Articles Posted in elder fraud

Malecki Law filed an expedited FINRA arbitration complaint today on behalf of a retired couple from New York alleging that their brokerage firm Henley & Company LLC failed to supervise its recently deceased, registered representative Philip Incorvia and the Henley branch office he worked out of.  The complaint claims losses of approximately $2.5 million and that Henley essentially allowed Mr. Incorvia’s Ponzi scheme to flourish since about the time he joined Henley in 2006.  Through these alleged supervisory failures and extreme negligence, the complaint alleges that Henley effectively promoted Mr. Incorvia’s fraudulent practices, including allowing him to freely run his own business, Jefferson Resources, Inc., out of the satellite branch office of Henley’s affiliate, SEC-registered investment advisory firm, Henley & Company Wealth Management, LLC, located at 10 Beatty Road, Shoreham, New York.  Mr. Incorvia operated his Ponzi scheme out of this Jefferson entity housed right inside a Henley office, soliciting investor funds away from investor accounts at Henley to be invested directly into private “alternative” (i.e., fictitious) investments with Jefferson.  Mr. Incorvia’s recent passing is what caused the Ponzi scheme to unravel.  A Henley executive named in the complaint has further admitted to the existence of numerous other Henley customers who are only just discovering that they have been victimized as well.

The complaint alleges that Henley knew about the existence of Jefferson being run out of its own office but failed to follow industry rules to both report and supervise the activity. According to Henley’s BrokerCheck Report published by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), the defendant brokerage arm of the firm (Henley & Company LLC) apparently failed to disclose the existence of its10 Beatty Road satellite office to FINRA.  However, Henley’s advisory arm (Henley & Company Wealth Management, regulated by the SEC) did disclose it as an operational branch office in a public ADV filing to the SEC.  The ADV filing further disclosed Henley’s awareness of Jefferson by reporting Mr. Incorvia’s association with Jefferson as its “President.” According to BrokerCheck, both Henley firms are under common supervisory control, have the same main office address in Uniondale, New York, and are owned by the same CEO, Francis P. Gemino, with common oversight by their managing director, Michael J. Laderer.  Both Gemino and Laderer are named in the lawsuit as liable control persons.

FINRA’s supervisory rules require all brokerage firms to disclose and report all outside business activities of its registered representatives, further requiring firms to audit and supervise those businesses, especially if they are small branch offices. Both FINRA and the SEC have made clear that supervision of small, satellite branch offices require the same level of supervision as a main office.  The SEC, for instance, takes the position that geographically dispersed offices staffed by only a few people are more at risk of fraud because “[t]heir distance from compliance and supervisory personnel can make it easier for registered representatives [like Mr. Incorvia] to carry out and conceal violations of the securities laws.”

Investors are still watching which way the market is ready to turn after yesterday’s 600-point drop in the Dow Jones Industrial average, the biggest one-day drop in over two months. While world markets appeared to be reacting to the prospect of loan defaults by the Evergrande Group – China’s second largest real estate company and the world’s largest property developer –retail investors, and retirees in particular, should keep in mind that this might be the beginning of something bigger. Given that U.S. equities remain at historic highs, portfolios still have a long way to fall.  It is still unclear what ripple effect Evergrande will have even within China, as the Chinese government has yet to formally decide on whether it will bail out Evergrande or let it fail.  But both scenarios are fueling fears of contagion within the U.S. and world markets. Some are calling this China’s “Lehman’s moment,” despite Evergrande’s debt only being about roughly half of the $600 billion in liabilities that Lehman had when it defaulted.  There are rumblings, however, that Evergrande is the canary in the coal mine for China’s numerous other property companies, representing an outsized portion in driving China’s economy and GDP.  The net effect on retail investors in the U.S., thus, depends to some degree on the level of Chinese investment and debt holdings by U.S. companies and financial institutions.

