Author Archives: Lindell Lucy

Hong Kong Legislators Stand Up for ILAS Victims and Accuse Regulators of ‘Dereliction of Duty’

LegCo Meeting, 10/6/2015, Highlights

Sin Chung-kai’s “Letter to Hong Kong”, Broadcast on RTHK, 14/6/2015

Click HERE to listen to the radio program.

CK Sin

Background on the Scandal

Insurance intermediaries who sell investment-linked assurance schemes (ILAS) often refer to themselves as financial advisers or financial consultants. One of their main selling points is their alleged expertise in selecting investment funds which they believe will outperform the market.

Giving advice on investment funds is an SFC-regulated activity. ILAS intermediaries who have not obtained an SFC license are committing a criminal offense, contrary to Section 114 of the SFO, when they hold themselves out as carrying on a business in providing investment advice.

Since most ILAS intermediaries are not SFC-licensed, many, if not most, have been breaking the law.

Over the past month, the author of this blog has filed many complaints with the SFC against ILAS intermediaries who have been advertising themselves online as carrying on a business in Types 1, 4, and 9 SFC-regulated activities, despite the fact that these intermediaries and their companies do not possess any SFC licenses. Screenshots have been retained as evidence and may be published in the future, depending on SFC’s vigilance in enforcing the law.

The SFC had been regulating ILAS intermediates up until 13 August 2009, when the SFC suddenly changed its interpretation of the law and announced that it would no longer regulate the sale of ILAS products. As a consequence, ILAS intermediaries would thereafter be solely under the watch of self-serving self-regulatory organizations, whose conduct standards are much lower than SFC’s. ILAS intermediaries would thus be exempt from requirements to fully disclose the obscene sums of money they were deceptively extracting from their clients’ investment contributions via kickbacks from insurance companies.

Credible sources have said that the FSTB was responsible for pressuring SFC to stop regulating ILAS in 2009. SFC’s policy shift occurred not long after OCI and ICAC first expressed concerns that undisclosed ILAS commissions violated the Prevention of Bribery Ordinance.

The FSTB and SFC’s motives are unclear, but one thing is certain—their policy decision protected the interests of commission gougers at the expense of unsuspecting investors.

Over the past 5 to 6 years, hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong investors have been ripped off by self-regulated insurance intermediaries. The number of victims would have been greatly reduced if SFC hadn’t stopped regulating ILAS in 2009.

Last week, members of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council expressed outrage over the scandal and directly confronted KC Chan, head of the FSTB. Sin Chung-Kai accused the administration of “dereliction of duty”. Albert Ho likened the regulatory failure to the Lehman Minibond fiasco, and Leung Kwok-Hung suggested that authorities should be liable for compensating victims.

The full English version of the very heated discussion can be watched here:

The full Chinese version can be watched here:

All of the above video clips were excerpted from a much longer two-hour video uploaded to the HK Legislative Council’s YouTube Channel. The videos can also be found on the LegCo’s website, www.legco.gov.hk. LegCo is the copyright owner.

Further Reading

PowerPoint Presentation for ILAS Victims Meeting with SFC

Office of the Ombudsman Should Investigate SFC for Maladministration (May 13, 2015)

SFC ‘Listens’ to ILAS Victims but Refuses to Answer Questions (April 21, 2015)

Contradictory Statements Suggest that SFC Deliberately Lied about ILAS in Order to Evade Regulatory Responsibilities (Feb. 2, 2015)

SFC Allows Insurance Brokers to Charge Fees for Giving Investment Advice—Even Though They Are Unqualified, Unlicensed, and Probably Committing a Criminal Offense (Jan. 30, 2015)

HK Lawyer Says SFC’s 2009 Guidance on ILAS Was “Disturbing”—”Real Possibility” that Unlicensed Sellers Could Be Found Guilty of Criminal Offense (Jan. 25, 2015)

Portfolio Bomb: Distributing Unauthorized Funds through ILAS Products without Holding a Type 1 SFC License Was Likely a Criminal Offense (Jan. 23, 2015)

LM’s Unauthorized Fund Documents: Distribution to the Public Was a Criminal Offense (Jan. 16, 2015)

Undercover SFC Investigation Confirms that Exploitation of Retail Investors Is Widespread, But SFC Is Silent on How It Will Assist the Victims (Dec. 19, 2014)

Letter to the SFC (#1): Why Did the SFC Publish Blatantly False Information about ILAS in a Circular Meant to “Clarify” Licensing Requirements? (Oct. 14, 2014)

Concerted Non-Disclosure of Insurance Brokerage Commissions Has the Effect of Restricting Price Competition

Dear Anna Wu, Chairperson of the Hong Kong Competition Commission:

Anna Wu - Competition Commission Chairperson

Two weeks ago, I sent you a letter to draw your attention to Section 3.2, Paragraph (a) of the Professional Insurance Brokers Associations’ February 2011 Position Paper on Insurance Brokerage Commission.

PIBA stated that most of its member companies were opposed to disclosing the exact amount of commissions because it “would result in cut-throat competitions”.

A broker’s commission is nothing more than the price the consumer is paying for insurance brokerage services.

One of your staff responded to my letter, stating:

“Based on the information provided, the fact that the Professional Insurance Brokers Association has published its views on the extent to which brokerage commissions should be disclosed to customers does not in itself suggest cartel conduct or other anti-competitive practices in the relevant markets and will not raise competition concerns.”

Sorry, but I think the Competition Commission is dead wrong. Please explain how there are no competition concerns raised when an association of brokers publicly states that they are opposed to full commission disclosure precisely because it would result in price competition?

PIBA members are essentially saying that they want to deprive consumers of cheaper insurance brokerage services, i.e., to keep the price of those services artificially inflated. They want to make it unnecessarily difficult for consumers to be able to locate the broker who is offering the best price, or to even know the price at all.

When all brokers simultaneously hide the price of their services, then they can all keep the price jacked up at the current obscene levels.

The First Conduct Rule of the Competition Ordinance “prohibits undertakings from making or giving effect to agreements or decisions or engaging in concerted practices that have as their object or effect the prevention, restriction or distortion of competition in Hong Kong.”

I think it is accurate to say that brokers are engaging in a concerted practice of not fully disclosing commissions, which they admit has the intended effect of restricting price competition.

If the Hong Kong Competition Commission does not think that cartel activity in the insurance brokerage industry should be on its radar, then please note that just yesterday, the Competition Commission of Singapore (CCS) issued a “Proposed Infringement Decision Against 10 Financial Advisory Companies for Pressurising Competing Life Insurance Offer to be Withdrawn from the Market“.

CCS Press Release - Proposed Infringement Decision Against 10 Financial Advisers

Click HERE to read the CCS press release.

I wrote about this very issue one year ago, in a blog post titled, “Singapore Financial Advisers Flout Competition Law and Cheat Consumers out of Cheaper Insurance“. Please take a look at it.

I would appreciate a response from the Hong Kong Competition Commission explaining how concerted non-disclosure of insurance brokerage commissions does “not raise competition concerns”, especially when PIBA members admit that a purpose of non-disclosure is to avoid “cut-throat competitions”.

Best Regards,

Lindell

Feeding Readers to Sharks: Thailand’s Big Chilli Magazine Sells Out to Dishonest, Unlicensed “Financial Advisers”

Over the past year, Big Chilli has published several articles about the financial devastation caused by unscrupulous, unlicensed “financial advisers”. The magazine appeared to be committed to alerting the public to the deceptions, ripoffs, and criminality which have plagued the country’s financial services sector. Now, sadly, Big Chilli has become a facilitator.

On pages 18 and 19 of the latest edition of Big Chilli, there is a conspicuous advertorial for an unlicensed, unregulated investment advisory company called South East Asia Capital (SEAC):

Swimming with Dolphins or Drowning with Sharks

Click HERE to go to the advertorial.

The advertorial is loaded with blatantly false, misleading, and hypocritical statements, but that’s only the beginning of the problems.

