Articles Posted in Securities Fraud & Unsuitable Investments

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.

In the “worst day of 2019” for the market, the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped 767 points by closing on Monday. When the market suddenly drops, investment portfolios will reflect not only the fluctuations but also the risks inherent in that particular strategy. 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.

Aggressive investment portfolios consist of substantially riskier investments that could potentially produce higher returns. However, these speculative investments come at the cost of potentially losing most or almost all of their principal. Younger investors with the time to recover losses are the demographic group that may be able and/or willing to weather a more aggressive investment strategy. Younger investors can usually benefit from saving as much as possible in retirement accounts in anticipation of the market’s eventual recovery and benefit from the compounding returns. However, investors of all ages who are more apt to want to sell at market downturns immediately should not be in this speculative investment strategy.

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.

If you want to find trouble on Wall Street, follow the money.  A “troubled broker” is a broker more concerned for his or her commissions than the quality of the investments he or she recommends.  Finding investors for private placements can be very lucrative for a broker, but very risky for a client.  As complaints about a broker mount on his CRD, so does the lifespan of a broker and as their career prospects dwindle, they become more desperate. While not all private placements are bad investments, they must be approached with extreme caution and are not appropriate for all investors.  If you get presented with a private placement, the very prospectus states: you should consult an attorney before signing.  It’s a mandatory disclosure that regulators believe you should get and you should not ignore it.  You should always consult a good New York securities lawyer before you give large amounts of your money to a non-public company in its infancy.  Understanding the investment, the company and doing due diligence is the only way to protect your interests.   If you don’t want to spend time or money to do that, don’t invest.  The “next big thing” your broker might be selling you on may be your “next big problem.”  There’s no free lunch.

These concerns about the multi-billion-dollar private capital markets are sound, based on a Wall Street Journal report finding that firms selling private placements have a much higher proportion of “troubled brokers”. The study compared the percentages of brokers with customer complaints, regulatory investigations and other disclosures at firms selling private placements with industry norms.  Among the worried securities industry members include former FINRA enforcement chief, Robert Bennet who allegedly proclaimed private placements as a “perennial concern for regulators.”. Private placement is the offer and sale of unregistered securities to a limited number of investors for a company’s capital generation. Our securities fraud attorneys always knew that a higher prominence of “troubled brokers” is at firms selling private placements, now our belief has been confirmed.

According to the WSJ study, of the firms selling private placements, half had at least one troubled broker out of every ten brokers.  Conversely, of the included firms that didn’t sell private placements, over 75% had less than that amount. Additionally, the analysis shows that half of the firms expelled by FINRA since 1993 sold private placements, despite comprising a lesser amount of the total industry. The private capital market has continued to rise with a reported $750 billion in sales. Given this, any insights about private placements should be known by investors, securities fraud attorneys, brokers and other affected financial industry members.

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.

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