A Texas former financial advisor, Christian radio host, author, and self-identified “Money Doctor” Neil Gallagher has been arrested and charged by the SEC for allegedly running a $19.6 million Ponzi Scheme targeting elderly retirees, according to reports. Between December 2014 and January 2019, Gallagher allegedly used religion to solicit and misappropriate the funds of 60 senior investors. The recently unsealed SEC civil complaint alleges that William Neil “Doc” Gallagher using his companies, Gallagher Financial Group and W. Neil Gallagher, Ph. D Agency, Inc. promised guaranteed-risk free returns in a non-existent investment product titled, “Diversified Growth and Income Strategy Account.” Instead of investing the money as promised, Gallagher allegedly used their money to fund his lifestyle and pay falsified returns to other investors, in a typical Ponzi-Scheme fashion.  Our Ponzi fraud law team finds the details of the egregious allegations in the SEC complaint horrible, but not atypical in affinity frauds.

Securities attorney Jenice Malecki has extensive knowledge on similarly alleged affinity frauds, having provided her insight on a religious-based Ponzi Scheme to CNBC’s white-collar crime show, American Greed. Religious fraud is a type of affinity fraud, in which the perpetrator target members of identifiable groups, with shared commonalities like race, age, and religion. The FBI has been investigating affinity fraud instances amounting to billions of dollars in projected losses. Additionally, the true prevalence of affinity fraud cannot be fully counted as group members tend to not report the activity to authorities for proper legal redress, especially within religious communities. In some states, like Utah, affinity fraud is so common that the legislature has an online white-color crime register. Fraudsters often target religious communities because of the members’ shared trust, even without the relevant facts. Religious investors are at an even higher risk when the fraudster intertwines their religious values with their deceitful sales pitch, as seen in the activity alleged here.

According to the SEC complaint, Gallagher allegedly raised at least $19.6 million from investors while pretending to be a licensed professional, despite that no longer being the truth. Gallagher allegedly offered an investment product that could provide returns that ranged between 5% and 8% each year. The complaint details that the investment product was supposed to be comprised of U.S Treasury Securities, publicly-traded stock, fixed-index annuities, life settlements, and mutual-fund shares, but Gallagher only purchased a single $75,000 annuity. It further alleges that instead of making genuine investments, Gallagher is alleged to have used $5.8 million to repay investors and $3.2 million for his own personal expenses. As of January 31, 2019, Gallagher allegedly depleted nearly all of the millions provided by his elderly victims who ranged in age between 62 and 91 years old. Our investor fraud team finds it to be in particularly devastating that victims of alleged Gallagher’s Ponzi Scheme are unlikely to re-earn their stolen funds.

The Department of Justice coordinated the largest elder fraud sweep by filing cases and consumer actions related to financial scams targeting or disproportionately affecting seniors nationwide. In their announcement yesterday, the DOJ claimed that their civil, as well as criminal actions, filed with the support of law enforcement, involve claims of three-fourths of a billion in monetary losses and millions of alleged victims. Elder financial exploitation, the illegal misappropriation of an old person’s funds, is destroying millions of lives. News of the DOJ elder fraud sweep comes a month after the Consumer Financial Bureau released a report with data indicating an increase in reported incidences involving elder financial exploitation. While the reported elder financial exploitation prevalence might shock some, our investor fraud lawyers are very familiar with this growing epidemic.

Elder financial fraud manifests in many ways through a variety of scam artists from Ponzi Scheme perpetrators to relatives. The DOJ’s recent prosecution focus is tech support fraud, which is the most commonly reported fraud that the elderly reported to the Consumer Sentinel Network. Other types of popular financial scams affecting seniors are investment schemes, identity theft, internet phishing, grandparent scam, lottery scams and more, according to the National Adult Protective Services Association. Additionally, older individuals lose their life savings, investments or retirement money from unscrupulous brokers or financial advisors. Seniors get conned into making inappropriate investments because of their greater tendency to trust financial professionals. Worst of all, seniors defrauded at broker-dealers do not have the time to remake money earned throughout their lifetime.

The Consumer Financial Bureau analyzed data from Suspicious Activity Reports filed between April 2013 and December 2017 to shed more awareness on the issues of elder financial exploitation. Broker-dealers and other financial institutions file suspicious activity reports with the U.S Department of Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) in compliance with the federal Bank Secrecy Act.  The study found that suspicious activity reports referencing financial exploitation quadrupled within these few years. In 2017, the financial institutions reported $1.7 billion in 63,500 suspicious activities reports. The average loss indicated on elder financial exploitation suspicious activities reports was $34,200, but that amount varied depending on the type of account, specific age group, and other factors.

