Bernie Madoff made headlines for bilking $50 billion from investors. The only thing as shocking as the dollar amount stolen is the list of famous people who got swindled: Steven Spielberg, Larry King, Kevin Bacon, Sen. Frank Lautenberg, real estate tycoon and publisher Mort Zuckerman, GMAC Chairman J. Ezra Merkin and former Philadelphia Eagles owner Norman Braman, among others. He also fooled a variety of hedge fund managers and institutional investors, both in the United States and overseas.
If such people could be suckered by Madoff, what can ordinary consumers do to make sure they, too, aren't being victimized by their adviser? Fortunately, there are steps you can take to protect yourself. In fact, Madoff's own behavior offered the very warning signs that too many investors ignored.
1. Beware any adviser who prominently touts his ethics, honesty and trustworthiness. Honesty should be a given -- and anyone who aggressively promotes his honesty is raising a red flag. Madoff's Web site bragged, "Clients know that Bernard Madoff has a personal interest in maintaining the unblemished record of value, fair-dealing and high ethical standards that has always been the firm's hallmark." By the same notion, some financial advisers invoke God as a marketing ploy by calling themselves "Christian (or Jewish or Muslim or whatever) financial advisers." These individuals promote themselves at church groups, which can lead to a practice that federal regulators call "affinity fraud." In that scam, crooks ingratiate themselves within a religious organization to steal money from the congregation and its members by promoting investments with high returns and no risk. Madoff apparently did this as well, making connections with wealthy members of the Jewish community.
2. Beware any adviser who asks you to make checks payable to him or his firm. The only check you should make payable to an adviser is for his fee. Checks for your investments, however, should be made payable to the brokerage firm or custodian handling your account (such as Schwab or TD Ameritrade.) By not depositing your money with your adviser, he will not have access to or control of your assets.
3. Beware any adviser who issues his own statements. By maintaining your account with a national or regional brokerage firm, that firm will issue monthly statements. Having your adviser issue statements creates a huge conflict of interest. If you want to know your money is safe, call your brokerage firm. (Note: It's okay if your adviser issues separate reports, such as performance data or tax information. But the statements themselves should come from a third party.)
4. Beware any adviser who uses a questionable auditor. An independent auditor should regularly examine the adviser's books and records to ensure that clients' money is being handled properly. Madoff hired a small auditing firm that reportedly operated out of a single 13x18-square-foot office even though he was handling billions of dollars in assets.
5. Beware any adviser who offers unusually high or steady rates of return. Every investor dreams of earning consistently high returns -- which are too good to be true. Madoff's investors received a monthly return of 1 percent for years and years. He even reported a 5.6 percent profit for the first 11 months of 2008 -- despite the fact that the stock market suffered a loss of over 40 percent. Claims of consistently good and unusually steady returns over a long period should be viewed with great suspicion.
6. Beware any adviser who touts testimonials. Past performance does not guarantee future results, which is why the SEC has restrictions on the use of testimonials. But Madoff built his entire business by word of mouth, currying favor on the social circuit at high-end country clubs.
7. Never invest in anything you don't understand. If you don't understand an investment or strategy, don't invest in it. Madoff refused to explain how he produced investment returns and clients joked that he put the money in a "black box." They're not laughing any more.
Although the news of fraud is discouraging, remember that it's nothing new. The country's first investment offering, issued by Alexander Hamilton in 1792, was the victim of insider trading.
So, despite such people as Bernard Madoff, you can succeed with your investments. Simply take the time to educate yourself and be aware for warning signs.
As the Romans said, caveat emptor. Buyer beware.