Tompor: Wolves of Wall Street are hungry for your cash

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Posted: Monday, January 13, 2014 12:00 am | Updated: 11:11 am, Tue Mar 25, 2014.

We’re hearing another one of those not-so-heartwarming stories about how the Grinches on Wall Street can steal your hard-earned cash.

Martin Scorsese recently brought “The Wolf of Wall Street” to the big screen. The movie is based on a memoir of the same title by Jordan Belfort, who some say wrote the playbook on how to scam everyday investors.

Belfort founded a firm called Stratton Oakmont in 1987. He was banned from the securities business for life by 1994 and later went to jail for fraud and money-laundering. He eventually turned into an author and motivational speaker.

His gig on Wall Street involved making millions of dollars by working with managers of obscure companies to buy up large amounts of stock with minimal public disclosure. His brokerage team then hyped the stock, pumped up the stock price and then unloaded that puppy fast so that Belfort and insiders could make mega-bucks.

Who needs a lottery ticket?

The individual investor who actually saved all that cash would, of course, lose big time. The insiders didn’t give tips on when they planned to be dumping the stock. “The price would collapse and investors were left holding the bag,” said Andrew Stoltmann, a Chicago-based attorney who typically represents investors who lost money on stocks.

“I think this movie is really important for investors to see,” Stoltmann said.

Belfort, he said, “perfected the pump and dump.”

In the 1990s, Detroit had its own bigger-than-life character, Ernie Olde, the founder of the former Detroit-based Olde Discount Corp.

Ernie Olde, who died in 2002, pioneered the discount brokerage concept in the 1970s. He saw that small investors would soon be a big part of the stock market.

Olde Discount had a national ad campaign that highlighted “commission-free trading practices.” But a U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission investigation, which detailed practices from the fall of 1992 through August 1995, showed Olde brokers received significant financial incentives for selling stocks on that commission-free list. The SEC noted the majority of those stocks were “speculative or growth investments.”

In the fall of 1998, federal regulators took action against Olde Discount and three top executives, including Ernie Olde. The settlement resulted in $7 million in fines. The firm and executives did not admit wrongdoing.

But just a year later, the founder sold the firm for $850 million in cash to H&R Block. (Block has since sold that business.)

Stoltmann said he actually worked as a broker for less than two years for Olde Discount in Milwaukee in the mid-1990s. He said brokers would receive alerts on their computer screens showing which stocks could make the broker the most money, if they pushed that particular stock.

Stoltmann said he was making about 200 cold calls a day and his hottest prospects were in the Midwest, where people tend to be a little too polite when it comes to their money.

“People in other parts of the country would hang up on me all the time,” Stoltmann said.

Think investors are too sophisticated to fall for this stuff anymore? Well, some attorneys say things are not as crazy busy as the wild dot.com days when all sorts of fraud was out there.

But no one has outlawed greed and foolishness, and some bad actors continue to operate in every field.

Regulators have put out warnings this year about everyday investors once again investing on margin — where you can borrow money from your brokerage firm to purchase securities.

“When you buy on margin, you must repay both the amount you borrowed and interest, even if you lose money on your investment,” FINRA noted in an investor alert.

“Some brokerage firms automatically open margin accounts for investors. Make sure that you understand what type of account you are opening,” the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority said.

And just in June, the SEC and FINRA warned investors about a sharp increase in emails linked to “pump-and-dump” stock schemes.

The unexpected email takes the place of the cold call.

The email might claim that there’s some hot development ahead with a little-known stock. Or the fraudsters might claim they have an “infallible” system.

Again, nobody sends out an email saying, hey, we’re now going to sell off that stock — and make big money off you sucker.

The wolves on Wall Street, after all, are hungry for your cash.

Contact the writer: stompor@freepress.com

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