Who’s calling your broker for a wire transfer — out of your account?

Do you keep an eye on activity in your brokerage account? Well, you should. Criminals are figuring out clever ways to dupe your stockbroker into wiring money out of your account. It usually happens after someone has hacked your email account, so it’s not a bad idea to consider using two-factor authorization on your email. If that sounds like too much of a hassle, you might consider reading the story I wrote today for CNBC.com. You can read it here.

The Unbelievable Story of One Broker and Her Firm Fighting to Clean Her Tarnished Record

The brokerage industry works hard to keep customer complaints out of public view, with aggressive firms fighting to remove grievances that sully their brokers’ records. The interminable campaign to sanitize the dossier of former Royal Alliance Associates broker Kathleen J. Tarr is a disheartening case in point. You can read the story here.

How Bad Financial Advice Can Literally Make You Sick

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 diabetesmellitus, among other diseases. More focused studies highlight the hazards of financial stress. You can read the full story here.

Retirement Fallout From a Penny-Stock Scam: “We Don’t Do Hardly Anything”

Twenty investors await a Finra arbitration hearing in September against two clearing firms that handled their trades in a penny-stock fraud. Did COR Clearing and Wilson-Davis ignore obvious red flags? You can read about it in my column today for TheStreet.com.

How Many Bad Brokers Could There Be? Don’t Play the Percentages

When you consider that 73 percent of financial advisers who get caught engaging in misconduct are still doing business with investors a year later, you could just cross your fingers and hope your broker is one of the good ones.

Better yet, you could leaf through the grim results of a study by three finance professors released earlier this month. They looked at records of 1.2 million people registered with the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, or Finra, to do business with the public. I wrote about the study in my latest column for TheStreet. You can read it here.

Is the Madoff Miniseries Making You Nervous About Your Broker?

As you’re curled up on the couch watching ABC’s Bernie Madoff series, it’s understandable if you start getting a little edgy. What about the guy or gal running your money?

I took the occasion of ABC’s widely watched series to remind investors that there actually are things they can do to check a broker’s record. You can read my column for TheStreet here.

Lost money in the market? Wall Street says it’s your fault

Check out your securities firm’s pitch in TV and print ads or on its web site. Chance are your broker has painted a picture of a paternalistic organization that’s devoted to doing the best thing for you and your portfolio over a period of many years.

But don’t count on that if you wind up facing them across the table at securities arbitration — your only choice in an industry that won’t open an account unless you agree to give up your right to sue in court. Lose money after broken promises that a product is safe or that a broker will be watching over your account, and you may quickly learn that all those assurances were nothing but fluff.

In my column today for TheStreet, I talk about the ways in which Wall Street tries to wiggle out of its responsibilities to its customers, arguing among other things that customers are the ones obliged to monitor their accounts. You can read it here.

Wall Street Will Only Go So Far to Help Older Investors

State securities regulators unveiled a plan at their annual meeting last week that zeroed in on the role stockbrokers can play in sounding the alarm that a senior is at risk of being ripped off.

The securities industry and its regulators have been tripping over themselves trying to make things safer for elderly investors. But the new proposal by The North American Securities Administrators Association (NASAA) may have gone too far for Wall Street’s liking.

Stockbrokers say they would like to be able to tell authorities when they suspect that an elderly client is at risk of financial exploitation. So NASAA and others have been working on laws and regulations that would allow brokers to report their suspicions without violating privacy laws. Various proposals also have allowed brokers to decline to execute a transaction for 10 days if they suspect something fishy is going on.

The NASAA proposal would make it mandatory for brokers to report their suspicions. But it’s likely that the industry won’t go for that idea, preferring instead to have the option of looking the other way when they suspect financial abuse.

You can read my story for TheStreet here.

Antilla Talks to CNBC Squawk Box
About Security at Vanguard Group

CNBC’s SquawkBox invited me in yesterday to discuss my story about The Vanguard Group’s online security. A whistleblower has been speaking with me on the record about a complaint she filed against Vanguard with the Securities and Exchange Commission. You can read the article here.

And here’s the CNBC video:

Is Vanguard Making It Too Easy for Cybercriminals to Access Your Account?

A whistleblower has gone to the Securities and Exchange Commission with complaints about the security of customer accounts and information at The Vanguard Group.

The world’s largest mutual fund company told me that its security is strong. But the whistleblower, who spoke to me on the record about her complaints, disagrees. You can read my latest column for TheStreet here.

Investor Warning: Keep an Eye on J.P. Turner Brokers After Shutdown

The good news: A problem brokerage firm is shutting its doors.

The bad news: A lot of its bad brokers will be finding work elsewhere.

I wrote about the shutdown of Atlanta-based J.P. Turner Associates in my latest column for TheStreet. You can read it here.

