If you're interested in becoming more financially literate, it wouldn't hurt to spend a few days hanging around with some securities regulators.
Regulators from the 50 states, Canada and Mexico gathered in Providence, Rhode Island for their annual conference this week, and their grim revelations would be enough to rouse even the laziest investor to do homework before handing money over to a broker or investment promoter.
The group, known as the North American Securities Administrators Association, or NASAA, shared stories of con artists selling fake securities on Craigslist, accountants and lawyers exploiting longtime clients' trust to peddle scams, and a swelling number of complaints by elderly investors.
If you think you're immune, you should know that some of the worst stories involved greedy investment professionals who took advantage of family members or long-time pals. Yeah, I know, that could never happen to you. I'll bet that's what they thought, too.
The lineup of defendants was so bad that even our 2016 presidential candidates might agree these guys and gals were a "basket of deplorables."
Among the odious schemers I learned about this week was Minnesota insurance agent Sean Meadows, who ripped off 100 investors, many of them seniors, in a $13 million Ponzi scheme. According to court documents, he used funds from new investors to make payments to previous ones. He also spent proceeds on Las Vegas casinos, a new car, and -- wait for it -- $135,000 in visits to adult entertainment establishments. That's a lot of lap dances.
Mike Rothman, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Commerce and president of NASAA, said one of Meadows' victims lost the money she'd counted on to pay for her cancer treatments. Meadows, who pled guilty to mail fraud, wire fraud and money laundering, was sentenced in June to 25 years in federal prison.
Regulators say a troubling trend in investor rip-offs is something they call "gatekeeper fraud." People like lawyers and accountants who have longstanding relationships with clients are increasingly abusing the trust that's developed over the years, pitching products that are useless or non-existent.
James E. Neilsen, a certified public accountant in Connecticut, allegedly promised returns of between 9% and 10.5% on $7 million in fraudulent securities that he sold to victims that included his accounting clients and his 93-year-old great aunt. One of his victims was a friend of at least 18 years, according to documents filed in the civil case brought by the state.
In a separate criminal case, he pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud and was sentenced in January to 97 months in prison.
Neilsen's promises of huge returns sound modest compared to another accountant who lost his license in 1996 but kept a tax consulting business going for years after that.
The trusting clients of Clarence C. Young, Jr. of Washington State surely didn't check state CPA records when he allegedly guaranteed returns of 18%-to-24% in a fund called Safeguard Capital LLC. Had his victims done a quick search of the state's Board Accountancy site, they would have learned he was booted out 20 years ago after failing to respond to inquiries about a complaint against him.
In 2013, Young entered a settlement with the Washington State Department of Financial Institutions after being charged with selling $7 million in unregistered securities. Among other things, the state said Young had spent more than $3 million of his investors' money on his family vineyard.
Last year, he pleaded guilty to 10 counts of securities fraud in a related criminal case and awaits re-sentencing after an initial sentence was deemed too low to meet federal sentencing guidelines.
Although the total years of prison sentences related to financial fraud declined in 2015 over 2014, regulators say there still are painful consequences for deserving fraudsters. Joseph Rotunda, director of enforcement at the Texas Securities Board, cheerfully reported at one of the Providence meetings that a Ponzi schemer who sold $37 million in bogus promissory notes had been sentenced to 19 years. "Incidentally, that will be a Texas prison," he said with a smile on his face. "And we actually don't have air conditioning in Texas prisons."
Working with criminal authorities, state regulators obtained 849 years of incarceration in 2015, and another 23 years of deferred prosecutions and 410 years of probation.
States ordered their targets to return $538 million to investors, but it isn't clear whether that's a number to celebrate. Nasaa spokesman Bob Webster said the group doesn't have a tally of the total money lost last year. So far, only $197 million of the $538 million has been returned, according to Webster, although that number could rise if more defendants decide to pay up.
Regulators say scams in 2015 looked a lot like the ones they dealt with the year before. Frauds by Ponzi guys, real estate and oil and gas program promoters and Internet and affinity fraudsters dominate the top five problems. Among Internet frauds, several regulators pointed out that more people are being taken by scams on Facebook, Craigslist and online dating sites.
The good news is that regulators scared off 2,900 brokers who tried to register in their states last year by demanding additional information before they'd let them sell to their residents. Those brokers withdrew their requests once it became clear they'd been red-flagged.
A lot of people will tell you that financial literacy amounts to understanding things like why bond prices go up when interest rates go down. My take: You can be a genius at understanding the financial markets, but if you don't vet your advisers, it may not matter that you aced the advanced finance course in your senior year of college.
You can check a CPA's status at the CPAverify. Edited versions of stockbrokers' records are at Finra's BrokerCheck. You can steer clear of a lot of bad guys if you use the tools that are out there. They're counting on the fact that you won't.