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On September 18, 2018, the SEC initiated a civil action (the “Complaint”) against Defendants World Tree Financial, LLC (“World Tree”), Wesley Kyle Perkins (“Perkins”), and Priscilla Gilmore Perkins (“Gilmore”).  The Complaint alleges that Perkins and Gilmore, husband and wife owners of World Tree, engaged in a purported “cherry-picking” scheme.  Specifically, the SEC has alleged that World Tree would routinely allocate winning trades to themselves or favored clients at the conclusion of the trading day, to the detriment of disfavored clients who received the losing trades.  As alleged in the Complaint, this practice, referred to in the securities industry as “cherry-picking”, amounts to an impermissible allocation of trades in violation of various securities laws, including Sections 209(d), 209(e)(1), and 214 of the Investment Advisers Act of 1940 (“Advisers Act”).

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World Tree was co-founded in 2009 by Perkins and Gilmore and is structured as a Louisiana corporation with its principal place of business in Lafayette, LA.  Until June 15, 2012, World Tree was registered with the SEC as a registered investment advisor (“RIA”), at which time it withdrew its registration.  Currently, Word Tree remains registered in the State of Louisiana as an investment advisor.

As alleged by the SEC, World Tree manages all of its clients’ assets on a discretionary basis, meaning that it has authorization to trade securities on behalf of its clients.  According to the Complaint, from December 2009 – October 2015, World Tree conducted all of its trades through an omnibus account at a third-party registered broker-dealer.  As alleged in the Complaint: “In general, an omnibus trading account allows an investment advisor to buy and sell securities on behalf of multiple clients simultaneously, without identifying to the broker in advance the specific accounts for which a trade is intended.”

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As recently reported, on August 15, 2018, the SEC initiated formal charges against Defendants Jerome Cohen, Shaun Cohen, and their companies — Equitybuild, Inc. (“Equitybuild”) and Equitybuild Finance, LLC (“Equitybuild Finance”) — in connection with the SEC’s efforts to halt a purported Ponzi scheme.  As alleged in the SEC’s Complaint, “Since at least 2010, Defendants … have raised $135 million from more than 900 investors.  Defendants raised these funds by falsely promising investors safe investments, secured by income-producing real estate, that generated returns of 12% to 20%.”

Money Whirlpool
According to the SEC, investors were allegedly defrauded in several ways.  For example, the Defendants’ purportedly failed to disclose sizable up-front fees of 15-30% taken off the top of investor equity.  In addition, the Defendants allegedly misrepresented the returns earned on various real estate deals, touting their “impressive returns” when, in actuality according to the SEC, investors sustained heavy losses on investments in predominantly South Side Chicago real estate deals.  The SEC has further alleged that rather than inform investors of financial distress, father and son Defendants Jerome and Shaun Cohen, respectively, elected instead to continue “[t]o solicit investors with offers of safe investments and outsized returns.”

Equitybuild is structured as a Florida corporation.  Since at least 2010, the company has solicited investments, promising returns that were to be generated through the purchase, renovation and development of Chicago real estate.  Equitybuild Finance, f/k/a Hard Money Company, LLC, is structured as a Delaware limited liability company.  Both companies were founded by Defendant Jerome Cohen, 63 years of age, and currently a resident of Naples, Florida.  Defendant Shaun Cohen is a resident of New York, New York, and serves as the President and sole officer of Equitybuild Finance.

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Wastebasket Filled with Crumpled Dollar BillsAccording to publicly available records via FINRA BrokerCheck, former Securities America, Inc. (CRD# 10205, hereinafter “Securities America”) financial advisor Hector A. May (CRD# 323779, hereinafter “Hector May”) is currently under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Attorney for the Southern District of New York concerning allegations of investment fraud.  Specifically, certain former customers of Hector May have recently come forward, alleging that Mr. May solicited investments in purported “tax-free” corporate bonds.

