Chicago-based Stoltmann Law Offices has represented investors who’ve suffered losses from dealing with broker-advisors who lost money in retirement plan investments. Hands down, one of the most secure things you own should be your retirement assets. Nobody should be able to pilfer them. But in the internet age, criminals are finding ways into company-sponsored plans.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO), the congressional watchdog agency, recently warned that retirement plans may be compromised by cybercrooks who break into programs like 401(k)s through the Internet. Why are cybercriminals going after these supposedly secure entities? Because that’s where the money is: As of 2018, there were 106 million people in private retirement plans that had more than $6.3 trillion in assets. The main issue with retirement plan security is that plan providers may share data with third parties. That may expose the plan to breaches. Since there’s little to no modern federal guidance how to protect this valuable information, that’s a huge threat.

Why is this information at risk? There are any number of ways that thieves can break in and steal valuable personal data. The GAO found that “personally identifiable information is shared throughout the chain of providers, starting at the plan sponsor and moving back and forth through third-party administrators, recordkeepers, custodians and payroll providers.” That means crooks may be able to take Social Security and bank account numbers.

Chicago-based Stoltmann Law Offices has represented investors who’ve suffered losses from fraudulent investments scams for over fifteen years.  Recently, common scams involve precious metals and the latest craze, cryptocurrency. When the price of any commodity goes up dramatically – from gold to digital cryptocurrencies – you can bank on the fact that scammers are pitching hard to lure investors into a trap. Many investments pitched on the internet fall into this murky pool.

The top threats to investors, not surprisingly, are Internet- and social-media based promotions, according to the North American Securities Administrators Association (NASAA), a securities regulator trade association. These frauds are often pitched to owners of self-directed Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs), many of which are tied to brokerage services.

“Self-directed individual retirement accounts, which lack the services and protection of traditional IRAs, can be fertile soil for scammers, especially those involving cryptocurrency-related and precious metals-based investments,” Investment News reported.

Chicago-based Stoltmann Law Offices represents investors who’ve suffered losses from esoteric investments like the Infinity Q funds. Although some investment vehicles restrict withdrawals over a certain period of time, it’s a bad sign for investors when redemptions are suddenly halted without any warning. That was the situation recently with the $1.8 billion Infinity Q Diversified Alpha Fund, which shut down redemptions and locked out its founder, James Velissaris.

On Feb. 22, the parent company of the fund – Infinity Q Innovative Investments – “informed investors in the fund that it had received approval from the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to suspend redemptions and postpone the date of redemption payments beyond seven days because it is `unable to value certain assets held in the fund,’” according to Investment News.

The SEC’s order states that “the fund learned on Feb. 18 that Infinity Q chief investment officer and company founder James Velissaris had been tweaking the methodology for counting certain asset valuations, which raised doubts about the accuracy of the reported fair value of those fund holdings.” Infinity Q could not be reached for comment by Investment News. Infinity posted on its website confirming the SEC findings on Feb. 19 stating that “it could not value the assets for purposes of calculating the fund’s net asset value.”

Stoltmann Law Offices, P.C. is a Chicago-based investor rights law firm that offers nationwide representation to investors who suffer investment losses as a result of unscrupulous, negligent, or fraudulent misconduct of financial advisors. In a tale as old as time, people prefer to avoid paying taxes if they can do so legally. The legality of tax breaks can be a touchy and constantly developing subject.  An increasingly popular way for very wealthy land owners to generate massive tax write-offs is called the “conservation easement.”  Simply put, in exchange for promising not to develop land, in the name of conservation, a land owner promises not to develop the tract. By doing so, the value of the property depreciates – because it cannot be developed – and theoretically, the owner of the land gives up something of value – the right to develop and exploit the land.  The land owner then gets a tax deduction, which depends on two critically important factors: 1) the value of the property before the easement; and 2) the value after the easement. The spread between these two numbers is then used as a tax deduction.

And there is where the fraud begins, according to the IRS. Recent report published by Bloombergtax describes the increasing aggression with which the IRS and Department of Justice are prosecuting conservation easement transactions as crimes.  One very notable transaction being investigated by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office involves former President, Donald Trump, and an approximate $25 million tax break he received in connection with a conservation easement on land he owned in upstate New York. The tax scam begins with the appraisal of the land at values exponentially higher than reality, to appraisals after the easement well-below reality.  That increases the spread – the tax loss – taken by the owner.  These appraisals are done by professional outfits with attorneys and appraisers who sign off on all of these deals, and who can find themselves in a serious lurch with authorities.