All of SEAC’s Directors Previously Worked for a Company on the Thai SEC Investor Alert List

According to the Thai SEC’s website, no company named South East Asia Capital (SEAC) is licensed, nor are any of its directors.

A Google search indicates that all of SEAC’s directors—Ian Ferguson, Billy Popham, and Stephan Tierney—previously worked at MBMG International Co., Ltd, a company which is now on the SEC’s Investor Alert List for unlicensed securities and derivatives business.

Section 289 of Thailand’s Securities and Exchange Act states that any person who undertakes securities business without a license “shall be liable to imprisonment for a term of two to five years and a fine from two hundred thousand baht to five hundred thousand baht and a further fine not exceeding ten thousand baht for every day during which the contravention continues.”

Below are photos from the Pattaya Mail, which show the SEAC gang when they apparently worked at MBMG International:

Popham lists MBMG International as a previous employer on his LinkedIn profile:

Tierney previously had an MBMG International email address:

Ferguson was previously listed as MBMG International’s Sales Director:

MBMG International is a part of the MBMG Group. Anyone who follows Andrew Drummond’s website will probably recognize the name. Last year, Drummond exposed the secret history of an MBMG analysist, Stephen Hinch, who in the 1990s “was deported from the United States for stealing client funds.” Hinch was subsequently fired. Drummond also revealed that MBMG employed Alan Hall from 2005-2006 and maintained a business relationship for two more years. After leaving MBMG, Hall began recklessly flogging the notorious LM Managed Performance Fund, a high commission Ponzi scheme which collapsed in March 2013.  Hall subsequently fled Thailand.

Links to Drummond’s articles are here:

A few months ago, Drummond also revealed that MBMG previously had a long business relationship with Cobus Kellermann, one of the key players in the allegedly massive Belvedere Management fraud. According to a statement issued by MBMG, the company cut ties with Kellerman in 2012 before there were any fraud allegations. Drummond says, “The association between [MBMG and Kellerman] seems to have dated back to at least 2004.”

The link to Drummond’s article is here:

[Note: After this blog post was published, MBMG Group Managing Partner, Paul Gambles, contacted the author. Gambles says that MBMG International was placed on the SEC Investor Alert List after a client complained to the SEC. Gambles claims that MBMG International did not break Thai licensing laws, and that the client’s complaint was unsubstantiated. The identity of the alleged complainant is not known and so has not been contacted for comments.

Archived snapshots of the MBMG International website from 2009 and 2010 can be found here:

If one clicks on the “Meet the Team” section of the website, one will find that Popham and Ferguson are listed as “client advisors”. Cobus Kellermann is listed as a fund manager. On the “Services” section of the website, MBMG’s “core business” is stated as “financial planning and investment advice”.

The only company in the MBMG Group that has obtained an SEC license to perform investment advisory services is MBMG Investment Advisory Company Limited. The “Commencement Date” for that license is listed as Jan. 2, 2014. Paul Gambles is the only person who is currently listed as a licensed representative.]

The Great Insurance Wrapper Ripoff

In its advertorial in Big Chilli, SEAC claims:

“We have based our business model on the UK Retail Distribution Review (RDR) that was introduced in 2013…Like the UK, our Preferred Investment Partners pay us a small ongoing fee from their funds under management, taken out of their annual management charge. Of course, if they fail to grow the client’s investments the client can elect to switch out at any time without charge.”

SEAC’s claims are both false and misleading.

Its “preferred investment partners” are discretionary investment managers. In the UK, discretionary investment managers are banned from paying kickbacks to financial advisers or any firm “which makes personal recommendations to retail clients in relation to retail investment products.” (FCA Policy Statement PS14/1)

Thus, SEAC’s business model is not based on RDR, and it is not “like the UK”.

Also, while SEAC emphasizes that the trail commission on the investments is allegedly “small” and that the investor can “switch out at any time without charge”, SEAC fails to mention that it intends to place these investments in high-fee, high-commission insurance wrappers (portfolio bonds and savings plans) with lock-ins of up to 8 years or more. Investors cannot “switch out” unless they pay a hefty exit penalty. The commissions are so high that one insurer, Royal Skandia, was sued for bribery in Hong Kong.

Here’s an excerpt from the SEAC advertorial:

SEAC - Terms of Business with Wrapper Providers

SEAC was dishonest about a number of things in its advertorial, but it told the truth when it said, “Many people still entrust the crucial role of managing their money to people who are not regulated or qualified, financial witchdoctors who gamble with the hapless investor’s assets while charging high commissions.”

Red Flags Surround ALL of SEAC’s “Preferred Investment Partners”

SEAC speaks highly of its three “preferred investment partners”—Apollo Multi Asset Management, Newport Private Wealth, and Siam Knight Fund Management—but a little bit of research uncovers several troubling facts.

The most obvious red flag is that all of these investment companies (as well as the insurance companies) have chosen to distribute their products through SEAC—an unlicensed, unregulated financial advisory firm.

Apollo: Entangled in the Belvedere Management Fraud

Apollo Investment Team

Apollo Multi Asset Management is based in the UK. Less than two months ago, Professional Adviser magazine reported that:

“[Apollo Multi Asset Management] has been forced to freeze redemptions on one of its funds [the Four Elements Apollo fund], after becoming caught up in an investigation by the Mauritian regulator into an alleged Ponzi scheme [operated by Belvedere Management].”

Prudent financial advisers would not risk putting their clients’ money with fund managers who are “caught up” in a fresh Ponzi scheme investigation. The advisers at SEAC don’t seem to mind though, possibly because they, as former employees of MBMG Group, had a prior business relationship with Kellermann of Belvedere Management.

Newport: Sales Executive Previously Promoted the LM Ponzi Scheme

Newport Private Wealth is based in Australia. The company’s head of “business development” in the Far East is Cameron Knox, former CEO of the Financial Partners group and current CEO of Imperium Capital, a company which is part of the Financial Partners “global affiliation”.

Cameron Knox - ImperiumFP Global Affiliation

The Financial Partners “global affiliation” was one of the most aggressive sellers of the LM Managed Performance Fund, a massive Australian Ponzi scheme that has left thousands of victims devastated. Knox was dispatched to Australia immediately after the LM scheme collapsed, for the purpose of doing what might be called “belated due diligence”. A group of victims in Thailand recently filed a complaint against one of his company’s advisers, who was flogging the LM fund without a license.

LM is not the only fraudulent fund that Financial Partners has promoted. Just as scandalous is the Lighthouse Mutual Fund, whose investors have also suffered total losses. Former chairman of the Financial Partners group, Sean Kelleher (now CEO of Mondial), was one of Lighthouse’s directors. Some victims (in contact with the author of this blog) allege that Kelleher’s conflicts of interest were not disclosed when the Lighthouse fund was introduced to them.

In addition to the Lighthouse and LM scandals, Financial Partners was also involved in the Arch Cru investment fraud. FT Adviser reports that Arch incurred “losses of approximately $8.9m on an investment into international IFA firm Financial Partners Group relating to a joint venture to market Arch products in Asia“. The Arch products went up in smoke, along with the $8.9m investment.

Newport Private Wealth’s founder and director, Andrew McKay, has had a business relationship with Knox and the Financial Partners group for more than a decade.

Andrew McKay

The “About Us” section of Newport’s website claims: “We are independent & objective & therefore we are not tied to the products (& commissions) often associated with larger groups.”

However, Newport admits that it invests clients’ money mostly in a set of 8 funds, called Harmony, which are managed by a company in London called Momentum Global Investment Management (MGIM).

Several sources say that MGIM’s South African parent company recently purchased Financial Partners Limited in Hong Kong. This is corroborated by the fact that the home page of Financial Partners’ website currently displays a video produced by MGIM:

MGIM Youtube

Siam Knight: Recently Fined for 6 Separate Regulatory Violations (Including One Offense)

Jeremy King

Jeremy King, CEO of SKFM

Siam Knight Fund Management (SKFM) is based in Thailand. On 10 February 2015, the Thai SEC fined SKFM 650,600 baht for six different regulatory violations. One of those violations was a criminal offense.