HSBC, BlackRock, and J.P. Morgan have been said to have significant exposure to the Chinese market generally, as do many individual U.S. companies, ranging from Wynn Resorts to Apple.  As always, retail investors who are overconcentrated in any single company or market sector face the biggest risk.  While the stock of many of these companies might seem relatively “safe” over the long term, not every investor can wait for the stock market to rebound.  Seniors and retirees are a prime example, as this is a group regularly identified by U.S. regulators (e.g., FINRA and the SEC) as being vulnerable because they are typically saddled with higher expenses (e.g., medical and age-related expenses) at a time when they need liquidity and are no longer working or earning an income. For this reason, stockbrokers and financial advisors have a legal duty to retirees to recommend investments and an investment strategy that is suitable for this stage of life and the possibility that the stock market will not just continue to rise in perpetuity.

For retirees, overconcentration of an investment portfolio is often the culprit of an investment strategy or recommendation gone wrong.  As we have written in this space before, brokers and financial advisors have long been required to have a reasonable basis for recommending an investment or strategy.  And as of June 30, 2020, brokerage firms have had to comply with a new SEC rule, Regulation Best Interest (Reg BI), which further requires every recommendation to be in a customer’s best interests.  Overconcentrating a retiree’s investment portfolio in largely equities (or worse, a single equity) is typically not in a retiree’s best interests and is what makes a portfolio most vulnerable to significant market events like Evergrande. Even though regulators do their best to raise the public’s awareness of this fact, retail enthusiasm during a bull market often drowns out the well-worn refrain to not put all your eggs in one basket.  FINRA’s “Concentrate on Concentration Risk” publication is just one such warning.

On July 20, 2020, the Securities and Exchange Commission brought investment advisor and former registered representative Michael “Barry” Carter up on multiple federal charges relating to the alleged misappropriation of over $6 million in funds.  Mr. Carter allegedly stole this money from his brokerage customers, including nearly $1 million from one elderly client, defrauding them in the process in an effort to remain undetected.  His alleged fraudulent acts occurred between the fall of 2007 and spring of 2019 while working at Morgan Stanley, with over 40% of the misappropriation occurring in the last five years, all to sustain his extravagant lifestyle.

Mr. Carter was reportedly fired from Morgan Stanley in the summer of 2019 for misappropriation of funds.  Later that fall, FINRA launched an investigation into his alleged crimes and he was then barred by FINRA for refusing to turn over documents relating to the alleged misappropriations.

Additionally, the state of Maryland reportedly brought criminal charges against Mr. Carter, to which he has already pled guilty to the investment advisory fraud charges and wire fraud; as part of his plea agreement he will, according to prosecutors, be required to pay back about $4.3 million, the total net proceeds of his illegal activities.

In March 2020 Oil prices had their worst day since 1991, plunging to multi-year lows. Tensions between Russia and Saudi Arabia and OPEC’s failure to strike a deal were escalated by the global economic slowdown spurred by COVID-19 resulting in oil’s worst day since 1991. With oil’s and the energy markets substantial price plunge the investment fraud attorneys at Malecki Law announce the firm’s investigation into potential securities law claims against broker-dealers relating to the improper concentration or oil and gas in portfolios, as well as the sale of energy related structured notes, Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs), and Master Limited Partnerships (MLPs).  Malecki Law has successfully prosecuted a number of these cases, including obtaining awards of attorneys’ fees and costs for investors.

Malecki Law is interested in hearing from investors who were recommended concentrated positions in oil and gas, as well as those recommended futures in Oil and Gas, MLPs or energy sector ETFs. Investors have lost millions in these products as the energy markets dropped.  As prices have continued to slide, losses have compounded. The energy market plunge is terrible for those whose financial advisors recommended that investors stay in and “ride it out.”

Unfortunately, many energy sector investments are risky investments that can be inappropriate for typical “mom and pop” investors, as well as those heading to or in retirement.  Unfortunately, there are some financial advisors and brokers that sell them to their clients anyway, without fully disclosing the potentially devastating risks.

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.

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.

Wall Street is constantly crafting complex and volatile products that somehow end up in the investment accounts on Main Street.  The latest turbulence in the stock markets has already been in part attributed to one of the latest Wall Street machinations:  exchange-traded-products (ETPs) linked to volatile exchanges – specifically, products linked to the Chicago Board Options Exchange (CBOE) Volatile Index (VIX).  Today alone, the Dow Jones Industrial Average closed more than 1000 points down from yesterday, and due to the volatility that is still ongoing, the devastating fallout is largely unrealized and has left investors scrambling.

