Articles Posted in FINRA

Chicago-based Stoltmann Law Offices continues to see a surge of complaints from investors who bought unlisted or non-traded Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs). For most investors, the prospect of getting a higher yield on any investment has been alluring. With rates near zero, it’s been hard to earn a return that beats inflation. Enter REITs and funds that invest in them. These are special vehicles that bundle real estate properties into one investment: You can invest in everything from apartment buildings to storage units.

Many REITs are listed and traded on stock exchanges, but some are not, which are called “private” or “unlisted” REITs. In their heyday, REITs routinely paid double-digit yields. Unlisted or “non-traded” REITs have been a consistent sore spot for investors in recent years. Many are loaded with fees and commissions, which dramatically lower investors’ net returns. They even may be money losers, even though they are sold with the promise that 90% of the income generated by properties they hold must be paid to investors. Middleman expenses, which can be as high as 15%, eat up returns in most cases.

Disclosure of the actual financial condition of these vehicles has also been troublesome. It’s hard for investors to know the true value of the properties within these vehicles, which have been aggressively sold by broker-dealers, who make high commissions selling them. When the COVID-19 crisis wracked the economy earlier this year – at first hitting commercial real estate developers and owners particularly hard – REITs that specialized in retail and office properties got clobbered. Retail and Hotel REITs were down 48% and 53%, respectively (as of April 15), according to Deloitte. Investors in these funds, of course, may be still experiencing large losses.

Chicago-based Stoltmann Law Offices represents investors who’ve suffered losses due to recommendations by financial advisors and brokers to invest in Exchange-Traded Products (ETPs). With market gyrations giving average investors motion sickness this year, it’s understandable for many to find ways of hedging volatility. When the market is up one day and down another, it’s pretty unnerving.

That’s why Wall Street invented Exchange Traded Products linked to volatility indexes, which track the nervy fears of the market at large. When anxiety is high, these indexes are high. One of the most popular such indexes is the so-called VIX, which is managed by the Chicago Board Options Exchange. Brokers and advisors often recommend ETPs based on the VIX for clients who want to hedge against market volatility.

ETPs are securities traded on stock exchanges that can track anything from baskets of bonds to precious metals. For many investors, they can be efficient ways of owning commodities or hedging prices on nearly any kind of security. But each have their own risk profile. Some are clearly unsuitable for unprepared investors.

Stoltmann Law Offices, P.C. is investigating allegations made by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) that Jose Yniguez sold clients approximately $99,000 worth of investments in an outside company. Fortunately for defrauded investors, TransAmerica Advisors, the company with whom Mr. Yniguez was licensed and registered, could ultimately be liable for any losses in connection with these illicit investment recommendation. Victims of investment fraud can file claims through the FINRA Arbitration process to recover investment losses.

The allegations against Yniguez were unveiled just this week through FINRA regulatory filing called an Acceptance, Waiver, and Consent (AWC).  In this document, which is signed by Yniguez, FINRA Department of Enforcement alleges that on November 19, 2018, TransAmerica reported in a Uniform Termination Notice for Securities Industry (Form U-5) that Yniguez was terminated for “engaging in undisclosed activities with and referring firm and non-firm customers to investment with an outside entity without TransAmerica’s approval.” That Form U-5 spurred FINRA Department of Enforcement’s interest and it launched an investigation into Mr. Yniguez pursuant to FINRA Rule 8210.  FINRA concluded that Yniguez violated FINRA Rules 3270 and 2010 by failing to disclose his involvement with an outside company to TransAmerica. He also solicited eight firm customer to invest in the entity, which is a violation of FINRA Rule 3280.

Just because this activity was undisclosed, does not mean TransAmerica is off the hook. FINRA Rule 3110 requires TransAmerica to adequately supervise its financial advisors. Further, to the extent “red-flags” existed that Mr. Yniguez was engaging in this unauthorized activity, that creates an obligation to “peel the onion” and act. TransAmerica, for example, cannot just ignore emails sent by Yniguez discussing this outside company. It must act and protect both its clients and its own business interests. By failing to reasonable supervise Yniguez, TransAmerica can be liable for negligence to the investors in this scheme. Likewise, due to the fact that outside investments were securities; were sold by a securities broker; to clients of a securities brokerage firm; regardless of whether Yniguez disclosed it to the firm, TransAmerica can be liable for damages due to apparent agency or Respondeat Superior.

Chicago-based Stoltmann Law Offices has been representing investors nationwide against unscrupulous brokerage firms and their financial advisors for more than fifteen years. Sometimes one of the best ways to avoid bad brokers is to do a little homework. Doing a simple background check can reveal a number of red flags that will help you steer clear of bad actors. All broker records are publicly accessible through the regulator FINRA’s website on a service called BrokerCheck.

What does BrokerCheck tell you? While it may not give you a complete background profile, it will show you if they have been disciplined or fined by FINRA, the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and other agencies. A pattern of multiple violations is a sure signal that you should avoid them. BrokerCheck will also give you an employment history and information on the firms that employed them. Although it’s not unusual for brokers to jump from one firm to another, repeated employment disruptions may be a warning sign as well.

As the prime securities brokerage regulator, FINRA can fine, sanction and bar brokers from the industry. Complaints about brokers must be investigated – and recorded – by FINRA. If brokers refuse to cooperate with the regulator, they can lose their securities licensing and be expelled from the business.

