It was a can’t-miss opportunity that would make parishioners rich.
All they had to do, Brett Bartlett allegedly told members of the Vineyard Church of Central Illinois and others, was invest in his company, the 7M E-Group. The outfit bought assorted products from bulk liquidators for cheap—including a hot-ticket plastic laser tag gun, for example—and resold them at higher prices on Amazon.com.
Bartlett, 36, was in business with his father-in-law, Scott Miller, who allegedly told the potential investors he was heavily involved with the Vineyard, a neo-charismatic evangelical sect that has faced past claims of being “cult-like. ” Bartlett, who has been hustling low-budget merch since at least 2013, also portrayed himself as a devout Christian—one who knew how to manipulate Amazon’s algorithms to get his listings placed near the top of people’s search results. This, he claimed, would result in big returns for those lucky enough to have a stake in the undertaking.
Dozens of people poured money into the venture, which eventually pivoted to supposedly lucrative face mask sales when COVID-19 hit. Some used money they were saving for retirement. But it was all a con, according to an FBI search warrant application obtained by The Daily Beast. In total, the feds believe Bartlett and Miller duped nearly 700 investors out of almost $24 million over the past several years.
Although the warrant says a federal probe into the pair has been ongoing since 2020, no charges have been brought against Bartlett or Miller. A spokeswoman for the US Attorney’s Office for the Central District of Illinois, where the warrant application was filed, on Friday declined to comment on the case, telling The Daily Beast she could not “confirm or deny” anything about the existence of an investigation into subjects.
Bartlett and Miller, who do not have lawyers listed in court records, did not respond to multiple requests for comment on Friday.
The warrant, which was approved in July 2022 and first made public Friday, requested the contents of Bartlett and Miller’s email accounts to search for evidence of mail fraud, wire fraud, and bank fraud.
It details Bartlett’s lofty promises to investors—including claims that his firm was worth $226 million. The filing also alleges Bartlett shipped a package of 27 stock buyback checks worth $8.6 million to investors when his company account only had a balance of a little over $8,300.
US District Court for the Central District of Illinois
Accusations that Bartlett scammed hundreds of Amazon sellers publicly emerged in August 2020, when Vox delved into his “get-rich-quick scheme” that cost multiple people their seller accounts on the site—and resulted in investment losses of up to $200,000.
The new federal court filings suggest that was just the tip of the iceberg.
Bev Belman, a former Amazon seller in Kansas who says she was roped into Bartlett’s alleged swindle, told The Daily Beast she hopes the feds stop him from scamming others.
“Brett was out there basically quoting scripture and everything was so Biblical and he was helping so many people,” Belman told The Daily Beast of Bartlett.
Belman said she was led to Bartlett’s investment opportunities by Jim Cockrum, a self-styled “Amazon selling expert” who has spoken at conferences at Vineyard Church and gave Bartlett a stamp of legitimacy. (Cockrum didn’t return messages seeking comment.)
According to Vox, Cockrum promoted Bartlett’s investment opportunity on a podcast in 2018, telling listeners: “I am not about to put my reputation on the line for something that’s going to go south and have hundreds of people say, ‘Oh, those people are scammers.’”
Court records reviewed by The Daily Beast indicate the FBI has traced Bartlett and Miller’s alleged investment scheme to the spring of 2015, when the duo traveled from their home state of California to Urbana, Illinois. There, through a Vineyard insider the two had met at an unspecified “e-commerce business conference,” Bartlett and Miller made their pitch to prospective investors who belonged to the church. (In a blog post, one alleged victim of Bartlett said they met at the “Proven Conference” in Champaign, Illinois, and Bartlett was referred through Cockrum’s MySilentTeam online sellers network.)
“Miller claimed to have deep ties to the Vineyard movement, and both Miller and Bartlett claimed to share the potential investors’ Christian faith,” an affidavit attached to the warrant states. “Bartlett told potential investors about his online marketing expertise and represented that they could expect twenty percent returns from the investments.”
The 2017 Christmas season was especially good to Bartlett and Miller, who “experienced success selling a laser tag toy gun on Amazon,” according to the affidavit. The gadget was included in a list of the year’s top holiday gifts, as curated by Today.com.
In the summer of 2018, Bartlett and Miller created a new company they called Dynasty Toys, Inc. Bartlett told existing investors that they could get in on the ground floor by using their 7M E-Group funds to purchase shares in Dynasty, according to the affidavit.
He emailed YouTube links to the investors with updates about what was supposedly going on behind the scenes, the feds say.
In October 2019, Bartlett told his investors that a company called Concept Management Company Inc. (CMC) had bid $120 million for Dynasty Toys, with $65 million of it in cash.
Four months later, Bartlett sent out another video telling investors that CMC was prepared to buy back Dynasty Toys shares at $5 each. He said the company now owned “hundreds of millions of dollars in gold assets,” according to the affidavit, and offered “the opportunity to invest in gold through CMC.”