According to the SEC, “[SKFM] prepared financial statements for the year 2011 onward by stating inaccurate information making higher equity rather than in actual value.

Jeremy King is the current CEO of SKFM. In the 1990s, King was the managing director of Kerry Securities in Hong Kong. After a two and a half year investigation, the SFC publicly reprimanded Kerry Securities in 1997 for regulatory breaches. King resigned from Kerry Securities in July 1996 under suspicious circumstances. He appears to be one of the individual targeted in the SFC’s investigation.

Excessive Fees and Commissions

A slew of Nobel Prize-winning economists advise investors to avoid high-cost actively managed funds and to instead buy low-cost index funds. The most popular ETF index funds have annual fees of 0.15% or lower.

In contrast, actively managed funds usually have fees that are ten times higher—around 1.5%.

How do the fees of SEAC’s “Preferred Investment Partners” stack up by comparison?

SKFM

SKFM does not disclose any information about its fees on its website, which probably means that the fees are so appallingly high that it is necessary to hide them.

Apollo

Apollo claims to waive its discretionary management fee. However, it admits to investing 60% of clients’ money in funds that it managers. These funds have their own fees, which range from roughly 2 to 3.4%.

The fees are quite high, but Newport’s fees are even higher.

Newport

Newport charges 1% for its so-called “independent” discretionary management service. It then invests clients’ money primarily in the eight Harmony Funds managed by Momentum Global Investment Management (MGIM). The Harmony Funds have their own additional fees, which range between 2.6 and 4.5%:

Harmony Fees

Newport’s 1% discretionary management fee and the 2.6 to 4.5% fund fees are in addition to the insurance wrapper fees, which by themselves can be over 6% during the initial allocation period.

In total, investors will be paying at least 5% per year, possibly a lot more.

How Much Does SEAC get?

Newport discloses that it kicks back 0.5% of the 1% discretionary management fee, plus all of the 0.5% trail commission from the Harmony Funds.

The insurance wrapper kickback is much higher. For an insurance-wrapped savings plan with a 25-year lock-in, the upfront commission is roughly equal to all of the money that the investor pays during the first year. For a portfolio bond, the commission is 6-8% of the amount invested.

Big Chilli Magazine Facing Hong Kong Wrath

In the latest edition of Big Chilli, just a few pages back from the outrageous SEAC advertorial, Big Chilli also published an article about this blog, called “Financial Advisers Facing Hong Kong Wrath“:

Thailand Financial Advisers Facing Hong Kong Wrath

The article described how this blog had exposed several financial advisers for operating in Thailand without a license.

Thanks to Big Chilli’s bizarre and reckless editorial decisions, SEAC can now be added to the list of exposed “financial advisers”.

Assuming Big Chilli cares about its reputation and the financial safety of its readers, then, in its next edition, Big Chilli ought to publish a public apology, along with a note of caution regarding SEAC and its investment partners.

Related Links

Unlicensed, Thailand-Based Financial Adviser Expands Illegal Business Operations Into Hong Kong (The Rape of Hong Kong – April 3, 2015)

Unlicensed Financial Advisers Defy Thai Regulator After Being Placed on Investor Alert List (The Rape of Hong Kong – April 1, 2015)

Hong Kong-Headquartered Financial Advice Groups Placed on Thailand’s Investor Alert List (The Rape of Hong Kong – March 20, 2015)

Big Chilli

Swimming with Dolphins or Drowning with Sharks: Who Is Looking after Your Investments? (SEAC Advertorial) – (The Big Chilli – May 2015)

Financial Advisers Facing Hong Kong Wrath (The Big Chilli – May 2015)

Suffering from LM (The Big Chilli – April 2015)

Questions that All IFAs Need to Answer (SEAC Advertorial) (The Big Chilli – April 2015)

Big Mango Investment Query (The Big Chilli – April 2015)

LMIM Scandal – The Anger Spreads – (The Big Chilli – May 2014)

The LMIM Collapse: One Year Later, an Investor Speaks Out (The Big Chilli – April 2014)

Expat Investors Face New Fears Over “Illegal” Fund (The Big Chilli – April 2014)

Desperate Plight of Senior Expat Investors (The Big Chilli – March 2014)

Expats Stand to Lose Their Investments After Australian Fund Collapses (The Big Chilli – Sept 2013)

Financial Adviser Banned in UK Continues Working in UAE

Open Letter to UAE and UK Financial Regulators

Yesterday, the FCA announced that Paul Reynolds was banned from working in UK financial services:

FCA Bans and Fines Paul Reynolds

International Adviser magazine immediately reported that Paul Reynolds was currently working in the UAE for a company named Holborn Assets.

Paul Reynolds Photo

Holborn Assets is registered with the UAE Insurance Authority under the name “Holborn Assets Insurance Brokers LLC” (Registration ID 180).

I would like to know: What is the UAE Insurance Authority’s policy in situations like this? Does the Insurance Authority allow Paul Reynolds to keep operating in the UAE, giving him the chance to destroy the finances of local UAE residents? Or does the Insurance Authority follow the lead of the UK regulator and ban Paul Reynolds from working in UAE also?

Holborn Assets’ UAE Business – Legal or Not?

According to Holborn Assets’ website, “We help expatriates arrange a variety of investment options such as Bonds, Alternative Funds, Hedge Funds, Equities and Property.”

I am not familiar with UAE law, but I presume that any company promoting or giving advice on investment products would need a separate investment license, beyond just an insurance brokerage license. Holborn Assets does not appear to hold any such license and is definitely not licensed with the Dubui Financial Services Authority.

Is Holborn Assets breaking UAE law? If so, whose responsibility is it to enforce the law?

Accountability in the UK

Portfolio Adviser magazine recently reported that Holborn Assets has set up two offices in the UK and is now licensed with the FCA (reference number 648817).

It appears that any rogue financial adviser who gets banned in the UK can simply move to his company’s foreign office and continue operating “business as usual”. Is that not the message being sent here?

I want to know: Does FCA believe that the integrity and reputation of Holborn Assets’ UK offices are called into question when the group continues to employ an FCA-banned adviser in a foreign office?

Does the FCA have the will or the authority to impose any disciplinary action if the Holborn Assets group continues to operate in this manner?

Holborn Assets’ Shady Online Reputation

Anyone who tries Googling Holborn Assets will find plenty of disturbing information. For example:

Holborn Assets – The New DeVere of Dubai

Holborn Assets - The New DeVere of Dubai

Holborn Assets – RL360 Quantum Savings Scam

Holborn Assets - RL360 Scam

What Will UAE and UK Regulators Do Going Forward?

I am looking forward to a response…

Best Regards,

Lindell Lucy

New Twitter Feed

At the suggestion of a reader, I started tweeting about a month ago and added a Twitter feed to the blog. I’ve found that this is a fast and convenient way to distribute links, information, and breaking news. I suspect that some readers may not have noticed the feed, especially if they are accessing the blog through a mobile phone. (I can’t see the feed on my own phone.)

So, in case you have not noticed, here it is:


Office of the Ombudsman Should Investigate SFC for Maladministration

Dear Connie Lau, Ombudsman, Hong Kong:

Connie Lau - Ombudsman

As former CEO of the Consumer Council, you developed a reputation as a consumer champion. I am writing to you about an issue which adversely affects the life savings of millions of consumers of investment-linked insurance products (ILAS). I hope you will take this matter very seriously.

At the beginning of this year, I filed a complaint with your office against the SFC.  I alleged that the SFC negligently—and perhaps deliberately—abdicated its legal authority to regulate the conduct of individuals and corporations who sell ILAS products and give advice regarding the underlying investments.

Many of these products are outright scams, and there is no shortage of industry insiders who will verify that this is true. (Just browse through the info on this blog.) What all of these scams have in common is that the manufacturers of the scams—big international insurance companies—pay gargantuan undisclosed commissions to the ethically compromised individuals who sell the products.

If SFC had not abdicated its regulatory authority, these scammers would have been required to disclose the gargantuan commissions they received, which would have alerted many potential victims to the dangers of the trap they were falling into.

Actually, if SFC had been responsible, it never would have authorized scam ILAS products in the first place. The products never should have reached the market.

Consequently, I believe SFC should be held accountable for the plight of most ILAS victims (hundreds of thousands, if not millions). I also think the SFC ought to pay compensation to the victims. The SFC can certainly afford it. A recent news report states that the SFC is “drowning from too much money”.

In response to my complaints about the SFC, your office sent me the following reply:

Reply from Ombudsman Regarding Copmlaint Against SFC

Your office instructed me to give SFC a chance to address my questions. If SFC did not do so, or if SFC “revealed any evidence of maladministration”, the Ombudsman said it would then consider pursuing an investigation.

I have given SFC ample time to reply to my questions, but it has not done so. I even visited SFC’s office three weeks ago, accompanied by several victims and a member of the Legislative Council. At that meeting, SFC continued to refuse to answer any questions.

I believe there is an overabundance of evidence that SFC has been guilty of maladministration ever since it issued its 13 August 2009 circular on ILAS. (See this PowerPoint.)

I hope your office agrees that there are strong grounds for pursuing an investigation. I will send you a follow-up email shortly, providing additional information.

Regards,

Lindell Lucy

Competition Commission Should Break Up Insurance Industry Cartel

Dear Anna Wu, Chairperson of the Hong Kong Competition Commission:

Anna Wu - Competition Commission Chairperson

I would like to draw your attention to Section 3.2, Paragraph (a) of the Professional Insurance Brokers Associations’ February 2011 Position Paper on Insurance Brokerage Commission. In that paragraph, PIBA explains why it opposes telling clients the exact amount of fees they are being charged via kickbacks from insurers, in spite of the fact that failure to adequately disclose such kickbacks potentially violates the Prevention of Bribery Ordinance:

PIBA Opposes Disclosure of Exact Amount of Commission

Clearly, the insurance brokerage industry has been actively and openly engaged in “long-existing” anti-competitive business practices, the sole aim of which is to extract the maximum possible amount of commission from clients, without clients knowing any better. Bizarrely, the industry maintains that it is in the clients’ best interest not to know how badly they are being fleeced, as this would somehow “compromise the quality of services provided”. Yeah right.

Please recall that The First Conduct Rule of the Competition Ordinance “prohibits undertakings from making or giving effect to agreements or decisions or engaging in concerted practices that have as their object or effect the prevention, restriction or distortion of competition in Hong Kong.”

I request, on behalf of the millions of Hong Kong investors who have fallen victim to scam insurance products, please, break up the insurance industry cartel.

Background

In case you do not know, the life insurance industry is a worldwide scam, but it is especially bad in Hong Kong. The Hong Kong industry literally earns about 99% of new revenue by ripping off investors.

Notice that I use the word “investor”, not “policyholder”. The truth is that the “life insurance” industry is actually in the business of selling exploitative investment products, not insurance. Ripoff investment products include whole life, ILAS, and endowment policies. The industry is able to fleece investors with impunity partly because it is allowed to “self-regulate”, rather than be regulated by an independent organization like SFC.

An essential feature of the industry’s ripoffs is that insurers pay massive undisclosed upfront commissions to the swindlers who sell their products. The victims who are conned into buying the ripoff products are led to believe that the products help them save money and even earn a profit. In reality, the victims are tricked into giving away most (if not all) of their savings for up to 2 or 3 years or more. The victims typically have no chance of breaking even financially unless they pay into the product for a decade or more (few victims do).

These products are financially toxic, and almost without exception, there is never a good reason for a Hong Kong investor to own one. Just about every other investment product is a better option.

Perhaps what is most disturbing of all is that naive young people who studied to be teachers and engineers often give up their career plans in order to enter the insurance industry, since ripping off investors (including friends and family) is a more lucrative profession.

If the Competition Commission cares anything about the health of Hong Kong society, please, bring an end to the “long-existing” anti-competitive business practices of the insurance industry. These practices are what sustain the industry’s various scams, which lead to a much bigger problem of social self-destruction.

Japanese Regulator Considers Putting Unlicensed DeVere Group on Investor Alert List

The DeVere Group is frequently in the news for mis-selling ripoff insurance products and dodgy offshore funds. Yet, according to a job ad on Craigslist, the DeVere Group is expanding its offices in Tokyo, due to “high demand” for its services:

DeVere Job Ad - Tokyo - High Demand for Cold Calling

According to another job ad on GaijinPot, DeVere’s Japan office is also spearheading a Korea office in Seoul. DeVere is seeking people with sales skills. Remuneration is commission-based:

DeVere Ad - GaijinPot (highlighted)

DeVere is a member of the British Chamber of Commerce in Japan. DeVere’s Japan Area Manager, Tony Evans, writes a blog (Tony-Evans.com) promoting the company’s services. Presumably, DeVere has had an office in Tokyo since at least 2007, since Craig Featherby, DeVere’s Africa Manager, claims that he was managing a “very successful team” in Tokyo at that time.

Given how openly DeVere has been operating in Japan, one would assume that it is properly licensed and complying with Japanese laws and regulations. 

However, a representative from the Japanese Financial Services Agency (FSA) has confirmed by email that the DeVere Group is not licensed and may soon go on FSA’s Investor Alert List:

FSA Confirms that DeVere Group Is Unlicensed

Another FSA representative confirmed that DeVere’s subsidiary, “DeVere Group Tokyo K.K.”, is also unlicensed:

FSA Confirms that DeVere Group Is Unlicensed (2)

Article 198 of the Financial Instruments and Exchange Act states that a person carrying on unregistered financial instruments business “shall be punished by imprisonment with work for not more than three years or by a fine of not more than three million yen, or both”.

Article 317 of the Insurance Business Act states that a person carrying on unregistered insurance brokerage business “shall be punished by imprisonment with work for not more than one year or a fine of not more than three million yen.”

Repeat Offender

In 2008, the Monetary Authority of Singapore fined DeVere’s subsidiary, IAIS, a total of S$56,250 for multiple regulatory violations, which included letting eight representatives conduct financial advisory services without a license. 

In Oct 2013, the South China Morning Post revealed that DeVere had been “disciplined seven times by its regulator over the past eight years for breaches of industry regulations.” The Post also reported that five of DeVere’s staff, including the head of Hong Kong operations, were unlicensed at the time the story was published.

In April 2014, Thailand’s Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) placed DeVere on its Investor Alert List for carrying on unlicensed securities business.

A year earlier, in June 2013, DeVere’s CEO Nigel Green shot a video of DeVere’s Bangkok office and uploaded it to YouTube (see below). At least ten expatriates are visible in the background. Some are making phone calls. The manager of the Bangkok office, Toby Williams, claims that the office has 25 consultants. Since the company was unlicensed, all of the consultants must have been unlicensed as well, and CEO Nigel Green must have been fully aware:

In all of the above-mentioned countries, the penalty for selling insurance and investment products without a license consists of large fines and imprisonment.

Brazen Lies

In a March 2012 interview with International Adviser, Nigel Green claimed, “DeVere Group is licensed correctly in all the jurisdictions that it works in.”

The complaint website, PissedConsumer.com, contains 190 complaints against the DeVere Group. DeVere has submitted 171 responses. Most of the responses sound very similar. Here are a few examples:

“As the most regulated independent financial consultancy in the world, deVere Group strictly adhere to international regulatory laws.” [Response to Complaint #110]

“deVere Group strictly adhere to international laws to ensure that only the very best advice is delivered to clients.” [Response to Complaint #190]

“All deVere consultants are trained to the highest possible standards receiving a CISI (Chartered Institute of Securities & Investment) qualification. deVere strictly adhere to international law, ensuring that all consultants have the correct paper work for the jurisdiction they choose to live and work in.” [Response to Complaint #80]

The Most Unregulated Broker in the World?

