When former NBA player Scottie Pippen found an adviser who was strongly recommended by the team, he trusted the man with $20 million of his fortune.
But less than a year later he learned from an accountant that the adviser, who had previously worked at well-known financial firms, may have committed bank fraud, according to the Chicago Tribune. His former adviser, Robert Lunn, was eventually found guilty of fraud. On Tuesday, he was sentenced to three years in prison for multiple schemes, including forging a $1.4 million loan in Pippen’s name.
Pippen’s experience offers lessons for anyone searching for an adviser, even if their savings don’t add up to millions of dollars, financial experts say. “It’s worth spending a little time to research who you’re dealing with,” says Gregor Matvos, an associate professor of finance for the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, who co-authored a report on misconduct by financial advisers.
Here are some of the mistakes retirement savers and investors should avoid when looking for a money manager.
Failing to vet a friend’s recommendation. Asking coworkers or friends for the names of the people managing their money can help narrow the search for a good adviser. But that recommendation alone isn’t enough to determine that the person isn’t a fraud. Some fraudsters purposely target people who share similar beliefs or culture, known as affinity fraud, because it creates a false sense of trust, warns the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, an agency that oversees professionals selling stocks, bonds and other investments. Similarly, some people may make the mistake of hiring someone simply because he or she is working with many people within a company or industry, says Gerri Walsh, senior vice president of investor education at Finra.
Not doing the research. Before signing on with an adviser, investors should check if the person is registered with Finra by searching BrokerCheck, the regulator’s online tool for tracking financial professionals. If a broker’s name doesn’t show up in the database, it could be a sign that he or she is not authorized to sell investments, Walsh says. Some financial advisers need to register with the Securities and Exchange Commission and investors can check those records through the Investment Adviser Public Disclosure website.
Investors can use these tools to verify a broker’s employment history. The information can help investors know how long an adviser has been working in the industry. BrokerCheck will also show if complaints have been filed against a broker and what for, she says. Another option is for consumers to use SmartCheck, a search tool from the Commodities Futures Trading Commission that guides people on how to research their financial adviser’s credentials and complaint history. Investors should look up their brokers at least once a year to make sure they still have a clean record, Walsh says.
Assuming a big firm is secure. Pippen’s former adviser worked for major financial firms such as Morgan Stanley and Lehman Brothers before he made his own company. We don’t know if that influenced Pippen’s decision to hire him, but investors should know that even advisers who work at well-known companies may get in trouble. A working paper by the University of Chicago Booth School of Business found that 7 percent of advisers had been disciplined for misconduct, and that at some larger firms the rates of misconduct were as high as 20 percent. “Even if you have a firm and think this firm on average is very good … it pays to look at an individual adviser’s record,” Matvos says.
Ignoring the paperwork. According to court documents, Pippen was talked into signing up for a loan that he did not want and knew little about. Later, his name was forged onto documents to extend the loan. Investors should read any paperwork closely before they sign, Walsh says. They should also ask questions about the significance of the form and how it may change access to their money, she adds. “If somebody tries to breeze you through and shrugs off your questions, that’s another red flag,” Walsh says.
Even paperwork that appears legitimate may not be enough to prove that there is no fraud going on. Many phony advisers create false statements that they use to fool investors into thinking that their savings are growing more than they are. Some fraudsters pulling off a ponzi scheme may even let clients withdraw money while the scam is going on — using money from new victims to pay off the early investors, Walsh says.
Investors who worry their broker or adviser may be lying to them should seek legal help and alert regulators, who can help to investigate the broker and recover lost money. But don’t go straight to the adviser or firm in question. “The sad reality with someone who is stealing your money is that if you ask to close the account, they’ll probably have 99 reasons why you shouldn’t,” Walsh says.
This post has been updated to note that investors can also check if their financial advisers are registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission.