Did your money end up in the wrong place? Are you a victim of securities fraud? You are not alone. Millions of investors have lost money through brokerage fraud, misconduct and mismanagement. Contact the Forman Law Firm today for a free case evaluation.

This week FINRA published a Recovery Checklist for Victims of Investment Fraud and at the risk of being called sensitive, it seems the Checklist seemed to omit, at least on its face, that hiring an attorney may be the most direct route to seeking any compensation that may be due from being a victim of a financial crime or a victim of investment fraud.  Granted, if you click through to the embedded links, you will find another page published by FINRA titled “Legitimate Avenues for Recovering Investment Losses.”  Therein you will find FINRA’s suggestion that “…You may want to hire an attorney to represent you during the arbitration or mediation proceedings to provide direction and advice.”  I guess it is nice to be considered a “legitimate” avenue by FINRA, as any suggestion of illegitimacy would not sound quite as nice.

But back to the “Checklist.”  FINRA provided a number of resources to report the crime, and victims of investment fraud and financial crimes should report these crimes to all appropriate agencies, as those agencies represent the only real process that can (whether they will is a different issue) bring criminal or regulatory charges against the perpetrator.  However, it is in my experience rare that the authorities responsible for enforcing the criminal and regulatory statutes will recover the victim’s damages, although it certainly happens from time to time.  That is not their real responsibility–they want to enforce the criminal laws and regulations and put deserving criminals behind bars or revoke licenses.  Yes, recovery will sometimes be the product of criminal enforcement, but hiring someone that has no purpose other than representing the victim in seeking the appropriate recovery is wise.

I am glad FINRA acknowledges that the damage done by investment fraud not only includes the damages from financial loss, but also includes  “…at least one severe emotional consequence—including stress, anxiety, insomnia, and depression.”  These damages are real, and should be recoverable in arbitration, right?  Well, FINRA knows that it is not easy to recover from investment fraud, and states so plainly.  FINRA states, “While full financial recovery may be difficult to achieve…” and again states  “It can be difficult to recover assets lost to fraud or other scenarios in which an investor has experienced a problem with an investment. But there are legitimate ways to attempt recovery. In most cases, you can do so on your own—at little or no cost.”  Alas, is this a comment on the fairness/difficulty in recovering legitimate damages in its own arbitration forum?  Perhaps, but don’t expect FINRA to connect these dots.  But given this  admitted “difficulty”, why does FINRA seemingly encourage victims of investment fraud to go it alone?  FINRA is certainly aware of what can happen to the investor/claimant/victim proceeding on their own  against veteran Wall Street attorneys in its FINRA arbitration forum—something akin to throwing raw meat into a crowded lions’ den comes to mind.  Granted, experienced FINRA arbitrators will recognize a meritorious claim before them, but when it comes to recovering money from investment fraud, don’t go it alone!

As a Texas securities attorney I have been involved in the securities industry over much of the last three decades, and it seems the debate over the fairness of mandatory arbitration before FINRA between customers and firms or brokers has been heated, and near constant.  Periods of greater scrutiny seem to only coincide with any rule proposal or legislation which has the potential of tilting the playing field in one direction or the other. During this debate, FINRA statistics seem to used by both sides (the consumer advocates and the industry) to support their respective arguments, but do these statistics tell us anything about “fairness.”

For those that may not have had the pleasure of engaging in this titillating debate,  it may be generally summed up as follows:  “Is FINRA Arbitration Fair, And Does It Offer Any Compelling Advantage to Either the Industry or the Public Customer?”  It is not surprising that each constituency group argues zealously they are “right” in their analysis of fairness, or the lack thereof.  However, and more interestingly, these constituencies can sometimes be found to argue “Yes” before some audiences, and “No” before others, perhaps suggesting a more candid insight while their respective guard is down, if not some resignation, about the current process and maybe a “kiss your sister” type of fairness.

Some background may be helpful for those not familiar with the origins of the debate.  In 1987 the United States Supreme Court decided in the Shearson v. McMahon case that brokerage firms can contractually mandate arbitration for claims brought by their customers, thus forcing citizens to give up their right to the court system  and a jury.  It was heralded as a fair trade-off given the so-called fairness, efficiency, and economy of arbitration versus the court system.  Since then, the debate continues:  Is FINRA arbitration fair, and does it still offer compelling reasons to waive a right to a jury trial? Pragmatically speaking, the answer may not matter because it is likely, if not certain, that the customer agreement used by every brokerage firm contains a provision requiring mandatory arbitration before FINRA, and change to the status quo will only come, if at all, from the legislative and rule making process, or perhaps from a new decision from the Supreme Court, but don’t hold your breath.