These conservation easements became increasingly complex over time, involving massive tracts of land and found themselves being marketed and sold by FINRA registered broker/dealers as Regulation D private placement investments.  The purpose of this scenario for investors is the tax break for the land owners trickles-down, through a series of complicated trusts and transactions, to the investor.  Sometimes investors get upwards of 10X their investment back in the form of a tax write off.  Usually, the write-off is for between 2X and 6X the investment. For example, if an investor puts $25K into a conservation easement offering 4X reduction, that investor can write-off $100,000 in income for tax purposes the next year.  For high income investors, that is a dream scenario.

Chicago-based Stoltmann Law Offices represents investors nationwide who’ve suffered losses from dealing with broker-advisors who’ve sold them fraudulent investment products.

Broker-advisers should be looking out for you when it comes to the investments they sell. But sometimes they drop the ball in a big way, although they are still legally responsible to ensure that what they sell you is legitimate. Brokers across the world have been selling products from Northstar Financial Services (Bermuda). The company was known for its variable annuities, which combine mutual funds within a “wrapper” of an insurance policy. You can invest in a range of vehicles from bonds to stocks. When you’re ready to retire, you can “annuitize” the product into monthly payments. When you die, your survivors will be paid a death benefit.

Northstar filed for bankruptcy last year, leaving investors holding the bag. Lawyers have been filing claims for investors as the company is being liquidated by the Bermuda Monetary Authority. What does that mean for investors who bought the company’s annuities? The news is not good.  “Clearly now that these investments have appointed a liquidator and are being unwound investors are quickly realizing their fear that their principal may never get returned in full as promised,” noted one law firm representing investor claims. For U.S. investors, though, it’s possible to file an arbitration claim if a FINRA-registered brokerage firm sold you Northstar products.

Chicago-based Stoltmann Law Offices has represented investors who’ve suffered losses from broker-advisors who’ve sold their clients money-losing hedge fund investments. Often a broker’s pitch is almost entirely focused on high potential returns with little attention paid to the risk of losing money. Such was the case when brokers sold a hedge fund managed by Prophecy Asset Management. The investment firm was “supposed to spread out funds to dozens of separate money managers, but instead concentrated the money with a single Florida manager whose performance tanked when the pandemic threw markets into turmoil early last year,” according to Indianapolis Business Journal (IBJ).

Two funds managed by Prophecy ran aground last spring when news of the COVID pandemic roiled world markets. The two funds then suspended redemptions, which prevented investors from withdrawing their money. Brokers who sold Prophecy funds, led by a company called Indie Asset Partners, are now suing Prophecy.

The plaintiffs say in the suit that Prophecy CEO Jeffrey Spotts told them that “ostensibly due to the market volatility surrounding the coronavirus pandemic, the Trading Advisors Fund’s assets in their entirety—totaling approximately $363 million—have been placed at risk,” adds the IBJ. Spotts, who cofounded Prophecy Asset Management in 2001 after spending 12 years at Merrill Lynch, declined to comment to IBJ. Prophecy, which listed $561 million in assets under management in a February 2020 regulatory filing, shuttered its website recently.

Stoltmann Law Offices, P.C. has represented hundreds of investors in arbitration actions against brokerage firms for losses in connection with non-traded Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs). Non-Traded REITs are the darlings of brokers and their firms because of the huge commissions and “hands-free” management approach they foster. Brokers sell non-traded REITs under the guise of “high income” and “non-stock market risk”, when the money investors receive from REIT distributions is mostly made up of their own money, and are actually as speculative to invest in as the stock of any company.

According to FINRA, the regulatory agency responsible for policing brokers and their firms, Mike Patatian sold made 89 unsuitable recommendations to 59 clients who invested more than $7.8 million in non-traded REITS. FINRA alleges that Patatian did not understand the REITs he sold, including basis features and risks, and therefore lacked a reasonable basis to make the recommendations. Patatian is also alleged to have recommended that clients liquidate annuities, incur surrender charges, and then roll the proceeds into non-traded REITs. He is also accused of inflating client net worth on forms in order to circumvent REIT limitations. Patatian denies FINRA’s allegations, which can be found here.

Stoltmann Law has blogged extensively on issues related to non-traded REITs. Between the speculative risk, high commissions, lack of liquidity, and complicated structure, there are numerous better options for an investor who wants exposure to the real estate sector. There are hundreds of fully liquid REITs traded on the New York Stock Exchange every day for investors that want to invest in REITs. There is no reason to invest in a non-traded REIT other than the sales pitch by the broker selling them.