When DeVere’s US subsidiary was granted a license by the SEC, DeVere boasted that it had become “the most regulated broker in the world”. International Adviser even wrote a story about it, titled “DeVere claims ‘most regulated broker’ title as SEC grants licence“.

Given that so many of DeVere’s salespeople are not properly licensed or regulated in the jurisdictions in which they work, the above claim is very misleading and will have the unfortunate effect of lulling some DeVere customers into a false sense of security. US regulators will not help or intervene if DeVere customers in random Asian or African countries discover that they were mis-sold.

DeVere may have obtained licenses in more countries than any other broker. However, this doesn’t mean that DeVere is “the most regulated broker in the world”. On the contrary, it is possible that, in its quest for rapid international expansion, DeVere has cut more corners, broken more laws, and churned through more unlicensed and unregulated salespeople than any other competitor.

If this is true—and many insiders believe it to be true—then DeVere could equally lay claim to the title of “most unregulated broker in the world”.

Decide for Yourself

According to an article in International Adviser, “[CEO Nigel Green] says he is aware that deVere is the subject of unflattering gossip in some advisory industry circles, which includes claims that the company lacks licences in certain markets, and that it does not operate to the same high standards that others do.”

Green categorically denied these allegations.

Maybe in Green’s mind he really thought he was telling the truth, but readers should decide for themselves. Below is a selection of articles published by various credible sources:

News Reports

MAS Fines DeVere $56,250 (Monetary Authority of Singapore – May 2008)

DeVere Leaves Singapore after MAS fine (International Adviser – 8 May 2008)

Who Took My Pension? (BBC Panorama – 4 Oct 2010)

BBC investigates high pension charges (International Adviser – 5 Oct 2010)

Former deVere manager ordered to pay £2.9m damages over AES move (International Adviser – 12 May 2011)

‘Publish at your peril’ warns financial giant deVere Group (Daily Mail – 17 Sept 2011)

DeVere pays out to elderly couple after fund failures (Citywire – 19 Sept 2011)

DeVere says it has moved more than one-third of all QROPS (International Adviser – 23 Feb 2012)

Riding the expat exodus wave – a profile of deVere (International Adviser – 23 March 2012)

Rise and Fall of DeVere in Singapore (International Adviser – 10 July 2012)

DeVere v PissedConsumer.com spotlights ‘gripe site’ phenomenon (International Adviser – 11 Sept. 2012)

DeVere v PissedConsumer.com Part 2: Where the ‘gripe site’ phenomenon is heading (International Adviser – 12 Sept. 2012)

Video: Nigel Green tells his version of why deVere exited Singapore, Belgium, and Mexico (International Adviser – 9 Oct. 2012)

DeVere plans legal fightback against ‘gripe sites’ (FT Adviser – 20 Dec. 2012)

Offshore financial advisers ‘overwhelm’ LinkedIn expat group (International Adviser – 31 Jan 2013)

DeVere Loses License in Belgium, Rejig of Europe ops announced (International Adviser – 5 April 2013)

Don’t knock other financial advisers: DeVere’s Mike Coady (International Adviser – 5 April 2013)

Pensioners put £285,000 in woeful ‘low-risk’ funds (Daily Mail – 11 May 2013)

DeVere’s Green slams bloggers in YouTube video (International Adviser – 13 May 2013)

Up to $50m of deVere client money trapped in suspended UAM fund (International Adviser – 23 May 2013)

DeVere claims ‘most regulated broker’ title as SEC grants licence (International Adviser – 6 June 2013)

DeVere Faces Down Bad Practice Claims (South China Morning Post – 24 Oct. 2013)

CEO’s Stake Risked Conflict of Interest (South China Morning Post – 24 Oct. 2013)

DeVere slams ‘sensationalist’ SCMP article; starts legal action (International Adviser – Oct. 25, 2013)

Ex-clients Quizzed in Probe of DeVere (South China Morning Post – Dec. 31, 2013)

DeVere pays £70k to Strategic Growth Fund investor (March 10, 2014, – International Adviser)

‘Financial advice made my pension dive from £89k to £20k’: Victory for Expat Retiree as This Is Money Gets His Pot Restored (This Is Money – Feb 28, 2014)

Investment giant deVere Group buys angry reader’s silence (Daily Mail – 26 April 2014)

DeVere chief defends his approach to hiring advisers (FT Adviser – 28 May 2014)

DeVere pays £190k for mis-selling (International Adviser – Feb. 5, 2015)

DeVere’s SA clients exposed to Belvedere for at least R50m (BizNews.com – 25 March 2015)

Funds marketed in Hong Kong linked to Belvedere fraud probe (SCMP – April 7, 2015)

Forums and Complaint Websites

[Note: Most of what is written in forums and complaint websites is anonymous, so it is not always possible to verify whether the info is true. Green has claimed that most of it is “complete rubbish,” but he acknowledges that some of it may be true.]

de Vere & Partners Financial Planners: Warning (Pissed Consumer – 15 April 2010)

DeVere scam, fraud and sexual harassment (Complaints Board – 11 May 2011)

De Vere Financial Advice Scam (Complaints.com – 16 June 2011)

DeVere & Partners: Formally Britex International (Pissed Consumer – 20 Jan 2012)

 (Pissed Consumer – 2 Feb. 2012)

DeVere Group Scam: I Went on the Rip Off Course (Pissed Consumer – 26 July 2012)

Anyone have experience with the deVere Group? (Piston Heads – 5 Oct. 2012)

DeVere Group Harassment (Thai Visa – 27 Aug. 2013)

Expat Investment Advice – DeVere Group (MoneySavingExpert.com – 5 Nov 2014)

DeVere Group Kicked Out of Thailand (Thai Visa Forum – Feb. 2, 2015)

No Hope for Fair Investigation after Investor Gets Scammed by Regulatory Chairman’s Company

Johnson Chow

Johnson Chow, Chairman of PIBA and CEO of Centaline

The Professional Insurance Brokers Association (PIBA) is a group of Hong Kong brokers who’ve been entrusted with the responsibility of “self-regulating” themselves since 1995. Johnson Chow (周忠信), the CEO of Centaline Financial Services, is the current chairman.

PIBA’s Code of Conduct requires members to act in the best interests of their clients. However, most PIBA members, including Centaline, blatantly disregard this regulation.

For years, these members have been flogging investment-linked assurance schemes (ILAS) embedded with indemnified commissions. These indemnity products have been outlawed in many developed countries and were recently banned in Hong Kong. One local expert describes the products as financially toxic, and another says they are scams.

Whenever a Hong Kong consumer has been scammed by a PIBA member, the consumer has no independent regulator to turn to. If he or she files a complaint, the complaint must go to PIBA. 

PIBA Logo

Since PIBA exists “to serve and to protect” the interests of its members, consumers have virtually no chance of their cases being handled in a fair, impartial, and just manner.

Scammers are always safe, while victims are always screwed.

The Story of a Centaline Victim

Yip is a young Hong Konger who works as an auditor at a bank. In early 2014, he was assigned a task that required him to do research on the regulation of ILAS.

As he was studying, he realized that he had been mis-sold an ILAS by a friend and former colleague, Melanie, who worked at Centaline Financial Services—Johnson Chow’s company.

Centaline Financial Services

Melanie had breached several industry regulations, including one that prohibited selling ILAS to investors who have no insurance needs.

By the time Yip figured out that he was screwed, he had already contributed $12,000 HKD per month for 12 months—$148,000 in total—to an ILAS with a 25 year payment term. If he stopped making payments, his policy would be automatically terminated and charged with an 86% exit penalty. He’d only get roughly $20,000 of his money back.

The remaining $128,000 would be pocketed by Melanie, Centaline, and the insurance company that designed the ILAS, Standard Life.

Yip later learned that Standard Life had paid his friend, Melanie, and her company, Centaline, a secret upfront indemnified commission of $165,600 for luring him into the policy.

Standard Life Logo

Due to its extraordinary size, Standard Life’s secret payment likely violated Hong Kong’s anti-bribery laws. An offense is punishable by up to 7 years imprisonment.