Can I Sue My Stockbroker?

Well, yes and no.  The question is more appropriately “How do I sue my stockbroker?” or “Where can I sue my stockbroker?”  As I will explain shortly, the common denominator to all of these answers is that investors can (and should) seek recovery when their stockbroker breaches a duty owed to them and they suffer losses.

The short, but correct answer is “No,” you are likely prohibited from suing your brokerage firm in Court, and can only bring a claim in FINRA arbitration (which may look like a “Yes” answer…).  All broker-dealers (think Merrill Lynch, Edward Jones, LPL, Wells Fargo, and any company that employs a stockbroker) must be registered with the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), the Self-Regulatory Organization that is vested with the regulation of brokers and the enforcement of rules governing the brokerage industry.  All firms and their brokers are supposed to comply with FINRA’s rules and procedures, and these rules set forth many of the duties owed by the firm and the broker to the customer.  When one or more of these rules are violated, a customer can be harmed and lose money (account losses) or be prohibited from making money (missed profits).  One of these rules requires the broker-dealer to submit to a customer’s demand for arbitration using FINRA’s Dispute Resolution Forum–so even if there was no agreement to arbitrate, the customer could mandate that the firm submit to arbitration, but it is generally perceived that investors would prefer to be in a local court, before a local judge, and a jury of their peers.

Stockbroker Fraud and Investment Fraud: How Is It Discovered?

It should go without saying that it is rare that a stockbroker ever confesses to making unsuitable recommendations, illegally recommending private investments away from the firm, churning an account or switching annuities to generate commissions, pushing variable annuities, or telling the client that they didn’t have the authority to trade without first getting permission. Rare, indeed, it simply doesn’t happen, and with Wall Street refusing to adopt a fiduciary duty standard for its brokers, such confessions won’t happen anytime soon. So if it must be discovered by the client, how is it discovered?

In my experience stockbroker fraud and misconduct is usually noticed by someone other than the client: a CPA, a probate or estate planning attorney, a cynical friend not taken in by the broker’s charm and excuses, or even a new broker that recognizes the misconduct of the prior broker. Of course, the client probably has had suspicions, but acting on those suspicions calls into question why the client trusted the broker in the first place— not an easy self-analysis, and even harder to admit that your choice in brokers was wrong and you have been taken advantage of. Not to mention the fact that the broker is likely explaining that “everyone lost money”, “just hold on…it will come back”, making it even harder to face the problem. Hope springs eternal for many investors and if the markets rebound, thereby hiding the sins, everyone is OK, right? So many claims simply lay dormant while clients ignorantly go along their merry way. Isn’t that what Wall Street and the individual brokers secretly want? It certainly is to their advantage that valid claims go quietly unnoticed.

Might Just Be A Stockbroker’s Selling Away
And That Could Mean You Get Your Money Back.

We have seen a rise in PONZI schemes since the market dropped, but will they keep going with a strong market? A PONZI scheme is essentially when a con man robs Peter to pay Paul in order to keep the con going, all the while living off of the capital. However, many PONZI schemes involve the help from a Wall Street Stockbroker. Sometimes they are part of the con, and sometimes they are simply reponsible for introducing or referring the investor to the scheme, not even knowing it is a con. Either way, you have valid claims.

Most of the time, victim investors in a PONZI scheme get very little back, although occasionally a Receiver will recover assets that can be distributed to all. However, if any investor was simply introduced to the scheme by a registered stockbroker, such investor may be able to recover his investment.

All stockbrokers are required to be registered by FINRA, the regulatory and licensing body for all stockbrokers and brokerage firms. Fundamentally, brokerage firms are required to protect the public investor by detecting and preventing securities fraud and broker misconduct. When a firm fails to detect and prevent misconduct, it is called a failure to supervise. And in the context of a PONZI scheme that is aided by an unwitting stockbroker, brokerage firms can be liable to those clients. Most importantly, FINRA Rules require every stockbroker that participates in any manner in the sale of a security outside of his/her firm to notify the firm and get permission to participate in the deal. If permitted, the firm is responsible for supervising that broker’s participation. However, brokers often do these deals “away” from the firm, hence the term “selling away“, and when brokers get you involved in these schemes without the protection of their firm, both the broker and the firm can be liable. Why? Because the firm is supposed to detect and prevent the broker’s unapproved participation in the scheme.