Formerly registered broker James Bradly Schwartz is facing charges in a FINRA disciplinary proceeding for allegedly churning customers’ accounts while a registered broker employed with Aegis Capital Corp between August 2014 and May 2016. In this quite brief period, Schwartz allegedly executed around 535 trades in these customer accounts, many of which were unauthorized. The FINRA complaint alleges that Schwartz violated Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and Rule 10b-5 thereunder as well as FINRA rules 2010, 2011 and 2020. His alleged victims include a married couple, engineer, estate executer and a deceased individual. It is alleged that Schwartz even made unauthorized and excessive trades while one of the victims was dying in the hospital. Our securities law team is appalled to hear that possibly two unauthorized transactions were made in this customer’s account less than an hour after he passed away.

Churning is a fraudulent activity in which the broker makes excessive trades in light of the customer’s investment objectives. Common signs of churning in investment accounts are high broker commissions and significant investor losses. While Mr. Schwartz’s customers allegedly lost at least $660,000, Schwartz is reported as having pocketed over $194,000 sales credits and commissions, with annualized turnover rates ranged from 19.9 to 54.7 and annualized cost-to-equity ratios between 87% and 120%.  These percentages are above average for their proclaimed non-speculative investment objectives. In an alleged effort to conceal his purported nefarious activities, Schwartz allegedly traded on a riskless principal basis. Trading on a reckless principal basis does not explicitly report the commission costs on customer’s account statements. Our securities attorneys believe that if such measures to hide his activity is true, Schwartz most likely acted with intent to defraud, which fulfilling the churning legal requirement of “scienter”.

This current FINRA disciplinary proceeding is not the first time that Schwartz has been accused of fraudulent activity. In his 18 years in the securities industry, Schwartz accumulated 12 disclosures on his official CRD records, publicly available on Broker Check. Each of the nine customer disputes mentioned on Schwartz’s BrokerCheck reference at least one allegation pertaining to unsuitability, unauthorized trading, or churning. Our New York securities attorneys encourage investors to think twice before working with brokers that have that many negative disclosures mentioned on their records. Even before Schwartz was a registered representative with Aegis Capital Corp for three years in June 2013, he procured a seemingly shady record that should have raised many flags. It is a matter of grave concern that Schwartz may have continued to gain new employment after so many customers made some of the same allegations.

A Ponzi Scheme is a type of investment fraud that pays purported “returns” to current investors from proceeds received from new investors, rather than through genuine investments. Once the fraudster stops receiving new money or investors request too much of their money back, the Ponzi Scheme falls apart. The term for Ponzi Scheme is from a famous 1920s con man, Charles Ponzi who redistributed investor funds for international reply coupons to himself and other investors. More recently, thousands of investors, many of whom were elderly lost their money in a billion-dollar Ponzi Scheme perpetrated by the Robert Shapiro Woodbridge Group. Not all Ponzi Schemes are as large and notorious as that committed by Bernie Madoff. Many more Ponzi Schemes happen on a much smaller basis and go undetected.

Malecki Law has handled numerous Ponzi cases: McGinn Smith, Robert Van Zandt, Hector May, Illume, and Steven Pagartanis, just to name a few. We are available to review your situation at no cost. Catching these things early inures to your benefit. Investors can fight to recoup their losses from a Ponzi Scheme committed under a FINRA registered firm through arbitration.

Our securities fraud law team aims to equip investors with the knowledge to spot not only Ponzi Schemes but other fraudulent investment opportunities as well. Everyone should be aware of the following signs that could indicate a Ponzi Scheme.

Arbitration is a formal alternative to courtroom litigation for resolving issues with neutral third party “arbitrators” issuing a binding decision after the litigants present their facts and argument. Compared to the usual courtroom procedures, arbitration is a faster, affordable and less formal legal proceeding.  FINRA, a self-regulatory-agency for the securities industry, controls the largest, most prominent arbitration forum for securities disputes. A full FINRA arbitration proceeding from initiation through hearing can take on average 16 months, but cases often are settled before the end. Sick or elderly claimants may request an expedited arbitration process within nine months.

