Articles Posted in Fraud

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 continues to investigate investor claims related to UBS YES products.  In recent years, with savings yields at rock bottom, investors have been eager to attempt to safely earn a higher return on their money. Wall Street has responded with so-called “yield enhancement strategies” (YES) designed to pump up returns. But these strategies eek out this extra yield by employing extremely risky options trading strategies.

What brokers haven’t told investors in countless pitches, however, is that yield enhancement products are complicated and carry numerous hidden risks. The UBS YES program, involving an “iron condor” options trading plan, has attracted a great deal of attention recently. Investors are suing UBS, the Swiss wealth management firm, claiming they lost money when UBS brokers enrolled them in the strategy. Arbitration claims against the company have also been filed with FINRA, the securities industry regulator.

Investors who invested in the UBS YES program claim they suffered losses, even though the firm claimed the strategy was “conservative” and “low risk,” according to Wealthmanagement.com. What investors apparently were not told is how complex and convoluted the YES strategy was:

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 investors who’ve suffered losses as a result of financial advisors who sell investments that are technically “unauthorized” by their firms. These side gigs, while profitable for the broker due to high commissions, are prohibited by FINRA, the industry regulator.

Brokers may pitch clients on a private securities transaction, for example. Of course, the investors rarely have any clue that what they are being asked to invest in is “unauthorized” or a “private securities transaction.” Sometimes these take the form of stock offerings that are unlisted. Broker Henry A. Taylor III, for example, then working for the Cetera brokerage firm, sold $30,000 in private stock that invested in a trucking firm. Taylor did not notify his firm of the sale and had initially deposited his client’s check in his personal account.

After a FINRA arbitration claim was filed, the regulator fined Taylor $7,500 and suspended him for three months earlier this year. Taylor neither admitted nor denied the findings of the FINRA action. The original transaction took place three years ago.

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 is investigating reports of selling away and securities fraud engaged in by Douglas Kiffmeyer.  On July 27, 2020, Douglas Kiffmeyer pleaded guilty to 17 counts delivered via indictment in June 2018.  Kiffmeyer pleaded guilty to two counts of wire fraud, 18 U.S.C. Section 1343, 14 counts of failing to timely file income tax returns, 26 U.S.C. Section 7203, and one count of engaging in a financial transaction in criminally derived property, 18 U.S.C. Section 1957.  Kiffmeyer has yet to be sentenced but under federal criminal sentencing guidelines, should received between 46-57 months in prison. At times relevant to perpetrating his criminal scheme, Kiffmeyer was a registered representative and financial advisor for FINRA broker/dealer Brokers International Financial Services, LLC.

According to Kiffmeyer’s FINRA BrokerCheck Report, many of the entities through which he conducted his fraudulent investment scheme were disclosed as “outside business activities” to his member-firm. According to the Stipulation of Facts entered on July 27, 2020, Kiffmeyer’s scam began as investments he solicited in a company called Creative Digital, Inc., which he represented was designing a digital trigger for the M-16 rifle. In total, Kiffmeyer raised $827,000 for Creative Digital, Inc., but spent almost all of the money on a GMC Sierra 1500 truck, a Hummer H2, a motor coach, a Corvette, a Nissan 370, and an engagement ring. According to the Stipulation, of the $827,000 raised, only $1,500 was returned to investors.

Kiffmeyer’s scheme took a different and even more sordid turn next. He began selling promissory notes to elderly investors, convincing them to surrender IRAs and annuity products in exchange for promissory notes bearing interest. One of his victims was 90 years old. The last part of Kiffmeyer’s scam involved selling interests in a medical marijuana clinic. Little, if any, of the $206,000 raised for this company was used for the business and was instead converted for personal use.

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.

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