A long-time resident of Rockland County, New York, Hector May maintained an office in New City, New York, from which he conducted business through his registered investment advisory (RIA) firm: Executive Compensation Planners, Inc. (CRD# 116375) (“ECPI”).  Upon information and belief, Hector May’s ECPI clientele included investors in the following states: New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida.  Publicly available information indicates that ECPI was formed as a New York corporation in December 1982.  SEC records reflect that Mr. May’s registration with the securities regulator was terminated on May 1, 2018.

Hector May was affiliated with the independent broker-dealer Securities America from 1994 until March 2018.  On or about March 9, 2018, Securities America reportedly discharged Mr. May due to allegations concerning “misappropriation of client assets.”  Subsequently, on June 6, 2018, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York implemented an asset freeze pursuant to a Restraining Order against Mr. May and his wife, Sonia May, with their consent.  Through the government’s restraining order, numerous assets have been frozen, including ECPI assets, as well as various bank and brokerage accounts, pension and social security benefits, as well as real assets including the May’s Orangeburg residence.

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Money in WastebasketOn June 19, 2018, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) filed a Complaint against various individuals and entities — including former financial advisor John Charles Piccarreto, Jr. (CRD# 6276418) of San Antonio, TX — in furtherance of the SEC’s efforts to “stop an ongoing fraudulent scheme in which the Defendants have raised more than $102 million from at least 637 investors across the United States since 2011.”  As alleged by the SEC, Defendants Perry Santillo and Christopher Parris of Rochester, NY purportedly orchestrated a fraudulent Ponzi-like scheme predicated upon first buying or taking over books of business from retiring investment professionals from around the country.

According to the Complaint, after acquiring new investors and assets, Messrs. Santillo and Parris (each formerly registered with FINRA) would coordinate their sales efforts with Defendants, including John Piccarreto, Jr., in order to allegedly persuade victims into withdrawing savings from traditional investments, in order to transfer the capital into issuers controlled by Messrs. Santillo, Parris, or certain of their associates.  The SEC has alleged that the Defendants would “falsely claim that their investors’ money [would] be used to operate businesses in fields such as financial services, insurance, real estate development, and medical laboratories.”  In actuality, however, the SEC has alleged that Defendants would transfer funds received into “multiple accounts held in the names of different entities” controlled by Defendants.  While some of the funds were purportedly used to repay investors in typical Ponzi-fashion, the SEC has alleged that the bulk of the monies were misappropriated by the Defendants.

With regard to Mr. Piccarreto, the SEC has alleged that, in one instance, he met with an elderly investor from Austin, TX in February 2015.  As alleged, Mr. Piccarreto convinced the 80 year old investor, who suffered from dementia, into putting $250,000 into an entity controlled by Defendants: Percipience.  Mr. Piccarreto later emailed the investor’s daughter, in response to her concerns with the Percipience investment, that “I know this is scary for you and you are just looking out for dad but I promise you I will not let anything happen to any of the money.”  In total, the SEC has alleged that Mr. Piccarreto misappropriated approximately $1.3 million in investor money.

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broker misappropriating client moneyOn May 30, 2018, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) filed a civil complaint against Mr. Steven Pagartanis, alleging that the East Setauket, NY stockbroker purportedly “[d]efrauded at least nine retail investors of approximately $8 million by soliciting and selling them securities using false and misleading statements from 2013 to at least February 2018 (the ‘Relevant Period’).”  During the Relevant Period, Mr. Pagartanis was affiliated with Cadaret, Grant & Co., Inc. (“Cadaret”) (CRD# 10641) from 2012 – 2017 and, thereafter, with Lombard Securities Incorporated (CRD# 27954) (“Lombard”).

