ALABAMA SECURITIES COMMISSION

770 WASHINGTON AVE, SUITE 570

MONTGOMERY, ALABAMA 36130-4700

Telephone: (334) 242-2984 or 1-800-222-1253. Fax: (334) 242-0240

Email:  asc@asc.state.al.us.  Website:  www.asc.state.al.us

 

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

 

INVESTOR ALERT--"Top 10" investment frauds

 

MONTGOMERY, ALABAMA (August 26, 2002) – Joseph P. Borg, Director of the Alabama Securities Commission, today released an updated list of the “Top 10” scams, risky investments or sales practice abuses they’re fighting. New to the third annual list are unscrupulous brokers, conflicts of interest in analyst research, charitable gift annuities, and oil and natural gas scams.

 

“Record-low interest rates and a bear market on Wall Street have created a bull market in fraud on Main Street,” said Borg. “Con artists know investors are concerned about low interest rates on fixed investments and volatility in the stock market, so they pitch their scams as safe alternatives and promise high returns – an impossible combination.”

 

The 2002 list was again topped by independent insurance agents selling risky or fraudulent securities. Borg said that while most independent insurance agents are honest professionals, too many are letting high commissions lure them into selling high risk or fraudulent investments.

 

The federal war on terror and large budget deficits at the state level are diverting or pinching resources to fight investment fraud, Borg warned.

 

“Putting people in jail gives investors the biggest bang for their regulatory buck,” said Borg. “So legislators at all levels need to ensure that prosecutors have sufficient resources to successfully bring securities cases.”

 

Here are the “Top 10” investment scams, ranked roughly in order of prevalence or seriousness:

 

1.      Unlicensed individuals, such as independent insurance agents, selling securities. In hundreds of cases from Washington to Florida, scam artists are using high commissions to entice independent insurance agents into selling investments they may know little about. The person running the scam instructs the independent sales force – usually insurance agents but sometimes investment advisers and accountants – to promise high returns with little or no risk. For example:

- more -

 

To verify that a person is licensed or registered to sell securities, call the Alabama Securities Commission. If the person is not registered, don’t invest.

 

2.      Unscrupulous stockbrokers. The declining stock market has caused some brokers to cut corners or resort to outright fraud, say state securities regulators. In addition, some investors have grown more cautious and are scrutinizing their brokerage statements for unexplained fees, unauthorized trades or other irregularities. In North Dakota, regulators acting on a complaint from an investors who received conflicting account statements discovered that two brokers working for H.D. Vest Investment Securities Inc. had been issued fictitious account statements executed hundreds of unauthorized trades and made unsuitable recommendations – over 80 percent of their clients were trading put options – to investors. Under a settlement agreement with state securities regulators, H.D. Vest agreed to repay clients’ out-of-pocket losses plus 6 percent, totaling over $3.2 million.

 

In New York, the attorney general’s office took action against seven brokers and two firms for bilking hundreds of elderly investors out of more than $12.5 million through a pay telephone scam. The brokers pressured investors into liquidating their CDs, annuities and IRAs, sometimes at significant penalty, and promised them “risk-free” 14 percent returns. So far one firm has agreed to pay $5.9 million in restitution.

 

3.      Analyst research conflicts. In May, the New York Attorney General’s office concluded a 10-month investigation into whether Merrill Lynch had issued misleading research reports by entering into a settlement agreement with the firm. Under the agreement, Merrill Lynch agreed to pay a $100 million fine and make significant changes to way it does business. NASAA is assisting a multi-state task force investigating conflict of interest issues at Wall Street firms. The primary focus of the ongoing investigation is to determine whether analysts issued glowing research reports and made buy recommendations in order to win investment banking business. State investigators are now reviewing materials provided by a dozen firms for possible securities law violations.

 

In June NASAA learned of an attempt by Morgan Stanley Dean Witter to amend an early version of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act with language that would have ended the states’ probe into whether Wall Street analysts intentionally misled investors. NASAA held a press conference and met with lawmakers; the draft amendment was ultimately not included in the bill.

 

4.      Promissory notes. These are short-term debt instruments often sold by independent insurance agents and issued by little-known or non-existent companies promising high returns – upwards of 15 percent monthly – with little or no risk.

- more -

In June, four Georgia-based scam artists were each sentenced to 17 ½ years in prison for recruiting independent insurance agents to sell millions of dollars worth of bogus promissory notes. While investors were promised nine-month returns as high as 21 percent, half of each investment went straight to commissions that were divided among company principals and sales agents. Acting on a tip from the Better Business Bureau, Georgia securities regulators seized nearly $5 million of the $8 million stolen from local investors and, together with federal investigators, used the evidence uncovered to broaden their investigation and prepare criminal charges. In the end, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, working with Georgia regulators, found the ringleader – Virgil Womack – had scammed over $150 million from investors nationwide. Of the $150 million, nearly $90 million was seized and returned to investors. The average age of the victims was 68.

 

In another case, a Maine court sentenced an insurance agent to seven years in prison for running a promissory note scam that took 25 investors for more than $1 million. The agent, who was sentenced in June, told investors the notes were “better than certificates of deposit and life insurance policies,” regulators said, and that they would yield 10 percent to 12 percent returns annually.

