Articles Posted in Investment Fraud

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 proceedings 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 are 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. 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 in their employment in FINRA arbitration as members.

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

You may ask yourself when the market swings whether your investment losses are temporary, permanent, due to the market swings or due to something else.  When the market is good, a rising tide lifts all boats, as they say, but when the market is down, the truth may be revealed.

Whether you are a conservative, moderate or speculative investor, when the wind has been removed from the sails, you really see what your investments are made of, if anything.

If you are a conservative investor, your investments should not generally ride with market swings.  The beauty of being conservative is wide diversification in fixed income and a bit of equities.

Malecki Law is currently investigating allegations against Securities America, Inc. and its terminated financial adviser, Hector Anthony May.  Mr. May was employed almost twenty years with Securities America at its New City, New York office, and was terminated in March of 2018 in relation to an ongoing criminal investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice.  The investigation relates to an alleged Ponzi scheme and/or misappropriation of funds involving many investors and potentially many millions of dollars in losses.  If you have suffered investment losses with Securities America and/or had your retirement savings invested with Hector May through his own financial planning firm, Executive Compensation Planners, Malecki Law is interested in hearing from you.

In a Ponzi scheme involving Robert Van Zandt, Malecki Law successfully recovered over $7.4 million in investment losses through the firm’s representation of 120 victims from the Bronx, New York, who fell victim to Mr. Van Zandt’s $35 million Ponzi scheme.  Malecki Law’s successful representation was featured in the media, including CBS New York’s Eye Witness News.  Malecki Law has experienced attorneys who specialize in recovering investment losses for victims of financial fraud.

This is Part 2 of an article we posted last week on former NBA-great, Tim Duncan, where we introduced the investing lessons that could be gleaned from Duncan’s relationship with his former financial adviser, Charles A. Banks, who was permanently barred from the securities industry and is now serving a four-year prison term after pleading guilty to wire fraud.

For background on this story, it is a good idea to read Part 1 of this series, where we revealed our first lesson, which was to be wary of the financial adviser who constantly brings you deals.  While this might create the impression that your adviser is knowledgeable and has the inside scoop, it is frequently a sign of an adviser who is exposing you to unnecessary risk and trying to earn commissions or undisclosed fees that will eat away at your principal.

A second lesson from this sad story is to recognize a common fraud tactic, which may seem innocent, but should set off alarm bells and have you looking for a new financial adviser.  This is when an adviser asks a customer to sign a blank form or just a signature page, as Banks did with Duncan.  The adviser will often justify the practice as a time-saver and present it to the customer as a convenience, such as dropping blank forms in the mail with affixed post-it-notes that simply point the investor where to sign.  This request often sounds benign or reasonable to an investor, but it is in fact illegal and happens more often than many people realize.  Though this practice may seem harmless, signing forms in the absence of one’s adviser deprives the investor of an in-person interaction to ask useful questions and to have the adviser explain all the investment risks and hidden fees that may be associated with the investment.