Stoltmann Law Offices is a Chicago-based securities and investment fraud law firm that offers nationwide representation to victims of Ponzi schemes and other securities frauds.  We are currently investigating allegations made by the United States Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York that contend the Belize Infrastructure Fund I, LLC was a Ponzi scheme.  According to published reports, Minish “Joe” Hede and Kevin Graetz sold $9.6 million worth of promissory notes to their clients, many of whom were customers of their brokerage/dealer firm Paulson Investment Company.

According to the complaint filed by the SEC, Brent Borland, the principal of the Belize Infrastructure Fund who is also under indictment, approached Paulson Investment Company to act as “placement agent” for this fund. After the sales pitch, Paulson declined to act as the placement agent and disapproved of the investment. Whether Paulson Investment Company approved of the deal or not, meant nothing to Hede and Graetz who went on to sell almost $10 million worth of notes issued by the bogus company to at least 21 Paulson clients.  In so doing, Graetz and Hede violated numerous FINRA Rules and SEC rules and regulations by selling a fund that was not approved of by their broker dealer.  The SEC complaint also alleged that Hede and Graetz received hundreds of thousands of dollars in illicit commissions from selling notes issued by the Belize Infrastructure Fund.

Paulson Investment Company can still be held liable for the conduct of the firm’s registered brokers, Hede and Graetz. First, even though Paulson Investment did not formally approve of these sales, Hede and Graetz were still registered with the firm as brokers when these sales occurred so that means Paulson had an obligation to supervise their activities pursuant to FINRA Rule 3010. Additionally, “red-flags” that brokers may be “selling away” increase that responsibility. Certainly, having sold almost $10 million in this fund to 21 Paulson clients means there was, at a minimum: 1) a paper trail that they were selling these notes; 2) communications via email discussing the Belize fund; 3) transactional records, including the sale of securities in the clients’ legitimate Paulson accounts in order to fund the Belize Fund investments; and 4) client meetings.  Furthermore, brokers with numerous disclosures on their CRD Report require firms to put those advisors on “heightened supervision.”  According to his FINRA BrokerCheck Report, Graetz had numerous tax liens and customer complaints on his record before he started selling the Belize Fund to his clients.  Paulson Investment Company should have had him under a supervisory microscope. Instead, as is typical at brokerage firms like Paulson, the company invests minimally in its compliance and supervisory structure and brokers like Graetz and Hede end up selling firm clients almost $10 million in a Ponzi scheme.

Chicago-based Stoltmann Law Offices has represented hundreds of investors who have been victims of one of the most egregious investment frauds: Ponzi schemes. These swindles promise quick riches and rely upon an increasing number of “investors” to keep the operation going, sometimes over a period of years. The schemes eventually blow up when new investors can’t be found to perpetuate it or promoters are outed by investors or associates for faking returns.

The most famous Ponzi scheme – and perhaps one of the largest – involved broker-money manager Bernie Madoff. Over a period of 17 years, Madoff defrauded thousands of investors, lying about profitable trades. In 2009, he was sentenced to 150 years in prison, after pleading guilty to a $65 billion swindle of some 65,000 victims around the world. Many of Madoff’s victims, which ranged from non-profit organizations to celebrities, were financially ruined. A court-appointed “Madoff Victims Fund” has distributed nearly $3 billion to investors. His sons, who worked for their father’s firm, turned Madoff into authorities when they learned of the scam.

Despite the notoriety of the Madoff swindle, Ponzi schemes are still ensnaring innocent investors. As one of the oldest investment fraud vehicles around, the Ponzi scheme has two selling points: Promoters promise outrageous returns in a short period of time and rely upon continuing stream of new victims to “pay off” early investors in fake profits. This perennial false promise of easy riches makes it one of the most durable schemes for dishonest brokers, who continue to sell them — until the frauds collapse.

Chicago-based Stoltmann Law Offices, P.C. continues to see a surge of investor cases involving “alternative” investments like non-traded REITs, BDCs, oil and gas LPs, and other private placements. These “alts” are almost always considered to be on the speculative end of the risk scale, and frankly, they usually perform poorly and result in investor losses.

Alternative investments cover a wide variety of unconventional investment vehicles. They may employ novel or quantitative trading strategies or pool money for investments in commodities or real estate, for example. The one thing they all usually have in common is steep management fees along with commissions. Both expenses come out of investors’ pockets. Examples of alternative investments, or “alts” in industry parlance, include unlisted or “private” Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs), private equity, venture capital and hedge funds. While they are generally sold to high-net worth investors who can afford to take on increased risk, they are usually illiquid and complex. Brokers who sell these vehicles may not fully disclose how risky they are. Most of these investments are unregulated, so supervision by regulators is typically light or non-existent.

Investors can file arbitration claims with FINRA if brokers sell inappropriate alternative investments to clients. A year ago, FINRA censured and fined the broker-dealer Berthel Fisher in connection with sales of “inappropriate” alternative investments. FINRA awarded six investors $1.1 million and fined the firm $675,000. Berthel Fisher has had a history of running afoul of investors and regulatory fines. In 2014, the firm was fined $775,000 by FINRA for “supervisory deficiencies, including Berthel Fisher’s failure to supervise the sale of non-traded real estate investment trusts (REITs), and leveraged and inverse exchange-traded funds (ETFs).” The firm was also selling managed commodity futures; oil and gas programs; business development companies; leveraged and inverse Exchange Traded Funds and equipment leasing programs.

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.

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