Stoltmann Law Offices has brought arbitration claims against dozens of brokerage firms like Ameriprise Financial, Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, Wells Fargo, and JP Morgan Securities involving the unsuitable recommendations for investors to invest in oil and gas related securities.  In 2014 and 2015, we represented dozens of investors against various firms involving Master Limited Partnerships, or MLPs, which are almost always related to the oil and gas industry.  Then, during a big drop in the price of oil, a lot of oil and gas companies went into bankruptcy, dragging a lot of investor money with them.  History is repeating itself.

The price of oil has completely tanked in the last month. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the price of oil was being pressured by a price war involving Saudi Arabia, Russia, and OPEC.  Combined with the broad-based ongoing market crash, oil and gas investments – which are inextricably linked to the price of oil – have suffered catastrophic losses.  There are some well-know names on this list:

Goldman Sachs MLP and Energy Renaissance Fund – GER: Year to Date has dropped from 4.37 to 0.68 per share

Chicago-based Stoltmann Law Offices has represented investors who suffered losses in alternative investments like BDCs for many years.  Market fissures like the one impacting the markets now expose alternative investments for the speculative and unstable investments they truly are. For years, Stoltmann Law Offices has prosecuted cases against brokerage firms and advisors for selling these high-commissioned and unsuitable products to their clients. We approach these cases like the product-liability claims they truly are. These alternative investments have dozens of iterations. Private placements or all colors, limited partnerships, oil and gas drilling interests and partnerships, real estate investment trusts (REITs), and Business Development Companies (BDCs).

A BDC is a closed-end company that raises money for private businesses. They are basically banks for small companies that have poor credit profiles. They take in investor money and then lend it out to a portfolio of privately held businesses. The companies to whom investor money is lended to are typically not on the high-end of credit quality scale and typically seek funding through a BDC because more conventional funding is not available. So, these BDCs are speculative, high risk investments dependent exclusively on the underlying debt portfolio to make timely payments.  BDCs can be publicly-traded, non-traded, or private placement securities called “private BDCs“.

According to a recent article by InvestmentNews, BDCs, led by the largest issuer of non-traded BDCs, Franklin Square, are getting crushed by the recent bear market. That makes sense if you understand the structure of these products. If the success or failure of an investment is dependent on otherwise uncreditworthy companies paying interest and principal on loans, then any disruption in the economy can be devastating to that investment. Similar to how non-traded REITs were wiped out after the real estate crash and financial crisis, BDCs will face a similar fate in the coming economic malaise brought on by COVID-19.

Stoltmann Law Offices, P.C. located in Chicago, Downers Grove, and Barrington, Illinois is investigating claims for Illinois businesses that have been shuttered or curtailed due to COVID-19 Coronavirus civil authority orders.  On Sunday, March 15, Governor J.B. Pritzker issued an executive proclamation ordering all Illinois bars and restaurants to close to in-dining customers. Although these companies can still stay open and cater to carry-out and delivery customers, there is no question many restaurants and bars will suffer potentially cataclysmic losses.  It is in situations like this, when paying all of those insurance premiums, could pay off.

Most businesses have some form of commercial property insurance coverage or some other policy that may cover losses attributable to business interruption due to civil authority orders.  These policies are usually riddled with exceptions and the language of each policy is the determining factor here. Insurance carriers will undoubtedly rely on various exclusionary language to deny claims outright.  However, depending on the language of your policy, your business could have a viable claim against the insurer for damages in connection with the closure of your business due to a civil authority order.  What Governor Pritzker and Mayor Lightfoot did on Sunday, effective immediately, to bars and restaurants across the state of Illinois and City of Chicago, constitutes civil authority orders.

It is situations like this current crisis where insurance companies should step up and pay the claims of those businesses that had civil authority order business interruption protection. However, insurance companies don’t get their names on all of those tall buildings downtown because they write checks readily. In order to impose the obligations of your insurance coverage on your insurance carrier, you will need a lawyer to file a formal demand and likely a lawsuit for a declaratory judgment. What this means is, the business owner, the insured, files a complaint in court against the insurance company, the insurer, seeking a declaration from the court that the losses at issue are covered by the terms of the insurance policy. This is not a quick fix, and could take considerable time especially in Cook County. But if you have business interruption protection, it would certainly be worth a shot.  It is definitely time to dig up all of those insurance policies and see what protections your business has been paying for.

