This is the testimony of one victim of a pension scam. I cannot verify whether every aspect is true, but it is not the work of a vindictive person. It has been written to help trustees of pension schemes to better protect members and for Regulators to better help trustees.
There is nothing so powerful as such a personal testimony for it asks us to consider how we might have reacted, both as a potential victim and as a fiduciary. I thank Stephen Sefton (who wrote the piece and is pictured below).
Testimony of Stephen Sefton
The Cambridge English Dictionary defines a scam as: “an illegal plan for making money, especially one that involves tricking people“, source: http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/scam
I’m Stephen Sefton. I am a real victim. I am 60 years old and live in Milton Keynes, UK. I’m the Optimus victim referenced in Angie’s email of 10th Feb regarding Trafalgar Multi Asset & STM Fidecs, and this is my story.
I was a member of a defined benefit scheme in the care of Mercers but I heard of the changing rules coming into effect in April 2015 and I wanted to take advantage of these with a flexible drawdown rather than an annuity. The latter made no sense to me with my current health issues. My ceding provider said I couldn’t have a flexible drawdown in the defined benefit scheme and I would have no option other than to transfer out.
Enter the confidence tricksters. Wolves, salivating at the opportunity to fleece a victim and line their own pockets with my hard earned pension. No doubt they ordered their luxury cars and tickets to Vegas with the anticipated commission and admin charges that will be syphoned off my pension over the years, until they’ve bled my pension dry. This is what they do – routinely and typically.
The very framework of law and regulations, designed to protect me, failed me spectacularly, letting me down and later, abandoning me on the grounds that because the advisers were unregulated I had no avenue to any redress or compensation! Like many other victims, I would be on my own when I discovered what had happened!
Between March and May 2015 I was illegally invited by an adviser from Square Mile International Financial (“SMIF“), formerly Aktiva Wealth Management, fraudulently posing as a regulated IFA, to participate in two Unregulated Collective Investment Schemes (Blackmore Global and Symphony). It is illegal to promote these kind of investments to retail investors in the UK (Sections 21 & 238 of FSMA)
I was mis-advised by this adviser to transfer my pension to a QROP even though they knew I was a UK resident with no intention of leaving the UK. Their first suggestion was Kreston, which is based in the Isle of Man but my application was turned down by Kreston (reason unknown) and so SMIF switched to a QROP called Optimus Retirement Benefit Scheme No.1 which is based in Malta. There was no explanation for the change of jurisdiction. It seems SMIF were happy to move my fund to any QROP provider that would take it – no matter where they were based.
Optimus Pension Administration Ltd. (“OPAL“) provide back office services to Integrated Capabilities Ltd., Malta (“ICML“), who are the trustees of the Optimus Retirement Benefit Scheme No.1 (“the Scheme“). The SMIF adviser made fraudulent claims of tax benefits on the income I would get via a QROP and also fraudulently claimed OPAL were approvedby the HMRC. Even today, the OPAL website: http://www.optimuspensions.com/scheme-1/ makes the claim (in the footer) “… is registered with HMRC as an approved scheme.” HMRC DO NOT approve pension Schemes! This misinformation is used to add legitimacy to the Scheme and mislead the client and is typical language used by the scammers.
SMIF used the cold calling back office services of a firm called Aspinal Chase (Albion Wharf, 19 Albion Street, Manchester), and Pensions & Life UK Ltd. (“P&L”) of the same address – the director’s of these companies being, Nunn & McCreesh, who, I later learned, are also the directors of the toxic fund, Blackmore Global in which the majority of my pension fund was invested! I also later learned Nunn & McCreesh are on record for participating in the 2012/13 Capita Oak and Henley pension scams; cold calling victims to participate in the purchase of worthless storage pods losing in excess of 500 victims over £7 million!
Forms were couriered to and fro to me and in the summer of 2015, and on instruction from P&L, Mercer transferred a sum approaching half a million pounds of my pension fund to the Optimus QROP in Malta.