As alleged by the SEC in its Complaint filed in federal court in the Eastern District of New York (SEC v Pagartanis Complaint), Mr. Pagartanis purportedly solicited certain of his customers — many of them retirees who relied upon his advice and investment recommendations — to invest in what was touted as a safe and conservative investment “[w]ith a fixed percentage return, generally between 4.5 and 8 percent annually.”  Specifically, the SEC alleged that Mr. Pagartanis informed at least five investors that they were investing in the common stock of Genesis Land Development Co. (“GDC”), a Canadian real estate firm listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange.  According to the SEC’s Complaint, in actuality the investment capital raised by Mr. Pagartanis was allegedly funneled to an LLC sharing the name Genesis, for which Pagartanis was the sole member and owner of the LLC.

The SEC has alleged that Mr. Pagartanis conducted a fraudulent scheme, under which he purportedly “[t]ransferred the money raised to his personal bank account, to other entities he controlled, and used around $1.8 million to make monthly interest payments to his customers.”  In typical Ponzi-like fashion, the scheme reportedly collapsed in early 2018 when Mr. Pagartanis failed to pay investors their monthly interest payments.

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financial charts and stockbrokerOn March 27, 2018, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) announced formal charges against Wedbush Securities Inc. (“Wedbush”, CRD# 877) with respect to allegations that the broker-dealer failed to supervise its employee, Ms. Timary Delorme (f/k/a Timary Koller) (“Delorme”).  Based on its investigation, the SEC alleged Wedbush ignored numerous red flags indicating that Ms. Delorme — who has been affiliated with Wedbush as a registered representative since 1981 — was purportedly involved in a manipulative penny stock trading scheme with Izak Zirk Englebrecht, a/k/a Zirk De Maison “(“Englebrecht”).

As alleged by the SEC, Mr. Englebrecht engaged in manipulative trading, commonly referred to as “pump and dumps”, through the use of various thinly traded microcap penny stocks.  According to the SEC’s allegations, Ms. Delorme purchased stocks at Englebrecht’s behest in certain customer accounts, and in turn received undisclosed material benefits.  Moreover, the SEC’s findings suggest that Wedbush ignored numerous red flags associated with Ms. Delorme’s alleged involvement in the scheme, including a customer email outlining her involvement, as well as several FINRA arbitrations regarding her penny stock trading activity.

In response to the red flags, Wedbush purportedly conducted two investigations into Ms. Delorme’s conduct.  The SEC has characterized Wedbush’s investigation as “flawed and insufficient”, and that ultimately the brokerage firm failed to take appropriate action to address the alleged misconduct.  The SEC’s order instituting administrative proceedings against Wedbush charges that the broker-dealer failed to reasonably supervise its broker, Ms. Delorme.  The matter will come before an administrative law judge, who will hear the case and prepare an initial decision — there have not yet been any findings of misconduct.

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Stealing MoneyThe Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) reportedly has settled charges against the operators of a real estate investment business that caused millions in loses to investors.  Up to 300 investors may have lost money on interests in a fund known as Alaska Financial Company III, LLC (“AFC III”), which two individuals named Tobias Preston and Charles Preston sold to investors via their company McKinley Mortgage Co. LLC (“McKinley”).

The SEC accused defendants of falsely portraying AFC III as a safe investment and reporting that it had profitable operations.  However, according to the SEC, in reality AFC III was insolvent and unable to make interest payments as they came due.  According to the SEC, although a portion of the raised funds were invested as promised to investors, Messrs. Preston and McKinley diverted millions of dollars in proceeds of outside investments to fund business and personal expenses as well as McKinley’s operations.

AFC III has made so-called Form D filings with the SEC since 2013 stating that AFC III qualifies for an exemption from registration of its securities offering under Rule 506(c), which allows for general solicitation of investors, such as through AFC III’s website and social media platforms, but limits sales to accredited investors.  As a general rule, offers of securities to the public (which includes offers made over the internet) must be registered with the SEC under the Securities Act of 1933.  However, under federal securities law, the SEC recognizes certain instances where companies seeking to raise capital are exempt from registering securities. Securities offerings exempt from registration are sometimes referred to as “private placements.”  AFC III sought to be treated as exempt from registration by the SEC and was marketed as a private placement.