“I Don’t Sell, I Advise—Provide Valuable Advice La!”

In early 2013, shortly after Melanie had been hired by Centaline, she and Yip chatted about the nature of her new job. She said it involved giving people investment advice about “bonds, stocks, commodities, etc”. She did not mention insurance:

Screenshot 1 (redacted)

When Yip later playfully suggested that she was a salesperson, Melanie strongly denied it, insisting that she was an adviser:

Screenshot 4 (redacted)

In fact, Melanie was neither qualified nor licensed to give investment advice. She only held a license to sell insurance policies.

Nevertheless, from February to July of 2013, she sent Yip numerous WhatsApp messages offering advice on stocks, bonds, and mutual funds, trying to convince him that she was knowledgeable about investments and that he should become her client.

By pretending to work as an investment adviser, Melanie was likely committing an offense contrary to Section 114 of the Securities and Futures Ordinance. Yip has since filed a complaint with the SFC.

What Melanie really aimed to do, as opposed to giving “valuable” investment advice, was to earn a massive commission by selling Yip an ILAS policy.

Yip now says:

“Had I known that Melanie was not a SFC licensed advisor and that her advice to me was biased toward insurance products (since she could not sell any investment products)…I would not have purchased anything from her.”

A few weeks after the mis-sale, Melanie claimed in a Whatsapp conversation that she held an SFC license:

Screenshot 13 (redacted)

Melanie eventually obtained an SFC license, but SFC records show that she did not yet have one when the above conversation took place.

A $50 Million Dollar Plan

Melanie told Yip that her team of colleagues at Centaline had helped several clients “win” a lot of money, and she wanted to help him too, “as a friend”.

Yip finally agreed to meet her on 17 July 2013 at a restaurant to discuss her services. She brought a document labeled, “Financial Analysis”, which is shown below:

15 Percent Returns Over 25 Years (3)

Although she only had a few months of training as an insurance broker (and no SFC license), she was confident that she could help Yip pick investment funds that would earn an average of 15% annual returns—after deducting all fees—over the next 25 years. She predicted his savings would grow into nearly $50 million HK dollars.

Her rate of return assumptions were more than double the historical average. According to the research of Wharton Professor, Jeremy Siegel, stocks have averaged only 6.5% to 7% annual returns after inflation over the past 200 years. As a whole, actively managed funds, such as Melanie was promoting, necessarily underperform the stock market average, a phenomenon which is explained by Stanford Professor, William Sharpe, in his essay, “The Arithmetic of Active Management“.

When active funds are wrapped in an ILAS policy, the multiple layers of additional high fees put a further, very significant drag on returns.

Melanie’s promise of consistent far-above-average returns were therefore unrealistic and seriously inappropriate. She maybe did not realize this, since she was inexperienced, unqualified, and unlicensed to give investment advice.

A Plan to Extract Maximum Commission

Melanie’s “Financial Analysis” (shown above) projected exactly 25 years into the future. This was probably not a coincidence.

Most ILAS savings plans have a payment term ranging from 5 to 25 years. Although the same amount of work is required to sell policies with different payment terms, insurance companies secretly pay 500% more upfront commission to brokers when they convince victims to sign on for 25 years, as opposed to 5.

Insurance companies immediately recoup this commission by pocketing their victims’ first 18 months of savings (sometimes more).  Victims never know what hit them. Their policy’s account value shows that they are earning big profits, when in fact, all of their savings has disappeared. (More info HERE.)

The Broker’s Financial Needs

At their meeting, Melanie gave Yip a financial needs analysis (FNA) form.  In theory, this form is used to determine which, if any, financial products are “needed” by a client.  In practice, it is used to deceive clients into thinking they “need” whichever ripoff product the broker wants to sell. This is exactly how Melanie used it.

The questions in Section 1 were aimed at determining how much money Yip had, i.e., how much money Melanie and Centaline could get their hands on.

The final part of Section 1 was labeled “Recommendations and Reasons for Recommendations”. Melanie left this area blank:

FNA Section 1 (Recommendations and Reasons for Recommendations) - N.A.

She later filled it out sometime after Yip had signed all the forms. In the blank space, Melanie wrote: “Saving plan is recommended for wealth accumulation“. 

She could have added that it was a savings plan recommended for her wealth accumulation, not Yip’s.

FNA Section 1 (Recommendation and Reasons for Recommendations) - Filled Out

After Yip answered the questions in Section 1, Melanie immediately handed him Section 2, which was labeled, “Only Applicable to Investment-Linked Policy”.  She never explained why investing in funds through an insurance policy was preferable to the much cheaper and more flexible option of investing in ETFs or using a regular fund platform like Fundsupermart.

FNA Section 2 (Only Applicable to Investment-Linked Policy)

Section 2 contained a question which asked, “What is your target horizon for insurance policy / investment linked assurance scheme?”  It contained another question which asked, “For how long are you able to contribute to an insurance policy and/or investment plan?”  

For both questions, Melanie told Yip he should tick 20+ years so he could “get the maximum bonus”, meaning his account would be credited with extra “free” fund units.

What is your target horizon for investment-linked policy

For how long are you able to contribute to an investment plan

Melanie did not disclose that a 20+ year policy would earn her the maximum upfront commission. She also did not explain that the bonus was deceptive and imaginary, since the “free” fund units would be taken back by fees.

When Yip agreed to ticking 20+ years, he says he had no desire to be “locked up” in an ILAS for that period of time.  He thought he was just indicating that he planned to invest for 20 years or more, like anyone else his age.  Neither Melanie nor the FNA form had mentioned a 20+ year lock-in.  

The next part of the FNA was labeled “Risk Profile Questionnaire (RPQ)”.

Risk Profile Questionnaire (underlined)

The RPQ stated that no product should be recommended before the questionnaire was completed. However, an ILAS had already been recommended, as the entire form was labeled “for ILAS only”, which meant that the RPQ was inherently flawed and self-contradictory.

Additionally, the RPQ began with a loaded question, asking, “What are your purposes of buying insurance product?”  Yip had no intent at this point to buy an insurance product or any product, even though the form was telling him that he did.  He was under the impression that his financial needs were being analyzed.

Yip ticked that his “purposes of buying insurance product” were Savings and Investment. He did not tick any option, such as Life Protection, which would have justified his buying an insurance policy.

What are your purposes of buying insurnace product - Savings and Investment

Over the past several years, four different Hong Kong regulators—SFC, HKMA, HKFI, and OCI—have all issued circulars stating that ILAS policies are not suitable and should not be recommended to investors who have no insurance needs. Unless all of those regulators were mistaken, Melanie should not have recommended an ILAS to Yip.

The Harvest Wealth Investment Scam

Based on her “analysis” of Yip’s financial needs, Melanie concluded that he should purchase a 25-year Harvest Wealth Investment Plan.

Harvest Wealth Investmnet Plan Brochure Cover

For a “limited time only”, Standard Life was offering free fund units equivalent to 62.5% of all contributions paid during the first 18 months of the plan. These “free” units would make the account value show an instant 62.5% profit.

In the coming days, Melanie would pressure Yip to hurry before the offer expired:

Not much time left if you want to have the bonus (redacted)

She did not explain the fraudulent nature of the “bonus”, possibly because she did not understand it herself.

Cheaper than Buying Stocks!

Yip had some experience buying stocks and bonds, but he had never invested in mutual funds and had never heard of ILAS.

According to Melanie, ILAS was a “great bargain” because it allowed free switching of mutual funds. She told him that he would save money on transaction costs if he stopped buying stocks directly and instead bought stocks indirectly via mutual funds in an ILAS. 

She was wrong. Yip could not possibly save money by paying additional fees to her, Centaline, Standard Life, and various active fund managers—fund managers who incur their own stock trading fees which would then be passed on to Yip. 

Nevertheless, Melanie gave Yip a flawed and misleading fee comparison allegedly showing how he would save over 40% in fees if he switched funds every single day of the year:

Melanie's Fee Comparison (cropped)

She never explained why it made sense to actively trade fund managers when the fund managers were being well-paid to actively trade for him.