Many investors think they have no recourse, but if the broker simply refers you or introduces you to the Ponzi con man, the firm can be held liable even if the broker wasn’t making a specific recommendation for you to invest in the scheme. Your claim is even stronger if the broker is getting paid for his referral. If you have been referred by a stockbroker to some investment that has gone south, contact a good lawyer that knows how to recover your money.
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Deep Behind the Pine Curtain In Uncertain, Texas, a once favored son from Tyler, Texas, Richie McFarland’s luck has run out. Last week, Richie pleaded guilty to mail fraud before U.S. District Judge T. John Ward, and was sentenced to 8 years and 1 month in the federal system, plus he must pay $8.8 million in restitution to certain investors. That’s what happens when you raise $30 million from almost 350 investors around the country. From the inside looking out, it didn’t have to be that way for Richie who had every opportunity to profit from honest enterprise, but as with most con-men, something went wrong. What was it—greed, eternal optimism, or simple criminal desires? Who knows, but the victims all share the same trait—trusting their money to a con man and left with no place to turn.

Apparently over the last decade or so, Richie has run a number of investment scams under various names such as Delta Interests, Inc., Caddo Resources, LTD, Synterra Investments, Boomtown, LLC and perhaps other entities chiefly offering investors interests in non-existent oil wells, oil and gas leases and other supposed drilling programs. Investors’ efforts to secure repayment of lost investments appear to have been fruitless over the years, thwarted by the legal system, bankruptcies, and ineffective regulatory oversight, but recent efforts by the U.S. and State governments and regulatory bodies will land Richie in jail. Are there more cons in the woods of East Texas, and throughout small town America?

PONZI schemes can be simple or complex, but they all seem to have at their source a perversely gifted con man that can talk plain folk, street savvy and highly educated investors alike out of millions. What leads a gifted person from a caring family like McFarland to defraud friends, family and otherwise unknown investors with friends and family out of millions of dollars of hard earned money? Greed, stupidity, or a death spiral so strong that even the stalwart can’t survive. Obviously McFarland’s con was on a much smaller scale than Bernie Madoff or Sir Allen Stanford, but no less damage was inflicted on the victims. Do they know that one day the gig will be up, or do they believe that they will escape the same post mortem of every other PONZI scheme con man—namely time in a federal correctional facility with a restitution order that will never be paid. Said another way, are there countless cons like McFarland, Madoff, Stanford or George Hudgins that do, in fact, escape all scrutiny and simply move from one con to another living off of their ill-gotten gains? If so, something is wrong in the regulatory world whose officers and agents are charged with protecting the innocent investors of every walk of life from these con men.

What are investors to do? As the old adage goes, if it sounds too good to be true—IT IS! While an ounce of prevention in the form of good sense before investing is definitely worth a pound of cure when one deals with a PONZI, often the only possible recourse is to find someone other than the snake-oil salesman who is responsible. In many instances, these scams lead through registered brokerage firms, commodities firms, banks and other regulated institutions that have laws and regulations that require their vigilance and supervisory oversight. In those instances, investors may, indeed, have a valid recourse to recovering their lost investments by the entity that should have detected and prevented the scam from starting or continuing. Frequently investors are successful in recovering their losses when someone with deeper pockets had a legal responsibility to detect the con, and protect the investors. If you have invested in something that now sounds “too good to be true”, check with a securities fraud attorney competent in recovering these funds.
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Do brokerage firms knowingly turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to the Ponzi schemes recommended by their brokers, or are there instances where brokers really are successful in hiding these schemes from even the most vigilant financial firms? Not surprisingly, the answer is “yes” to both questions. However, it should come as a surprise because firms really don’t have any upside when their brokers participate in outside business activities or private securities transactions. Pursuant to Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) Rules 3030 and 3040, brokers are required to notify their firms of any outside business or investment opportunity they get involved in, and with regard to the investment opportunities, the brokerage firm is required to supervise the scheme just as if it was branded and endorsed by the firm. When firms don’t properly supervise these outside securities transactions, they can be held financially responsible for the victims’ losses.

According to the United States Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC) it filed 60 enforcement cases that involved Ponzi schemes, with some of the most notable being Bernie Madoff and Sir Robert Allen Stanford who made off with an alleged $50 Billion and $7 Billion, respectively. But one thing is certain, given the heyday of the last bull market and no doubt the lifestyles built by these con men and even well intending stockbrokers, there will be more PONZI schemes in the news.

For those that find themselves victims of PONZI schemes, more troubling may be the fact that the regulators such as the United States Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC), Financial Industry Regulatory Authority and various states securities regulators may have received advanced warning in these schemes, but slow to act. Many of these regulatory bodies and their employees have found themselves the target of accusations that they simply turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to obvious warning signs, and in some instances actual knowledge of the wrongdoing. While the regulators are becoming more and more zealous in their enforcement efforts, they rarely recover an individual victim’s losses.