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Financial Fraud – Tips to Protect Yourself

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Financial fraud is all over the news.  Whether high-profile Ponzi Scheme cases via the likes of Madoff, Allen Stanford or many smaller cases, investors are being defrauded out of their hard-earned money at an alarming rate.

Financial Fraud – Tips to Protect Yourself

I’d like to tell you that the problem emanates only from financial advisors who sell product, but sadly two former presidents of NAPFA, the country’s largest organization of fee-only advisors, have been implicated in fraud cases in recent years.

Given the increasing skill and imagination of fraudsters there is no fool-proof way to protect you and your family from financial fraud.  None the less here are some tips for you to reduce the risk:

Use a third-party custodian

If a financial advisor suggests that you don’t need to house your investments with a third-party custodian such as Schwab, Fidelity, your bank, Merrill Lynch, etc. I suggest that you run (don’t walk) away from any relationship with this person.

This was one of the key tactics that Madoff used to perpetrate his fraud for so many years. He even sent his own client statements. While a third-party custodian is not fool-proof, you should insist upon this arrangement. Besides receiving an independently prepared statement, you can generally set-up online access.

Review your account statements

Read and review your account statements on a regular basis. Besides being a good practice, this is a must to catch both honest mistakes and potentially fraudulent transactions. Several years ago, an advisor allegedly took client funds from accounts at Schwab by forging their signatures. I’m sure that he was counting on the fact that many clients never review their account statements or check their accounts online.

Affinity Fraud

Don’t assume that you can trust an advisor just because he or she attends your church or you are in the same Rotary club. Affinity fraud is far too common. Many of Madoff’s victims were members of the Jewish community up and down the East Coast. I’m not saying to disqualify an advisor because they are a member of your church, but they should be put through the same level of scrutiny as any other advisor that you would consider.

Beware the rush job

If an advisor is insistent that you invest NOW, be very leery. There is no investment that is that urgent. Investments should be made after careful planning to ensure that they are part of a strategy that is right for you. Don’t let yourself be pressured into doing anything with your money. High pressure often equals a scam.

Only invest in what you understand

If you don’t understand an investment vehicle proposed by a financial advisor don’t allow your money to be invested there. Demand he or she explain the investment to you until you do understand it so that you can make a good decision.

Elder Fraud

If you have elderly parents or relatives talk to them about investment scams as many are aimed at seniors. While this can be a touchy subject, it is an important one. Sadly, a high percentage of the financial fraud aimed at seniors is perpetrated by family members. Your help here may include protecting these people from other members of your own family.

Stay engaged

Overall make sure that if you work with a financial advisor that you stay engaged in the process of managing your money. While it is great to find a trusted advisor, make sure you continue to ask questions about the advice they are providing and why they feel a particular investment or course of action is right for your situation.

The Bottom Line

Financial and investment fraud is rampant. The steps above can help but overall be diligent about your finances and the people you are trusting to provide you advice. Be especially leery of unsolicited calls urging you to invest in the next hot thing. If something sounds too good to be true it probably is.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email. Please check out the Hire Me tab to learn more about my freelance financial writing and financial consulting services.  

Photo credit:  Wikipedia

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That Nice Man at Church Wants to Sell Me a ….

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My point here is that just because you and a financial product sales type attend the same church or are both members of the same Rotary club doesn’t mean that the financial products or services this person is selling are right for you. English: Bernard Madoff's mugshotMy original inspiration for the above was a pro bono financial counseling event in which I participated about 15 years ago.
I counseled a young couple with two young kids.  A registered rep from their church had sold all four of them a variable annuity product.  For the life of me I can’t come up with a good reason for a 7 and a 9 year old to buy a variable annuity policy. I was trying to be diplomatic in my answers when the wife said to me “…we really got _____ed…”  It was hard to disagree.

On a positive note, a client once asked me to review a long-term care insurance policy they were considering that was offered by an insurance company affiliated with their religious persuasion.  The policy had excellent features, the company was solid, and the price was competitive.  They purchased the policy.

Here are a few examples of affinity fraud from a Wikipedia article on the subject:

  • “Baptist investors lose over $3.5 Million”: The victims of this fraud were mainly African-American Baptists, many of whom were elderly and disabled, as well as a number of Baptist churches and religious organizations located in a number of states. The promoter (Randolph, who was a minister himself and who is currently in jail) promised returns ranging between 7 and 30%, but in reality was operating a Ponzi scheme. In addition to a jail sentence, Randolph was ordered to pay $1 million in the SEC’s civil action.
  • On November 16, 2007, Michael Owen Traynor a Bradenton, Florida, investment broker, who had found many of his clients though his church and private school social circles, was arrested on a first degree felony grand theft charge that he had stolen $6.5 million from his investors. It is believed Traynor stole funds from at least 34 clients in Sarasota, Manatee and Hillsborough counties between 2001 and February 2007. Traynor was subsequently sentenced to 12 years in Florida state penitentiary.
  • “125 members of various Christian churches lose $7.4 million”: The fraudsters allegedly sold members non-existent “prime bank” trading programs by using a sales pitch heavily laden with Biblical references and by enlisting members of the church communities to unwittingly spread the word about the bogus investment.
  • On December 11, 2008, Bernard Madoff, an American businessman, was arrested on charges of securities fraud, having been turned in by his own sons after allegedly telling them his business was a “giant ponzi scheme“. According to the New York Post, Madoff “worked the so-called ‘Jewish circuit’ of well-heeled Jews he met at country clubs on Long Island and in Palm Beach.”. Additionally, one of Madoff’s middlemen was J. Ezra Merkin of Ascot Partners. According to Samuel G. Freedman of the New York Times, Merkin was prominent in the Modern Orthodox community. This allowed him to defraud institutions such as Yeshiva University,Kehilath Jeshurun Synagogue, the Maimonides School, Ramaz and the SAR Academy. 

Should a religious or other affinity connection disqualify a prospective financial advisor?  Of course not.  However, this affiliation should not serve to give an advisor or a financial product a free pass either.

In all cases, verify then trust.  Check out the advisor and/or the company behind the financial products you are considering.  Put them through the same rigor you would if the affinity connection was not there.  Tragically there are people who prey on the trust and validity that can come via an affinity connection.  Don’t be another victim of affinity fraud.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email. Please check out the Hire Me tab to learn more about my freelance financial writing and financial consulting services.  

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