Articles Posted in Fraud

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, 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:

Chicago-based Stoltmann Law Offices  represents investors who’ve suffered losses from dealing with unscrupulous investment brokers. On April 28, 2020, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority’s (FINRA) Department of Enforcement filed a complaint against an ex-Ameriprise representative, alleging he converted more than $42,000 of an elderly client’s funds for his own use. Sean Michael Refsnider, of Haddon Heights, New Jersey, was a representative at Ameriprise from 2012 until Aug. 20, 2019. The company stated he was fired after it concluded that his client’s funds were “misappropriated.” FINRA is the chief U.S. regulator of broker dealers.

According to the FINRA complaint, Refsnider allegedly “procured a check from `Customer A’ in the amount of $20,000 and then used the funds to pay his mortgage and other personal expenses.” Refsnider allegedly also had used a debit card linked to the client’s account to make purchases totaling about $17,317, in addition to $4,300 in cash withdrawals, the complaint said. Ameriprise said in a statement that it “quickly detected and stopped the activity, ensured the client was fully reimbursed, terminated the advisor and notified the proper authorities.”

In the past, Ameriprise has been cited by regulators for failure to protect customer assets. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) fined Ameriprise $4.5 million in 2018 to settle charges “that it failed to safeguard retail investor assets from theft by its representatives.” According to the SEC’s order, five Ameriprise representatives “committed numerous fraudulent acts, including forging client documents, and stole more than $1 million in retail client funds over a four-year period.” The SEC also found that Ameriprise, a registered investment adviser and broker-dealer, “failed to adopt and implement policies and procedures reasonably designed to safeguard investor assets against misappropriation by its representatives.” The five Ameriprise representatives were based in Minnesota, Ohio, and Virginia, and three previously pled guilty to criminal charges. Each of the representatives was terminated by Ameriprise for misappropriating client funds and barred from selling securities by FINRA.

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 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.

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.

The smoke has been steadily rising from GPB Capital Holdings for about a year at this point. Over the last few months, however, it has been all quite on the GPB Capital front. The main talking points being communicated by GPB Capital to brokers and financial advisors to then deliver to their investor-clients, have been that everything at GPB Capital is fine and that the audited financial statements will be delivered in no time. Well, as the Wizard of Oz said, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.” Just today, InvestmentNews published a story reporting that an executive at GPB Capital has been indicted for obstruction of justice. Nothing happening indeed.

According to a press release issued by the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, on Wednesday, October 23, 2019, a superseding indictment was unsealed charging Michael S. Cohn, Managing Director and Chief Compliance Officer with obstruction of justice, unauthorized computer access, and unauthorized disclosure of confidential information. According to the indictment, Mr. Cohn was an employee of the United States Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) when he left the commission for a position with GPB Capital Holdings. In the course of that transition, Mr. Cohn is alleged to have stolen investigatory files and materials relevant to the ongoing SEC investigation into GPB Capital and then delivered those materials to his brethren at GPB Capital. FBI Assistant director-in-charge William Sweeney was quoted in the press release stating, “When Cohn left the SEC to join GPB, he left with more than his own career ambitions.” What’s worse, when Cohn was interviewing for his job with GPB, he let them know he had this information and shared it. The grand jury indictment  contains allegations, which if proven beyond a reasonable doubt, could land Mr. Cohn in prison for decades.

The fact that GPB Capital hired Mr. Cohn after he told them that he had inside information about the SEC’s ongoing investigation into GPB, is as clear an indication yet that GPB Capital is running an unreliable and highly questionable business, where at a minimum, ethics are of no concern. Investors should be concerned about this latest development because it indicates a few important points. First, it’s an indication that the SEC’s investigation into GPB is still ongoing. Second, the indictment reflects the acts of an allegedly corruptible person who was entrusted at GPB with being the company’s chief compliance officer – a position for the incorruptible. It is staggering that GPB would hire Mr. Cohn after he approached the firm with clearly illegally obtained information and highly confidential documents.

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