Chicago-based Stoltmann Law Offices, P.C. offers contingency fee representation to investors nationwide who have been hit by the IRS for tax issues related to conservation or land easement investments sold by investment and financial advisors.  High-income investors are lured into investing in these products based on the promise of legal tax savings.  Through a complicated and circuitous waterfall, investors in conservation or land easements, can receive income tax breaks sometimes worth several times the amount of their actual investment. As the old adage goes, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

A recent article by Investment News lifted the lid on three specific easements that resulted in an arbitration complaint by the investors, and includes an unsavory connection to motivational speaker Tony Robbins. The easements at issue in the investor complaint are:

  • GWM Capital Real Estate

Stoltmann Law Offices, P.C., a boutique Chicago-based law firm that offers representation nationwide to investors, has been fighting brokerage firms and investment firms for decades over variable annuities and insurance products.  Variable annuities, equity-indexed annuities, whole life insurance, variable life insurance, whatever they are called, and the names can get really complicated, these insurance products are designed to do two things.  First, they are designed to move money from your pocket to the insurance company.  Second, they are designed to pay handsome commissions to the salesmen who solicit clients to invest or purchase these annuity and insurance products.

Recently, FINRA, which is the regulatory body responsible for policing the brokerage/investment markets, fined O.N. Equity Sales Company, out of Cincinnati, Ohio, for failing to supervise and surveil the sale and switching of annuities and insurance policies by their clients.  FINRA penalized ON Equity $275,000 and ordered the firm to pay restitution to aggrieved investors in the amount of $1,001,146.86.  FINRA’s investigation found that O.N. Equity (ONESCO) failed to establish, maintain, and enforce a supervisory system reasonably designed to supervise the sale of variable annuities. Because of ONESCO’s failures, the firm failed to detect and deter sales practice abuses by Richard Wesselt. In a parallel action, Wesselt consented to a permanent bar from the securities industry as a result of his misconduct. According to the FINRA action, he violated FINRA Rule 2111 (suitability), in connection with the recommendation to 78 investors to purchase variable annuities, that were inconsistent with the customers’ investment profiles, risk tolerance, liquidity needs, and time horizon.  Using what he called his “Infinite Banking” strategy, he pursued investors to liquidate their retirement accounts, including 401(k)s or IRAs, and use the  proceeds to buy variable annuities, and then liquidate the variable annuities to build cash value in whole life insurance policies. Wesselt was ONESCO’s highest producer in 2016 – big surprise given his proclivity to sell high commission products like variable annuities and life insurance policies.

If a financial advisor ever recommends the liquidation of mutual funds or other securities in an IRA or 401(k) account in order to buy a variable annuity, stop what you are doing and start looking for a new financial advisor.  The main attraction to variable annuities has always been that the money grows tax-deferred like an IRA.  By investing IRA funds in a variable annuity, that benefit is irrelevant. Instead, what you are doing is agreeing to pay your broker a huge 5%+ up front commission and the insurance company 3%-4% of your money per year in various fees and charges.  Variable annuities also charge huge surrender fees for money withdrawn in the first several years, although some offer a 10% withdrawal without penalty. Lastly, the mutual fund options for variable annuity sub-accounts are greatly reduced versus what an investor can invest in through a traditional IRA.  Variable annuities are rarely suitable for any investor. Unless you check the following boxes, variable annuities are not for you: 1) you maximize your tax-deferred retirement savings every year, i.e., you are contributing the max amount to your 401Ks and IRAs; 2) You actually need life insurance; and 3) you are young enough that you don’t need the money invested in the annuity for at least ten years.  Few people check these boxes, and yet according to reports, there is almost $2 trillion dollars locked away in these products, with more than $35 billion in sales in 2020.

Chicago-based Stoltmann Law Offices has represented professional athletes who’ve suffered damages from dealing with financial and investment advisors who recommended fraudulent investments. Professional athletes are often swindled by financial advisors who prey upon wealthy sports heroes who don’t have the time or expertise to scrutinize investments. It’s a perennial story that never seems to die. Often the investments are complex and involve multiple layers of deceit. One such investment involves 15 current or former NFL players. The players invested in a “now-defunct company that funded a separate business targeting Texans with troubled credit ratings who needed quick cash and would put up their cars as collateral on title loans averaging $1,000,” according to ESPN.com.

Not only were these loans bad investments, they fleeced those under financial stress seeking credit. “Because of fees and interest in excess of 300%, borrowers would agree to pay hundreds of additional dollars to repay the loans. The so-called auto title loans are legal in Texas but prohibited in many states because they prey on people who lack access to traditional banking sources.” ESPN noted.

Longtime NFL financial adviser Joseph “Joey” Feste was behind the loans, who claimed in court filings that the venture owed investors some $40 million. At the heart of the investments’ appeal was a promise of high returns in the form of promissory notes for the athletes, although those receiving the title loans were gouged on fees and interest rates. Notes with unusually high returns are usually troublesome for investors and often fraudulent. ESPN noted that “the players and other Feste clients were typically paid a return of between 9% and 20% on their investments that funded the title loans, the documents say. At the other end of the arrangement were borrowers who signed up for loans stacked with fees and charges, some with annual percentage rates in excess of 300%.” Feste orchestrated all sides of these deals, including founding the various companies, including Storehouse Lending LLC and KLC Auto Title Loan, that issued these high interest loans to desperate people.

Chicago-based Stoltmann Law Offices has represented investors who’ve suffered losses in Ponzi schemes.  All of the most egregious swindles start out with a simple dual promise: High returns and no risk. That was the case with JJMT investments, which sold bogus promissory notes.

Started by fraternity brothers from Indiana University, JJMT lured investors with 30% to 40% returns on notes that financed movie deals in Hollywood.  According to Bloomberg, “Zachary Horwitz, a former actor, duped his old college friends and their families out of tens of millions of dollars. Three of Horwitz’s buddies from Indiana University said he tricked them into providing him with hundreds of millions of dollars in loans to fund bogus Latin American licensing deals with Netflix Inc. and HBO.”

From mid 2015 to late 2019, “JJMT Capital provided financing to Horwitz’s company 1inMM in exchange for promissory notes with a total principal value of approximately $485 million, Bloomberg stated. Horwitz’s company still allegedly owes investors “around $165 million before interest – including more than $42 million of their own money.”

Chicago-based Stoltmann Law Offices has represented investors who’ve suffered losses in the LJM Preservation and Growth Fund. When broker-dealers sell you investments, they are responsible for fully informing you of the risks at the point of sale. When they fail to give you an honest, transparent disclosure on what they are selling – and the investments tank — you may have an arbitration case that you can pursue to get your money back.

Cambridge Investment Research, Merrill Lynch, and other brokerage firms sold a mutual fund called the LJM Preservation and Growth fund to their customers. The fund’s “value plummeted 80% over two days in early February 2018, after brokers in the previous two years sold $18 million of its shares to more than 550 customers, prompted by sales calls in May 2016 from an LJM wholesaler,” the securities regulator FINRA stated. “The fund was liquidated and dissolved in March 2018.”

What made the fund so volatile that led to its demise? It employed a risky strategy called “uncovered options,” but failed to tell investors that it was a highly complex vehicle prone to catastrophic losses.

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.

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