Articles Posted in Theft/conversion

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 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  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 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.

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:

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.

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