Wall Street Makes It Hard to Dig Up Dirt on Your Broker or Brokerage Firm

The securities industry doesn’t like the idea of reminding investors to check the records of their stock brokers. So when Finra suggested that there be a hyperlink on brokerage firms’ home pages to take customers to its BrokerCheck tool, the industry went on a letter-writing campaign to oppose it.

My personal favorite: The brokerage firm chief compliance officer who told Finra he was worried about “unscrupulous investors.” Yep, you read that right. Here’s my column for TheStreet on Wall Street’s latest anti-investor campaign.

Indicted Lawyers, Peeping Toms, Can Wind Up Judges in Finra Arbitration

Finra arbitration is often a surprise to investors — not least of all because so many Wall Street customers have no idea that they sign away their right to court when they open an account.

But how about the surprise of learning that one of your arbitrators had been indicted? Or that he had said he was a lawyer, but wasn’t?

My June 24 column for TheStreet tells about Finra’s latest surprise arbitrator — the guy who was arrested for being a Peeping Tom. Really. You can read it here.

Years of Overlooked Red Flags Catch Up to Stockbroker

Finra, the securities regulator that’s funded by Wall Street, got some attention last week when it said it was getting tougher on bad stockbrokers. The regulator said fines were going up and sanctions for fraud and the sale of unsuitable products were getting more onerous.

But Finra already had sanction guidelines that might have come to play in the case of Jerry A. Cicolani, Jr., a former broker who worked at Merrill Lynch and at Cleveland’s PrimeSolutions Securities Inc. Somehow, though, despite having been target of 69 customer complaints over the past 13 years, Cicolani wasn’t barred from the business until last September.

By that time, criminal authorities already were moving in with an investigation into his role in a Ponzi scheme. On May 1, he pleaded guilty to two criminal counts, including the sale of unregistered securities. He persuaded many of his former clients from Merrill and PrimeSolutions to invest in that scheme. I wrote about Cicolani in my story yesterday for The New York Times. You can read it here.

Why Only Big Bankers Can Flout the Rules and Get Away With It

Did you hear the one about the stock promoter, the lawyer, three figurehead CEOs and seven auditing firm partners?

No, it isn’t a “walks into a bar” joke. It’s a case brought by the Securities and Exchange Commission last month against the players in a sham stock offering. The agency went after all the people involved in what it called ”a massive scheme to create public shell companies through false registration statements.”

No big deal, right? The SEC is supposed to be going after bad guys, making them pay fines and lose privileges. But it tends to do a lot better in cases against no-name boiler room types like the ones in the January case than it does with players at powerful banks.

In my column for TheStreet this week, I discussed the contrast in enforcement results between cases against small players and cases against Wall Street’s elite.

In December, for example, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, or Finra, brought cases against ten household name firms for flouting the rules that govern research analysts when their firms are pitching for initial public offering business. In its complaints against the firms, Finra described the actions of specific people who broke specific rules. But we never learned their names. Indeed they weren’t charged at all.  You can read my column here.

In Push for Change, Finra Is Opposed by the Wall St. Firms It Regulates

Brokerage firms are up in arms over a proposal by one of their regulators to collect information about customers’ accounts and use it to keep tabs on salespeople.

That may sound like a great idea on the face of it, but the regulator in question, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, or Finra, gets its funding from the firms it’s supposed to be regulating. And those firms don’t like the idea of sharing data on their customers’ buys, sells and portfolio positions.

I wrote about the battle between Finra and its members in The New York Times today. Barbara Roper, director of investor protection at the Consumer Federation of America, told me that Finra’s proposal to get monthly data about activity in investors’ accounts could go a long way in preventing fraud because it would let Finra jump on problems more quickly:

“It creates a real deterrent,” she said. “Who’s going to churn an account if it immediately sends off a warning siren at Finra?”

You can read the story here.

Brokers Countersue to Thwart Suits by Unhappy Investors

So your broker sold you some shoddy private placements and you sued? Brace yourself, because you might get sued back.

In The New York Times today, I told the story of investors who sued their brokers for selling them private placements that tanked only to be hit with a suit from the broker. The firms’ argument: That the customers signed indemnification agreements when they purchased the securities, and thus owe the firms money for legal fees and other costs.

“The investors make representations to buy these things” and have a legal obligation to be truthful, said Vincent D. Louwagie, a Minneapolis lawyer who represented the brokerage firm Berthel Fisher.

It’s tough to evaluate the cases when the firms win. If you do business with a brokerage firm, you are stuck in private arbitration, where nobody has to explain how they came up with a decision. Suffice it to say, though, that a lot of customers will get spooked when they find out they’re threatened with a countersuit after they already have lost money. You can read the story here.