Monday, June 22, 2009

Maddoff Schemes and 5 More Financial Pitfalls

Bert Whitehead, M.B.A., J.D. © 2009

You probably know someone who knows someone who invested in Maddoff’s Ponzi Scheme. These ‘investments’ pay handsome returns, but not because the money is actually invested, but because investors who cash in on their ‘profits’ are paid off with cash received from new suckers.

With the recent market collapse, we are hearing of more and more of these frauds. That’s because these scams run out of cash when people take money out faster than new ‘investors’ are putting new money in. As Ben Bernanke quipped, “When the tide goes out, we can see who’s naked.”

This blog will discuss the Maddoff scheme as well as other classic ways investors lose money in investments -- and how you can protect yourself. Some of the safeguards I will discuss have been outlined in a series of articles by my colleague, George Marrotta, a Research Fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution which I have linked if you are interested in perusing.

1) The simple rule that Maddoff’s investors ignored is: “Don’t Let Your Advisor Have Custody of your Investments.” Maddoff’s investors sent their money directly to him; the paper statements they received were made up by him and his staff. Using Schwab or other independent custodians allows you to review your statement directly on-line at any time. Always make out your checks to Schwab with your account number on it, and check your statements to make sure the deposit was received. Cf.

2) Even with the safeguard of having an independent custodian custody your assets, it is still possible to get embezzled. There were recently two cases which individual advisors stole several million dollars from client accounts. In these cases, the advisors had very elderly clients and instructed them to sign transfers from their Schwab accounts to the advisor’s account, or the advisor had check writing authorization on their account.

This of course could happen to any of your accounts at a bank. The safeguard is simple: Make sure you review your bank and brokerage statements yourself every month and review withdrawals and transfers out to make sure you know what they were for and you received the money.

3) As we get older, it is much more difficult to keep track of everything in our lives. Your finances are one of the first areas impacted by old-age forgetfulness. If you find yourself becoming confused and forgetful with your finances, it is important to have someone in your life that you trust to review your finances with you. They can double-check to make sure mistakes aren’t being made. Where we notice that a client is becoming forgetful, we will bring it up and suggest a neurological exam, since this condition can greatly impact your financial situation if not dealt with appropriately.

4) The biggest scam I see our clients exposed to are private investment ‘opportunities.’ These usually have very nice glossy sales brochures and a salesman/organizer with a smooth line of snappy patter. These often involve unregistered securities which are virtually impossible to evaluate because there is not adequate financial information, disclosures, conflicts of interest, etc. to work with. We suggest you don’t even consider unregistered securities, even with (or especially with) friends and family. Time-shares are one of these scams.

5) If offered the opportunity to get in on the ground floor, ask them to email you a prospectus or ‘offering memorandum.’ I review a number of these deals every month for clients. Then I explain the risks involved, how the money is being used including payment of the organizers, the conflicts of interest involved, etc. This is the information which is technically ‘disclosed’ but that most people don’t read or understand. Once these factors are explained, clients generally take a more sobering approach to these deals.

6) It is also important to recognize and avoid financial hooks. In many investments the salesperson earns hefty commissions. This is disclosed in the fine print which no one reads. One clue is that you are charged a hefty surrender charge or penalty to get out in the first 5-10 years. For more information, go to

I do believe that a financial advisor should save a client more than the advisory fee charged. Often the savings in taxes, lower investment costs, avoiding commissioned products, insurance evaluation, getting better mortgage deals, etc. produce savings which are readily apparent.

But over my 37 years of doing financial planning, I think I have saved clients even more money by talking them out of inappropriate investments and keeping them from getting scammed.

If you have been dissuaded from an investment by your advisor, I’d like you to let me know about it. I’d like to do a blog someday on ‘Investment Horror Stories!’

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