Busted broker: Retired Naples doctor missed signs hidden in plain sight

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NAPLES, Fla. – A retired doctor says he lost part of his savings after his broker of more than 20 years made some bad investments – and the red flags that could have helped him keep his money were hiding in plain sight.

Dr. Ralph Younkin now lives in Naples, but said he first met his broker, Jerry Cicolani, more than 20 years ago in Northeast Ohio.

“He was introduced to me and assigned to me,” recalled Dr. Younkin of his first meeting with Cicolani through a large brokerage firm. “He said he was young but he was hard working and he would be with me and work his way and it would be worth my while, so I took him on.”

Over the years, Younkin said he grew to view Cicolani like another member of his family.

But after more than two decades of handling his portfolio, multiple federal agencies contacted him and asked him about Cicolani.

“I was, I was shocked, obviously,” he said. “I was totally shocked but I wanted to find out as quickly as I could what the problem was.”

Cicolani was accused of being involved in a petroleum investment ponzi scheme, according to federal documents. He pleaded guilty in 2015 to the “sale of unregistered securities” and “structuring transactions to evade reporting requirements.”

Cicolani was sentenced to to 57 months in prison and ordered to pay back more than $7.2 million in restitution.

Cicolani is currently being held in a Southwest Florida jail while awaiting transport to a federal prison.

Younkin, after learning about problems with his investments, discovered other complaints against Cicolani dating back to 2002.

Most investors are unaware that there’s a group looking out for their interests.

“A lot of people unfortunately don’t know that we’re out there protecting investors,” said Gerri Walsh, senior vice-president of investor education at the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA).

FINRA is an independent non-profit authorized by Congress to keep an eye on brokers. It can fine, suspend or even bar an individual broker from practicing, and their information is available for free through BrokerCheck.

“The best step that a consumer can take is to check their financial professionals at least once a year,” Walsh said. “Check your account statement, make sure there aren’t any unauthorized transactions happening. Make sure that the investments that you have are investments you’ve indicated you wanted purchased, but also use FINRA’s brokerage check database to learn about an individual because circumstances do change.”

Cicolani’s BrokerCheck page lists dozens of complaints.

With 641,133 brokers and more than 90 million investors, it is nearly impossible to notify individuals of every complaint lodged with FINRA, Walsh said

“It’s very difficult to have a system that would alert people when there is that kind of a change, that is why we encourage people to check out BrokerCheck before you do business with them,” she said. “Make sure that they’re registered, if there are any blemishes on their records, ask about them. Not all blemishes are the same.”

Walsh recommends those having issues with their investments or broker to contact the respective firm first. All firms have a compliance officer, she said.

Investors can also file a complaint with FINRA.

Those with questions about BrokerCheck can contact their help line at (800) 289-9999.

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