as a “heartfelt” gift.

While making lavish shows of generosity, Parker was fighting foreclosure of his Woolwich Township, Gloucester County, home and filing for Chapter 13 personal bankruptcy in New Jersey, valuing his assets at $385,600 and his liabilities at more than $1.8 million. As for the property he and his wife bought for the bereft father, they paid $105,000 not $140,000, and it remains titled in their names. The man who lost his son has since moved, records show; attempts to reach him were not successful.

Despite the bankruptcy filing, Parker was embarking on a new and lucrative path as a real-estate investment guru.

The couple established what they called the Parker Family Community Learning Center in Brewerytown, using it to host both community events as well as a program called “Greg Parker’s Real-Estate Boot Camp.”

They also held seminars at places such as Temple University, and later touring shows with themes such as “The Year of the Millionaire.” These sessions offered customers “hacks” to quickly access large amounts of credit — typically by applying for several credit cards at the same time, former clients said. Some sessions attracted hundreds of attendees.

And in each new city, Parker found more potential clients eager to find out how they, too, could get involved in the lucrative urban real estate market unfolding around them — but seemingly just out of reach.

Increasingly, the Parkers shifted from primarily running a real-estate business to running training programs for prospective real-estate investors.

Danielle Parker created a $5,000, six-month mentoring program called the Lady Millionaire Organization. Greg Parker self-published a book, RehabGoon — $65 and about 40 pages — purportedly explaining the secrets of his trade.

He gained fame and credibility by producing and co-starring in a feature-length movie along with legendary Philly rapper Beanie Sigel, called The Come Up. As his fame grew, he figured into a business-themed storyline on VH1′s Love & Hip Hop: New York.

‘Desperate people’

By the time the pandemic hit, Parker was attracting as many as 100 students to his boot camp — many with only small amounts to invest — and encouraging them to team up and form joint ventures.

One was Shakir Ali, a licensed real estate agent from Pennsauken who, like others spending free time on social media during the pandemic, said he found himself swept up in Parker’s “inspirational” message.

Ali said his childhood home was lost to foreclosure, and his father never had stable housing again. So, to Ali, the value of real estate was intensely emotional. He decided to splurge, spending around $1,200 for a VIP pass to Parker’s boot camp.

He said the Parkers wanted every aspect of the sales done in-house: Danielle Parker advertised a loan service, Diamante Financing. Greg Parker had a construction company, Maybach Construction. They also had preferred title companies, which meant they selected the entity that was supposed to protect buyers from fraudulent sales or undisclosed liens.

Ali said other students appeared to be “desperate people” who had gone to great lengths to get the money. Some took on credit card debt or second mortgages. He said Parker marketed to Black people, calling them “brother” or “sis” to evoke familiarity, and urging them to seize fleeting opportunities.

Parker told participants to form LLCs in groups of 10. Ali’s was group No. 9. Then, Parker took them by van to Cleveland to look at properties.

“The story and the dream that he was pitching,” he said, “we believed in it and we wanted it to work.”

Ali said his group paid $7,000 each, most of which went to purchase a $55,000 mixed-use property from a Parker company, Hometown Estates. On a video, Parker said it was “on a major, major intersection.” But after the sale went through in January 2021, Ali said, the group discovered that the property — a run-down building on a desolate block of vacant land that had sold for just $13,000 one month earlier — was burdened with more than $16,000 in delinquent taxes.

In an email to Ali, the title agent said Parker and the person he’d bought the property from had agreed to split the taxes — and records indicate that $8,200 was paid. But eventually the payments toward the back taxes stopped and, Ali said, Parker began dodging their calls. Members of his group didn’t have the money to pay off the taxes on top of the building’s many needed repairs, and some gave up and dropped out of touch.

The back taxes on the building now exceed $20,000. Last May, Ali received a condemnation notice: Cleveland had declared the building a public nuisance, and could demolish it.

Social media strikes back

Allegations that Parker was running a scam began spreading widely online in April 2023. One of Parker’s clients went viral on Instagram with a video claiming Parker had cheated him on a $100,000 real estate deal, grabbing the attention of online scam-busters.

Viewers commented with their own stories:

”He still owes my mom.”

“I chased him on and off for a couple years and gave up.”

“Him and his wife owe me money, too.”

And while the Parkers continue to present the image of success, public records show signs of financial stress.

After creditors sought to collect almost $1 million in judgments against various Parker companies, including one, Diamante Enterprises, that filed for bankruptcy in June. The couple put up their Florida mansion for sale for $3 million in the spring. They recently listed their former community center in Philadelphia at $600,000, and sought bankruptcy court authorization to sell another property to satisfy creditors.

Nelson, the recent Drexel graduate, said he was pleased at first that Parker had posted a link to a “client support form” on Instagram for “addressing and mitigating potential outstanding business matters.”

But he was disheartened to see that all other traces of controversy had been scrubbed from Parker’s page, as Parker continued posting videos of new investments and his luxury travel.

Just this month, Parker posted a series of videos from Danville, Va., touting fresh opportunities.

“I get confused,” Nelson said. “Where is all the money coming from? I know the money is coming from people [like me]. What is he using the money to do? He isn’t paying no one back.”

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