Shah, known for her luxurious chalet and designer wardrobe, offered a convoluted answer with references to “direct-response marketing,” a “platform that helps people acquire customers” and an “algorithm.”
Even the co-star sitting near her was confused. Describing pricey dinners she had enjoyed with Shah, Real Housewife Heather Gay quipped, “I don’t know what she does, but I like it!”
Now, federal authorities say they have uncovered the true source of Shah’s wealth: a sprawling telemarketing scheme that defrauded hundreds of people over a span of almost 10 years. Shah, 47, was arrested Tuesday along with Stuart Smith, 43, one of her four assistants and a regular on the show.
“Shah and Smith flaunted their lavish lifestyle to the public as a symbol of their ‘success,’ ” said Peter C. Fitzhugh, the special agent in charge of the New York field office of Homeland Security Investigations. “In reality, they allegedly built their opulent lifestyle at the expense of vulnerable, often elderly, working-class people.”
The high-profile arrests caused an immediate fervor among fans of the long-running Bravo franchise. Shah, whose television debut came with the 2020 launch of the show’s Salt Lake City edition, made an immediate splash with her sharp tongue and dramatic outbursts — including one in which she shattered a cocktail glass. The wife of a special teams coordinator for the University of Utah’s football team, she was portrayed as a thriving entrepreneur and businesswoman.
Exactly what she did, though, has long been the source of intense confusion and speculation, fueling Reddit threads and gossip columns. The topic also often came up in interviews. When a host of Access Hollywood’s “Housewives Nightcap” asked Shah, “Where is all this money coming from?” the reality star responded that she owned three marketing companies that “do lead generation and data monetization.”
“The best way to describe it is I’m the Wizard of Oz,” she said. “I’m like the one behind the curtain that nobody knows exists, but I’m the one making everything happen.”
In reality, authorities alleged in an indictment, Shah was part of a “widespread, coordinated effort” that counted victims across the country, many of them over 55 years old. She and Smith are accused of selling “leads” — lists of potential victims — to others with the knowledge that they would be defrauded.
Participants sold services they said would improve online businesses purportedly run by the victims, according to the indictment. Among those services were “coaching sessions,” tax preparation help and website design assistance, although many of the so-called business owners did not own computers, the indictment alleges.
“At no point did the defendants intend that the victims would actually earn any of the promised return on their intended investment,” the indictment states, “nor did the victims actually earn any such returns.”
It said Shah and Smith also “undertook significant efforts to conceal their roles in the business opportunity scheme,” incorporating business entities using the names of third parties, using encrypted messaging applications to communicate, routing some of the proceeds to offshore bank accounts and making cash withdrawals to avoid reporting requirements.
Shah was released from custody within hours of her arrest on Tuesday. Camera crews captured her exiting a federal courthouse in Salt Lake City, dressed in a fur coat and knee-high snakeskin boots. An onlooker could be heard calling out, “You look fabulous, Jen.”
She was set to be arraigned Wednesday via Skype, but the attention around the case — along with technical issues — apparently derailed the hearing. More than 250 people called in to the public arraignment, and when Shah was unexpectedly disconnected, the number of participants exceeded the number allowed. She was not able to rejoin, her attorney, Clayton Simms, told U.S. District Judge Sidney H. Stein.
At one point before the 45-minute call was adjourned, court officials had to tell everyone on the line to mute themselves, after one of the people listening started chatting about the case.
“Do you watch Bravo?” the woman asked someone.
“Whoever is speaking needs to mute yourselves,” a court official said.
The person kept talking: “So, one of the housewives got, like, busted for fraud.”
Ultimately, after repeated attempts to get Shah back into the hearing — plus interruptions including laughter and comments such as “This is dumb” — the judge rescheduled for Friday. He said he was “going to give everybody a day to figure this out.”