There is a wide range of reasons that investors might want to make a legal claim against their broker-dealer and broker firm. When opening an account with brokerage firms, investors sign a contract that often contains a clause that makes handling disputes through FINRA arbitration mandatory. Notably, investors are bound to arbitrate their securities claim after the Supreme Court upheld binding arbitration provisions in Shearson/American Express Inc. v. McMahon. FINRA registered broker-dealers, and registered representatives are similarly obligated to handle disputes arising through their employment in FINRA arbitration.

The FINRA arbitration process commences when the plaintiff, known as the claimant, submits a statement of claim, outlining the case’s relevant facts, dates, names of involved parties, type of relief requested and name of accused parties. The statement of claim must be filed within the allotted time, which is within six years after the dispute. Compared with a courtroom complaint, a statement of claim is less formal and usually a more detailed account of the background story. In addition to the statement of claim, the claimant needs to pay fees and submit a Submission Agreement. The fees owed for filing a FINRA arbitration claim are based off the sought remedies, hearing sessions, discovery motions and postponement fees. Fortunately, some individuals with financial difficulties can request a fee waiver.

Malecki Law’s newest securities attorney, Michael Liik will speak to law students on a panel at his alma mater, the Elisabeth Haub School of Law, tomorrow February 14, 2019. The event will feature a panel of lawyers educating law school students about their practice areas along with the ropes of professional networking.  As an attorney panelist, Mr. Liik will provide career advice as well as share his experiences as a former student now working as a securities attorney in New York City.

It is with great honor that Mr. Liik accepts this invitation to join the panel from the New York City Bar Association and Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University. Since graduating a few years ago, Mr. Liik has remained involved as an active member of his school’s alumni community. Continue reading

Financial professionals handling compliance keep abreast with changes in the regulatory landscape to effectively allocate resources. At the start of each year, regulatory agencies Financial Industry Regulatory Authority and the Securities and Exchange Commission publish their priorities. FINRA’s recently released Risk Monitoring and Examination Priorities Letter states emerging issues as well as ongoing concerns for the upcoming year. In an introductory note, Robert Cook explains that this year’s letter more broadly relays FINRA’s priorities for risk monitoring with a more pronounced focus on new issues. Firms can use the information contained within this letter to ensure that their compliance, supervisory and risk management programs reach FINRA’s standards. Distinct from earlier times, the FINRA letter focuses on explaining new issues and risk analysis.

The main new issues on the regulatory agency’s radar are the firm’s involvement with online distribution platforms, fixed income mark-up disclosure, and regulatory technology. Specifically, FINRA is concerned with how firms meet AML requirements, supervise communications with the public and conduct suitability analysis when involved with the distribution of securities on online distribution platforms. FINRA plans to evaluate the risks of excessive or undisclosed compensation arrangements between firms and issuers for offerings exempt from registration under Regulation A. Furthermore, FINRA intends to assess how firms handle risks with sales of offerings under Regulation D to non-accredited investors. FINRA expects firms to follow FINRA rule 2232 and MSRB Rule G-15 to comply with mark-up or mark-down disclosure obligations on fixed income transactions. As more firms use regulatory technology for compliance, FINRA plans to examine the efficiency and risks involved.

While this year’s letter pays more mind to new issues, FINRA briefly restates ongoing problems that have already been named as top priorities. Notably, FINRA mentions suitability determinations, outside businesses activities, and private securities transactions; private placements; data quality and governance; communications with the public; trade and order reporting; anti-money laundering (AML); net capital and consumer protection; best execution; fraud; insider trading and market manipulation; record keeping, risk management and supervision related to these and other areas. As per usual, FINRA will be mindful of how firms supervise and respond to associated persons with flawed disciplinary records. In the rest of the letter, FINRA categorizes the other concerns into sales practice risks, operational risks, market risks, and financial risks.

Investors nationwide have been on edge after the worst annual stock market performance in a decade. China trade war tensions, rising interest rates, and the partial government shutdown have caused more volatility. With these recent swings in the stock market, some investors may notice corroborating shifts in their investment portfolio. Even in volatile markets, significant losses in a conservative or moderative portfolio should raise serious concern. Nearly all investors should have a diversified investment portfolio for protection from long-term losses. Diversification is a capital-preserving risk management method that calls for an investment portfolio to carry a variety of investments within different asset classes, countries, sectors, and companies.

Diversification is essential because correlated securities within the same asset class, sector, and country will tend to follow similar patterns.  Meanwhile, selecting securities from different areas will reduce such resulting risk.  Investment portfolios should not only include investments that differ by asset class. For example, holding many different investments tied to just the real estate sector is not a diversified portfolio. Common sectors include financial, healthcare, energy, energy, utilities, technology, consumer staples, industrials, materials, real estate, telecommunications, and consumer discretionary. Within each of these sectors, there are many excellent choices.