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investing in real estate and hard money loansOn December 21, 2017, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) formally announced charges, as well as an asset freeze, against the Woodbridge Group of Companies (“Woodbridge”) and its related unregistered investment funds, as well against Woodbridge’s owner and former CEO, Robert Shapiro.  Through initiating litigation (the “Complaint”) in Florida federal court, the SEC is alleging, in sum and substance, that “[D]efendant Robert H. Shapiro used his web of more than 275 Limited Liability Companies to conduct a massive Ponzi scheme raising more than $1.22 billion from over 8,400 unsuspecting investors nationwide through fraudulent unregistered securities offerings.”  As further alleged in the Complaint, “Despite receiving over one billion dollars in investor funds, Shapiro and his companies only generated approximately $13.7 million in interest income from truly unaffiliated third-party borrowers.  Without real revenue to pay the monies due to investors, Shapiro resorted to fraud, using new investor money to pay the returns owed to exiting investors.”

According to Mr. Steven Peikin, Co-Director of the SEC’s Enforcement Division, “Our complaint alleges that Woodbridge’s business model was a sham.  The only way Woodbridge was able to pay investors their dividends and interest payments was through the constant infusion of new investor money.”

If you are have invested in Woodbridge Wealth or in any of the Woodbridge Mortgage Funds, you may have questions concerning your rights in light of Woodbridge’s recent bankruptcy filing and the SEC’s recent Complaint alleging that Woodbridge is, in fact, a Ponzi Scheme.

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financial charts and stockbrokerOn December 8, 2017, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) issued a Cease-and-Desist Order (“Order”) against Ameriprise Financial Services, Inc. (“Ameriprise”) in connection with allegations that Ameriprise and its employees or agents purportedly misrepresented the performance of certain ETF strategies.  Specifically, the SEC’s investigation focused on sales of AlphaSector strategies by ETF manager F-Squared Investments, Inc. (“F-Squared”).  The F-Squared AlphaSector strategies, which were based upon an algorithm, were sector rotation strategies designed to issue a “signal” as to whether to buy or sell certain ETFs, that together, comprised the industries in the S&P 500 Index.

Pursuant to the Order, the SEC has alleged that F-Squared materially miscalculated the historical performance of its AlphaSector strategies (from April 2001 to September 2008) by incorrectly implementing signals in advance of when such signals could have occurred.  In addition, the SEC alleged that F-Squared relied upon hypothetical and back-tested historical performance that was purportedly inflated substantially over what actual performance would have been had F-Squared applied the signals accurately.

In December 2014, F-Squared agreed to pay a $35 million fine to the SEC, and furthermore, admitting to wrongdoing regarding falsifying performance numbers in its advertising and marketing materials.  See In the Matter of F-Squared Investments, Inc., Admin. Proceeding No. 3-16325 (Dec. 22, 2014).  By July 2015, F-Squared filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

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Stealing MoneyPaul Wescoe Smith, formerly associated with Bolton Global Capital, was the subject of a civil action and a criminal indictment filed by the United States Securities and Exchange Commission and the Department of Justice, through the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, on December 7, 2017.  Smith, age 63, a resident of Wayne, Pennsylvania, has been accused of misconduct in connection with the sale and operation of a Ponzi scheme known as the Haverford Group.

Smith worked in the securities industry as a registered representative of several brokerage firms from 1982 until 2017, including with Bolton Global Capital from May 2007 to February 2017.  Smith allegedly sold unregistered securities in a purported hedge fund known as The Haverford Group to more than a dozen investors.

Bolton Global Capital, Smith’s employer,  reportedly notified Smith’s customers in early 2017 that their accounts were being transferred to another “financial representative” but reportedly gave no indication that Smith had been terminated and accused of wrongdoing in connection with The Haverford Group.