Nor did she mention that regular fund platforms allow free fund switching at a tiny fraction of the cost of ILAS. For example, Standard Life’s upfront fees were more than 600 times higher than iFAST Central’s.

My Client Earned 18% in One Month Investing in Super Safe Stuff!

Several days after Melanie recommended the ILAS, before Yip had made a decision about whether to follow her advice, she sent him a Whatsapp message boasting about having helped another client earn 18% in one month, “net of all charges”, investing in “super safe stuff”:

Whatsapp - 18 Percent Return in One Month

She showed him a snapshot of her client’s account statement to “prove” that she was telling the truth:

Whatsapp - 18 Percent Return Account Statement -Redacted - Highlighted

The account statement showed the returns of a few funds. One fund had gone up by 3%, another by 6%, and only one had gone up by 18%. It wasn’t clear whether it had gone up 18% in one month or in one year (probably the latter).

The fund that earned 18% was a biotechnology fund—far from “super safe”.

“All of Our Clients Earn Annual Fees Back in a Few Days!”

When Yip expressed concern about the ILAS policy’s high fees, Melanie sent him the following WhatsApp message:

All out clients earn annual fees back in a few days (redacted)

Yip’s first ILAS payment would be $12,000.  Melanie claimed that he would earn back the annual fees in just a few days. If that were true, he’d need to get a return of 1,380% just to recoup Centaline’s secret $165,600 commission.

Suggesting that anyone could earn so much money so quickly is utterly preposterous, so presumably Melanie did not mean that Yip could earn back Centaline’s commission in a few days. Instead, she probably meant that he could earn back the ILAS fees of over 6% per year. If so, then Yip would need to earn at least 2% per day in order to recoup 6% “in a few days”.

Melanie spoke as if this were guaranteed. If so, then “all of her clients” would be earning about 730% per year (2% per day x 365 days per year), which is also preposterous. Perhaps this is why Melanie encouraged Yip not to “focus on the fees”.

She told him to instead focus on “what really mattered”, i.e., her investment advice. She failed to mention that was not licensed to give investment advice.

“We Are Remunerated for Providing Long Term Advice”

The day after Melanie sent the above WhatsApp message, she sent Yip an email in which she elaborated even further on the fees that her company collected. She claimed:

“This is a long term relationship and our remuneration is structured that way to provide incentive too. Unlike insurance agents, we are not agents. We are consultants and are remunerated for providing long term advice. We have the incentive to provide good advice as we will receive a % of your account value. Rest assured that, it won’t deduct from your investment income. Standard Life shares their fee income with us. The only expense you need to pay for is the platform fee to Standard Life. NO advisory fee to us, NO fund fee to fund houses. Standard Life will share with us.”

The entire paragraph was loaded with lies, misrepresentations, and contradictions. Standard Life did not just share fees, it advanced the fees in a form akin to bribery. The remuneration structure was designed to incentive high pressure sales tactics, not a long-term relationship or good advice. Melanie and Centaline would keep Yip’s money whether or not they provided the 25 years of service they were secretly paid for in advance.

Melanie Quit Her Job Within Months of Pocketing 25 Years’ Worth of Fees

All of Melanie’s lies and unrealistic forecasts eventually had the desired effect on Yip. She convinced him to sign the paperwork for a 25-year ILAS.

Standard Life immediately paid her and her company a $165,600 commission. Standard Life would recoup this commission by deceptively pocketing Yip’s next 18 months of payments.

Although Melanie had been pre-paid for 25 years of work, she had no obligation to return the money if she did not finish the job. As long as Yip made payments for 18 months, she’d face no clawback. If she wanted to, she could take Yip’s money and run, which is exactly what she did.

She quit her job at Centaline less than a year after selling Yip a “long term relationship”.

Yip claims that the funds Melanie recommended dropped in value by about 15%, precisely the opposite of the 15% annual profits she had predicted.

“Too Stubborn to Get It”

In early 2014, after studying ILAS regulations for his banking job, Yip realized that he had been mis-sold. He immediately confronted Melanie:

You did not tell me it was insurance product (redacted)

Although Melanie claimed that she told Yip that ILAS was an insurance product, in her email correspondence, she exclusively referred to it as a “platform” for investing in funds.

Perhaps realizing that Yip’s allegations were true, she defended herself by saying that ILAS was an insurance product that “has no insurance protection”:

It is insurance but has no insurance protection (redacted)

After Yip pointed out that the regulations forbid her from selling ILAS to him, given that he had no insurance needs, Melanie claimed that, from her “professional perspective”, Yip did in fact have insurance needs, but he was “too stubborn to get it”, suggesting that it was ok for her to misrepresent the insurance element of the policy, since this was the most efficient way to convince Yip to buy what he allegedly “needed”:

Whatsapp - You Have Insurance Needs (redacted)

No Evidence of Mis-Selling Or Negligent Conduct

Over the next few months, Yip did a lot more research on ILAS and considered his options. By summer, he decided he had no choice but to stop contributions, file a complaint, and demand a refund. On 12 August, Yip met with representatives from Centaline to explain how he had been mis-sold and why he deserved a refund.

Three weeks later, Centaline sent him a short reply:

“After truly reviewed all the documents, considered all the information, and contacted with Ms. Melanie for her confessions, we concluded that there is no evidence showing that Ms. Melanie, our ex-Consultant had mis-selling practices or any negligent conduct. Ms. Melanie performed her duty in compliance with our internal policies and statutory requirement. If there is no additional information, no action will be taken for this issue.”

Yip was angry that Centaline, without explanation, had disregarded all the evidence he had provided. He demanded a better response.  After more phone calls and another meeting, Yip finally received a more detailed reply letter from Centaline’s compliance officer, Lomax Wong. 

Unfortunately, Lomax’s letter was deeply unsatisfactory. It contained multiple factual errors, misquoted the regulations, and continued to ignore some of Yip’s points.

The letter’s main takeaway was that Melanie’s conduct was irrelevant.  Even if some of the things she said were blatantly false, misleading, and unreasonable, Centaline would never give back his money. The company would forever point to the fact that Melanie conned him into signing a statement saying that he agreed that the ILAS was suitable for him. It did not matter that his belief was based on Melanie’s lies and misrepresentations.

Yip Contacts Johnson Chow

On 26 September, Yip sent the following email to Centaline’s CEO, Johnson Chow:

Johhson,

By way of introduction, I am a customer who purchased the ILAS policy from Centaline last year in July, in which I believe I was mis-sold by your Company. Accordingly, I reported my complaint to Lomax Wong in August 2014.

The reason why I am writing this email to you is because Lomax Wong has not been handling my complaint in a fair manner and he also appears to be not familiar with the regulation.

As you are the CEO of Centaline and also the Chairman of PIBA, I believe you would be very familiar with the regulation and would look at my case in an objective and fair manner, and therefore I would like to discuss my complaint with you directly to seek your views. Attached are my letter to Lomax Wong, and his reply letter to me.

Can you please suggest a time to meet and I can discuss with you my case directly

Regards,

Yip

To Yip’s surprise, Chow agreed to a meeting on Oct. 6.  Lindell Lucy, author of this blog, was present at that meeting.

Johnson Chow: “Even if the sales process breached the regulation, so what? Maybe get penalized by PIBA? It’s ok.”

At the beginning of the meeting, before any discussion had taken place, Chow immediately told Yip that he would not refund his money.  He then refused to speak in English, apparently in an attempt to silence Lindell, who had been outspoken in a previous meeting with Lomax Wong.

The whole meeting with Chow lasted almost an hour, but Yip summarized it in five key points in a letter which he cc’d to the Office of the Insurance Commissioner a few weeks later:

Letter to Centaline (Oct 27, 2014) p1-2

“Garble Statements”

On 3 November, Lomax replied to Yip’s letter, stating:

“We do not agree with the points stated in your letters as we believe that they were all garble statements with incomplete information. We will not confirm the information stated in those letters.

