Articles Posted in Ponzi Scheme

Chicago-based Stoltmann Law Offices is investigating claims made by the Securities and Exchange Commission that financial advisor Scott Fries of Piqua, Ohio engaged in a Ponzi-like scheme , defrauding investors of nearly $200,000.  According to the complaint filed by the SEC last week, Fries raised approximately $178,000 from investors and used that money to pay personal expenses like his mortgage, payday loans, and credit cards. The SEC further alleges that Fries attempted to fraudulently conceal his activities by creating fake account statements which he delivered to his clients that purported to show their money invested in legitimate investments. The SEC alleges Fries’ misconduct violated several federal securities laws including Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 (“Exchange Act”), 15 U.S.C. § 78j(b), and Rule 10b-5 thereunder, 17 C.F.R. 240.10b-5, Section 17(a) of the Securities Act of 1933 (“Securities Act”), 15 U.S.C. § 77q(a), and Sections 206(1) and 206(2) of the Investment Advisers Act of 1940 (“Advisers Act”), 15 U.S.C. §§ 80b-6(1) and 80b-6(2).

Before the SEC took action, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) barred Fries from the securities industry in November 2019 for violating FINRA Rule 8210. In response to being terminated for cause by his broker/dealer firm TransAmerica, FINRA launched an investigation into the allegations which led to Fries’ termination. If a broker/advisor fails to respond to these requests for information under FINRA Rule 8210, they can be barred for life from the securities industry. In many instances, brokers refuse to answer Rule 8210 requests because doing so would put them in the untenable position of having to answer question under oath.  It is likely, given the SEC’s allegations, that Fries chose not to answer FINRA Rule 8210 requests because it was not in his best interest for their to be a record of whatever this scheme actually was.

Investors who were caught up in this scheme run by Fries have legal options to attempt to recover their losses.  First and foremost, at all times relevant, Fries was a registered, licensed, representative of TransAmerica. This means victims – even those that were not contractual customers of TransAmerica – can file an arbitration action against TransAmerica to seek recovery of their losses. As a FINRA registered broker/dealer firm, TransAmerica is legally obligated to supervise the conduct of its financial advisors. This supervision requirement is rooted in the Securities Act and all applicable state laws, including myriad FINRA Rules and regulations, including FINRA Rule 3110.  Case law also supports the proposition that even non-customers of the firm can sue for the firm’s role in facilitating or failing to supervise their advisors. See McGraw v. Wachovia Securities, 756 F. Supp. 2d 1053 (N.D. Iowa 2010). When “red flags”of misconduct present themselves, firms like TransAmerica have a duty to act and to take steps to protect investors.

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 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.

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.

LPL terminated financial advisor Dain F. Stokes on August 28, 2019 for selling unregistered promissory notes to clients that purported to invest in a project in Africa allegedly sponsored by Taylor Swift. According to InvestmentNews, Stokes converted at least $576,000 from two clients, whom he solicited to invest in this phony charity project, which he sold as being created by Swift to help needy people in Africa. Stokes claimed to have a close relationship with Swift, telling clients that she personally hired him to manage the finances of the Africa project and to promote a new song release by her in June 2019. He also told clients that Bill Gates was involved in the project.

The State of New Hampshire Department of State Bureau of Securities Regulation filed a petition and order against Stokes after an investor (“Investor #1”) invested $201,000 in the Africa Project between August 1, 2018 and January 25, 2019. Stokes used promissory notes to facilitate these investments. According to the promissory notes, Investor #1 would receive the return of his entire principal plus 20% interest by making this investment. Payment on the first promissory note was initially due by November 8, 2018, however the due date was continually pushed back by Stokes. At one point, he even told his client that President Donald Trump allegedly froze his assets. Stokes was ordered to pay $201,000 plus interest in restitution to Investor #1 and a $20,000 fine for violating New Hampshire Blue Sky Laws, which prohibit the fraudulent sale of securities (RSA 421-B:5-501) and the sale of unregistered securities (RSA 421-B:3-301(a)). To date, a second investor who invested $375,000 has come forward.  The New Hampshire Department of State Bureau of Securities Regulation has since frozen Stokes’ assets and issued an injunction prohibiting him from speaking with those who invested in this scam.

