Montanans are savvier than most about the threat of financial fraud. After all, we have seen here in Big Sky Country some of the biggest and most egregious cases of financial fraud in the nation.
Years before Bernie Madoff was caught perpetrating his Ponzi scheme, we had former gubernatorial candidate, Pat Davison defrauding Montanans with the largest Ponzi scheme in the history of the state.
Before that, there was Piper Jaffray stockbroker Thomas J. O'Neill committing one of the nation’s largest securities fraud cases at that time. O'Neill, was accused in 2002 of performing more than 6,000 unauthorized trades for customers over the course of a four-year period.
Most of O'Neill's victims were elderly, widowed or disabled. One of his victims, a 92-year-old man, had seven speculative trades in his account while he was in a coma, with a final trade made in his account hours after he had died. Essentially, O'Neill transformed what were supposed to be conservative retirement accounts containing low-risk investments into high-risk portfolios loaded with speculative investments. Meanwhile, the unauthorized trades generated huge commissions for O'Neill and profits for Piper Jaffray.
Fortunately, our regulators in Montana were able to successfully prosecute these cases and were able to get most of the money back for the victims. However, most victims of financial fraud are not so lucky.
Perhaps it is because we have seen these cases of financial fraud firsthand in this state, that Montanans overwhelmingly supported financial reform efforts.
AARP recently commissioned a statewide survey in Montana to understand public opinion with respect to financial protection issues. The survey revealed that:
- 92 percent favor requiring financial advisors to tell you upfront about fees or commissions they earn and any potential conflicts of interest.
- 96 percent favor requiring banks to explain in plain language the terms, conditions and fees associated with mortgages and credit card debt.
- 91 percent favor protecting people from predatory lending practices.
- 91 percent favor requiring investment companies to disclose the costs, risks and benefits of all financial products they market.
- 81 percent favor the federal government not being allowed to take away a states’ right to enforce stricter consumer protection laws.
With America struggling to recover from a devastating recession, most observers agree that reckless behavior by some banks, mortgage lenders and credit card companies may have cost many Montanans their jobs, their homes and their retirement savings. No wonder Republicans, Democrats and Independents have supported efforts to hold the financial industry accountable.
Congress has recently adopted new rules of the road that will crack down on abuses by banks, credit card companies and the mortgage lending industry. AARP supported the final bill which provided the protection that consumers and investors deserve. Essential safeguards included:
- A consumer watchdog that will crack down on fraud and abuse and ensure consumers receive the information about financial products they need the most.
- New safeguards will be established that help prevent consumers from buying a mortgage they can’t afford or being hit with hidden fees, and strengthen protections for reverse mortgages. Transparency and plain language bring consumers one step closer to fully realizing their dreams.
- New authority to hold stockbrokers and investment advisors to a single high standard of accountability in the sale of complex securities products to consumers. AARP has made clear that full transparency among not only financial products, but from the individuals who sell them or advise individuals on financial matters is imperative to investors making informed, sound decisions. No one should have any doubt that the person they are seeking advice from is doing anything but working in their best interest.
Throughout this process, AARP is pleased to see that Congress has put consumers first by strengthening consumer and investor protections for millions of older Americans and their families.