TAMPA — With the nation's economic crisis as her backdrop, Paula Albertson became a recurring face on local TV news shows, offering expert advice on what people should do with their money. The Plant City financial planner even appeared on the Fox News Channel, dishing about new credit card regulations on Your World with Neil Cavuto.
In 2009, she sat in a WTSP-Ch. 10 studio for a segment on bankruptcy, telling two smiling news anchors about the importance of consulting with a reputable financial adviser.
"It is never too late to get help," she said. "I see so many people that I can help, that they never thought they could get help. And the end result is a grave one."
If what authorities say is true, Albertson's media blitz happened about the same time as she was stealing thousands from her clients' retirement funds. Last year, state investigators accused her of diverting $166,000 from a dying client's life insurance policy to herself and her family. As her arrest on theft and fraud charges made news, more people stepped forward with claims that she had ripped them off, too.
To date, investigators have tallied the sum Albertson is believed to have stolen at close to $1 million. They suspect there are other victims.
The known victims wonder how they could have been wrong about the unassuming woman they knew.
They called her professional. They called her trustworthy. They called her a friend.
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About five years ago, a flier landed in Marcia Borello's mailbox. It advertised a dinner presentation with Albertson Financial Group and noted their specialty: addressing the financial needs of older single women.
Borello, mother of a teenage daughter, attended. She met Albertson and later made an appointment for a consultation. Albertson assembled a booklet detailing Borello's portfolio worth more than $300,000 — the fruit of more than 40 years of retirement savings and investments. She offered advice on consolidating investments and purchasing annuities. "She was very, very good," Borello said. "Extremely personable."
A friendship bloomed. The two talked often. On occasion, Albertson gave her small gifts, Borello said, and once Borello attended a Christmas party at Albertson's house.
In 2013, Borello had emergency heart surgery. She was also caring for her daughter, Brianna, who was being treated for a chronic kidney disorder. By the next year, Brianna was on a transplant waiting list.
As Borello struggled to pay for expensive medical treatments, Albertson advised that she make withdrawals from her annuity to reinvest with the insurance carrier Security Benefit — which Albertson said would yield a greater rate of return, Borello said. The sizable withdrawals came with hefty surrender charges, but Albertson assured her that the return would make up for any money lost, Borello said.
By May 2014, Borello had withdrawn more than 80 percent of her annuities, trusting that Albertson would reinvest the funds. Then Borello's accountant began inquiring about $150,000 withdrawn without any documentation detailing where it went. Asked for documentation, Albertson kept saying she would provide something soon, Borello said. She never did.
Then came news of Albertson's arrest. A complaint to the state Department of Financial Services led to accusations that Albertson forged clients' checks and diverted financial statements to her office to conceal repeated thefts.
Borello went to authorities with her story. And she wasn't the only one.
Bobby and Wanda Kajander, both retirees from the Hillsborough County fire department, said they discovered about $200,000 missing from their retirement annuities in 2014. They had given the funds to Albertson after she convinced them to reinvest with Security Benefit, authorities said.
Over the years, they, too, paid substantial penalties after Albertson convinced them to reinvest annuities. Between penalty payments and vanished funds, the couple estimates they lost about $300,000, half their retirement savings.
"I just couldn't believe she would do this to us after all these years," Wanda Kajander said. "But we figured … she knew what she was doing."
What they didn't know is that every time they reinvested, Albertson earned a commission from the insurance company.
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Neither Albertson nor her attorney responded to calls for comment for this story.
So far, she has six criminal cases against her for similar theft allegations. The Kajanders and Borello, named as victims in pending cases, have hired attorney Joel Ewusiak to prepare for a possible lawsuit against Albert-son and the insurance companies involved.
"There were a lot of failures along the way here," Ewusiak said. "A number of things should have triggered scrutiny from insurance companies."
For Borello, providing for herself and her ailing daughter on what's left of her savings is a dreadful prospect.
"I could work another 40 years, and get to where I'm 105 years old, and then maybe I'll be fine," she said. "It's ludicrous. But that's the way it is."
Contact Dan Sullivan at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.