­A Cautionary Tale: After 50+ Disclosure Events, Rogue Broker Finally Gets the Boot

For years, we’ve been preaching to financial professionals about the importance of keeping their compliance records free of black marks. Our argument: that all it takes is one bad disclosure to besmirch your record. And now that sanction reports live forever on the Internet, one event can make it impossible to generate new business . . . for years, if not decades, to come.

However, sometimes we run across news that makes us question this advice. For instance, Financial Advisor IQ recently reported the case of a renegade broker who racked up more than 50 disclosure events over a 14-year-time period, all easily found on his FINRA BrokerCheck record. The fact that the broker operated beyond the regulatory pale for years makes one question whether government agencies are capable of protecting consumers against rogue advisors. In this particular case, the answer, apparently, is no.

The more you learn about this broker’s track record, the more shocking his story becomes. According to Financial Advisor IQ, FINRA recently threw Anthony Diaz, a Pennsylvania broker last registered with IBN Financial Services, Inc., out of the business. But it took him repeatedly selling unsuitable securities to at least 17 clients since 2000 for FINRA to act. To its credit, FINRA ordered him to refund $4.3 million to his clients, including $1 million in compensatory damages, $2.9 million in punitive awards, and $413,000 in legal fees. But it tolerated his behavior for years.

Over the course of his career, Diaz repeatedly made inappropriate recommendations. He pushed clients to make variable annuity exchanges with no reasonable basis. He misrepresented products to clients. He lied about their net worth so he could sell them alternative investments. He deceived his product firms and broker-dealers. He falsified signatures on annuity applications. He also got embroiled in numerous client disputes, including a 2017 complaint alleging he made poor recommendations, had a client sign a blank form, and put false information on their documents.

During his career, Diaz worked for 11 different securities firms and was fired from five of them. Apparently, the broker-dealers didn’t care about his atrocious disclosure history; they were more impressed with his sizable client list. And regulators only got serious about policing him over the last couple years, when FINRA finally barred him and the New Jersey and Pennsylvania securities agencies pulled his license.

But think about the impact he had on those 17 clients—how much they must have worried about losing their money, how aggravated they were filing FINRA claims, how much they shelled out in legal fees. If regulators had done their jobs years ago, clients could have entirely avoided this nightmare.

Now, surely the broker-dealers and the clients themselves share culpability. Why did firms keep hiring and firing this guy? And why did consumers retain the guy when even a cursory BrokerCheck read would have revealed his true nature? His track record should have disqualified him from holding even a janitorial position in the securities business.

So what are the lessons learned from the Diaz case?

  • First, if you’re insurance licensed and refer clients to a broker to purchase securities, please do careful due diligence on that person. Eliminate those with anything more than a trivial complaint in their past. And given the number of brokers who have flawless records, perhaps adopt a zero-tolerance posture regarding customer disputes.
  • Second, encourage your friends, family members, and colleagues to do serious research on potential brokers. The BrokerCheck system is user-friendly. There’s absolutely no excuse for a consumer not to do a deep dive into a broker’s compliance history to see if the person is trustworthy.
  • Third, if you’re securities licensed, supplement your BrokerCheck file with other sources of information your prospects might find useful. For example, give your prospects access to a comprehensive background check on you, available through the National Ethics Association. Also, consider joining the Better Business Bureau. And as long as you don’t have an investment-advisory license, give your prospects the names of several clients who can vouch for your integrity.
  • Finally, as disappointing as the Diaz story is, it highlights the tremendous opportunities financial professionals with clean records have. With so many ethically flawed competitors in the marketplace, those committed to doing business ethically and legally will have a huge competitive advantage over the unethical bottom-feeders. When consumers finish checking you out, they will know you’re the real deal—a financial professional who will serve their best interests and in whom they can place their trust.

To read more about ethical business practices, visit the Ethics Center at the National Ethics Association, sponsor of EOforLess. 

Principled Selling: Why Insurance Professionals Need a Personal Ethics Code

The demands placed on life, health, P&C agents, and investment advisors can be intense. But even worse, they can be in conflict with each other. Your client may want you to do something that your agent or company prohibits. You may wish to do something that ill serves a client. Or your FMO, broker-dealer, or RIA may want you to sell something that you believe will harm a client. How do you resolve all these conflicts? By creating a personal ethics code and committing it to paper.

Having your own ethics code means you’ll know what you stand for. It will remind you of the values and principles you hold dear so that when caught in an ethical dilemma, you’ll have guidance for resolving it. Don’t think for a minute that your ethics code should be a long, complex document. Or that it should be full of legalese or tedious information. Instead, it should be short, high-level, but deeply inspirational.

Now, you may be thinking,

“Why do I need an ethics code when I already do what my compliance department requires?”