I received a letter in July 2015 from ICML, advising me 75% of my fund had been invested in Blackmore Global and 25% invested in the Symphony fund. The letter later turned out to be highly inaccurate with respect to Symphony when I compared it to the financial statement I received of my account (10 Nov 2016), which showed suspicious anomalies in the dates of the Symphony share purchase. These anomalies were conveniently explained by ICML as simply “administrative errors” but professional businesses don’t just accept financial anomalies as administrative errors! ICML have continued to evade further explanation of these “administrative errors”.
I began to suspect something was not right in the Spring of 2016 because the Scheme was terribly opaque. I had had no further communication from any party. I had not been provided any audited report from the trustees (compiled to end of Dec each year) even though the trust deed (section 19.3) gives me a right to it. Later, when I asked for it, I received only the first two pages! When this was questioned I never got an explanation as to why I didn’t have the rest of it, nor was I ever given the rest of it. The first two pages did however show that in 2015 the Scheme went from 26 members to 1100+ members – roughly 100 new members per month. It is inconceivable I am the only one invested in illiquid, toxic UCIS’s held by the Scheme, wholly unsuitable for pensions – which must have prudent, diverse, low-risk, liquid investments by definition.
I began to question the OPAL directors, who vehemently denied I was a victim of a scam and bizarrely insisted SMIF were appropriately regulated even though I shared with them the reply I got from the FCA, categorically stating SMIF were not licensed to give investment advice nor transfer my pension. I also shared my email from the FCA with the SMIF adviser who rattled his sabre threatening to set his lawyers onto the FCA. Yeah, ok.
Subsequent communications with SMIF (which I have on file), made claims the funds were suitable for retail clients and I quote one said, (email 27th May 2016) ” … both Funds are properly recognised and audited collectives, regulated in their respective jurisdictions accordingly.” This is yet further misinformation, some would say fraudulent. Neither fund (Blackmore nor Symphony) has published audited accounts to date! I also have it on record that my trustees were totally unaware of this fact until I brought it to their attention and requested (24th July ’16) a copy of the Blackmore audit. ICML replied there wasn’t one and later, in a letter dated 26th August 2016, added: ” The first audited financial statements for the Fund are being finalised for the period from October 2013 to April 2015. We have been advised the audit will be completed in the next month [Sep 2016]. We have asked Blackmore to explain the reason for the delay as we share your concern. ”
This naturally begs the question, just how much due diligence was performed by the Investment Managers of the Scheme (Lombard Bank, Malta) before advising these funds be approved as appropriate assets in the Scheme? My suspicion is Lombard didn’t approve these assets, but they were added to the Scheme on the advice of unlicensed advisers, in breach of Maltese regulations 1.3.8/1.3.9 Investment Advisor. However, when challenged over this, ICML were evasive. If these toxic assets were approved on the advice of unlicensed advisers then it begs the question why the MFSA were not enforcing regulations and taking them to task? Yet another part of the system, designed to protect me from being scammed was letting me down. The system will only protect victims if everyone plays their part at each step!
I started a blog on the Citywire forum for a number of reasons. One, I wanted to reach out to anyone who might be in the same boat as me and secondly, see if there was anyone that could offer advice as to how I could recover from this disastrous pension transfer. Since I had been abandoned by the UK authorities, I had to explore any source of help I could get! Being alone is devastating to a victim! I was documenting the scam on the forum, as it was unfolding in real time, reporting the facts and giving updates on my progress at extricating myself from this situation. I did get a lot of good advice from that forum. Then …
Enter the blood sucking lawyers. On 12th July 2016 I got an email from the Lawyer representing SMIF regarding the content of my forum thread! They asserted my allegations against SMIF were untrue and defamatory. Citywire buckled and took down the posts! Citywire missed a big scoop. I was simply reporting what was happening to me; reporting the contents of the adviser’s own self incriminating communications and reporting what I was being told by the authorities (FCA), the Pensions Advisory Service and many legitimate IFA’s. SMIF threatened legal action but gave not one shred of evidence to counter my allegations, just feeble assertions it was untrue. However, undeterred I decided to hit back and when I threatened I would take this to Action Fraud, this was the shocking SMIF’s John Ferguson’s response to his lawyer on 5th Aug 2016: ” All fine as Action Fraud are nobody & have no authority. ” Is this the behaviour of a professional, ethical business? You decide. But it speaks volumes about SMIF’s ethical policy.
