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Family-run firms a la Madoff? Questions to make sure they aren’t.

Monday Money Tip: Some questions to ask your family-run investment advisor

Bernie Madoff is in prison. Now, one son and another’s estate are being sued. By Erin E. Arvedlund, Inquirer Columnist Looking for some sleazy beach reading? Here’s a tale of a whole family ripping off investors: Bernie Madoff and his sons are back in the news. More precisely, surviving son Andrew Madoff and deceased son Mark Madoff’s estate have been sued, yet again, by a court-appointed trustee for over $150 million. They are accused of stealing directly from accounts of their clients, faking trades, deleting incriminating e-mails, and taking fake “loans” from the family business. I’ve long argued that Bernie Madoff’s crime was too complicated to do alone, and earlier this year, five of his former employees were found guilty of helping him – they now face prison sentences. Madoff himself took the blame entirely, in an effort to shield his brother, sons, and niece. He is serving 150 years in prison, and his brother is in jail. His niece has been granted her freedom in exchange for her assets. Now, vivid details of his sons’ involvement are emerging, and offer a roadmap of how a family-run investment shop sloshed money in and out of bank accounts and abused client money as a personal “piggy bank” (as the trustee Irving Picard called the crime). In all, Picard alleges, the brothers stole $153.3 million over the decades they worked with their father. That’s a small portion of the $20 billion or so ultimately stolen, but if successful, the suit would show the family was, it can perhaps appropriately be said, thick as thieves. Andrew and Mark are also accused of deleting e-mails that linked them to their father’s Ponzi scheme during a 2005 U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission investigation. The trustee also alleged the pair diverted tens of millions from the firm to engineer fake loans. They then used that money to buy real estate – million-dollar apartments in Manhattan and houses in Nantucket, Mass., and in Greenwich, Conn. Investment firms larded with family are a minefield for conflicts of interest. Here are some questions investors should ask before they give money to such a firm: Does the adviser have physical custody of your customer funds? Or are the assets held by a third party, such as a bank or custodian? Because they should be. Madoff had custody of his clients’ money, and that’s partly how he managed to cover up his fraud. Does an independent third party, unaffiliated with the family, administer your account? Will you get brokerage statements from an outside firm? You should. Madoff also issued false account statements to his clients, and wouldn’t provide online access. Who is the family firm’s auditor? Is the auditor related to the family in any way? He or she shouldn’t be. New rules target advisers with custody, or advisers who are affiliated with a third-party custodian, by requiring them to undergo an annual surprise audit by an independent auditor. Who has check-signing authority at the firm? If it’s family, take your business elsewhere. Don’t get tripped up by another Madoff. These types have stolen enough already. earvedlund@phillynews.com 215-854-2808 @erinarvedlund

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