Monday, January 9, 2012

Self-Directed IRA Fraud: Are You A Victim?

What Are Self-Directed IRAs?

Self-directed IRAs are a type of financial instrument which allows a person to invest in a larger range of assets than a traditional IRA. Many of us are familiar with IRAs that invest in stocks, bonds, mutual funds, and certificates of deposit, but self-directed IRAs expand from these more traditional investing avenues, and also allow someone to invest in promissory notes, real estate, precious metals, private placement securities, tax lien certificates, and other investments which may not be registered.

This type of IRA is becoming increasingly popular in the United States, with about $94 billion of retirement funds invested in them. They are completely legal, when used correctly. However, some of the inherent characteristics of this financial instrument have not only attracted legitimate investments, but in addition scammers and fraudsters who use the patina of the self-directed IRAs legality to defraud investors of their life savings.

What Are The Inherent Characteristics Of Self-Directed IRAs That Make Them Susceptible To Fraud?

As with all IRAs, a self-directed IRA must be held by a trustee or custodian. However, with the more traditional IRAs the custodians are typically banks and broker-dealers who only allow investment in firm approved stocks, bonds, mutual funds and CDs. However, with a self-directed IRA the trustee or custodian has no responsibility to investigate the securities offered for investment, or the background of the promoter. Further, they also do not need to keep accurate records or perform audits. With these laxer requirements it is easy to see why those wishing to engage in fraud would be interested in using this financial instrument to perpetrate it.

The fact that this type of IRA allows investment in a broader range of assets can increase the likelihood of fraudulent behavior. For example, unregistered securities are permitted in this type of IRA. There is typically less investigation into this type of security, with less information easily available, and further there is no guarantee that any information provided has been audited. Therefore, in a situation in which more due diligence is typically required there is less opportunity to review accurate information to perform that due diligence.

In addition, the broader range of assets allowed for self-directed IRAs can create unique risks for investors that should be considered, such as lack of liquidity and difficulty in valuing assets. The result of the characteristics of these assets means that the self-directed IRA custodians will often list the value of the assets as the original purchase price, plus any gains as determined arbitrarily by the promoter. These values that are told to investors may not reflect the true value of the investment if sold on the open market. Further, because the custodians don’t have to evaluate the quality or legitimacy of the investments, and have no responsibility for investment performance, these self-promoting statements may go unchecked and unquestioned.

Finally, the fact that self-directed IRAs are a tax-deferred account can impact psychologically how much oversight an investor has over this type of investment instrument. The fact that there is a financial penalty for early withdrawal means people tend to invest in these types of accounts for the long term, when more prudent investors in these types of investments may more actively manage such accounts. This same mind set may also allow the person committing the Ponzi type scheme or other fraud to conduct their fraud longer before their misdeeds are detected.

Scott Starr, a partner in this firm, has stated, “Some of these investment advisors and stockbrokers are clearly committing malpractice and breaching their fiduciary duties” when directing individuals to invest in these self-directed IRAs. Further, he states that “It is not uncommon for these individuals to place their clients in investments that are either too high risk, carry a time horizon that is too far in the future, or fail to properly diversify these portfolios.”

Examples Of Self-Directed IRA Fraud Close To Home

Although fraudulent actions surrounding self-directed IRAs can, unfortunately, happen anywhere in the country the state of Indiana, and surrounding states, have had several instances of this type of fraud coming to light.
1.     Randell Morrison - Indiana

One of the most recent cases of self-directed IRA fraud reported in Indiana is the case of Randell Morrison, which has been reported extensively in the  Fort Wayne, Indiana Journal Gazette. On November 10, 2011, Mr. Morrison was sentenced to six years in prison, followed by a year of home detention and then one year of probation for bilking 15 investors in Indiana, mainly in the Allen County area, out of $1.4 million.

Mr. Morrison was a businessman in the community, and used his personal associations with fraud victims, including being a friend of the family, and attending country clubs, churches and social clubs with them, to gain their trust over several years. He then convinced these investors to roll their more traditional IRAs and life insurance proceeds into a self-directed IRA custodial company, called Equity Trust, with which he was associated. His victims thought they were investing their money in conservative and traditional investments, but instead once he gained control of the money he used it for his own personal use and for his businesses.