To keep them interested, Bartlett made a video claiming he was “focused on building and growing community,” and that he planned on moving his business and family to Illinois, where he would be closer to the Vineyard, the affidavit continues. It would give him an opportunity to recruit from the local universities, and “host conferences at Vineyard or his new offices that he was creating in Illinois.”
As COVID began to spread in early 2020, Bartlett allegedly told investors in another video that he was expecting to do $300 million in sales over the next 30 to 60 days. Dynasty Toys was worth $226 million, he insisted, and said it had a million “members,” the affidavit states. Still, Bartlett said he saw a greater opportunity on the horizon.
“In approximately March of 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the United States, Bartlett created an entity called Family Face Mask and told investors that their investments were going towards buying and selling face masks,” the affidavit says.
What Bartlett didn’t say, according to investigators, was that he and Miller had themselves created CMC a year earlier, and that all of their entities combined had less than $1 million cash on hand at the time. The claimed purchase of Dynasty Toys by CMC never happened, CMC and Bartlett didn’t own any gold, and Dynasty’s “one million members” was a figure made up out of whole cloth, according to the affidavit.
“This company is totally a scam and is nothing but fraud,” one apparently dissatisfied customer posted to an online complaint forum. “We wired money to them to purchase bulk face masks back in May and then they suddenly disappeared, and shipped nothing to us. Their CEO Brett Bartlett changed his cell phone number in order to escape from people. We are working with a team now to locate them.”
Later in March 2020, some of Bartlett’s investors began clamoring to see the company’s books. Instead, Bartlett released a video telling them that “because of issues related to the pandemic, Dynasty Toys was going to buy its stock back from investors and the checks would be processed in late April of 2020,” the affidavit states.
On May 15, 2020, Bartlett shipped a package from an address in Yorba Linda, California to a bank in Champaign, Illinois, containing 27 stock buyback checks worth a combined $8.6 million, the affidavit says. They were to be deposited in various IRA accounts controlled by the Vineyard investors.
In the following days, Bartlett emailed the investors and asked them to hold off on depositing the checks, claiming there had been some administrative issues. He then said everything had been rectified, and to go forward as planned. However, according to the FBI, the Dynasty Toys account had a balance of just $8,382, and all of the checks bounced.
“On June 8, 2020, Bartlett and Miller sent a memorandum to… investors informing them they had hired ‘professionals’ from California as legal counsel and acknowledging ‘business problems’ and the potential need for ‘some kind of insolvency proceeding,’” the affidavit states. “Since that date, Bartlett and Miller have had little to no contact with the investors, nor have the investors received a return of their investments.”
At some point along the way, the Vineyard Church insider who introduced Bartlett and Miller to their fellow congregants became a confidential informant for the FBI, according to the affidavit.
Meanwhile, in July 2020, one investor who made a Forbes “30 under 30” list for retail and e-commerce and who said he infused $1 million in CMC but got nothing back, sued Bartlett in Orange County, California Superior Court. CMC claimed to have big customers that included the Secret Service, the FAA, the Air Force, Navy, and others, the suit says.
“Bartlett and CMC knowingly and intentionally used a national pandemic, responsible for the death of an increasingly [sic] number of people, and cause of great fear among many, to lure Plaintiff into giving a million dollars to Bartlett and CMC,” it goes on. “These false promises of quick returns, coupled with the opportunity to assist getting much needed equipment to those in need, induced Plaintiff into conveying a substantial amount of money to Bartlett and CMC.” (In his own court filing, Bartlett denied the allegations. When the person suing Bartlett failed to show up for a hearing last July, a new court date was set for this coming October.)
In September 2020, the FBI, “with the assistance of other federal agencies, opened an investigation into Bartlett, Miller, and their related entities,” the filing explains. Roughly 60 people from Central Illinois lost a combined $10 million, among them the Vineyard investors, according to the affidavit. In total, it says, “the investigation has shown that approximately 690 investors, located all over the United States, as well as internationally, lost approximately $23.8 million from their investments with Bartlett, Miller, and their related entities.”
An FBI financial analysis, it goes on, “revealed that Bartlett and Miller do not have sufficient funds in the accounts they control to repay the investors.”
While Belman says she’s a “tiny fish” in the investment pond, she still wants Bartlett stopped from allegedly scamming others. She told The Daily Beast that Amazon shut down her account—and the seller profiles of many others—because she’d peddled his laser tag toy. She claims she ended up losing thousands of dollars in income after Amazon blocked her, and she had to hire a lawyer to get the e-tailer to reinstate her profile.
“He’s a scammer,” Belman fumed. “I lost my Amazon business because of him and his games and I don’t even sell on Amazon anymore.”
She was especially drawn to Bartlett because he promised her inventory—the laser tag toy—which was hard to come by at the time. Before getting involved with Bartlett, she said, her Amazon store provided “a decent income” for her family.
“I hope the FBI takes that son of a bitch down,” Belman said. “I’m not a fan. I’m just not a fan.”