Articles Posted in elder fraud

istock88023523small-crop-600x338-300x169According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, 17 percent of Americans 65 and older, have already been the victims of financial exploitation.

A new study by the AARP Fraud Watch Network reveals that Americans who lose money to fraud typically exhibit a higher degree of confidence investing in unregulated investments and tend to trade more aggressively than other investors. The fraud watch network interviewed 200 victims of investment fraud and conducted 800 interviews with regular investors for this study that was commissioned a year earlier.

There has been a change in the way investors save for retirement. People are now more used to taking charge of their retirement since traditional pension plans have declined and technology has made it easier for average investors to enroll in trading and retirement accounts. The AARP study quotes Shadel, their lead researcher as saying “decline in traditional pensions has prompted millions of relatively inexperienced Americans to take on the job of investing their own money.” Technology has also made it easier for scammers to reach investors.

Recently the Government Accountability Office (GAO) published a report about the extent of elder abuse by guardians and measures that exist to protect older adults. This has become an issue of utmost importance as the number of older adults, over the age of 65, are expected to nearly double to 88 million by 2050 (GAO Report 2016). A “guardian” is a legal relationship created by a state court by granting one person the authority and responsibility to make decisions on behalf of an incapacitated individual, like an older adult. The appointed guardian could be a family member, a professional guardian, or a public guardian. According to the GAO report the most common type of elder abuse inflicted by guardians appear to be financial exploitation. This GAO report attempted to identify red flags of abuse, study reported complaint data about guardianship abuse in 6 states- California, Minnesota, Florida, Ohio, Texas and Washington- and evaluate measures that are in place to help protect older adults.

The federal government does not regulate or directly support guardianship but they may provide indirect support through federal agencies, by sharing information and providing funding for state and local courts who oversee the guardianship process. There are limitations on the data available to study cases of elder abuse because states do not have adequate data on number of guardians serving seniors and not all cases of elder abuse are reported.  A close look at reported elder abuse cases since 2010, identified using public-record searches reveal instances of misappropriation of funds, falsified payments, mistreatment of the elderly, diversion of payments, overcharging accounts, excessive spending and inflated personal expenses, and neglect.

FINRA ’s Role in Fighting Elder Financial Exploitation

FINRA newThe Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) announced today a complaint filed against Hank Marker Werner for allegations including securities fraud for churning the account of a senior-aged blind widow customer and for making excessive and unsuitable trading recommendations in a News Release.

According to his publicly available BrokerCheck report records maintained by FINRA, Mr. Werner was employed and licensed by Legend Securities, Inc. from December 2012 to March 2016.  Prior to working at Legend Securities, Inc., he was employed by Liberty Partners Financial Services, LLC from July to December 2012, Brookstone Securities, Inc. from March 2011 to June 2012, and Alexander Capital, LP from November 2009 to March 2011, per Mr. Werner’s BrokerCheck report.

FINRA’s News Release detailed that Mr. Werner allegedly engaged in a deceptive and fraudulent scheme by churning the elderly client’s over the course of three years “to maximize his compensation by charging more than $243,000 in commissions, while causing the customer approximately $184,000 in net losses.”  The News Release also stated:

hammer-legal-300x123We are pleased to announce that after a six-day long arbitration, our client was awarded his full net out-of-pocket damages of $142,168.00 by a Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) Arbitration Panel.  The story was recently reported by InvestmentNews.  The arbitration panel also assessed all forum fees in the amount of $14,400 against the Respondent Garden State Securities, Inc.

The case was brought against Garden State alleging unsuitable investment recommendations, including over-concentration in Chinese stocks, penny stocks and low-priced securities, as well as leveraged exchange traded funds (ETFs). The claims also centered around allegations of churning and excessive trading. In the end, the Panel found Garden State liable.  Ultimately, broker-dealers must be held responsible for the recommendations their brokers make.

Our client’s case exemplifies many of the issues facing senior-aged investors today. Many seniors find themselves in situations where they have saved their entire lives for retirement and are seeking a financial professional to help guide them and preserve their nest egg. There is usually a lot of trust in the financial advisor-client relationship. But that trust can be easily and quickly abused. As they grow older, people generally became more conservative, downsizing and limiting expenses. Yet, all-too-frequently brokers recommend more speculative investments to their aging customers – for the broker’s own purposes (commonly higher commissions and fees). Such a situation is not appropriate nor permissible.

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A recent study by Stanford University psychologists with participation of FINRA and AARP, concluded that financial fraudsters trigger and evoke strong emotions in elderly people to try and get them to hand over money. According to the study, inducing strong emotions in older adults (ages 65-86), whether positive or negative, increased their susceptibility to falsely advertised messages and fraud. The findings suggest that older adults are likely to spend or give away their money based on the emotional state they were experiencing rather than perceived credibility of the messages they are receiving. According to FINRA, this study is a major advance on understanding how elder fraud works and since money and investing is an emotional decision, it is critical to manage emotional states to avoid becoming a victim of fraud.