Based on the information we have found, as well as the evidences after meetings with you, we believe that we had already done our best to solve your inquiries.”

Chow has welcomed Yip to file a complaint with PIBA if he is unsatisfied with Centaline’s decision.

Seeking a Viable Route to Justice

Yip does not believe that PIBA would fine Centaline, since PIBA is headed by Chow. Even if PIBA did fine Centaline, Chow has already stated that he does not care. He will just pay the fine and keep Yip’s money.

Consequently, Yip has had to explore other ways to pressure Centaline to give back his money.

Securities and Futures Commission (SFC)

Yip believes that Melanie and Centaline have broken some of the laws contained in the Securities and Futures Ordinance (SFO), not just in their dealings with him, but in their dealings with other clients as well.  Yip has written to the SFC, shared his information, and has asked for an investigation.  In one of his letters, he says:

“I understand that SFC does not have the legal power nor can SFC arbitrate a dispute between an investor and a third party. However, I do believe that SFC has the power as a regulator to influence the captioned entities to do the right thing for the public’s interest. In substance, the ridiculously high commissions earned by Centaline Financial Services Limited are the hard-earned saving of its customers, and it got its customers into purchasing ILAS by violating the SFO. I hope that SFC will utilize such power, shall SFC conclude that the captioned entities indeed violate the SFO, to remediate the damages that they had done to the public.”

Office of the Commissioner of Insurance (OCI)

Yip has also filed a complaint with OCI against Standard Life. Yip argues that Standard Life obtained his money by breaching the industry’s Code of Conduct.

In a letter to the Insurance Commissioner, Annie Choi, Yip has said:

“The HKFI Code of Conduct [Section 44 and 45] requires Standard Life to conduct its affairs “honestly and fairly and in a manner consistent with the public’s interests” and “should seek to promote and enhance (and should not damage) the insurance industry’s reputation and standing as a responsible service provider and good corporate citizen”…

In its letter [to me], Standard Life did not even attempt to explain why its product and remuneration structure were considered fair and consistent with my best interests. Obviously, the remuneration structure only served Standard Life’s and Centaline’s interest.

If all the regulators in HK agree that ILAS should be sold to someone who has insurance needs, I would expect that any ethical company that is fair and concerned about customers’ interests would accept a refund request from a mis-sold customer. Standard Life is absolutely not complying with HKFI’s Code of Conduct in this regard. I believe it is concerned about its own interest in retaining profit, rather than the public’s interest.”

Independent Insurance Authority (IIA)

When the IIA is established within the next few years, ILAS victims will be able to file complaints with it, rather than self-regulatory organizations like PIBA.

Officials from OCI have told Yip that the IIA will not investigate cases that PIBA has already closed. For this reason, Yip has instructed both OCI and SFC to not refer his case to PIBA. He wants to wait to send his complaint to IIA—even if that means waiting three years—so that Chow and PIBA do not get a chance to screw him.

The Media

So far, SFC and OCI have allowed Centaline and Standard Life to go unpunished for scamming Yip and thousands of other Hong Kongers.  Yip is justifiably outraged, and he is sharing his story with any news organization that is willing to listen. He hopes that media coverage will shame Centaline, Standard Life, and the regulators to do the right thing. Journalists who wish to speak with Yip may contact Lindell at lindelll@gmail.com.

Yip’s Documents

Below are copies of all Yip’s ILAS documents. Some of his personal information has been redacted.

Financial Needs Analysis (FNA)

Important Facts Statement (IFS) and Declarations

Harvest Wealth Investment Plan – Brochure

A pdf copy of the September 2012 version of the brochure can be downloaded by clicking HERE. This is the version that was given to Yip.

Melanie’s Explanation of ILAS, Centaline’s Services, and Related Fees

Melanie’s Email about Dollar Cost Averaging

Example Fund Switching Confirmation

Harvest Wealth Investment Plan – Application Form

Illustration Document

Email from Melanie Asking Him to Print and Sign the Illustration Document

Cooling Off Notice

Yip’s Letters

Below are copies of letters that Yip has sent and received from Centaline, Standard Life, SFC, HKFI, and OCI.

Early Emails with Centaline and Standard Life (Aug. 9 – Sept. 10, 2014)

Centaline to Yip (Sept. 2, 2014)

Centaline to Yip (Sept. 10, 2014)

Yip to Centaline (Sept. 15, 2014)

Centaline Compliance Officer, Lomax Wong to Yip (Sept. 24, 2014)

In Point 1 of his letter, Lomax misquoted HKFI regulations, leaving out the words, “as in (b) above”, perhaps in an attempt to conceal what he believed to be a blatant regulatory violation. Here is a screenshot of the regulations:

Yip to Centaline CEO, Johnson Chow (Sept. 26, 2014)

Yip to Centaline CEO, Johnson Chow (Oct. 7, 2014)

Yip to Centaline (Oct. 27, 2014)

Centaline to Yip (Nov. 3, 2014)

Yip to Centaline (Nov. 7, 2014)

Yip to Centaline (Nov. 11, 2014)

Yip to Centaline (Dec. 2, 2014)

Centaline to Yip (Dec. 5, 2014)

Yip to SFC (Dec. 15, 2014)

 

[This letter has been temporarily removed as of May 3, 2015.]

 

SFC to Yip (Dec. 24, 2015)

Yip to SFC (Dec. 31, 2014)

[This letter has been temporarily removed as of May 3, 2015.]

 

SFC to Yip (Jan. 23, 2015)

Yip to SFC (Jan. 30, 2015)

 

[This letter has been temporarily removed as of May 3, 2015.]

 

Correspondence with HKFI (Nov. 19 & Dec. 11, 2014)

Correspondence with HKFI (Feb. 6 & March 4, 2015)

Yip to Standard Life (Sept. 9, 2014)

Standard Life to Yip (Sept. 12, 2014)

Yip to Standard Life (Sept. 15, 2014)

Standard Life to Yip (Sept. 19, 2014)

Yip to Standard Life (Sept. 22, 2014)

Standard Life to Yip (Oct. 30, 2014)

Yip to OCI (Nov. 13, 2014)

OCI to Yip (Nov. 20, 2014)

Standard Life to Yip (Dec. 19, 2014)

Yip to OCI (Dec. 20, 2014)

Standard Life to Yip (Dec. 30, 2014)

OCI to Yip (Jan 2, 2015)

Yip to OCI (Jan 2, 2015)

OCI to Yip (Jan 9, 2015)

Yip to Standard Life (Jan 12, 2015)

OCI to Yip (Jan. 16, 2015)

Yip to Standard Life (Jan. 29th, 2015)

Standard Life to Yip (Jan 29, 2015)

Standard Life to Yip (Jan 30, 2015)

Standard Life to Yip (Feb. 6th, 2015)

Attachment 1 – HKFI Updated Requirements wef 1 Jul 2013

Attachment 2 – HKFI Updated Requirements wef 1 Jul 2013 – AppendixA

Attachment 5 – Pamphlet – Questions you need to ask before taking out an ILAS product

Attachment 6 – KFS

Standard Life maintains that Melanie’s ILAS recommendation to Yip was compliant with the HKFI regulations in effect at the time. Those regulations stated:

“If the [financial needs] analysis result indicates that the potential customer has investment needs and his/her personal and financial circumstances may be suitable for investing ILAS product(s), then insurance intermediary may propose the potential customer to consider suitable ILAS product(s).”

As early as 2009, various Hong Kong regulators have issued circulars stating that ILAS is not suitable for investors who have no insurance needs. Consequently, Standard Life’s argument that Melanie’s recommendation was suitable for Yip and thus complaint with HKFI regulations is not supported by the facts.

HKFI issued a circular in October 2013 and another in December 2014 which confirms that ILAS was not suitable for Yip.

Yip to Insurance Commissioner, Annie Choi (Feb. 9th, 2015)

OCI to Yip (Feb 23, 2015)

Yip to OCI (Feb 24, 2015)

Yip to OCI (Feb 27, 2015)

Yip to Standard Life (April 9, 2015)