An investment strategy that includes diversification will, on average, yield higher returns and lower risk than a singular holding. A diversified investment portfolio has a cumulative lower variance in return or risk than its lowest asset. In a properly diversified portfolio, the decline of a few of your holdings should be countered by the state of other unaffected holdings. On the other hand, heavy concentration in one investment will leave your portfolio’s increase or decline entirely dependent on fewer factors. For instance, investing all of your money into one stock in a company that goes under will result in the loss of all your money. Ownership of more types of shares over a long time has tended to produce around 5%-8% in returns historically.

We have previously written on the concept of “churning,” which is a fraud perpetrated by brokers who buy and sell securities for the primary purpose of generating a commission, and where that activity would be considered excessive in light of the investor’s investment goals.  But is it possible to have a churning claim when a broker sells you an insurance product or recommends swapping out one variable annuity policy for another?  And can a single transaction be considered “excessive” in the context of a churning claim?  The answer to both of these questions is yes.

The law appears to provide an opening for churning claims when it comes to investors, and in particular retirees, who find themselves “stuck” with an illiquid annuity in their portfolio.  Retirees, who tend to need access to capital more than other segments of the population (due to not working and the increased medical costs associated with getting sick and old), are often sold unsuitable variable annuities, which can tie up retirement funds for decades.  Technically the investor can get of the policy, but not without paying significant IRS tax penalties and steep surrender charges, sometimes as high as 10% to 15%.  Sadly, these costs and product features are often misrepresented and go undisclosed at the point of sale.

While not all annuities are considered securities under the law, variable annuities certainly are securities.  The SEC requires the seller of a variable annuity to possess a Series 6 or 7 brokerage license with the Financial Industry and Regulatory Authority (FINRA).  Variable annuities can be distinguished from fixed annuities in that their returns are not fixed, but rather determined by the performance of the stock market.  One characteristic of a variable annuity policy is that you get to choose a fund to invest in, much like you would with a mutual fund.  Variable annuities are highly complex investment products.  They are also costly to investors, in part because of the high commissions they generate for the brokers who sell them.  Regardless of whether you were sold a variable annuity or some other type, it should be noted that FINRA requires its member brokerage firms to monitor all products sold by their brokers.

The current ongoing federal government shutdown adversely affects the Securities and Exchange Commission with a “very limited number of staff members available” to carry out the agency’s tasks. The SEC handles the enforcement of federal securities laws through overseeing approximately $90 trillion in annual securities trading as well as the activities of over 27,0000 registered entities and self-regulatory organizations. The SEC’s Division of Enforcement investigates into potential securities laws or regulatory violations and recommends any required action against perpetrators. Now, the SEC is reportedly operating at 5.8% and the enforcement division at 8% of capacity. In fact, the Division will take months after the shutdown ends to recover, according to the SEC’s Office of Internet Enforcement’s chief, John Stark. The constraints posed by the government shutdown come after the SEC’s outstanding enforcement and accomplishments in 2018, posted in their second annual report.

Starting with the first 2017 report, the Division assesses the performance of their fiscal year with five core principles in mind. These Division of Enforcement’s five principles are a focus on the Main Street Investor; individual accountability; keep pace with technological change; impose remedies that most effectively further enforcement goals; and continuously assess the allocation of resources. Based on their assessment, SEC’s codirectors Stephanie Avakin and Steven Peikin described the Division of Enforcement’s efforts this year as a “great success”. In evaluating their effectiveness, the Division’s assessment focuses more on the “nature, quality, and effects” of their enforcement actions, rather than just the quantitative metrics.

Nonetheless, the Division did accomplish impressive numeric feats as well despite the constraints of a hiring freeze and the Supreme Court’s 2017 decision in Kovesh v. SEC. The Division has investigated and recommended hundreds of cases alleging misconduct, leading to $794 million returned to harmed investors. Compared to the prior year, the SEC filed more enforcement actions (821) with higher numbers for stand alones (490), follow-on admin proceedings (210) and delinquent filings (121) in 2018.  The most common stand-alone enforcement actions involved securities offerings, investment advisors, and issuer reporting as well as disclosure. Despite Kovesh v. SEC limiting the window of time for collecting, the SEC ordered around $2.5 million in disgorgement and another $1.5 million in penalties.