Articles Posted in FINRA

Chicago-based Stoltmann Law Offices has represented investors who’ve suffered investment losses at the hands of financial and investment advisers who churned and burned their accounts. One of the most prevalent abuses in the securities industry is excessive trading, or “churning” client accounts. This practice, which is forbidden by industry regulators like FINRA and the SEC, is done to generate commissions, almost always at the expense of the client. As the stock market swings wildly during the Covid-19 pandemic, brokers take advantage by trading their clients’ accounts to generate commissions.

Brokers can open the door to churning by asking customers if they want an “active” trading strategy, which gives brokers discretionary ability to trade at will. Unless clients give specific directions on how and when to trade, brokers may take the opportunity to trade excessively and charge needlessly high commissions.

Churning has been the subject of numerous regulatory actions over several decades. Broker Frank Venturelli, a representative for First Standard in Red Bank, New Jersey, was cited by FINRA for excessive trading between 2016 and 2018. According to FINRA settlement, clients lost more than $373,000 during that period. Venturelli was suspended from the industry for 11 months and ordered to pay partial restitution of $30,000 to his clients.

Chicago-based Stoltmann Law Offices has represented investors who’ve suffered losses from dealing with unscrupulous investment brokers selling exchange-traded products. Many of these high-risk products are unsuitable for retail investors.

With the COVID-19 crisis roiling financial markets, many investors have been sold products that rise when market indexes or individual securities fall. Many “exchange-linked products” (ETPs) often use borrowed money, or leverage, to magnify gains when the market drops, but they can also increase losses. They are generally only suitable for sophisticated investors and are linked to complex underlying futures contracts.

When the coronavirus crisis first made major headlines in the U.S. in early March, the stock, bond and commodities markets crashed. Since markets over-react to widespread greed and fear, traders went into mass selling mode over (later justified) expectations that demand for nearly everything from luxury goods to commodities would drop dramatically.

Chicago-based Stoltmann Law Offices has represented investors who’ve suffered losses from dealing with unscrupulous investment brokers selling risky variable annuities.

Variable annuities are hybrid products that combine mutual funds within an annuity “wrapper.” As a retirement savings vehicle, you can invest in a variety of stock, bond and other funds that compound earnings tax free. Unlike “fixed” annuities, which pay a set rate of return and a guaranteed monthly payment, variables are not focused on guaranteed income and performance is based on market returns, so you could lose money. Both products provide a death “benefit,” that is, a lump-sum payment to survivors when the annuity holder dies.

The main reason variable annuities are often a bad deal for retirement investors is they are extremely expensive to own. In addition to sales commissions, mutual fund managers levy fees. There are also insurance-related expenses, riders, and other fees that act as a drag on return. Brokers often tout the tax “benefit” of owning a variable annuity, but then sell then to investors in their IRAs, which is a huge problem.

It has taken longer than most practitioners expected, but finally, a securities regulator has formally filed a complaint against GPB Capital and its myriad private placement funds.  Stoltmann Law Offices has been representing GPB Fund investors since January 2019 and filed dozens of cases against a laundry-list of brokerage firms that sold these speculative, conflict-laden disasters to their clients. Those brokerage firms we have filed cases against include National Securities, Madison Avenue, Kalos Capital, Newbridge Securities, Ausdal Financial, D.A. Noyes, and others. Every client’s case is unique, but fundamentally, each one of our GPB cases begin with the brokerage firm’s duties and obligations to perform due diligence on private placements prior to offering these opaque, complicated, unregulated, and speculative investments. This obligation is rooted in FINRA RN-10-22 and several other notices. Stoltmann Law Offices has written extensively on this blog about GPB and its numerous issues.

The regulatory complaint filed by Secretary Galvin of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, alleges that GPB misrepresented material facts in connection with the offer of several of its funds. Galvin’s complaint details the gross conflicts of interest at play inside of and between these various GPB Funds. The Administrative Complaint alleges that GPB Capital Holdings, LLC violated MASS. GEN. LAWS ch. 110A, the Massachusetts Uniform Securities Act (the “Act”), and the regulations promulgated thereunder at 950 Mass. CODE REGS. 10.00 – 14.413 (the “Regulations”). The Enforcement Section also alleges that GPB Capital engaged in acts and practices in violation of Section 101 of the Act and Regulations. The Massachusetts action goes for the jugular, seeking ten forms of relief including rescission or all Massachusetts GPB investors, disgorgement of profits, civil penalties, and permanent bars from the securities and investment adviser industries.