Malecki Law continues to champion the rights of vulnerable elderly people who have been victimized by financial fraudsters. Last week, Jenice Malecki spoke about elder financial fraud with David Lesch on BronxNet TV’s segment Today’s Verdict. Watch Ms. Malecki speaking about instances of how elder fraud works and can be avoided here: http://www.bronxnet.org/index.php?option=com_hwdvideoshare&task=viewvideo&Itemid=59&video_id=7353

Recently Ms. Malecki was also seen speaking about Elder Financial Exploitation on Wealth Management’s segment Case In Point with Bill Singer http://wealthmanagement.com/estate-planning/elder-financial-exploitation 

Trust Funds are an especially susceptible vehicle for fraud committed by FINRA registered stock brokers and financial advisors.  Two of the primary issues in such cases are “conflict of interest” and “breach of fiduciary duty.”

Trust funds can be created for a wide variety of reasons.  Frequently, though, they are used as a means to afford an orderly transfer of wealth to a younger generation.  They can offer a whole host of benefits that would make a trust fund the preferred choice over an outright gift.  For example, the recipient/beneficiary may be very young, and the trust could afford some level of control or stability to prevent the beneficiary from squandering the money.   Another reason may be certain tax advantages offered by the trust structure that would not be available in an outright give.

Regardless of the reason or reasons for its creation, a trust is going to need a trustee.  The trustee is the party responsible for overseeing the trust and managing its assets.  While trusts can hold different types of assets, they frequently contain securities, like as stocks and bonds. Therefore, such trusts would, by necessity, involve brokerage accounts.  In that case, clients will oftentimes look to their stockbroker/financial advisor to put on a “second hat” and serve as trustee.  The logic being “I already trust him/her with my money so why not let them be the trustee.”  However, this is where significant problems can be created.

New research shows that getting senior-aged investors to exhibit heightened emotions may cause those investors to more easily part with their hard-earned savings and retirement proceeds, according to a New Release published by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA).

The research was made possible with funding from the AARP Fraud Watch Network and the FINRA Investor Education Foundation.  In the study, Stanford University Psychologists found that inducing emotions in older adults increased their intention to buy falsely advertised items, according to the News Release.  As reported, the study was conducted on younger adults and older adults, with both groups were induced to exhibit excitement or anger before watching advertisements known to be misleading.  According to the Release, the young adults group tended to believe advertisements based on their believability, and not subjective emotional states, while older adults tended to believe the misleading advertisements based only on their emotional states.

One researcher was quoted as noting “Whether the con artist tries to get you caught up in the excitement of potential riches or angry at the thought of past and future losses, the research shows their central tactic is the same and just as effective… Cons are skilled at getting their victims in to a heightened emotional state where you suspend rational thinking and willingly hand over your hard earned money to a crook.”

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This week, it has been reported that the Department of Labor proposed tougher laws after issuing new regulations requiring financial advisors and brokers managing 401k and retirement accounts to act in the best interest of their clients. These rules were proposed a year ago and after deliberating on it for a year, the White House has finalized these tougher requirements. However, it might be a year before these rules go into effect.

An academic study commissioned by the White House revealed that “conflicts of interest” in financial investing was costing Americans about $17 billion a year in retirement savings. Although brokers are required to only recommend “suitable” investments under the current “suitability standard”, they can push a more expensive product that pays a higher commission than a cheaper fund that would be equally appropriate for that investor.

The new rule fiduciary rule is aimed to at reducing fees and commissions that erode retirement savings and hold brokers to higher standards. It will cast a wider net on who is subject to the fiduciary standard.

FINRA’s recently released Regulatory and Examinations Priority Letter made specific mention of multiple critical areas that the regulator will be focused on for the upcoming year.  The one that we will focus on today is the Senior investor and the steps that are and should be taken to prevent elder abuse.

As we have discussed here before, with the growing population of senior aged investors, this demographic is becoming increasingly significant in the retail investor pool nationwide.  Baby boomers are beginning to hit retirement age just as advancements in technology and medicine are leading to longer and longer lifespans.

Per 2012 census data, there are 76.4 million baby boomers which represent close to one-quarter of the then estimated U.S. population of 314 million.  These figures have coupled with longer lifespans across the boards, means that there is the potential for disaster if baby boomers’ retirement savings are not properly managed.  FINRA recognizes that “the consequences of unsuitable investment advice can be particularly severe for this investor group since they rarely can replenish investment portfolios with fresh funds and lack the time to make up losses.”

A conceptual look at Alzheimers disease, and some of the problems it brings.
According to FINRA’s estimates, for the next 15 years, an average of 10,000 Americans will turn 65. Those of us who work with the elderly regularly, need to be attuned to deciding whether our clients have the capacity to make decisions regarding their financial affairs? All lawyers, be it in the practice area of estates, securities, or virtually any other discipline often have to make a capacity determination, while contracting services and sometimes along the way. We often have to determine if our client has the capacity to have entered into certain legal transactions.

According to the American Bar Association, Rule 1.14 that provides guidance on Client With Diminished Capacity (ABA):
 (b) When the lawyer reasonably believes that the client has diminished capacity, is at risk of substantial physical, financial or other harm unless action is taken and cannot adequately act in the client’s own interest, the lawyer may take reasonably necessary protective action, including consulting with individuals or entities that have the ability to take action to protect the client and, in appropriate cases, seeking the appointment of a guardian ad litem, conservator or guardian.