However, I did later discover that SMIF were right about Action Fraud since hundreds of victims of other scams such as Ark, Capita Oak, Henley, Westminster, London Quantum etc. have made reports to Action Fraud and yet nothing has ever been done to bring the perpetrators to justice!
Not to be outdone by SMIF, ICML (my trustee when all is said and done) decided they would also have a go at me and their lawyer sent me a letter on 26th Sep also threatening legal action action because, and I quote, “… they [ICML] do not appreciate the tone you have used in recent correspondence. ” Really? Give me a break! I was at that time, £415,000 out of pocket because a negligent pension trustee had approved toxic assets into the Scheme without adequate due diligence, unquestionably on the advice of unlicensed advisers and sunk my pension into them! At no time were the trustees able to give me an accurate valuation of my assets because the NAV of one of the funds (Symphony) was never updated on the platform. Quite naturally, my tone was at times showing frustration but who’s wouldn’t! I was worried sick about the very real possibility of losing the pension I had worked hard to build up for many years.
Patrick McCreesh (director of the Blackmore Global fund) has very recently decided to object to Angie’s blog describing the fund as “toxic” and threatened legal action. Really? I asked ICML last year to provide a list of sub funds of Blackmore Global. ICML sent me the list on 5th Aug 2016, but I must point out, they had no idea of this list until I asked them for it and they had to do some research. The Blackmore Global offer supplement shows one of the directors being Brian Weal, already on record for his participation in the Blevedere investment scam, but also banned in 2014 by Gibraltar FSC from directorships of professional investor funds because of his failure to operate the Advalorem Fund (later renamed Swan Holdings) in a manner that was not detrimental to its investors. Whilst he is not currently a director of Blackmore, two of the sub funds of Blackmore (according to the 5th Aug email from my trustees) include Swan Holdings and GRRE – both of these are owned by Brian Weal. Furthermore, Swan Holdings bought an 8.36% share in Etaireia Investments who, under the direction of Stuart Black, purchased land in Scotland on the fraudulent promise it had planning permission for a number of residential properties. How toxic does it have to get before the label toxic is appropriate?
The Symphony fund is a sub fund of the Nascent platform that purports to provide a cost effective solution to “budding” fund managers. I have no idea how many funds are under this “umbrella”. I know only of Symphony and the Trafalgar Multi Asset Fund (now suspended and about to be wound up). Richard Reinert is a director to both these funds. The Symphony fund documentation explicitly states it is a professional fund and not to be promoted to UK retail clients. The trustees knew this but still accepted members from unlicensed advisers, who are also the global distributors of Symphony (according to this announcement anyway, http://www.international-adviser.com/news/1007006/symphony-capital-partners-launches ) , targeting UK retail pensions. The directors of this umbrella platform have responsibility for (according to their Symphony documentation ) ” … safeguarding the assets of the Sub-Fund, and hence for taking reasonable steps for the prevention and detection of fraud and other irregularities. ” The appointment of James Hadley as Investment Manager for Trafalgar and the subsequent winding up of that fund shows this responsibility was clearly not discharged. I allege, the Directors knew the investments for Symphony were being sourced by their distributors from UK retail clients and did nothing about it! The regulators need to start regulating here! Yet another example of the system designed to protect me, letting me down.
On a positive note, I have managed to redeem 87% of my original pension fund (but this doesn’t take into account lost interest and costs of repatriation plus emotional suffering) and repatriated it to a proper regulated UK provider. I have, however, lost a lot of money plus a lot of sleep and would still like restitution.