Generally, the complaint alleges what those of us prosecuting FINRA cases for investors have known for some time. GPB began to pay investor distributions with new investor money beginning as early as 2017.  This created an accounting disaster and GPB cannot find an auditor worth its salt to perform and sign off on an audit. The complaint also confirms the exceptionally complex spider web of interrelated companies across the funds and holding companies, including hundreds of different bank accounts. Eventually, all road lead back to David Gentile, the founder. The Massachusetts complaint also confirms that GPB used the promise of high commissions payable to selling brokers, and lots of bold promises about 8% distributions and a profitable exist plan, to raise $1.5 billion from retail investors nationwide. Selling brokerage firms collectively earned close to 10% of that total raise, or $150,000,000 in commissions for selling these conflict-laden complicated funds.

Chicago-based Stoltmann Law Offices, P.C. is currently investigating claims on behalf of TCA Global Credit Fund and TCA Fund Management Group investors involving Royal Alliance advisor Mark Young, and Watts Capital, LLC and Thomas Watts. On May 11, 2020, the United States Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filed a civil suit in federal court in Miami, Florida against TCA Fund Management Group and TCA Global Credit Fund.

The SEC complaint seeks to prevent TCA Fund Management Group and the Global Credit Fund from committing ongoing securities law violations and also sought the appointment of a receiver. The SEC alleges that for many years, the TCA Global Credit Fund, through its affiliate TCA Fund Management, intentionally inflated the net-asset-value – or price – of the fund hiding massive losses from investors. The SEC alleges that TCA inflated these values in two ways.  First, the fund recognized revenues that it never actually received. It would essentially book a gain on loan fees prior to actually receiving them and if the loans never closed, TCA would not adjust their books to reflect reality. The second way TCA artificially inflated its books, according to the SEC, was to book investment banking fees it never actually earned, and actually knew in many instances that it would never earn. Basically, the way this scam worked, according to the SEC, is TCA would enter into a contract with a company to perform investment banking services for, let’s say, $100,000.  Instead of waiting to actually perform the services and receive the $100,000 payment, TCA would book the $100,000 as received on their books at the time the contract was executed. The result of these practices was to provide investors with inflated values of these funds. The SEC alleges that these practices violations Section 17(a) of the Securities Act of 1933, 15 U.S.C. Section 77q(a), and Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, 15 U.S.C. Section 78j(b), and Exchange Act Rule 10b-5, 17 C.F.R. Section 240.10b-5; and violations of Sections 206(1), (2), and (4), along with Section 2076 of the Investment Advisers Act of 1940, 15 U.S.C. Sections 80b-6(1), 80b-6(2), 80b6(4), and 80b-7, and Advisers Act Rules 206(4)-7 and 206(4)-8, 17 C.F.R. Sections 275.206(4)-7, 275.206(4)-8.

According to documents field with the SEC for TCA funds, called a Form D, TCA Fund Management Group used numerous FINRA-Registered broker/dealers to sell  investments in the TCA Global Credit Fund for many years including:

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 is investigating allegations that Linan Abrego (aka Ma Rosa Linan Abrego) misappropriated client funds at Merrill Lynch. According to published reports,  Abrego was barred by FINRA for failing to appear or respond to an inquiry in connection with her termination from Merrill Lynch on June 10, 2019 for misappropriating client funds. The misconduct reported by FINRA alleges that Linan Abrego of McAllen, Texas, failed to appear as required by FINRA Rule 8210 and accepted a lifetime ban from the securities industry, instead of answering FINRA or providing information in furtherance of FINRA’s investigation. According to her publicly available FINRA BrokerCheck Report, Ms. Linan Abrego was registered with Merrill Lynch as a broker and financial advisor from December 6, 2016 to June 10, 2019 when she was terminated for cause by Merrill Lynch for “misappropriating client funds.” Pursuant to FINRA Rule 8210, if FINRA requests a broker sit for on the record testimony (called an OTR) and the broker either refuses or simply does not show up or refuses to provide answers to written questions, or refuses to produce documents requested by FINRA in the course of their investigation, this can be grounds for being permanently barred from the securities industry. It is the equivalent of a career death sentence. Once a broker is barred for life by FINRA, absent extraordinary circumstances, that person will need to seek a career change.

Typically, brokers who refuse to show up for a Rule 8210 request do so knowing they are sacrificing their securities licenses. Some brokers may be near retirement or are not interested in maintaining their licenses, so they rather not submit themselves to an OTR, which can be stressful and require retaining legal counsel. Other brokers fail to show up for an OTR because they fear the testimony they will give may be incriminating if they are truthful. The FINRA AWC agreed to and signed by Ms. Linan Abrego only states he failed to show up for the OTR and provides no further explanation for barring her from the securities industry. Linan Abrego did this willingly, and instead of providing testimony from FINRA about why she was fired by Merrill Lynch, she chose to accept a lifetime ban from the securities industry.

