U.S. regulators sued a California man over claims that he raised more than $1.2 billion in a Ponzi scheme that targeted retail investors by touting big returns from short-term loans to commercial property owners.

The SEC won an asset freeze against Robert Shapiro and his unregistered investment companies known as the Woodbridge Group of Companies, the agency said Thursday in a statement announcing the lawsuit. The SEC sought the freeze after earlier orders forced the companies to open their books in recent months, the agency said.

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