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Articles Posted in Securities Fraud & Unsuitable Investments

U.S. oil prices have been on a roller coaster ride over the last few weeks, at one point dropping below $0 for the first time in history to -$37.63 a barrel.  Oil has since rebounded from its subzero levels, but it remains questionable as to whether it can stay there.  It begs the question, what does this mean for investors and the U.S. oil market generally?

When prices cratered below zero, there were those that weighed in that it was nothing to worry about.  After all, the subzero price drop really had more to do with the expiration of contracts for oil futures.  It was explained that the current demand for oil is so low that producers would rather put their oil in storage and then sell it at some point in the future.  Placing additional strain on the market, the U.S. is running out of places to store it, with backlogs of oil tankers from Saudi Arabia out at sea and being turned away from U.S. shipping ports.

The U.S. has traditionally been a net importer of oil, but with the emergence of oil fracking, the U.S. at one point in 2019 surpassed Saudi Arabia as the world’s top oil exporter.  This trend towards parity gave many observers of the U.S. oil market a feeling of confidence that the U.S. was a rising oil power, with President Trump going so far as describing the U.S. level of participation as “energy dominance.”  But as pointed out by professionals, increased participation in the market has little to do with control over the market.  For instance, the price of U.S. oil recently began to spiral down when Russia and Saudi Arabia started to increase their production levels.  U.S. oil prices teetered even further, and then below zero, when the global and U.S. economic response to the spread of Covid-19 began to take shape – every state being under some level of a stay-at-home order, with fewer cars on the road, fewer people travelling by air, and U.S. oil workers in Texas and elsewhere being laid off in the tens of thousands.  The pumps have stopped and oil companies are already declaring bankruptcy, with likely more to follow.

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.

Predicated on fear of a global slowdown and the uncertainty around coronavirus, the stock has experienced extreme volatility as it heads into bear territory. While it may be expected for even the bluest of blue-chip stocks to experience volatility,  investors should pay particular attention to their entire investment portfolios as it is in violate market climates that broker misconduct may reveal itself, especially as it relates to your investment objectives and suitability.

When the market suddenly drops, investment portfolios will reflect not only the fluctuations, but also the risks inherent inparticular strategies and investments. All securities carry risk, but some investment products have more than others. Risk tolerance refers to the level of uncertainty in investment performance that is acceptable to the investor. An investor’s risk tolerance is reflective of their financial situation, needs, age, objectives, time requirements, and other considerations. Generally, investors can be categorized within varying levels of conservative, moderate, or aggressive. The types of investments in an investor’s portfolio should reflect their risk tolerance. The changes that investors noticed in their portfolio during market shifts could be indicative of where their portfolio falls on this spectrum.

Investors with the lower risk tolerances should have a conservative investment strategy in place that shields their portfolio from significant declines in market downturns. The goal of conservative investors is to prioritize principal protection and liquidity over risky appreciation. A conservative investment portfolio will be mainly comprised of safer, low-risk fixed-income investments, such as bonds and certificates of deposits. While low-risk investments do not generate the highest returns, the chances of losing principal are much lower. Older individuals closer to retirement should have investment profiles that reflect a more conservative investment portfolio. It is a huge red flag for any conservative investors to have noticed a complete decline in their portfolio from the market downturn.

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.

The investment and securities fraud attorneys at Malecki Law are currently investigating UBS’s Yield Enhancement Strategy (“YES”) for the purpose of investor recoveries. Our attorneys are interested in hearing from investors and others who have information and/or have experienced losses due to UBS YES or other complex yield enhancing investments regardless of the brokerage firm.

It appears that the YES strategy may have been sold to UBS clients as a conservative and low-risk investment strategy that would provide them with an increased yield (income) in their portfolio. In fact, in our opinion, the strategy was an esoteric leveraged options strategy that utilized an options strategy known as the Iron Condor, which is inherently risky as it relies on consistent stability in the markets.

USB YES employing the esoteric Iron Condor strategy uses a leveraged options strategy in a client’s portfolio. UBS would use the client’s assets as collateral in a margin account then execute four different options trades, simultaneously selling calls and puts in an attempt to generate income and buying calls and puts in an attempt to hedge risk. This resulted in the creation of a price spread. If the price of the index or security the options were a derivative of stayed within the spread it would produce a premium to the investor. However, the excessive volatility experienced by the markets recently and most notably in the fourth quarter of 2018 blew through these spreads resulting in serious losses to investors.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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