I recently wrote about avoiding investment fraud (How to Avoid Being Madoff’ed) but the subject keeps coming up. In the most recent news from Wall Street, securities fraud has affected individual investors, pensions and charitable organizations. At the risk of being a bit repetitive, here are five key safety tips that may help you prevent this from happening to you:
1. Know your advisor.
Most advisors (like me) are registered with government organizations. You can research registrations and review any past complaints with the Securities and Exchange Commission (www.sec.gov), or with the respective state regulatory agency. If a firm is a Broker-Dealer, you can research it with the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (www.finra.org). You should also be aware of what you have authorized your advisor to do. For example, if you have granted your advisor discretion over your investments, then you have given her permission to buy and sell investments to meet your stated objectives without your approval for each individual trade. The authority you have granted your advisor should be stated in your client services agreement (you do have one, right?)
2. Know your investments.
Consider stocks, bonds, exchange traded funds (ETFs), and mutual funds that are publicly traded and listed on major exchanges like the New York Stock Exchange. They are valued independently at least daily, if not minute by minute, when the exchange is open. You can check their reported returns against your own portfolio. If you can’t look up the prices and performance of what you own in the newspaper or on the Internet-that’s a red flag, so ask more questions. If you choose to invest in complex securities like private placements, then you have much more additional homework to do.
3. Use an independent custodian.
4. Check on protection.
Your advisor’s custodian MUST be a member of the Securities Investor Protection Corporation (SIPC); if not, find one that is. If it is, the securities in your account are protected up to $500,000, of which $100,000 may be applied to cash. For additional information, please visit www.sipc.org and see the Account Protection Sheet. Our custodian, TD Ameritrade, also provides additional coverage through London insurers of up to $149.5 million per customer of which $900,000 may be applied to cash (and an aggregate of $250 million for all customers). Please see the Evidence of Excess SIPC Coverage for additional details. SIPC protection and Excess SIPC insurance protect against losses from brokerage failure, not from market value decline.
For additional information, please see TD Ameritrade’s FAQ for Investors on Protection against Market Fraud.
5. If it Sounds Too Good…
One final thought: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Beware of consistent annual returns that are out of line with established benchmarks. Remember, there is no return without risk, so never believe anyone who says that they can get you a high return with little or no risk. There’s always a “gotcha” hiding somewhere (e.g., excessive fees, commissions, early termination penalties) when they tell you this, so you should be very suspicious.
If you or someone you know has been affected by investment fraud, or if you have any questions, please comment below.