Smart seniors, smart investors
Don’t get scammed!
The targets for scams
It’s a simple fact: Older adults are targets for con artists. The reasons are also simple: That’s where the money is. Senior citizens often have retirement savings and paid-off homes.
Recent estimates put the net worth of households over 65 at over $18 trillion.
Older adults may also be worried about whether they have enough put away to last through retirement. Others are facing health problems or cognitive decline, putting them at particular risk for being scammed. Many live alone and can be easily drawn into conversations in which they reveal more information than they realize.
Con artists: Who are they?
Investment fraud comes from many sources: phone calls, free lunch seminars, internet bulletin boards and emails, advertisements for “senior specialists.” Most important, they are frequently people the victims know and trust: family members, friends, and caretakers.
Scam artists use a “hook.” Chances are good it will be one of these.
- Money or greed: Most of us look for a good deal or dream of sudden riches.
- Love or good will: Good people want to help those they care about.
- Fear and desperation: It's ironic, but being afraid can make us less cautious, more open to the promise of a quick fix or unexpected cure.
The anatomy of a scam
The first step is to know what a scam looks like. Watch out for these when someone is offering you a deal or making a request:
The distracting “hook”
At the center of a scam there’s always something to get your attention, to appeal to you in a way that causes you to pay less attention to the details, or to let your guard down.
A con artist who seems trustworthy
Most people trust unless they’ve been given reason not to. Scammers are very good at manipulating people into trusting them.
This might be a dead giveaway that you are looking at a scam. Most legitimate marketing campaigns have a hook, something to entice a buyer. Most advertising campaigns count on you trusting their facts. If something is not going to be around tomorrow, it is likely not legitimate.
The language of a scam
Just like the anatomy, scams have a vocabulary that’s recognizable. When you hear phrases like these, you can probably count on it being a scam.
"Keep this information to yourself."
"Guaranteed to more than double your money."
First, there are no guarantees in investments. Second, the higher the returns, the higher the risk — that’s a fact.
Under the guise of “confidential” information, scam artists persuade the victims to keep quiet about their investments. They want you to believe they — and now you — have information the public doesn’t have. They also don’t want you to talk to financial advisors who will tell you it’s a scam.
“Buy now, before it’s too late…a one-time opportunity.”
“Profit like the experts!”
Clearly, the scammer wants the money before the investor has time to consider or research the product.
These deals tend to be complicated, too difficult for the “regular” investor to negotiate. They are also very high risk, and more likely to lose money than to gain profit.
Cut the clutter
A good way to protect yourself is to reduce unsolicited offers. Here are some ways of cutting back on calls and credit card offers.
Direct-mail and email offers:
Credit card offers:
Common investment scams
A con artist uses “common ground” — like a shared profession, ethnicity, religion, interest, or experience — to raise trust and persuade investors. This is usually a large-scale fraud that snowballs through a group of people, leaving entire communities financially devastated.
Free meal seminars
The majority of these seminars are actually sales pitches, structured to appear as educational. The presenters often misrepresent their credentials and attempt to obtain important personal financial information from the attendees under the guise of helping them.
Ponzi or pyramid schemes
These offer high-profit returns for investing in an unknown but realistic sounding company. The Ponzi formula is simple: Promise high returns to new investors and use the money to pay previous investors. The investments are usually very complicated or secretive. These schemes always collapse and the victims always lose.
Retirees are particularly vulnerable since they are often house rich and cash poor. Reverse mortgages, “reloading” loans, and other predatory lending schemes provide cash but often rob the elderly of their homes.
Scam artists may call themselves “senior specialists” to create a false level of comfort among seniors in order to get them to invest. While some legitimate brokers may specialize in this area, it’s important to question what those credentials actually are.
Information found on internet bulletin boards or newsletters or in emails should never be taken at face value. Often they are outright scams or paid advertisements. Always check with independent sources before acting on any internet advice.
Unregistered sales and salespersons
People who sell financial products (stocks, bonds, annuities, and so forth) or provide investment advice must pass examinations and be registered. If a person is unregistered and tries to sell you a financial product or service, don’t do business with them.
Even a professional such as a lawyer or accountant, must be registered to legally sell financial products.
Legitimate investment products, excluding stocks sold on a national exchange, must be registered with state officials before they can be sold to the public. Common unregistered financial products that usually cannot pass the scrutiny of the registration process include: pay-telephone and ATM-leasing contracts, promissory notes, and investments trusts.
There are legitimate investment products that may be inappropriate for you. Variable annuities, for example, carry steep commissions, as well as lengthy terms and costly surrender fees. They are not good investments for many retirees.
Protect yourself: Ask and check
- Are you and your firm licensed? What is your registration number?
- What training and experience do you have?
- Do you have any written materials about this investment?
- How long have you been in business?
- Can you provide me with references, such as the names of people who have invested with you for a long time?
- How do you get paid — by commission? By salary?
Also, ask other people about this person. Get a second opinion from a knowledgeable source.
- if the investment is registered with the Office of the New York State Attorney General
- if the salesperson is licensed and if any complaints have been lodged
- references — talk to longtime clients about their experiences
- whether the salesperson or their firm is registered with the SEC
- the company’s financial statements and ask an independent professional to review them
- your own statements and accounts for unauthorized or confusing charges
Ten quick tips for smart seniors, smart investors
- Never give your personal financial information to someone you don’t know or who contacts you. Often investment schemes are also attempts to steal your identity. Private information, including Social Security numbers, date of birth, and account numbers can all be used to wipe out your accounts.
- Get it in writing. Be sure to ask for written information about the investment and the organization behind the deal. This includes the work history and background of the salesperson, as well as information about the company itself. Make sure all involved are licensed and the investment is registered. This protects you and reduces chances you’ll misunderstand something. It’s a good idea to put your investing instructions in writing, also. Keep records of any and all transactions and conversations.
- Ask questions. If the salesperson refuses to give you information, it is because they are hiding something.
- End the conversation. Don’t be a courtesy victim. Practice saying “no” by simply telling anyone who pressures you, “I never make investing decisions without (getting information in writing, speaking with my accountant, etc.). I will call you if I am still interested. Goodbye.” Knowing how to get out in advance makes it easier to leave the conversation if the pressure starts rising.
- Don’t feel indebted to someone who gives you “unsolicited” financial advice. A person giving unasked-for advice may be trying to gain your trust so they can get their hands on your money.
- Don’t invest in something you don’t understand. If an investment is too complicated to understand, it is the wrong investment for you.
- Don’t be duped into a fraudulent reverse mortgage. Never sign your deed over to someone without seeking independent advice. Don’t respond to unsolicited advertisements or promotions. Seek out your own reverse-mortgage counselor.
- Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. The key is to diversify and divide your investments in order to limit potential losses.
- Never make a check payable to an individual. Make all checks payable to a company or a financial institution — this leaves a more secure paper trail, should you suspect fraud in the future.
- Err on the side of reporting. If you think you’re a victim of abuse, don’t be afraid or embarrassed to file a complaint. The situation will only become worse if you do nothing.
Office of the New York State Attorney General, Investor Protection Bureau
To find information about registration status of brokers, dealers, securities salespersons, and investment advisers, as well as registration status of investment securities; to report suspected investment fraud.
North American Securities Administrators Association (NASAA)
For consumer information about popular investment scams.