Articles Posted in Investment Fraud

With the highly-publicized Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme, which resulted in an ABC mini-series and the HBO original movie, Wizard of Lies, investors might tend to think that Ponzis are a thing of the past.  But Ponzi schemes are alive and well, and may even be on the rise.  According to a New York Times report from last week, the United States Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has prosecuted 50 percent more Ponzi cases in the last 10 years since the Madoff scheme was busted, affecting over 4 million investors in 291 Ponzi cases, ultimately costing investors more than $31 billion in losses.

This week, the SEC filed charges against yet another Ponzi fraudster, James T. Booth, who the SEC alleges to have conducted a multi-year scheme, defrauding approximately 40 investors out of up to $10 million.  The SEC complaint alleges that Mr. Booth fabricated elaborate account statements for his clients, many of whom were seniors and unsophisticated investors who utilized Mr. Booth to manage their retirement savings.  Mr. Booth is 74 years old and resides in Norwalk Connecticut, and he is the founder of Booth Financial Associates, a firm originally created by Booth to sell advisory services and insurance products.

Mr. Booth was also a financial advisor registered with the investment advisory and brokerage firm LPL Financial LLC, a firm that is registered with the SEC and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA).  Over time, Mr. Booth would solicit his customers from LPL to wire money away from LPL to invest in opportunities elsewhere, with promises of safer investments or higher returns.

FINRA-registered brokerage firm, Nomura Securities International, Inc., will pay over $25 million to settle the SEC’s allegations that its supervisory shortcomings permitted traders to defraud customers in transactions involving mortgage-backed securities. In two related enforcement actions, the SEC details how five former Nomura brokers allegedly made misrepresentations to customers while selling non-agency commercial real estate (CMBS) and residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS) between 2010 and 2014. As part of the settlement, Nomura will pay $20.7 million to RMBS customers and $4.2 million to CMBS customers as reimbursement for profits obtained from the brokers’ misrepresentations along with a$1.5 million regulatory fine. Our investor fraud lawyers highlight this case as an example of the potential fraud that could occur in markets as opaque as that for mortgage-backed securities.

According to the SEC, Nomura traders allegedly mislead customers about the cost of the securities and the profit the firm would receive from transactions. Notably, the traders reportedly inflated the prices of securities by sometimes even doubling the actual cost. The SEC also alleges that the Nomura brokers would sometimes claim to still be in negotiations with a third party while already having the mortgage-backed securities in their possession. The traders were able to get away with their misrepresentations because the secondary trading market for mortgage-backed securities does not make trade prices public. Therefore, customers can only rely on the words of their financial professionals. The trust should have been safeguarded by proper oversight by the brokerage firm. However, Nomura’s alleged “weak” supervisory procedures enabled otherwise discernible and preventable fraud to go undetected.

Mortgage-backed securities are fixed-income investments collateralized by a pool of residential or commercial real estate loans. The creation process of these asset-backed securities entails banks selling mortgages to an entity that securitizes the pool for sale to investors. Entities that issue mortgage-backed securities could be a federal government agency, government-sponsored enterprise, or a securities firm. Investing in mortgage-backed securities entitles the investor to the interest payments and principal paid by the original burrower. Investors can expect a coupon rate, known as the yield, equivalent to the borrower’s payments to their mortgage. The amount of risk involved in mortgage-backed securities depends on the issuer. Mortgage-backed securities issued by the Government National Mortgage Association, a U.S government agency guarantee that investors receive timely payments. However, private institution-issued mortgage-backed securities do not have such protections.

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.

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.

Former President and CEO of a luxury real estate development company in White Plains pled guilty to federal charges after allegedly orchestrating a 58-million-dollar Ponzi Scheme. Last week, Michael D’Alessio pled guilty to one count of wire fraud and one count of concealing assets from a bankruptcy court following his arrest in August. Michael D’Alessio reportedly solicited investor funds for investments in luxury real estate development projects in Westchester, Manhattan and the Hamptons for years. In return for their money, investors were promised monthly interest payments and shares in the properties. Instead, Michael D’Alessio funneled investor money into multiple shell companies to repurpose at his leisure in a Ponzi-like fashion.

