Former employees, business partners say Greensboro company was a fraud

by Eric Ginsburg @Eric_Ginsburg

They waited diligently for weeks, sometimes months, to be paid. Every time they waited in a parking lot or called their boss on the phone they were put off, until the employees of IronClad Securities Group in Greensboro said they finally realized is was all a scam. The money would never arrive.

Half a dozen former employees of IronClad, most of them temp workers, said business owner LaTonja Liner made a lot of promises about their paychecks, even holding prayer circles in the office and assuring her legitimacy by claiming to be a federal agent. After bounced checks and too many false promises, the workers said they gave up.

Liner, who could not be reached for this story, told her employees, business partners and at least two temp agencies that her business helped people fight identity theft out of an office on Airport Center Drive. Some say they quickly realized her inability to pay, while others said they held on for months because they needed the money and believed her.

In retrospect, they said, there were early signs. Shasha Montgomery, who started working for Liner in July, found the job through a Craigslist ad by Sherpa, a temp agency. After completing training, Montgomery said she and other temp workers were surprised to see the office didn’t have any computers in it, but kept working.

“It was an up-and-coming business [so] we didn’t think much of it,” she said.

It didn’t take long for Sherpa to pull the contract for nonpayment, and Liner briefly acquired temp workers through another agency, Aerotek, before they pulled the plug for the same reason.

Liner provided a host of excuses to Montgomery and other workers, they said, claiming everything from racial discrimination to a delay in money because she was waiting on federal contracts.

Liner told the workers she would put them on IronClad’s payroll directly. Montgomery and others agreed but said their first check bounced and two more in October never arrived.

They desperately needed the money, they said, so their options were limited.

Montgomery was eventually evicted.

“I was still leaning on a little bit of hope that I would get my paycheck and pay two months together,” she said.

Several other area residents provided the same account about Liner’s behavior and said there are more than a dozen employees who were never paid.

“I’m ashamed to say I’m even associated with this person,” Tonia Brown said of Liner. “I’m totally embarrassed. I’ve called her every single day.”

Brown said Liner provided all kinds of excuses — that her sister stole her money, that the IRS froze her account and so on. Brown, who took the job to help pay for her two sons’ college educations, said she wants to file charges against Liner but is unsure if she could prove her employment.

“I can’t take care of my kids,” she said.

“I’m already out living with my parents. I’ve got to have $3,000 by the end of January to pay [one son’s] tuition for the end of the year. For what I worked, she owes me $1,152.”

As the situation deteriorated, especially after paychecks due on Oct. 11 never arrived, employees started saving what evidence they could — text messages, voicemails, documents — but say they are worried that nothing will come of it.

Records with the NC Secretary of State’s office show that Liner ran a business called Elite Professionals but changed its name to IronClad Background Screening & Investigations on Oct. 28, 2011. There are no other records connected to Liner on file and IronClad Background Screening & Investigations was administratively dissolved by the state on Nov. 29, 2012 for failing to pay “payments or penalties of fees due.” The office has no available record that IronClad Securities Group ever legally existed.

Liner’s LinkedIn account lists her as the president and CEO of IronClad Securities Group since January 2008, well before the similarly named company was registered with the state. The profile also claims she graduated from the University of Phoenix in 2007 with an MBA. No photo is provided.

Lori Flowers, Tomarie McNair and two other former employees who didn’t want to give their names said their experience with Liner was the same.

“She basically played us,” McNair said.

“We weren’t producing no revenue for her. We never had computers to actually take calls.”

Flowers and others said the business seemed fishy, but the red flags didn’t really go up until Liner failed to pay them in October and continually set after-hours meetings with employees to hand out checks that didn’t materialize.

“I have not received any pay for October,” Flowers said. “I haven’t had any communication with Ms. Liner other than when I sent her a note letting her know I was being evicted from my home. That kind of thing follows you. There’s no way to catch up from that kind of thing if you live like I do.”

Liner promised to pay them on multiple occasions, Flowers said. She wants to file a complaint with the labor department or organize a picket, but her focus right now is on finding another job, Flowers said.

Employees said the toll was emotional as well as financial.

“It was heartbreaking,” McNair said. “I was depressed. We believed in her and she sold us a dream.”

McNair borrowed money for the first time in her life to pay rent and recently started working at a seasonal job but said she’s cried for her co-workers who have kids to support.

Joe Hanel, the co-founder of Sherpa, said that Liner repeatedly promised to pay up but never followed through.

“She didn’t pay us a dime,” Hanel said. “My understanding is that she had worked with several other agencies before she engaged us and Aerotek. She sent me a check that didn’t clear the bank for a pretty significant sum.”

Though the two companies were located in the same building at Airport Center Drive and search engine results put both companies in different suites in a Muirs Chapel Road building, Hanel said Sherpa had no relationship to her other than the brief contract.

“She hired some really good people which gave her credibility,” Hanel said. “We met with some of her team on the front end and were impressed enough by those folks to buy into the legitimacy of her business.”

An Aerotek spokesperson confirmed that the temp agency worked with IronClad in September, but also severed ties due to nonpayment.

“I’m not going to comment because they’re a fraudulent company,” he said, before declining to give his name and hastily hanging up the phone.

One of the people that lent credibility to Liner’s operation and met with Sherpa, a human relations professional, asked to remain anonymous for fear it would negatively impact her job search.

The woman filed a claim with the NC Department of Labor because she hasn’t been paid either. Liner gave her two checks that were denied due to insufficient funds, she said.

“I’m literally out for a couple of thousand,” she said.

Many former employees are left searching for answers but have accepted that they likely won’t ever receive payment. Their main hope, they said, is to prevent her from pulling a similar scam on someone else. Several said they heard that Liner planned to open the company in Virginia. A former business partner who asked to remain anonymous for fear of hurting his company’s reputation confirmed the rumor.

The man, a spokesperson for a Greensboro-based record storage company, said his company was brought in “under the auspices of them going to Virginia” to complement what IronClad was offering. He said he accompanied Liner to meetings with officials from the cities of Portsmouth and Virginia Beach, adding that Liner stiffed his company for three hotel rooms.

After he watched Liner swipe her card for the rooms and get denied twice, she promised to pay his company back, he said. That never happened, and he is stuck with the bill — about $800.

“We were brought in to go to Virginia on a partnership and we would be offering the record storage piece as well as the shredding services,” he said. “What really makes me ill is that I was told that she is planning to set up shop to do the same thing in Virginia Beach. Obviously this has taught me that it’s not what a person says, but what they do. She can’t hide behind Christianity like that and be doing those things.”

He said they met with at least two people from Portsmouth’s economic development department. Department director Patrick Small said he couldn’t confirm the allegation.

“We don’t comment on our dealings with perspective businesses,” Small said.

In addition to hiding behind the shield of religion, as several employees confirmed, the record storage professional and a few employees said Liner tried to legitimize herself by saying she was an agent working for the FBI. Liner told them IronClad had federal contracts to do its identity theft work and that she was directly employed by the agency.

Charlotte FBI spokesperson Shelley Lynch said bureau employment is protected personnel information. !