Seattle man who used stolen identities to seek nearly $2 million in COVID-19 benefits pleads guilty to wire fraud and aggravated identity theft
Seattle – A 42-year-old Las Vegas man, who previously lived in Bellevue, Washington, is facing a 25-count indictment charging him with wire fraud and securities fraud, announced U.S. Attorney Nick Brown. Justin Costello allegedly victimized marijuana business owners, private investors and investors who purchased stock over-the-counter. The Securities and Exchange Commission also filed a civil suit against Costello today.
“Mr. Costello allegedly told many tall tales to convince victims to invest millions of dollars -- money he then used for his own benefit,” said U.S. Attorney Nick Brown. “In a complex scheme involving shell companies, penny stocks, and financial services for marijuana businesses, Mr. Costello used Twitter, press releases, securities filings, and claims of great wealth to paint a picture of fabulous financial success. In truth that picture was a mirage.”
According to the indictment, in 2017 Costello owned and operated a company called Pacific Banking Corp that provided banking services to marijuana businesses in Washington, Colorado, California, Illinois, and Alaska. Between 2019 and 2021, Costello allegedly diverted money from three marijuana business to benefit himself and his companies. The diversions were contrary to the promises he had made to the marijuana businesses. The three marijuana businesses lost about $3.7 million.
As part of his scheme, Costello purchased two companies that were trading for pennies on the over-the-counter market and renamed them GRN Holding Corporation and Hempstract Inc. Costello also recruited investors in these companies, allegedly making numerous false statements about the size and success of his marijuana banking business. Costello told potential private investors several falsehoods – that he had an MBA from Harvard, that he had served in the military and had done two tours in Iraq and had been wounded twice, that he was a billionaire, that he had 14 years of experience on Wall Street and that GRN Funds LLC, a private equity and hedge fund he owned, had over $1 billion in assets under management. None of that is true.
With these falsehoods, Costello convinced various investors across the country to invest in his companies. One deceived couple provided Costello with more than $2 million for shares in companies that he controlled. Additionally, they opened a $4 million TD Ameritrade account at Costello’s direction and provided him with the passwords that allowed him to trade in their account. Costello allegedly used the account to purchase the penny stock of companies he controlled driving up the share price to enrich himself.
Costello used the same lies with other investors and allegedly used investor funds for his own expenses. For example, Costello used at least $42,000 of investor money for personal expenses include costs associated with his wedding. In all, some 29 investors invested directly with Costello and lost $6 million because they relied on Costello’s false representations.
In 2019, Costello’s entity GRN Funds, LLC purchased the outstanding shares of Discovery Gold Corp., changing the name to GRN Holding Corp. In SEC filings about the purchase Costello lied repeatedly about his background, education, and the financial success of the LLC. In various filings with the SEC, and in press releases, Costello lied about GRN Holding Corp’s possible acquisition of other companies and revenue – causing the share price to increase. From December 2019 and into January and February 2020, Costello directed others to issue ten press releases about acquiring other companies. None of the acquisitions occurred even though Costello controlled these other companies. Between July 2019 and May 2021, 7,500 investors lost about $25 million after purchasing and selling GRN Holding Corp stock.
Finally, between October 2019, and January 2021, Costello hired an unindicted coconspirator to use Twitter in a pump and dump stock scheme. Costello would acquire the penny stock of a company and then instruct his prolific Twitter user to tweet falsehoods about the company that would drive up the stock price. The coconspirator would tweet about the stock as often as 90 times a day. In one instance Costello didn’t just use Twitter, he also instructed some of his “investors” to purchase stock in the company, driving the share price from a nickel to $2 per share. After driving the share price up, Costello sold the shares for a profit of more than $355,000. The prolific Twitter user was given a share of Costello’s profits from the pump and dump scheme. In all Costello made $576,466 in the pump and dump scheme.
The charges contained in the indictment are only allegations. A person is presumed innocent unless and until he or she is proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.
Wire fraud is punishable by up to 20 years in prison and fine of $250,000 or twice the gain the Costello or the loss to the victims of his offenses. Securities Fraud is punishable by up to 20 years in prison and a $5,000,000 fine.
The case was investigated by the FBI. If you have information, or believe you were a victim in this fraud, please email: CostelloFraud@fbi.gov.
The SEC conducted their own separate investigation.
The case is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney Justin Arnold and Michael Dion.
Press contact for the U.S. Attorney’s Office is Communications Director Emily Langlie at (206) 553-4110 or Emily.Langlie@usdoj.gov.