New Hampshire authorities interviewed Stokes, who refused to provide any details about the African charity, claiming that all information, including the name, was privileged. He also refused to reveal whether the checks, which were made payable to him personally, were invested in his personal accounts.

Stoltmann Law Offices, P.C. continues to investigate investor claims and reports involving former Invest and LPL Financial  registered representative James T. Booth, of Norwalk, Connecticut, who was indicted on charges of securities fraud, wire fraud, and investment advisory fraud on September 30, 2019.  According to the unsealed indictment, Booth is alleged to have executed a Ponzi scheme which effectively converted almost $5 million from forty clients. The unsealed indictment was filed in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, Case No. 19-CRIM-699, and can be viewed here. Although Booth operated his own company called Booth Financial Associates, he was at all time relevant to this scheme a licensed and registered representative with FINRA member brokerage firms Invest Financial Corporation and LPL Financial.

As we previously discussed on this blog, James Booth was  terminated from LPL Financial on June 26, 2019 for allegedly converting $1 million from his clients. On July 1, 2019, Booth consented to a lifetime ban from the securities industry after FINRA investigated information provided to it by LPL established that Booth converted – or stole – $1 million from clients by depositing the funds into personal accounts for his own use. According to the FINRA Acceptance Waiver and Consent (AWC), Booth committed these alleged acts from approximately April 2014 to May 2019. Looking back, it appears that both LPL and FINRA underestimated the scope of this scam because the SDNY now alleges that Booth stole $4.9 million.

According to FINRA, numerous clients have filed complaints against Invest and LPL Financial to recover funds stolen by Booth. Some of these complaints have already been settled with full recoveries. FINRA Rules and securities industry regulations require brokerage firms like Invest Financial and LPL Financial to supervise their financial advisors. The foundation for this obligation to supervise to found in the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 which states:

Stoltmann Law Offices has been investigating Northridge Holdings and Glenn Mueller on behalf of several clients over the last several months. On September 5, 2019, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filed a complaint against Glenn Mueller, Northridge Holdings, and several other Mueller-controlled companies, in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.  The complaint alleges that since at least 2014, Mueller, through his tangled web of entities, has orchestrated a veritable Ponzi scheme, raising in access of $40 million from investors based on the representation that he was purchasing properties with those funds. The truth is, Mueller has not purchased a piece of property since 2012. Instead of using investor money to purchase properties, Mueller used new investor funds to make interest and principal payments to previous investors, in class Ponzi-payment fashion. These funds were also used to pay “finders” commissions for referring new investors to Northridge. The SEC also alleges that Mueller used investor funds for personal and family use, including to make loans to family members and trade stocks and options in personal brokerage accounts.

The SEC’s allegations blow the lid off of Northridge and Mueller’s schemes. Although Mueller and his finders represented the “notes” sold by by Northridge were “secured” by property, they are not. In fact, although Mueller claims the full liquidation value of his real estate is over $100 million, he owes investors and mortgages on those properties more than that. Despite all of his representations to the contrary, Mueller and his companies are “upside-down”.  The Daily Herald also details the religion-based sale pitches used by Mueller which is an all too common hook used by schemers.

The next steps for investors is to await the appointment of a receiver. According to the docket report for this case, there is a hearing on Wednesday, September 11 during which the SEC will request the court appoint a receiver and freeze all of Mueller’s and his subsidiaries’ assets. Assuming this request is granted, which given the allegations seems likely, the receiver will begin the process of marshaling assets, selling off properties, and collecting funds to repay creditors and investors.  How long this process takes and how much money investors can expect to get out of this is anyone’s guess. The fact of the matter is, and according to the SEC, Mueller owes more money than his properties are estimated to be worth. Further, any liquidation of real estate creates a buyer’s market, so whatever purported value these properties have, they will likely be sold at a discount eventually.

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