Since its inception in 1993, the VIX was one of the earlier attempts to create an index that broadly measured volatility in the market.  One such ETP linked to the VIX is Credit Suisse’s VelocityShares Daily Inverse VIX Short-Term ETN (ticker symbol XIV), which the issuer just announced it will be shutting down after losing most of its value earlier this week.  Products that may be at similar risk include Proshares SVXY, VelocityShares ZIV, iPATH XXV, and REX VolMaxx VMIN.  But the risks associated with these ETPs have been well known to professionals in the securities industry, and investors who were recommended these products should have received a complete and balanced disclosure of these risks at the time of purchase.

In October of 2017, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) ordered Wells Fargo to pay $3.4 million in restitution to investors relating to unsuitable recommendations of volatility-linked ETPs.  FINRA also published a warning to other firms in Regulatory Notice 17-32 regarding sales practice obligations, stating that “many volatility-linked ETPs are highly likely to lose value over time” and “may be unsuitable to retail investors, particularly those who plan to use them as traditional buy-and-hold investments.”  This was not the first warning from the regulator.

Yesterday, a Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) arbitration panel in Boca Raton, Florida awarded Malecki Law attorneys $397,823.00 for principal investment losses against Morgan Stanley & Co., LLC.  Malecki Law brought the case on behalf of an elderly and retired couple with conservative investment objectives on claims that Morgan Stanley failed to supervise their accounts and unsuitably over-concentrated their portfolio in risky oil and gas master limited partnerships (MLPs).  In addition to the compensatory damages, the panel also ordered Morgan Stanley to pay the claimants in this case 9% in interest, $15,000.00 in costs, attorneys’ fees, $11,812.50 in forum fees, and a $20,000.00 penalty for the firm’s late production of relevant documents at and just prior to hearing.

Malecki Law regularly brings claims on behalf of investors against unscrupulous conduct by brokers and brokerage firms, and holds them accountable for mismanaging investor retirement accounts.  Elderly investors such as these find themselves especially at risk from poor investment recommendations made by brokers and securities firms because senior citizens are typically out of the workforce and have much less time and ability to recoup their losses than younger investors.  This is pertinent to yesterday’s win because, in setting the damages figure, the arbitration panel rightfully did not deduct investment income (i.e., dividends), which the claimants earned while they had their accounts open with Morgan Stanley.

This is also a notable win for Malecki Law because the case involved the purchase of MLPs, which is a “hot investment” on Wall Street these days.  MLPs offer high yields, but are generally recognized as risky and volatile investments, typically within the oil and energy sector, and are not suitable for most retirement accounts or conservative investors looking to preserve their capital.  In May of last year, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) issued an investor alert on MLPs to warn investors of the significant risks in these products, including unexpected tax consequences, fluctuations in distributions, and concentration exposure in the energy sector with acute sensitivity to shifts in the prices of oil and gas.

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.

Last month we learned that Tim Duncan’s financial adviser was sentenced by a federal court to four years in prison for defrauding the NBA legend of $7.5 million.  Duncan earned over $220 million during his playing career, so he is by no means financially ruined, but there are some good lessons to learn about investing and placing too much trust in the person who manages your money.

Tim Duncan is an accomplished, 15-time NBA All-Star and future Hall of Famer.  He retired in July 2016 after playing nineteen seasons of professional basketball with the San Antonio Spurs.  In today’s age of free agency and mega-million-dollar commercial endorsements, it is a rarity for a player to play his entire career with a single franchise.  As one of the greatest to ever play the game, Duncan could have sought greener pastures and taken his talents to the highest bidder in any city of his choosing.  Instead, he was noted for having taken yearly pay cuts to stay in San Antonio to allow the Spurs to remain under the league salary cap while paying for talent at other positions.  Duncan was generally known for his loyalty and being the consummate teammate and role model for fans and younger players.  His loyalty on the court perhaps says a lot about how he conducted himself off the court, where he showed similar trust and loyalty to the people in his daily life, including his financial adviser.

Last month, Duncan’s financial adviser, Charles A. Banks, IV, made headlines when a federal court in Texas issued a judgment against Banks, convicting him of wire fraud, and sentencing him to 48 months in prison followed by three years of supervised release.  The court also ordered Banks to pay $7.5 million in restitution.

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