To give credit where it’s due, OPAL waived their exit fee and one years admin fee; likewise Investors Trust – the Cayman Island Assurance Bond used by the scammers to syphon my money into the toxic funds – waived their exit penalty and refunded some admin charges. NB: I did question the trustees whether Investors Trust were licensed to operate in the EU as they are not listed on the MFSA’s own register ( http://www.mfsa.com.mt/pages/licenceholders.aspx ) – but I got an irrelevant and evasive answer yet again about membership to the AILO.
Blackmore “promised” a refund of their 7% early exit penalty, almost 6 months ago now in a “gesture of goodwill”, but I haven’t seen a penny of it – an empty gesture. Symphony not only chose to keep their 5% early exit penalty, but after reporting I would make a healthy profit since investing I ended up with just 70% of my investment and no one has seen fit to give any explanation despite numerous requests for one! Symphony has really stitched me up and Reinert thinks it’s not his problem! Yes, it really is, in my opinion!
The website of the cold calling company, Aspinal Chase (owned by the directors of Blackmore) has been taken down; the supposed audit of Blackmore is very late and a director of ICML has admitted he is unable to get hold of the directors of Blackmore. A pension trustee that cannot get hold of the directors of an asset in their Scheme? … you make your own conclusions about what’s going on there!
There are hundreds of innocent people still invested in toxic funds approved by negligent trustees, totally unaware of the financial ruin they face. Trafalgar has already been suspended and innocent people are staring financial ruin in the face! It’s just a matter of time until the other funds collapse because they are always founded on risky harebrained schemes designed by people who have no idea how to manage investment funds! These people syphon charges and commissions from the funds for their own enrichment and care not one iota about the innocent people who are unlikely to recover from the loss because the money has been squandered by these so called “budding” investment managers!
I have had interest in my story from a highly respected National newspaper and a TV channel. I have been reticent to go to the media as yet because I feel it might not be in the interest of myself or other members of these Schemes. Such publicity would undoubtedly open the flood gates and cause others in the same boat to do a run on the funds. The fund(s) would collapse and wrap up and liquidators would drain the funds dry in admin charges. A controlled unwinding of this mess is what’s in our best interest in my opinion.
There are people on the addressee list with the power to act and clean this mess up. I implore them to do so. The system should no longer let people down, but start redressing the wrong done to so many by arrogant companies that show contempt for the law and think they can do this with impunity because they see Action Fraud as “Nobody”.
What would I like to see?
- Trustees stop taking new members sourced from unlicensed advisers – immediately!
- Trustees stop approving UCIS’s into their Schemes – immediately!
- Proper due diligence carried out on the appointment of Investment Managers
- Trustees to take stock of the number of toxic funds in their Scheme and the number of members locked into them
- Regulators in the UK and Offshore start doing some regulating
- Member’s funds redeemed from these toxic investments in a controlled manner
- Waiving of early exit penalties by all parties – and laws passed internationally to ban any pension investments with early exit fees
- Unlicensed advisers, illegally promoting UCIS’s, prosecuted, stripped of their assets which are to be returned to members, and then thrown in jail – the key being dropped in the ocean.
- Negligent trustees to pay the initial fee for regulated Independent Advice to those members wishing to repatriate their pensions
- Negligent trustees to pay the set up fee of a new provider for members wishing to rescue pensions and repatriate to UK regulated providers
Angie has told me she has been contacted by another victim of this same Optimus scheme. He was cold called by a firm called Gerard Associates and half his pension invested in The Resort Group (Cape verde holiday flats). She informs me Gerard Associates were acting as introducers to Stephen Ward of Premier Pension Solutions back in 2010/11 in the Ark case and that subsequently Gerard acted as adviser in Ward’s London Quantum case.
I am a real victim of an organised pension scam and this has been my story.
I thank you for your time.