Michael D’ Alessio allegedly misappropriated investor funds that should have been used for investments in real estate through his company from 2015 until April 2018. Michael D’Alessio’s former company, Michael Paul Enterprises reportedly specialized in the design, construction, and management of commercial as well as residential real estate. As part of the alleged Ponzi-scheme, investors were offered shares in real estate properties with guaranteed monthly interest payments and profits. Our attorneys specializing in Ponzi Schemes know that any promises of guaranteed returns should usually raise a red flag.

In addition to the suspicious promises, our investment fraud attorneys find that Michael Alessio’s alleged behavior is indicative of your typical Ponzi Scheme perpetrator. In Ponzi schemes, a perpetrator solicits new investor money to pay falsified returns to existing investors. It is alleged that Michael D’Alessio created a limited liability company for each new property to offer shares. Michael D’ Alessio did not keep investor money within the appropriate companies as expected. Rather, Michael D’Alessio reallocated investors’ individual property’s money to cover shortages in separate ones as well as pay his personal expenses. For instance, Michael D’Alessio used investor money to pay off significant gambling debts.

FINRA barred financial advisor Dawn Bennet, from Chevy Chase, Maryland was reportedly convicted for misappropriating client funds in a multimillion-dollar Ponzi Scheme that targeted elderly and financially unsophisticated investors. A Ponzi Scheme is a type of investment fraud that solicits investor money for non-existing investments. Between, December 2014 and July 2017, Ms. Bennett allegedly raised 20 million dollars from 46 investors through the unregistered offer of securities in her retail sports apparel business, DJB Holdings LLC, (“DJ Bennet”).  This past Wednesday, a jury convicted Ms. Bennett on all 17 federal charges including securities fraud, wire fraud, and bank fraud, according to the United States Attorney’s Office, District of Maryland. Ms. Bennet’s alleged Ponzi Scheme received heavy media attention after the FBI found evidence suggesting that she casted “hoodoo” spells intended to silence SEC investigators.

Dawn Bennett (CRD#1567051) worked as a FINRA registered broker and investment adviser before getting barred by the self-regulatory agency, according to her BrokerCheck records. Within her 28 years in the securities industry, Dawn Bennett was registered with Wheat, First Securities, Inc. (03/1987-08/1996), Legg Mason Wood Walker, Inc. (08/1996-02/2006), CitiGroup Global Markets Inc. (02/2006), Royal Alliance Associates, Inc. (02/2006-10/2009), and Western International Securities, Inc. (10/2009-12/2015).  FINRA barred Ms. Bennett from the industry after failing to show up to an administrative hearing.

The Securities and Exchange Commission also charged Dawn Bennett for violating federal securities laws in connection with her alleged Ponzi Scheme. A SEC amended complaint filed last year also lists her business’ CFO, Bradley Mascho, from Frederick, Maryland in addition to Dawn Bennett and her entity DBJ Holdings, LLC. A few months ago, Mr. Mascho pled guilty to charges in a plea bargain that capped his maximum prison term at ten years.

A former Wells Fargo registered representative in Daytona, Ohio is facing charges by the Securities and Exchange Commission for defrauding investors out of over a million dollars in a fraudulent scheme that targeted seniors. The SEC filed a complaint against John Gregory Schmidt with the United States District Court for the Southern District of Ohio on Tuesday. Allegedly, Mr. Schmidt made unauthorized sales and withdrawals from variable annuities to use the proceeds for covering shortfalls in other customer accounts. While Mr. Schmidt allegedly received over $230,000 in commissions, his customers were unaware of the transactions. When the scheme unraveled, it is reported that involved investors discovered that the account balances provided by their trusted financial adviser were false. Our investor fraud attorneys are currently investigating into customer claims against Mr. Schmidt.