The Indiana Secretary of State, Charlie White, said, “Randell Morrison preyed on those who considered him a friend. He didn’t just gamble with their life savings, he squandered their life savings.” Many of the victims of this scheme were close to retirement age, and have now lost their entire retirement account and life savings. They have suffered not only financial losses, but also emotional and even physical distress because of the fraud perpetuated against them.
2.     Jerry Smith and Jason Snelling - Indiana

Another case in Indiana that is currently pending involves Jerry Smith and Jason Snelling, who are accused of conducting a long-running Ponzi scheme, defrauding investors in three states, Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky, of over $4.5 million. Smith and Snelling were allegedly selling unregistered securities, and neither was licensed to sell them.  

In this case the accusation is that investors were convinced and encouraged to roll over their traditional IRA accounts into self-directed IRAs at a trust company. Then, Smith and Snelling allegedly took the funds from the accounts and used them for their own personal use. The investors had no idea their money was no longer available, since they still received regular statements from the trust company, and even were billed fees on the accounts.

Smith and Snelling are charged with over 50 counts of violations of the Indiana Uniform Securities Act, and charges are pending in both Franklin County and Dearborn County, Indiana.

Things To Consider To Determine If You May Be A Victim Of A Fraudulent Self-Directed IRA

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission’s Office of Investor Education and Advocacy (OIEA) and the North American Securities Administration Association (NASAA) have jointly issued an Investor Alert about the potential risks associated with investing in self-directed IRAs. You can find this short PDF here. In addition, here is information you should consider if you’re concerned you may be a victim of self-directed IRA fraud.
  • Verify the information in the self-directed IRA. Many of the investments that can be purchased through one of these financial instruments can be hard to value, since they are illiquid. Therefore, the statements provided will often state their value as the price you paid for it, or what the promoter is valuing it at. However, that does not necessarily reflect what the investment could actually be sold for on the open market, which may be a much lower amount.

  • Was your choice to get a self-directed IRA the result of an unsolicited investment opportunity from a total stranger, or even a friend? As stated previously, self-directed IRAs are legal and there are some which may produce high rates of return for investors. However, if someone, unsolicited, asked you to invest in such a financial instrument red flags should be raised to determine if they are a legitimate individual, or instead a fraudster.

  • Were you promised a guaranteed gain or rate of return, or a low-risk, high reward investments? Similarly, when someone promises you something too good to be true, it usually is. Almost nothing in life is guaranteed, and if there were legitimate low risk, high reward investments out there lots more people would be rich than are today. Too good to be true promises such as these should also raise red flags in your mind, to investigate further about whether you are the victim of self-directed IRA fraud.

  • Is the self-directed IRA promoter registered in the state they are doing business, and in addition are the investments they are selling licensed? Many states, including Indiana, have laws and regulations in place which require those selling securities to be registered with the state. Further, only certain types of investments are deemed registered securities. While unregistered securities are permitted to be included in self-directed IRAs they are much riskier, and their inclusion may still violate state law, if not federal law. It is best to make sure what you are purchasing through your self-directed IRA is licensed, and the person you’re purchasing it from is registered to sell you these types of products.

  • Have you contacted another professional yet for a second opinion, such as an investment advisor or attorney? Many of the investments that can be purchased through a self-directed IRA are not ones that can be purchased through a traditional IRA, generally for the reason that they are even more inherently risky, illiquid, or complex. Therefore, before investing in such financial instruments it is a good idea to get a second opinion from an independent professional, such as an investment advisor or attorney, to help you determine whether this is a good investment for you.

If You Think You May Be A Victim Of Self-Directed IRA Fraud Call A Securities Fraud Attorney

If you think you may be a victim of fraud using this financial instrument you should act quickly to try to minimize further losses, and potentially try to reclaim money you’ve lost already. To do this, it is best to contact a knowledgeable securities fraud attorney in your area to see if you have a case, and determine the best course of action for you.

If you have lost money in a fraudulent investment scheme involving a self-directed IRA or a third-party custodian or trustee, or have information about one of these scams, you should contact Starr Austen & Miller LLC to learn more about the self-directed IRAs and report your experiences. Our attorneys, Mario Massillamany and Mark Fryman are available for direct live chat every Wednesday at 5 pm.

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