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Bonnie Emms is seen at her home in Wasaga Beach, Ont., on Nov. 17, 2018.Christopher Katsarov/Globe and Mail

Bonnie Emms, 72

Investment: $100,000

Bonnie Emms had never heard of a syndicated mortgage six years ago. She was working in office administration at the time, and her then-boss introduced her to an advisor who suggested the option of joining a group providing a loan to a developer building a planned condo development in Barrie, Ont., called Collier Centre. Real estate, he told her, was one of the safest areas in which to invest – safer than the stock market or mutual funds. The loan would be fully secured against the value of the land, and if anything went wrong, the lakefront property in downtown Barrie would more than cover the $16.9-million debt, he said.

Ms. Emms withdrew $60,000 from her RRSP and another $40,000 from a new mortgage on her house to join the syndicate. Six years later, none of her $100,000 investment has been repaid, and the interest payments stopped long ago. To save money, she sold her house in Barrie and moved to a cheaper town nearby to cover her mortgage. She left her office job when her husband had a stroke and was diagnosed with dementia, and now works part-time as a cashier at Bulk Barn to pay the bills.

Ms. Emms is resigned to the fact that her group’s mortgage claim likely has no value. It is still registered on Collier Centre, but ranks last in priority behind $72.7-million in other mortgages now registered on the land.

“I’m 72 now, and I’m still working to try to keep going," she says. “My money is probably all gone, but there’s a little bit in the back of your head that says it might come back.”

Gerry Best, 61

Investment: $937,000

After retiring from his management job with the City of Guelph in 2012, Gerry Best met with his wife’s financial advisor to discuss their retirement finances. She suggested Mr. Best invest in “very safe” syndicated mortgages co-ordinated by Fortress. If he were to cash in his pension and all of his wife’s investments – worth almost $1-million – the eight-per-cent interest rate would provide monthly income of about $5,800, more than enough for the couple to live comfortably.

The couple put the money into eight different Fortress projects. And for about 10 months, they received monthly interest payments as promised. Then they stopped. The advisor told them Fortress had changed its program, that the interest would accrue until they were paid on completion.

Mr. Best, who was counting on the interest payments to cover daily expenses, asked to cash out and be repaid. The advisor said it was not possible. The couple scraped by until one of their Fortress projects, the King Charlotte condominium building in Toronto, paid back some of his principal in late 2015. The money went toward debts he’d accrued while they waited. Meanwhile, they sold their summer home and an investment property, then moved into a smaller principal residence to fill the gaps.

This fall, after requesting copies of all his investment documents – which he did not have – Mr. Best says he was surprised to discover his advisor, who had filled out blank forms on his behalf, had indicated on a disclosure form that he was comfortable with high-risk investments.

He has no idea how to recover the money he’s still owed – $937,000 in principal and $450,000 in accrued interest – and is angry that the government did not protect investors.

“I am depressed, lost, cheated and helpless,” he says.

Linda Bilorosek, 66

Investment: $60,000

Linda Bilorosek trusted her financial advisor. After all, he was a friend of her son’s. So when he pitched the idea of investing in a syndicated mortgage – with a far higher interest rate than she could earn on, say, a GIC – she jumped at the chance to pad her retirement savings account. “This was a guaranteed eight per cent, and he led me to believe it was very low risk,” she says.

In 2015, the Toronto retiree – who worked for 38 years for the federal government’s Service Canada division – invested her entire RRSP savings of $60,000 in two Fortress projects: SkyCity in Winnipeg and Nobleton South, north of Toronto. The advisor assured her the loan would be fully secured by a mortgage against the properties. He failed to mention that SkyCity was in financial trouble after its original developer went bankrupt. Had she known, she says she wouldn’t have taken a risk on the new round of financing.

So far, none of her loans have been repaid, and her interest payments have stopped. Now, Ms. Bilorosek is living “paycheque to paycheque” on her pension, waiting to see if any money can be recovered.

“I just can’t believe they can reach into your RRSP money and steal it. I guess I was naive,” she says. “I’ve lost a lot of sleep, let me tell you.”