Stoltmann Law Offices, P.C has represented SIM-Swap hacking victims and continues to investigate ongoing claims related to this sordid scam impacting many people.  A story reported by CNN last week went into detail about a specific victim in San Francisco. According to the story, Robert Ross had over $2 million stolen from him when his phone was hacked through a process called “SIM-Swapping” or “SIM-Jacking.” Like so many of these victims, Mr. Ross was a crypto-currency investor and those were the funds that were stolen from him.  Mr. Ross is suing his cellular provider, AT&T, for its role in enabling the fraudsters who stolen millions from him. The outcome of that lawsuit is far from certain. However, Stoltmann Law Offices continues to monitor updates on these SIM-Swapping scams and are fully engaged in prosecuting cases on behalf of victims against their cellular providers.

These cases are not highly technical or difficult to grasp once you understand some of the basics. First, its important to understand one bit of technical jargon.  What is a “SIM” card? A “SIM Card” is a memory chip contained inside a mobile phone which carries a unique identification number specific to the owner, stores the owner’s personal data, and disables the mobile phone if removed. SIM Swapping is a means of infiltrating someone’s cellular world by taking control of the user’s SIM Card and have it activated in a phone controlled by the scammer, without stealing the phone or breaking it open to actually remove the SIM card. Here, the infiltration is virtual and once the scammer has the customer’s SIM card activated in the phone in his possession, it can then be used to gain access to emails, brokerage accounts, bank accounts, and cryptocurrency virtual wallets.

The scheme is so incendiary because it takes advantage of two-step authentication – something we’ve all been told for years to have set up to PROTECT us from hackers.  Here’s how it works: The crook convinces AT&T (or Verizon, Sprint, or T-Mobile) that he is the account owner. The crook accomplishes this typically by making up a story why the phone number needs to be transferred to a new phone. In one case the imposter simply called AT&T Customer Service, told them he dropped his phone in a lake, and that he had a new phone that needed to be activated. Instead of determining whether the phone that was allegedly at the bottom of a lake was still active and in-use, the AT&T representative accepted the unverified representations of the imposter and activated the “new” phone in the hands of the scam artist. The customer’s actual phone was deactivated and by the time it was realized, the fraudster gained access to the customer’s email and then virtual wallet. The CNN story about what happened to Mr. Ross – noticing his cell phone had no service, or “zero bars” for no apparent reason – is the first indication your SIM has been compromised.

Chicago-based Stoltmann Law Offices has represented investors for fifteen years in arbitration cases against their  brokerage firms and investment advisory firms to recover investment losses.  In times like these, when the stock market heaves violently downward, it is retired investors and the elderly who fall victim to what was years of mismanagement and negligence.  There is an old saying: “Everyone is a genius in a bull market”.  In times like this, we are reminded of another quote from the incomparable Warren Buffett: “Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked.”

For the better part of the last decade, investment and financial advisors have been piling client money into variable annuities, structured products, private placements, and stocks. The Bull Market run is over and accounts that became over-exposed to equities through either stocks, mutual funds, annuities, or structured products, are bearing the brunt of this undisciplined approach. Herd mentality has caused more money to flow into the stock market than ever before and a lot of that money belongs to retirees in their IRAs and retirement nest eggs. Failing to diversify and asset allocate a retiree’s account is at a minimum, negligent, and could qualify for a FINRA Arbitration claim.

Stoltmann Law Offices has filed nearly 2,000 arbitration cases for investors over the year, recovering tens of millions of dollars of otherwise lost investment capital.  Our experience in FINRA Arbitration is unmatched. Stoltmann Law Offices has prosecuted cases against banks and brokerage firms involving the failure to diversify and asset allocate, along with securities product cases. Now, the failure to asset allocate and diversify – the cornerstone of investment advice that is so easily overlooked – is costing investors, especially retirees, money they cannot afford to lose. Asset Allocation is the simple concept that investors should never have all of their eggs, or too many eggs, in one basket.  Investments must be split across different asset classes like stocks, bonds, mutual funds, Exchange-Traded Funds, municipal bonds, commodities like gold and silver, and cash. The higher your risk tolerance, the more skewed this balance gets towards the equities and stocks side of the ledger.  The more conservative, the less exposure you should have to stocks and equity-based mutual funds and ETFs.  The reality is, maintaining an appropriate asset allocation takes discipline. As your equity portfolio grows in a bull market, the more concentrated you become in that high risk sector. Money should be continuously taken off the table during a bull market and re-allocated to more conservative, income producing assets like bonds.