That’s a great question, which gets at the difference between compliance guidelines and ethical values. Compliance guidelines are the black-and-white legal requirements you must follow in order to stay in business. They are rules-based and have sanctions attached if you violate them.

Ethics refer to the personal values you bring to your business career. They aren’t the rules a third party demands you follow. Rather, they are the values you voluntarily adhere to because they’re meaningful to you.  And since there isn’t a compliance rule for every contingency, ethical values help guide you in the gray areas between legal requirements.

In fact, we’d argue that the most effective and successful financial professionals combine compliance rigor with ethical principles to create a highly professional operation. Since many agents and advisors are content to just follow the regulations pertaining to their license, those who integrate their ethical values into their business models almost always will achieve a competitive edge.

Now, what should your ethics code look like in terms of format? We hesitate to provide firm guidelines because it should be something that’s deeply meaningful and relevant to you. Printing it on an index card, as a PowerPoint slide or on a sheet of 8 x 10 glossy paper that you put in a frame are all possibilities. The point is, your code should be whatever will be most useful and motivating to you. And if it’s in a form that you can share with clients and colleagues, all the better.

How do you develop this document? Again, that’s a deeply personal matter. But consider following this process:

First, do some brainstorming around the ethical principles that have resonated with you over the years. Uncover them by . . .

  • Writing down the values and principles that make you feel good about your work.
  • Defining the qualities that have allowed you to outshine others in your market.
  • Thinking about your favorite motivational writers, leaders, or philosophers and write down any of their teachings that have stayed with you for years.
  • Considering the teachings or your faith community (if any) relating to how to treat your fellow man.
  • Recalling the life lessons your parents gave you and that you’ve given to your own children.

Second, review your master values list and circle those that have persisted longest, meant the most to you, had the broadest application, and helped you resolve ethical dilemmas in the past. Select perhaps 10 of these statements and type them up on a single sheet of paper.

Third, share your list with four to five people with whom you are extremely close, including work colleagues, friends, and family members. Ask them what they think of your list. Have them pick out the top three or four ethical values that speak most powerfully to them and that reflect your unique character.

Fourth, capture the principles that were selected most often and put them on a single sheet of paper, index card, or however you’d like to format it.

Fifth, let this list “germinate” for a few weeks. Then revisit it to see if you still like the items it includes. Eliminate those that have lost potency for you, and add others that have come to mind since the prior exercise.

Sixth, compile your final ethical principles list and format it as your official Ethics Code. Phrase each statement in the form of a manifesto or a “This I Believe” so that you and the people reading them will know you stand for these things.

Seventh, print out your code in a format that promotes sharing, that’s visible to you throughout your work day, and that makes you feel really good.

Now that you have an Ethics Code, refer to it frequently when faced with difficult business decisions. Always ask yourself whether a potential action tracks with or violates your Code. Then make the appropriate call consistent with your code.

Finally, congratulate yourself for having developed a tool that the vast majority of your competitors lack . . . a highly motivating Ethics Code that will help you become an admired and successful financial professional. It will also discourage unhappy clients from suing you and making you use your E&O insurance. Sounds like a win-win, right?

A Former Ameriprise Financial broker has been kicked out of the industry for excessive and unsuitable trading of senior accounts. FINRA also sanctioned broker Larry M. Boggs for exercising account discretion without written authorization. Case in point: Boggs made 101 transactions on the account of an 82-year-old university professor whose investment objectives were growth and income and who had a moderate risk tolerance. In order to pocket commissions of $34,889, the broker generated client losses of $19,391.

A Washington state investment advisor lived the high life at his clients’ expense, sparking an SEC fraud charge. According to authorities, Ronald A. Fossum, Jr., stole hundreds of thousands of dollars in client funds in order to pay his taxes, jet around the world, and live rent-free. The government claims Fossum persuaded more than 100 investors to invest $20 million in three unregistered funds he owned and controlled. His modus operandi was to offer clients promissory notes paying 8 to 12 percent returns and then invest the proceeds in distressed oil and gas firms, real estate ventures, and derivative instruments. However, instead of making the promised investments, he pocketed his clients’ money in order to buy a home; make mortgage payments; travel to Fiji, Africa, and Mexico; and buy cars. Fossum also used classic Ponzi tactics, using money from new investors to pay the returns of older investors. Fossum and a partner,  Alonzo R. Cahoon, of Morgan, Utah, face individual counts of fraud, multiple violations of the Exchange, Securities, and Advisers Acts, disgorgement of ill-gotten gains, and civil penalties.

