Getting old can bring about so many challenges which schooling and early experience could not train and prepare us sufficiently to eliminate or minimize the pain and loss. Take the case of Max Tharpe, an accomplished photographer, who managed to inherit a large stash of stocks which afforded him a comfortable life in retirement.

Having no heirs to pass on his estate, he chose to donate his wealth to charitable church groups when he turned 87. And so, one day he went to the office of Edward Jones & Co. in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. in 2007 for that very purpose.

In February 2008, Mr. Tharpe asked his stockbroker to sell only one position, his Wachovia Bank shares, whose branch had given him such poor service. He also told the broker to maintain all the rest of his portfolio. And this is when the whole thing blew.

Based on the arbitration award handed down by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, or Finra, and the narrative account of Todd Zuckerbrod, Mr. Tharpe’s lawyer in the case filed against Edward Jones and its broker, William Holland, the story chronicles the extent to which scammers will go to fleece their clients, even the elderly.

It seems Holland took his sweet time, spending eight months to dispose of 30,464 Wachovia shares in a falling market, while making 81 unauthorized purchases using the sales proceeds. Holland also convinced Tharpe to liquidate a fully-matured insurance policy and to purchase an annuity in which Tharpe paid Holland a fat commission of $49,549.

How could a broker do that to an old man who probably lived a big part of his time visiting or staying in the hospital? An old man who had no way to comprehend, let alone suspect anything wrong with the insurance switch or even with his brokerage account. As he described the testimony at the Finra hearing, Atty. Zuckerbrod stated, “Mr. Tharpe was hardly focused; you could be conversing with him for a few minutes and then, all of a sudden, he would be talking about B-52 bombers flying in the skies.”

This kind of thing can happen to any elderly person – to you or to your parents. You could be 85 or so and still be smart enough to appreciate Warren Buffett’s counsel about index funds. However, two to three years down the road, you could become a sitting duck to clever cons out to cut 20% off your gains who share nothing to cover part of your losses.

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