Chicago-based Stoltmann Law Offices, P.C., has represented hundreds of investors over the years in both arbitration and litigation against LPL Financial. Many of these claims involved situations where the financial adviser sold the investor an investment that ended up being a Ponzi-like scheme. Rhett Bedwell, it would seem, falls into that category of former LPL brokers who sold clients fraudulent investments.

According to published reports, Rhett Bedwell, of Rogers, Arizona, while a registered broker with LPL Financial allegedly transferred a client’s IRA to an IRA custodian, using forged documents, and invested the client’s IRA in a Ponzi scheme. According to regulatory documents filed by LPL Financial, Bedwell was under an internal investigation at the firm at the time he was “permitted to resign” and was also subject to customer complaints, event though there is only one customer complaint disclosed on his FINRA BrokerCheck Report.   On February 10, 2021, Bedwell signed a FINRA Acceptance, Waiver, and Consent (AWC) which barred him for life from the securities industry. By failing to respond to FINRA’s request for information in connection with a regulatory investigation, Bedwell sealed his professional fate.

In circumstances like this, investors need to realize the brokerage firm with whom the broker was registered, in this instance, LPL Financial, is legally responsible for his misconduct under two independent legal theories. First, as a licensed, registered financial adviser, anything Bedwell did as a financial adviser, is part of the scope and course of his agency with LPL Financial. Investors don’t sue the brokerage firm when brokers cause property damage, for example, because LPL is not responsible for what the firm’s brokers do outside of providing financial and investment advice. But in this circumstance, surely from the investor’s perspective, Bedwell was providing financial and investment advice at all times.  The second road that should be taken is a direct claim against LPL for negligent supervision.  The securities rules are clear and the obligations are rock solid that LPL must maintain adequate supervision and compliance over its brokers in order to prevent and to deter violations of state and federal securities laws. Either way, LPL can be liable for the misconduct of its brokers.

Chicago-based Stoltmann Law Offices has represented investors who’ve suffered losses from dealing with broker-advisors who’ve stolen their money. Sometimes brokers are not the least bit subtle about what they do with clients’ assets. They may shift cash into separate accounts and spend it themselves.  Such was the case with Apostolos Pitsironis, a former Janney Montgomery Scott advisor. He is accused of stealing more than $400,000 from his clients from 2018-2019.

In the brokerage business, stealing clients’ funds is often known as “converting” their assets. Brokers may spend the money on gambling, cars or other consumption items. Pitsironis was “discharged in June 2019 after an internal investigation uncovered that the FA transferred funds via unauthorized ACHs from a client’s account to a third-party bank account owned and controlled by Pitsironis,” according to ThinkAdvisor.com. “He later used this money to pay his family’s personal expenses, all the while deceiving both his victims and the financial services firm for whom he worked,” prosecutors stated.  Pitsironis also allegedly spent his clients’ money on casino gambling debts, credit card bills and the lease of a luxury car.

“Janney is committed to serving our clients with the utmost integrity and trust,” the brokerage firm said in a statement obtained by ThinkAdvisor. “Upon discovering the improper actions taken by this advisor with one client account, he was promptly terminated, and the client was fully reimbursed. Janney has fully cooperated with law enforcement and will continue to do so.”

Chicago-based Stoltmann Law Offices has represented investors who’ve suffered losses from dealing with broker-advisors who’ve sold their clients variable annuities. One thing we see constantly in our practice is older investors who’ve been sold variable annuities that are onerously expensive and nearly always fail to live up to expectations. Variable annuities are investment products that offer restrictive access to mutual funds with an insurance wrapper. They are expensive to buy and carry ongoing fees and expenses that eat away at investor return. They also offer a tax incentive that brokers love to use as a sales point that in reality provides no benefit to most investors.

The main reason why variable annuities are usually poor investments is that they charge several layers of fees to investors. Everyone gets a cut from the insurance company to mutual fund managers. It’s very difficult for anyone outside of the middlemen to make money. Brokers and their advisory firms, however, sell them aggressively because the insurance companies that pilfer annuities pay out huge commissions to the salesmen who sell them.

Broker-advisors are perennially being cited for variable annuity marketing abuses. Transamerica Financial Advisors was recently fined $8.8 million by FINRA for “failing to supervise its registered representatives’ (brokers) recommendations for three different products,” which included annuities. The firm was ordered to pay more than $4 million in restitution.  The FINRA settlement cited Transamerica’s failure to monitor transactions that involved clients switching from other investments to annuities, which generated millions in commissions and fees for the firms. This is an egregious practice in the brokerage industry that mostly focuses on older and retired investors.

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