Stoltmann Law Offices is investigating claims made by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) against Robert Gravette, Mark MacArthur, and their Registered Investment Advisory firm, Criterion Wealth Management Insurance Services, Inc. According to the complaint filed by the SEC on February 12, 2020, Gravette and MacArthur orchestrated a scheme whereby they funneled their clients’ money into four private placement funds without disclosing that the fund managers, with whom they were personal friends, paid them compensation in excess of $1 million for doing so. This compensation arrangement was recurring, so Gravette and MacArthur had an undisclosed financial incentive to keep their clients’ money in these funds, as opposed to allocating the money elsewhere, when appropriate.  Further, the huge fees Gravette and MacArthur received reduced the investment returns that the investors would have otherwise received.  The SEC alleges that these acts violated the fiduciary duties owed by Gravette and MacArthur to their investment advisory clients, and constituted fraud.  The SEC complaint alleges an impressive list of federal statutory violations, including Sections 206(1), 206(2), 206(4), and 207 0f the Advisers Act, 15 U.S.C. sections 80b-6(1), 80b-6(2), 80(b)-6(4), and 80b-7, and Rule 206(4)-7 thereunder.

At all times relevant to these allegations, both Gravette and McArthur were dually registered representatives with a FINRA registered broker/dealer called Ausdal Financial Partners. According to the SEC, Ausdal Financial was involved in these transactions because Criterion opened accounts for them at Ausdal and the private placement funds were held on Ausdal’s account statements.  Under FINRA Rules and regulatory notices, Ausdal Financial, at all times relevant, had a duty to supervise the disclosed Advisory activities of its registered representatives.  See FINRA Rule 3280, NTMs 91-32, 94-44, and 96-33.  The dual-registration of investment advisors creates supervisory challenges for brokerage firms like Ausdal because under SEC Rules, they must maintain and record transactions like those entered into by their dually registered agents on their books and records, or its a violation.  Since they must maintain transaction records which they did by virtue of holding these funds on their account statements, they also must supervise those transactions and the activities of their registered representatives, even if they appeared to be acting solely on behalf of their advisory firm. FINRA does not care and neither should the victims of this scam, which was executed in plain sight.  Any competent compliance department would have supervised the transitions in these real estate private placement funds.

The very nature of these funds being “private placements” would have required an added measure of scrutiny by Ausdal compliance. Private placements tend to be speculative and exposed investors to unique risks like lack of liquidity, concentrated risk, key-man risk, and management risk not typically found in publicly traded investments like mutual funds.  The most substantial issue with a private placement is that they typically pay their brokers very high commissions compared to more standard investments.

Stoltmann Law Offices, P.C. has been representing investors in FINRA arbitration cases involving the GPB Funds since March 2019, and we have filed dozens since. There is one common thread with GPB over the last year or so.  They consistently oversell “good news” which is followed up with more bad news.  Recently, GPB announced it had hired a new CFO – Someone who was going to right the ship and get those audited financials done so that GPB can comply with necessary SEC financial filing rules. Brokerage firms and their brokers who do not want to be sued for this mess, continuously promulgate the “good news”, trying to stave off investor complaints.  All that happens no matter the spin, is more bad news which brokerage firms and brokers do not tell their clients.

On  February 10, 2020 , GPB announced it would not be providing investors with IRS Form K-1 any time soon. So, as the lucky owner of units in a GPB fund, investors will have to wait to file their tax returns until GPB figures out how to send investors reliable tax documents.  Another mess created by GPB are for investors who received surprise IRS Form 1099-Rs because they or their brokers did not act fast enough last fall when GPB was bounced off of various trading platforms, including Charles Schwab. What this means is, those investors are being taxed as if they took a distribution of their GPB asset from their IRA.  So, if you invested $100,000 in a GPB fund in your IRA, and did not have it transferred to an IRA custodial firm, whatever the book value of the fund was on your statement, say $60,000, will be treated as an IRA distribution, and the investor likely will have to pay income tax on that amount. GPB is the gift that keeps on giving!

