A Charlotte, N.C., couple settled charges yesterday in which the Securities and Exchange Commission allege they bilked $32.5 million from about 500 investors, many of whom they met at church gatherings.

The SEC charged Sidney S. and Charlotte M. Hanson falsely promised extraordinarily high returns to people whom they convinced to cash out their retirement funds and invest in private loan agreements they offered through a dozen companies, known as the Queen Shoals Entities, which they controlled.

Through their Web site and a widespread sales force of at least 45 "consultants," the Hansons falsely promised investors that the investment contracts they were offering would generate them yearly returns ranging from 8% to 30%, and that their funds would be safe in a diversified portfolio of Treasury bills, precious metals and foreign currency, the SEC says.

However, the Hansons didn't invest the money as promised but instead put most of the funds in very risky private investments and spent it on personal expenses, sales commissions and paying investors in other business ventures, the SEC says. The Hansons and their consultants sold $32.5 million in private loan agreements to investors between August 2006 and June 2009.

The defendants settled the SEC's charges, without admitting or denying the allegations, by agreeing to permanent injunctions with disgorgement and financial penalties to be determined by the court at a later date. The defendants also consented to an asset freeze and an order expediting discovery and preventing the destruction or concealment of documents.