The SEC complaint alleges that John Gregory Schmidt sold securities from seven of his investors and transferred proceeds to other customer accounts. Most of the securities were variable annuities that required letters of authorization, which Mr. Schmidt is alleged to have forged without client consent. Instead of notifying certain clients of their dwindling account balances, Mr. Schmidt allegedly sent false account statements and permitted excessive withdrawals. Unbeknownst to the client with account shortfalls, it is charged that the received money was illegally retrieved from other customer accounts. The SEC claims that Mr. Schmidt’s misrepresentations violate federal securities laws, including Section 10(b) of the Exchange Act and Exchange Act Rule 10b-5.

It is important to note that John Gregory Schmidt’s alleged fraudulent actions appear to have targeted some of the most vulnerable people in society. Mr. Schmidt, who is 65 years old, ran a fraudulent scheme that targeted elderly victims not too far off from his age, according to the complaint. Several of his reported victims were suffering from medical conditions such as Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. Tragically, at least five of the defrauded investors have passed away and will never be able to see justice served.

While marijuana-related investments grow in popularity, the SEC has reportedly received more associated complaints from investors. As a result, the Securities and Exchange Commission warns individuals to be mindful of certain risks before investing in marijuana-related companies. The SEC released an investor alert with this warning after medical marijuana company owner, Richard Greenlaw settled charges for allegedly offering and selling unregistered securities to 59 investors.  Signs of fraud reportedly include unlicensed, unregistered sellers; guaranteed returns; and unsolicited offers. Chiefly, Richard Greenlaw was not registered nor licensed to sell his marijuana-related investments with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The SEC complaint, filed with the United States District Court of Maine charged the owner of NECS, Richard Greenlaw and his 20 cannabis-related entities for violating the registration provisions of federal securities laws. The 20 cannabis-related entities charged in the SEC complaint are NECS LLC, MaineCS LLC, VTCS LLC, MassCS LLC, NHCS LLC, RICS LLC, CTCS LLC, FLCS LLC, ILCS LLC, IACS LLC, LOUCS LLC, MICS LLC, MNCS LLC, NDCS LLC, NJCS LLC, NYCS LLC, OHCS LLC, PennCS LLC, UPCS LLC, and WICS LLC. It is alleged that Richard Greenlaw posted advertisements on Craigslist to offer and sell subscription agreements for securities in his companies. In response to these charges, Mr. Greenlaw agreed to pay $400,000 and accept permanent injunctions from further violations of  Section 5(a) and 5(c) of the Securities Act of 1933.

Federal securities laws mandate that any offer and sale of a security must be registered with the SEC. A company registers a security by filing financial statements, business descriptions and other legally required information with the SEC. Otherwise, the securities offering must be found to be subject to exemption under Securities Act 1933. Offerings of securities that can be exempt include those of limited size, intrastate, private and more. Exemption requirements may also require that securities be only sold to accredited investors. Thus, investment salespersons would be prohibited from selling exempted securities to any investors who do not meet the requirements. In this case, Mr. Greenlaw’s marijuana-related investments were not registered nor qualified for exemption.

Hector May, a former highly regarded member of the community in Rockland and Orange counties, is under investigation by several governmental entities. Reportedly, allegations include that Hector May misappropriated investor funds. In a Lohud/The Journal News article, Jenice Malecki, Esq. discusses how her clients and other investors have lost millions from Hector May in what she believes to exemplify a Ponzi scheme. Given her significant experience representing Ponzi scheme victims, Ms. Malecki finds many parallels with Hector May’s actions.

A Ponzi scheme is a type of investment fraud that relies on a constant money flow of new deposits to produce false “returns” to existing investors. New deposits are never actually invested and instead directly allocated to the schemer’s personal funds. Our clients, along with other investors, lost their retirement assets when Hector May sold unsophisticated investors what appears to be fictitious “tax-free” corporate bonds, an impossible investment.  Hector May continuously increased his personal wealth at the cost of clueless investors losing their hard-earned life-savings. Eventually, Ponzi victims stop receiving promised returns, collapsing the scheme. It is very likely that Hector May was exposed from not being able to return money to a large investor. Ponzi schemes typically endure for as long as new victims continue to “invest” into the produced returns; withdrawals collapse them.

Continue reading