Routinely, financial advisors who steal money from their clients do it in such a manner which should have alerted the firm’s compliance or supervision departments. Many times this sort of theft is facilitated by the broker simply forging withdrawal forms or requests. Another common way brokers steal money is to set up a third party LLC or other entity to which the broker directs client money directly from their accounts through wire transfers.  Sometimes the clients allow these transfers because the broker tells them these transfers are an investment in a company, or it’s where her commissions are paid to. No matter the ruse, sophisticated brokerage firms like Merrill Lynch are required to have procedures in place to catch their brokers if they attempt to steal client money. Whether there were unauthorized withdrawals or transfers from your accounts, every FINRA brokerage firm, like Merrill Lynch must have robust Anti-Money Laundering rules and regulations in order to ensure a level of alertness in these circumstances. Failing to properly execute these procedures which results in a broker stealing client money results in liability for the firm for negligent supervision, putting Merrill Lynch on the hook for the losses.

Think financial crooks are much smarter than you are?  Usually not.  They can be lazy, looking for the simpler ways to make a buck like many of us.  And like home burglars they are seeking the easiest way to loot. The open basement window is a quicker way to get in and come out not empty handed than the dead-bolted front door.

For a Wells Fargo representative, wide-open basement windows were Navajo Indians who were both elderly and didn’t speak English. CNN reported the Navajos sued Wells in 2017, claiming workers from the financial giant stalked basketball games and other community events from 2009 to 2016 to prey on its members by selling them unnecessary accounts.  To settle the claims of fraud, Wells paid the Nation $6.5 million.

In announcing the settlement in a press release, the Nation said Wells had conducted a long campaign of predatory and unlawful practices.  The Nation originally filed a suit against Wells in December 2017.  After a judge in that case dismissed it on the grounds Wells Fargo had settled with U.S. federal authorities in 2016, the Nation filed a separate lawsuit in Navajo Nation District Court during November 2018 reasserting its tribal and common law claims.

FINRA permanently barred former Securities America financial advisor, Bobby Wayne Coburn (“Coburn”) on August 27, 2019 after he failed to appear at the disciplinary hearing. This came after Securities America terminated Mr. Coburn on March 20, 2019 for soliciting multiple clients to invest in an unapproved private securities transaction. He also tried to settle a complaint made by a customer without notifying the firm. According Mr. Coburn’s FINRA BrokerCheck report, the securities were in the form of promissory notes and real estate securities.

On notice of Coburn’s violations, FINRA promptly initiated an investigation into Coburn in July 2019. According to the Acceptance, Waiver, and Consent (“AWC”) FINRA entered against Coburn, Securities America learned in January 2019 that Coburn sold unregistered securities to clients in 2010 and 2011. Securities America also discovered the Coburn settled a customer complaint relating to this scheme in 2016 without providing the required notice to his firm and FINRA.  When FINRA requested documents and information from Coburn, he informed FINRA that he was no longer working in the securities industry and refused to produce the documents and information, in violation of FINRA Rule 8210. FINRA also found that Coburn violated Rule 2010, which is a “catch all” rule requiring that brokers and firms conduct business with “high standards of commercial honor” and maintain “just and equitable principles of trade”. FINRA permanently barred Coburn from the securities industries for violating these rules.

Coburn’s career in the financial services industry began in 1986 at Ameritas Investment Corp. During his thirty-three year career, he bounced from firm to firm, and landed at Securities America in January 2009. He worked from the Fort Meade, Florida branch office. Two customers have filed complaints against Coburn, including one complaint related to the real estate investment scheme. According to his BrokerCheck report, Coburn sold the client an investment in a Costa Rica real estate development, which did not make the required payments pursuant to the promissory note. The complaint for $32,000 was settled for $7,000. The entire settlement was paid by Coburn. Another client of Coburn and Securities America formally complained about an unsuitable variable annuity that Coburn sold, and the $5,000 complaint was settled for nearly $55,000, with Coburn contributing $5,000.

Would you complain about your broker to the Financial Investor Regulatory Authority (FINRA) if you thought your odds of success were good?  They are, at least so far in 2019.  In the first half of 2019, investors won 44 percent of the arbitration cases they filed against brokers and brokerage firms from January through June of this year, according to FINRA statistics.  This is an improvements from the 38 percent investor win rate five years ago.

Another piece of good news for investors is mediation cases are being decided faster.  Mediation is a common way to resolve investor cases filed with FINRA without having to go through an arbitration hearing.   The turnaround time it takes to resolve cases through mediation has shrunk from 126 days to 93 days, a 26 percent improvement.

The number of private equity claims filed by investors cases are increasing as more of these types of investment products are appearing in the portfolios of retail investors with 63 claims filed in the first half of 2019 compared to 54 filed in all of 2018.  Investors are also bringing more actions involving Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITS) while claims involving Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) declined by close to half from January to June 2019 (60) compared to January to June 2018 (104).  Claims involving muni bonds, a mainstay of retirees aiming to safeguard their principal, have also dropped from 331 from 462.

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