Protection Against Senior Scams Guide
Older Americans are highly targeted by scammers, so you need to be especially on guard. Most fraud is committed by people the victims know—friends, neighbors, members of social and religious institutions, and people they’ve done business with before. Take your time when making financial decisions. Get second and third opinions from people you trust. Never yield to pressure tactics, and remember that if something sounds too good to be true, it almost always is. If you suspect you may be targeted for fraud, immediately contact authorities.
As a family member or friend, play a role in helping ensure that your elders are not taken by fraud, suspicious relationships or other manipulative attempts to get money from them.
Common Types of Investment Fraud
Be on the alert for investment fraud! According to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the following investment scams are commonly used to target Americans:
- High-return or “risk-free” investments. Some unscrupulous brokers and investment advisers recommend unsuitable products that don’t meet the investment objectives or financial situations of investors. Inappropriate recommendations might occur when a broker sells speculative, high-risk investments such as futures or penny stocks to individuals who are near retirement or are retired and have a low-risk tolerance.
- Pyramid schemes. In this classic scheme, fraudsters promise sky-high returns in a short period of time for doing nothing other than handing over money and getting others to do the same. Despite their claims to have legitimate products or services to sell, these deceivers spend much of the money on themselves and simply use money coming in from new recruits to pay off early stage investors. Although the products sold may be legitimate, eventually the pyramid will collapse. At some point the schemes get too big, the promoters cannot raise enough money from new investors to pay earlier investors, and many people lose their money.
- “Ponzi” schemes. These are a type of illegal pyramid scheme named for Charles Ponzi, who fooled thousands of New England residents into investing in a postage-stamp speculation scheme back in the 1920s. Today, the Ponzi scheme continues to work on the same “rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul” principle, as money from new investors is used to pay off earlier investors until the whole scheme collapses. Perhaps the most notorious Ponzi scheme came to light in 2008, when money manager Bernie Madoff duped investors out of $50 billion.
- Promissory notes. A promissory note is a type of debt that is similar to a loan or IOU and is used by a company to raise money. Typically, an investor agrees to loan money to the company for a set period of time. In exchange, the company promises to pay the investor a fixed return on the investment, typically principal plus annual interest. While promissory notes can be legitimate investments, those that are marketed broadly to individual investors often turn out to be nothing more than worthless paper. Most established companies have borrowing relationships with financial institutions, therefore this type of transaction among individuals is rare. Individual investors should exercise extreme caution with this type of investment.
- Internet investment fraud. Internet investment fraud is similar to other fraud perpetrated over the phone or through the mail. Fraudsters use a variety of Internet tools, including bulletin boards, online newsletters, spam or chat rooms to spread false information. They also may build a sophisticated Web page to make their scam appear legitimate. The Internet has made off-shore scams very easy to implement and difficult to police because the perpetrators often reside outside of the United States.
- Affinity fraud. This fraud refers to investment scams that prey upon members of certain groups, such as religious or ethnic communities, the elderly, or professional groups. Deceivers who promote affinity scams frequently are—or pretend to be—members of the group. They enlist respected community or religious leaders from within the group to spread the word about the scheme, by convincing people that a fraudulent investment is legitimate and worthwhile. Often, the leaders themselves become unwitting victims of the fraudster’s scheme.
How can you protect yourself from future schemers?
To protect your investment, but sure to follow all five of these suggestions:
- Choose a money manager who is well-known, regulated by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), and who has been in the industry for several years. Carefully examine testimonials you read or see advertised about a money manager.
- Beware any money manager who wants total control of all your money or who deliberately overemphasizes his trustworthiness and honesty.
- Choose everyday investments that can be bought and sold through well-known brokerage firms or mutual fund companies. Make sure your statements come from your brokerage firm, not the individual money manager.
- Make your checks out to your brokerage firm, not to an individual money manager or a company that person controls.
- Beware promises of high or unusually steady rates of return. If a money manager can’t easily explain his or her investment process, that’s a red flag.
Take Charge of Your Money
- Without exception, thoroughly investigate any person, organization, or company offering to provide you with financial planning or investment advice, products, and services. Check licenses and registrations through www.finra.org (look for BrokerCheck®), your state securities agency, or the CFP Board. Get a second or third objective opinion on every important decision you make regarding your retirement investments and savings.
- Know the cost of buying, selling and staying in any investment you are considering.
- Know your specific risk tolerance–what you can and cannot afford to lose. Get in writing that any planner or investment advisor you use will honor your wishes. It’s a good idea to establish an investment policy statement (IPS) with any investment advisor prior to entrusting your money to that individual.
- Assume that any get-rich-quick scheme is fraud. If an opportunity sounds too good to be true, it is! Do not make investment decisions alone, in a hurry, or all at once. Become knowledgeable and stay on top of news about Medicare, credit cards, and investment products so that you don’t feel pressured by someone claiming to know what’s best for you.
- Don’t give someone money in exchange for a promise to get money, especially in an e-mail offer. Never spend money to become eligible to win something.
Take Charge of Your Personal Information
- Take action to prevent identity theft, including paying close attention to your credit report, unexplained credit card charges, and other items. You can get a free copy of your credit report annually through www.annualcreditreport.com.
- Be extremely zealous about your personal information. Never give out your Social Security number, bank account or other private data to a person or organization you don’t know or can’t verify–especially over the phone, on a website or in response to email.
- Put your family’s name on the “do not call” list (www.donotcall.gov), and have a policy of immediately hanging up on people who call to pressure you to buy anything.
- Go to www.optoutprescreen.com (or call 1-888-567-8688) to eliminate prescreened credit and insurance offers. Instruct the Direct Marketing Association (www.dmachoice.org) to stop all junk mail from being delivered to your home–or at least customize it to your tastes.
- Use your own checks, not the blank checks that arrive unsolicited through the mail. Don’t just throw these away. Buy a shredder and destroy the checks and any credit card offers or other material (old credit cards, old bank statements, bills with account numbers, old tax returns, etc.) that could be used by others to pretend they are you.
- Consumer Financial Protection Bureau
- FINRA Investor Education Foundation
- North American Securities Administrators Association
- AARP Fraud Watch Network
- U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission
- FTC’s Identity Theft Site
- Managing Someone Else’s Money
- Money Smart for Older Adults
- Understanding Professional Designations