Financial advisors are in positions of trust – they manage our life savings, provide financial advice, and protect our best interests. Or, they are supposed to. While most financial advisors are reliable and trustworthy people, some unscrupulous advisors use their position of trust to take advantage of their customers by stealing customers’ money.
In our firm’s experience representing investors for over 20 years, we have seen theft carried out in a number of different ways, but there are two schemes that occur most often.
First, in many theft cases, the advisor solicits his or her customers to purchase some type of investment, or engage in some type of business dealings, that requires them writing a check. The check could be made out to the broker or some entity that the broker controls. Instead of using the customer’s money for a legitimate investment or business deal, the advisor diverts the money for his or her own personal use.
Second, advisors who set out to steal from their clients often do so simply by making unauthorized withdrawals from their customers’ investment accounts, either through forgeries, misrepresentations, or some other method of concealment that works for a period of time.
The best thing an investor can do to protect him or herself from theft is to be aware of common fraud tactics and to watch out for the recognized "red flags." Never, ever hand your broker a check payable directly to the broker or his or her own company. You should send your money to the institution that is going to take custody of your money, rather than the person who is selling you the investments.
It’s also important that you keep an eye on your investment account statements to look for potential signs of unauthorized withdrawals. Theft from brokerage accounts directly is unfortunately more prevalent with elderly investors who are more vulnerable due to medical issues or cognitive impairment – so it’s a good idea to follow up on your elderly loved one’s accounts and their withdrawals as well.
Yes, financial advisors charge for their services - just like anyone else who needs to make a living. That said, you should have clarity on exactly how much you’re paying and how that payment is calculated. If you can’t get a straight answer about how much you’re paying or how it’s calculated, it’s possible your advisor isn’t being honest with you. Additionally, be on the lookout for any charges or fees on your statement that you don’t understand.
Commingling happens when your advisor adds his or her name next to your own on the title of your account. Any statement you get from the account should have your name and your name alone. If your advisor's name is on it too, it’s possible they have adjoined their own name. When commingling happens, it grants access to the advisor that they shouldn’t have and may allow them to make decisions about your funds without your consent.
The silver lining is that a person who has suffered financial loss because of theft often has options to recover their hard-earned savings. All brokerage firms have a duty to reasonably supervise their brokers and vigorously investigate red flags. It is our experience that theft cases often leave a trail of missed red flags that were neither adequately identified nor investigated by the brokerage firm.
If you suspect that a broker may have stolen funds from you or a loved one, contact our firm today for a free consultation to discuss your legal rights.