WASHINGTON - An investigation by federal and state regulators of "free lunch" investment seminars aimed at seniors has found high-pressure sales pitches masquerading as educational sessions, pervasive misleading claims for unsuitable financial products, and even fraud.
Much of the blame goes to investment firms for failing to properly supervise their employees who put on the seminars for seniors, according to the report of the investigation being made public Monday. By law, the sales pitches made at the seminars and the materials provided to participants must be approved by a brokerage or investment firm's supervisors.
The examination by the Securities and Exchange Commission, state regulators and the securities industry's self-policing organization, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, covered seven states that have large numbers of retirees: Alabama, Arizona, California, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas.
The investigation, which ran from April 2006 to June 2007, focused on 110 investment firms and branch offices that sponsor sales seminars for seniors with free meals.
SEC Chairman Christopher Cox called the investigation's findings "a wake-up call for securities regulators, the financial-services industry and, especially, older investors."
"The SEC and our fellow regulators intend to put a stop to this," Mr. Cox said in a statement. "We will step in whenever false claims are being made. We will sanction crooks who try to feast on the life savings of older investors."
Among the findings:
- The popular "free lunch" or dinner seminars, often held at upscale hotels, restaurants and golf courses, are advertised as educational sessions or workshops at which no products will be sold. They are actually sales presentations, pushing those attending to open new accounts and make investments on the spot or in follow-up meetings with the salespeople.
- Nearly 60 percent of the 110 investment firms and branch offices examined showed evidence of weak supervision of the employees running the seminars, including failure to review the seminar materials.
- Exaggerated or misleading claims - such as "Immediately add $100,000 to your net worth" - showed up in about half of the 110 inspections performed by the regulators.
- Recommendations for unsuitable investments were found in 23 percent of them.
- Thirteen percent showed apparent instances of fraud, such as liquidating accounts without a customer's knowledge or consent, or selling bogus investments.
The "free lunch" seminars are one of several areas being examined by regulators and lawmakers involving practices that can drain older Americans' retirement savings. People 60 and older make up 15 percent of the country's population but account for an estimated 30 percent of fraud victims.
SENIOR SCAM TACTICS
Phantom fixation: The perpetrators dangle a prize, such as money or a vacation trip, in front of the targeted victims.
Social consensus: Con artists try to convince victims that their peers, neighbors and other respected members of the community all are making the investment being touted.
Scarcity: Victims are pressured to invest quickly, before a false deadline arrives and the opportunity disappears.
Reciprocity: By giving a small favor to the victim, such as a free lunch, the tactic plays on the part of human nature that makes people feel obligated to do something in return - in this case, make the investment.