Originally created 11/10/03

Securities scams target the elderly



DENVER - The pitches sounded so promising.

In one case, sales agents in Colorado offered consumers the opportunity to buy a telephone booth for $7,000, which the company that the agents worked for then would lease back with a pledge of a 14 percent annual return on the investment.

In another, the officials of a Florida-based church sought gifts from Christian communities in a number of states, promising that they would double the money over the next year and a half.

Then there were would-be entrepreneurs seeking seed money to patent promising new products, dig an oil well or raise rabbits for fur.

All drew investments from scores of Americans, mostly senior citizens, and all were bogus. The investors lost thousands of dollars, according to federal and state securities regulators.

"The saddest part of this is that almost all of our cases involve the elderly, people 60 and older," said Fred J. Joseph, Colorado's securities commissioner. "Unfortunately, we find most of the time that the money is gone."

Securities scams are on the rise, in part because many Americans are desperate for higher returns on their savings. Some were burned in the stock market downturn of 1999-2001 and remain afraid of stocks, while others want more than the paltry 1 percent or 2 percent interest they're now getting on savings accounts and money market funds.

"It's in that condition that con artists thrive," said Barbara Roper, the director of investment protection for the Consumer Federation of America, based in Washington, D.C.

Mr. Roper also warned that "con artists follow the headlines," often picking up on issues in the news for their scams. Right now, they might go for things like products designed to increase national security or a vaccine to counter anthrax, she said.

David Yeske, the president of the Financial Planning Association, said he believed many consumers were vulnerable because they're "hypnotized by the whole topic of investment."

He said, however, that investment should be just one part of an overall financial plan. Those who have taken the time to plan - who have an understanding of their goals, savings objectives and debt limits - can put investing in context.

"Then they're not so easily swept away," Mr. Yeske said.

He also said that a characteristic of almost every investment scam is that there is no independent, third-party custodian involved, such as a bank, brokerage firm or trust company.

Unless such an institution is going to be providing regular statements, "you shouldn't turn over your money." Mr. Yeske said.

SENIOR SCAMS

Colorado Securities Commissioner Fred J. Joseph said that one way consumers can protect themselves is to watch for red flags in sales pitches:

  • The promise of a large profit.
  • Phrases such as low-risk, no-risk and guaranteed return.
  • Pressure, including statements such as, "You have to do this now, because the opportunity will be gone tomorrow when everyone else finds out about this."
  • Be wary of overly solicitous salesman intent on gaining their confidence. "That's why they call them 'con' men," Mr. Joseph said.