About a week after GPB announced that it could not even get tax forms to investors, another lawsuit was filed in Delaware Chancery Court against the fund by a group of angry investors.  This lawsuit, Lipman v. GPB Capital Holdings, LLC, Case No. 2020-0054, is a derivative suit filed against GPB on behalf of investors and the GPB Auto and Holdings II funds. The first paragraph of this complaint refers to David Gentile, Jeffrey Lash, and Jeffrey Schneider as “scoundrels who never should have been allowed to run a legitimate company.” Only days later, GPB was sued in the Federal District Court for the Southern District of New York by Volkswagen of America regarding control over three dealerships. This lawsuit relates back to David Rosenberg, who was the head of these three Volkswagen dealerships. He blew the whistle on GPB to the SEC, warning the regulator that GPB was engaging in financial fraud. GPB terminated him and Volkswagen alleges that this termination violated the agreement between GPB and the car company. The more things change with GPB, the more things stay the same. At the end, it is the investors left holding the bag.

Stoltmann Law Offices has been following the Justice Department’s case against former Ameriprise Financial advisor Yilin Hsu Lee, a/k/a Li Lin Hsu, since 2016 when she was barred by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA).  On Friday, January 31, 2020, the Justice Department announced that Hsu had been sentenced to 136 months in prison – more than 11 years – for swindling her clients out of almost $8.2 million dollars. Amongst her more than 20 victims were members of her family, an all too common fact in Ponzi scheme cases like this.  Although she has been ordered to pay over $5 million in restitution as part of her sentence, it is unlikely she will ever be able to repay even a fraction of what she owes to the victims.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Hsu’s scam ran from February 2014 to May 2018. During this time, it was alleged that she falsely represented to investors that she would invest their money safely.  Instead of investing the money conservatively as she represented, Hsu converted her clients’ money and used the funds to buy homes in Diamond Bar, California, a Tesla automobile, an expensive stay at the Peninsula in Paris, France, and spent thousands of dollars of her clients’ hard-earned money during shopping sprees at Hermes and Chanel.

Hsu gained the trust of her victims, mostly members of the Chinese American community in Southern California, by speaking to them in their native Chinese or Mandarin. This is called Affinity Fraud which is a specific type of scam where the schemer solicits his victims from a select community, usually one he is actually a part of. Affinity Fraud scams impact specific ethnic and religious groups. In Hsu’s case, she focused her fraudulent scheme on the Chinese American community.  Her ability to speak the same language and understand the customs of her victims made her even more dangerous, and even easier for her victims to fall for her fraudulent sales pitch.  As pointed out by the Securities and Exchange Commission, Affinity Fraudsters may not actually be members of the community they seek to victimize, they just pose as a member, in a true crime sense.

Stoltmann Law Offices is investigating on behalf of defrauded investors claims made by the Securities and Exchange Commission that Lester W. “Chad” Burroughs, a financial advisor for Lincoln Planning of Torrington, Connecticut, misappropriated client money for personal use. Burroughs was also a registered investment advisor through Capital Analysts. According to the SEC complaint filed on December 9, 2019 in the Federal District Court, District of Connecticut, Burroughs ran his scheme from November 2012 through at least January 2019.  It was a simple scam, one that is all too common in fact.  Burroughs offered victims an investment called a “Guaranteed Interest Contract”, also known as a “GIC”.  The terms of these “GICs” offered by Burroughs included interest at either 4% or 7% per year for the term of the contract. Once again, and these scams are becoming so much more common, 4% to 7% per year is not an exorbitant return people typically think of when being sold a fraudulent investment.  In fact, 4% per year barely pays more than the average rate of inflation.