A Baton Rouge, Louisiana investment advisor is in hot water for using client funds to pay for his lifestyle, to make other investors whole, and to invest in a high-risk real estate scheme. Ralph Willard Savoie is now looking at one count of wire fraud, according to acting U.S. Attorney Corey Amundson. Authorities say Savoie raised more than $150,000 from investors. But instead of investing their funds in securities, insurance, and in industrial cooling towers, he wrote checks to himself and to his family. He also used client money to pay off prior investors. When one customer suspected something was wrong, Savoie responded by promising to return the man’s money “as long as (the client) did not report the matter to law enforcement.”

For information on affordable E&O insurance for low-risk insurance agents, investment advisors, and real estate broker/owners, please visit EOforLess.com. For information on ethical sales practices, please visit the National Ethics Association’s Ethics Center.

Six Trust Building Strategies for Life Insurance Agents

Trust doesn’t just happen. You can’t create it with a snappy call to action or a clever objection response. It’s something you have to earn daily through your words and actions. For this reason, building trust requires a deliberate, multi-faceted strategy, nurtured steadily over months and years. What goes into this effort? Five powerful trust-building tactics, ending with an E&O insurance kicker.

Adhere to Five Ethical Practices to Instill Trust

It’s hard to deny that contemporary selling depends less these days on product appeals and hard persuasion techniques and more on information sharing and low-pressure counseling. This is especially true with Millennial clients, the industry’s prime target market now that Baby Boomers are retiring in great numbers. The last thing such prospects want is a life insurance agent launching aggressive sales salvos at them. Instead, they want to collaborate with their agents to solve problems. For this reason, ethical sales practices are an absolute requirement for creating trust with such buyers. Here are five essential ways to accelerate this process, especially with younger prospects.

1. Commit yourself to total credibility throughout the sales process. In today’s environment, it’s important to avoid misleading statements or exaggerations. This means you should avoid dubious claims and support your statements with third-party, objective evidence. In short, your words and actions must always be 100 percent beyond reproach.

2. Be completely reliable in terms of the promises you make. Put yourself in your clients’ shoes. How will they feel when their life insurance agent fails to return calls, to complete the research he committed to, or forgets to execute a requested service transaction? Disappointed is probably an understatement. Frankly, it won’t take many dashed promises for them to lose all faith. Lacking faith, they will be more likely to defect to a competitor. Solution? Sweat the small stuff, so clients can count on you every time.

3. Become client focused, not self-focused. We all know how much fun it is to speak and how boring it can be to listen to others. But listening to your clients is crucial if you want to establish long-term trust. It’s the only way you’ll really understand their fears, problems, objectives, and constraints. But listening is just the starting point. You have to commit to becoming a “high-touch” agent, staying in close contact, especially when markets are volatile. Finally, being client-focused hinges on you safeguarding their personal information, documents, and confidences. Never sharing client details with a colleague, family member, or friend will accelerate the trust-building process.

4. Commit to total transparency both during and after the sales process. The more information you convey about yourself and your firm, above and beyond the required disclosures, the quicker you’ll attain trusted-advisor status. To this end, encourage prospects to check you out using third-party sources such as FINRA’s BrokerCheck, the Better Business Bureau, and the National Ethics Association (sponsor of EOforLess).

5. Adopt a fiduciary mindset. Even if you are not legally required to act as a fiduciary, consider acting as one anyway. When prospects and clients see you are putting their needs ahead of your own, that you place ethics above self-dealing, they will come to trust you implicitly.

Position Yourself as a Responsible Life Insurance Agent

In addition to the above steps, strive to demonstrate you are a responsible financial professional. In others words, show prospects that your business practices are reasonable and that if you make a mistake or fail to do something important, you will make things right.

Start by discussing how you do business—that your recommendations derive from rigorous fact-finding and that all the financial products (and companies) you recommend have been rigorously vetted. What’s more, convey that everything you do on their behalf is mainstream and that your operations and procedures are bulletproof, especially when it comes to data security.

Then make a point of saying that you practice what you preach as a life insurance agent. Not only do you help your clients mitigate their financial risks through sound planning, you also do the same for your own business. This means you have financial backstops in place in case a financial-product company fails, a client gets hurt while visiting your office, or you make an error that financially harms a client. These protections take the form of SIPC insurance on securities purchases, state insurance guarantee funds for life policies and annuities, commercial general liability insurance (CGL) for office visitors, and E&O insurance for your professional mistakes and omissions.

Now here comes the kicker. Having E&O insurance from EOforLess may well be the most important element of all. Not only does it give clients peace of mind, it frees you to do your best work. In other words, E&O insurance coverage helps you  focus exclusively on your work rather than always second-guessing whether a recommendation exposes you to professional liability.

At the end of the day, building trusting client relationships will accelerate your success in the life insurance industry and help you to achieve your long-term financial objectives. If this doesn’t create peace of mind for you and your family, what will?