 

“A 12 percent return may not seem over-the-top by bull market standards, but it’s far more than banks are offering now for insured deposits,” said Chris Bruenn, administrator for the Maine Office of Securities.

 

5.      Prime banks. Scammers promise investors triple-digit returns through access to the investment portfolios of the world’s elite banks. Purveyors of these schemes often target conspiracy theorists, promising access to the “secret” investments used by the Rothschilds or Saudi royalty.

 

In Texas, a Harlingen-based con artist promised returns of 6 percent to 8 percent a month through a secretive web of money dealers supposedly set up by a coalition of governments in 1914 to pay for World War I debt. In videotape shown at Monday’s press conference, the promoter claimed that seven “world traders” control the entire global money supply. In the end, the scam took over 300 investors for roughly $6 million.

6.      Viatical settlements. Originated as a way to help the gravely ill pay their bills, these interests in the death benefits of terminally ill patients are always risky and sometimes fraudulent. The insured gets a percentage of the death benefit in cash and investors get a share of the death benefit when the insured dies. Because of uncertainties predicting when someone will die, these investments are extremely speculative. In a new twist, Pennsylvania regulators say “senior settlements” – interests in the death benefits of healthy older people – are now being offered to investors.

 

In June, 15 individuals were indicted in connection with a scam that cost hundreds of investors nationwide at least $100 million. State securities and insurance regulators, together with federal regulators, allege the individuals, employed by Liberte Capital Group, were involved in a scheme to buy life insurance policies from terminally ill individuals who lied to insurance companies about their medical conditions. Liberte managers used investor funds to support lavish lifestyles, including investments and the purchase of large homes and dozens of boats and cars. A receiver has been appointed in the case.

- more -

7.      Affinity fraud. Many scammers use their victim’s religious or ethnic identity to gain their trust – knowing that it’s human nature to trust people who are like you – and then steal their life savings. From “gifting” programs at some churches to foreign exchange scams targeted at Asian Americans, no group seems to be without con artists who seek to take advantage of the trust of others.

 

In Alabama, nine individuals have been charged with scamming members at the Daystar Assembly of God church in Prattville out of more than $3 million. Investors were told their money would be used to purchase retirement properties in Florida. The income generated by the Florida properties would be used to payoff the mortgage of the Prattville church and build a large activity park, investors were told. In reality, state securities regulators allege, the money went to pay off investors in a previous scam and to purchase equipment for unrelated businesses.

 

8.      Charitable gift annuities. These annuities are transfers of cash or property to a charitable organization. The value of the annuity is less than the value of the cash or property, with the difference constituting a charitable donation. While most annuities offered by charitable organizations are legitimate investments, investors should be cautious of little-known organizations or those that provide only sketchy information.

 

In Arizona, regulators uncovered a scam that took 430 investors nationwide for an average of $133,000. The scam involved the purchase of charitable gift annuities from the Mid-America Foundation. According to regulators, Robert Dillie, founder of Mid-America, ran what amounted to a $54 million Ponzi scheme through a network of independent insurance agents, financial planners and accountants. Dillie used investors funds to purchase three homes in Las Vegas, a ranch in South Dakota, pay child support, book charter flights and support his extensive gambling.

 

“Unfortunately, Mid-America is not an isolated scam,” Mark Sendrow, director of securities for the Arizona Corporation Commission told reporters Monday. “We are looking at two more foundations in the Phoenix area which have issued millions of dollars of charitable gift annuities in the last few years, and both were basically penniless before they began issuing them.”

 

9.      Oil and gas schemes. These scams follow the headlines, rising in frequency with predictions of oil shortages or a rise in gas prices. In Arkansas, securities regulators forced Energy Consultants and Ark-La-Tex Consulting Co., L.L.C. to discontinue their marketing efforts after finding a natural gas well touted to investors as a ‘can’t lose’ opportunity hadn’t produced natural gas in years.

 

10. Equipment leasing. While the vast majority of equipment leasing deals are legitimate, thousands of investors have been scammed by individuals selling interests in payphones, ATMs or Internet kiosks. In a typical equipment leasing scam, a company sells a piece of equipment through a middleman. As part of the sale, the company agrees to lease back and service the equipment for a fee. Investors are promised high returns with little or no risk. But state regulators say high commissions paid to salesmen and promised returns that are unrealistically high doom many projects. In North Carolina, regulators took action against an individual who sold an Internet kiosk to an investor for $24,950, promising a 17 percent return. The individual had previously sold payphone leases to investors from a company that later filed for bankruptcy.

Before investing, state securities regulators urge investors to call their offices and ask if the individual selling the investment is licensed to do so. Regulators say investors can also save themselves a lot of grief by asking a second question – whether the investment itself is registered. To check out an investment or salesperson, contact the Alabama Securities Commission:

 

ALABAMA SECURITIES COMMISSION

770 WASHINGTON AVE, SUITE 570

MONTGOMERY, ALABAMA 36130-4700

 

Telephone: (334) 242-2984 or 1-800-222-1253. Fax: (334) 242-0240

Email:  asc@asc.state.al.us.  Website:  www.asc.state.al.us

 

###

If you have questions or require more information contact:

Daniel G. Lord

Education and Public Affairs Manager