In furtherance of his scheme to defraud his clients, Burroughs created fake account statements, and according to the SEC, the reason he sold GICs to subsequent investors was to pay off previous investors – the hallmark of a Ponzi scheme. According to his FINRA BrokerCheck Report, Burroughs is no stranger to customers complaints. When he was hired by Lincoln Planning, Burroughs had fourteen customer complaints disclosed on his CRD Report, which is a statistically enormous number.  Burroughs also paid a fine to the Insurance Commission of the State of Connecticut in 2003 for violations. This history of complaints and compliance issues put Lincoln Planning on notice when they hired Burroughs in 2012 that he was a compliance risk.  Standard operating procedure at a brokerage firm like Lincoln Planning under these circumstances would be to place the advisor on “heightened supervision”.  These heightened supervision programs regularly require increased compliance surveillance like random, unannounced on-sight branch audits and direct communications with clients without the knowledge of the advisor. Certainly, had Lincoln Planning put the necessary resources into supervising Burroughs, he would not have so brazenly created and sold these phony GICs to clients.

This “heightened supervision” requirement for brokers like Burroughs with a history of customer complaints has been part of the regulatory lexicon required by FINRA for almost 20 years.  In NTM 03-49, then NASD (now FINRA) explained to brokerage firms like Lincoln Planning that brokers with a history of customer complaints should be more closely monitored because they are a compliance risk. NASD provided some statistics in this notice which were pretty shocking when one considers the number of complaints Burroughs had on his record prior to even being hired.  According to this notice, only 3.3% of all registered brokers had at least one customer complaint; 0.71% had two; 0.22% had three, and only 0.09% were subject to at least four customer complaints. The Fourteen complaints on  Burroughs record put him in extremely rare company.  Lincoln Planning had an obligation to adequately supervise Burroughs and the firm clearly failed to do that.  As such, Lincoln Planning can be liable for the damages caused by Burroughs to his clients.

Stoltmann Law Offices continues to investigate allegations that Robert Walberg of Arlington Heights, Illinois, defrauded a few dozens investors, including family, friends, and the Northwest Suburban Montessori School. As we previously discussed, on January 24, 2019, the Illinois Securities Department issued a Temporary Order of Prohibition against Robert C. Walberg, Chartwell Strategies LP, and Chartwell Advisory Group LLC. Chartwell Strategies LP is a hedge fund created and sold by Robert C. Walberg and his company, Chartwell Advisory Group LLC. According to the Illinois Securities Department, Mr. Walberg solicited an Illinois resident at the end of 2017 and early 2018 to invest in Chartwell Strategies LP. Mr. Walberg allegedly commingled his client’s funds with his personal assets. Walberg was charged in early October with wire fraud, investment advisor fraud, securities violations, and theft by deception. According to court papers, Walberg is alleged to have converted more than $600,000 from the Montessori school he acted as Treasurer for, which puts the school’s future at risk.  It was reported recently that Walberg also stole $45,000 worth of retirement money from his Aunt and Uncle.

Mr. Walberg was a registered FINRA broker on and off from 1984 through 2013, but he has not been registered with the SEC or FINRA since November 2013. Because he was not registered, in furtherance of his scheme, Walberg had his investor “clients” open accounts at Fidelity.  He then used the clients’ credentials to log-in to their accounts and transfer funds from their Fidelity accounts to Chartwell Strategies, a private entity allegedly created for investment purposes.

Depending on the nature of the transactions and specifically how Walberg gained access to his clients’ funds, Fidelity could be responsible for either negligence, or aiding and abetting breach of fiduciary duty. All too frequently, fraudsters use big named, well known companies like Fidelity to give their schemes an aura of legitimacy.  Fidelity has duties and obligations to all of its clients, including purported victims of Walberg’s scam, to at a minimum, perform its compliance, execution, and supervisory functions at or above the standard of care. Further, Fidelity, as a FINRA member firm, has explicit responsibilities to its clients to ensure it adaquetly monitors and supervises electronic access to their accounts and have reasonable measures in place to ensure someone other than the client is not logging-in using their credentials. This is a bright red flag that someone is acting in a questionable manner. In the normal investment advisor-client relationship which uses Fidelity as the broker/dealer, that investment advisor has his own log in credentials and uses the Fidelity RIA platform to run his business.  That Walberg did not do this and instead used client credentials is an indicia that he was not licensed or registered to act as an investment advisor. Upon information and belief, Walberg abused his trust in this way to numerous clients resulting in the theft of as much as $5 million.  Fidelity could have liability for these losses.

CNBC
FOX Business
The Wall Street Journal
Bloomberg
CBS
FOX News Channel
USA Today
abc NEWS
DATELINE
npr
Contact Information