How Bad Financial Advice Can Literally Make You Sick

Editor's pick: Originally published June 15.

Holly Marchak and her husband lost $2.3 million when they were defrauded in the Ponzi scheme of the so-called "Brooklyn Madoff." Nine years later, she's still paying for it.

She spends thousands of dollars a year on prescription drugs alone. Marchak, who lives in Orlando, Fla., began weeping as she told me the story of Philip Barry, now in federal prison, who defrauded her and her husband Alex Marchak. The money had been proceeds from the sale of a building that housed a funeral home the couple owned.

Marchak, 62, says she takes medication for anxiety, high blood pressure, asthma and heart problems. "There are times we don't want to wake up in the morning," she said. "My doctor has a mile-long, thick file on me and says it's all stress-related."

Lawyers who represent investors say the stress of a serious financial loss can trigger a whole new wave of costs for clients. Medical research has linked stress to viral infections, asthma, atherosclerosis, ulcers and increased risk for diabetes mellitus, among other diseases. More focused studies highlight the hazards of financial stress.

Marguerite DeLiema, a postdoctoral researcher at the Stanford Center for Longevity who studies the prevalence and cost of financial fraud, said that 17% of fraud victims in a recent online pilot study said they sought professional or medical help after the incident. In a separate study by the Finra Foundation last year, 35% of fraud victims said they became depressed after they lost their money. Some 24% reported physical health problems. A 2008 poll by the AP and AOL linked heavy debt with increased health problems. 

Ask David J. Allio about the $1.1 million he says he lost in his account at Santander Securities Corp. and he'll take a few minutes to talk about the upending of his retirement budget and the depletion of an education fund for his 10-year-old twins. 

But it doesn't take long for the conversation to shift to a separate drain on his energy and finances.

"I've spent more time with doctors in the last eight months than in my entire life," he said in a telephone interview from his home in Puerto Rico. "I was a pretty happy person before this happened. Now I go to bed at night and it's all I think about."

Allio's new health problems have added to his expenses as he pays for drugs to treat an increased heart rate, multiple visits to specialists to treat debilitating back pain and an assortment of x-rays and MRIs. Allio said he is convinced that his health issues are linked to his financial stress.

In a complaint filed with Finra two years ago, Allio, 58, said that Santander put him in a speculative Puerto Rican bond fund and told him to "hold tight" when he expressed worries that the shares had begun to decline. The shares subsequently plunged. Santander said in its answer that Allio was a sophisticated investor with a liquid net worth of $7 million who did not follow his broker's recommendation to diversify. A Santander spokesperson declined to comment. On August 26, the two sides are scheduled to face off before a panel of Finra arbitrators.

A big investment loss can shatter investors of any age, but Miami lawyer Melanie Cherdack says the impact on older investors can be particularly punishing.

"The emotional damage is much more profound in people who have retirement accounts," she said. "Retirees have no ability to earn the money back and they eat themselves up asking 'What did I do wrong?' -- even in the face of egregious behavior by a broker."

Cherdack's client, Annette Hernandez, said that even on his deathbed in 2014, her 87-year-old father would pore over his account statements from UBS Securities, trying to make sense of how he'd lost so much of his principal in various Puerto Rican securities. Those losses today have reached nearly a million dollars, Cherdack says. Hernandez and her mother filed a complaint against UBS with Finra, and await a hearing in January of 2017.

"His last words to me before he died were 'Please lend me $5,000,'" she recalls of her last visit with Herman Hernandez in the intensive care ward of a Florida hospital. She says her father's diabetes was exacerbated by the depression that set in as he became increasingly nervous that he would not be able to provide for his wife after he died. Today, Annette Hernandez helps support her mother, 82.

In its answer to the Hernandez complaint, UBS said that the investments were "entirely suitable" and that the account, which was opened in 1999, generated $960,000 in tax-advantaged income over the years. UBS did not respond to email inquiries.

Suffering investors would be foolish to expect any sympathy from the titans of the securities industry.

Over the course of its shameful six-year crusade to shut down a proposal that would raise the standards expected of financial advisers who give retirement advice, the industry has talked a lot about costs -- just not the costs to investors.

The Wall Street lobbying group Sifma said in a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Labor this month that the agency's new rule to force brokers to put the interests of customers before their own will cost the industry tens of billions of dollars.

The securities industry has made it clear that it wants the option of making minimal commitments to its customers. From the looks of things, it's literally making some of those customers sick.

The Merchaks, the couple who lost $2.3 million to the Brooklyn Madoff, have set up a non-profit company that offers seminars to help investors understand the signs that a financial adviser may be engaged in fraud. Meanwhile, they have sued four banks that they blame for looking the other way as Barry's account activity raised red flags of illegal activity. The litigation is ongoing.

"It's David against Goliath" to take on the banks, said Alex Marchak. But at this point, what does he have to lose? 

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