From its annual survey of state securities enforcement officials, the North American Securities Administrators Association (NASAA) has released a list of the top 10 "Scams, Schemes and Scandals" that investors should be aware of for 2004. New to this year's list are mutual fund practices, senior investment fraud, and variable annuities.
Named for swindler Charles Ponzi, who in the early 1900s took investors for $10 million by promising 40 percent returns, these schemes are a perennial favorite among con artists. The premise is simple: promise high returns to investors and use money from previous investors to pay new investors. Inevitably, the schemes collapse and the only people who consistently make money are the promoters who set the Ponzi in motion. Con artists typically attribute government intervention as the reason why new investors didn't get their promised returns.
Volatile stock markets, low interest rates, rising health care costs, and increasing life expectancy, combined to create a perfect storm for investment fraud against senior investors. State securities regulators said older investors are being targeted with increasingly complex investment scams involving unregistered securities, promissory notes, charitable gift annuities, viatical settlements, and Ponzi schemes all promising inflated returns. These schemes offer products and pitches that may sound tempting to many seniors who've seen their retirement accounts and income dwindle in recent years.
A long-time member of the Top 10 list, these short-term debt instruments often are sold by independent insurance agents and issued by little known or non-existent companies promising high returns, upwards of 15 percent monthly, with little or no risk. When interest rates are low, investors often are lured by the higher, fixed returns that promissory notes offer. These notes, however, can become vehicles for fraud when the issuer of the note has no intention or capability of ever delivering the returns promised by the sales person.
Despite the stock market's rebound in 2003, state securities regulators say they are still receiving a high level of complaints from investors of brokers cutting corners or resorting to outright fraud to fatten their wallets. Investors are warned to give their brokerage statements a closer look and ask the right questions about unexplained fees, unauthorized trades or other irregularities.
Con artists know that it's only human nature to trust people who are like yourself. That's why scammers often use their victim's religious or ethnic identity to gain their trust and then steal their life savings. No group seems to be immune from fraud. In November 2003, authorities arrested five people accused of defrauding evangelical Christians of $160 million in three years and using the money to live extravagantly.
While most independent insurance agents are honest professionals, too many are lured by high commissions into selling fraudulent or high-risk investments, such as promissory notes, ATM and payphone investment contracts and viatical settlements. The person running the scam instructs the independent sales force, usually insurance agents but sometimes investment advisers and accountants, to promise high returns with little or no risk. For example: Arizona securities regulators in 2003 obtained a $4.3 million final judgment against a Scottsdale company and two insurance agents who fraudulently sold charitable gift annuities to mostly senior investors who were told their money would be invested in secure accounts. Instead it was placed in high-risk, speculative investments while the insurance agents helped themselves to $1.3 million in commissions.
A perennial favorite of con artists who promise investors triple-digit returns through access to the investment portfolios of the world's elite banks. The negative publicity attached to these schemes has caused promoters in recent cases to avoid explicitly referring to Prime Banks. Now it is common to avoid the term altogether and underplay the role of banks by referring to these schemes as "risk free guaranteed high yield instruments" or something equally deceptive.
With the Internet becoming a common part of daily life for increasing numbers of people, it should be no surprise that con artists have made cyberspace a prime hunting ground for victims. Internet fraud has become a booming business. The most recent figures show cyberfraudsters took in $122 million in 2002, according to the Federal Trade Commission. The Internet has made it simple for a con artist to reach millions of potential victims at minimal cost. Many of the online scams regulators see today are merely new versions of schemes that have been fleecing offline investors for years. Investors are also warned to ignore e-mail offers from individuals representing themselves as Nigerian or West African government or business officials in need of help to deposit large sums of money in overseas bank accounts.
Although mutual funds play a tremendous role in the wealth and savings of our nation, ongoing scandals throughout the industry clearly demonstrate that some in the mutual fund industry are putting their own interests ahead of America's 95 million mutual fund shareholders. State securities regulators, the SEC, NASD, and mutual fund firms themselves have launched a series of inquiries into mutual fund trading practices. To date, more than a dozen mutual funds are under investigation and several mutual funds and mutual fund employees have either pleaded guilty, been charged or settled with state regulators. State and federal investigations have uncovered sales contests where investors have been steered to funds paying higher commissions to brokers; abusive trading practices, such as "market timing," that may cost tradition buy-and-hold investors more than $5 billion each year; and illegal trading practices, such as "late trading," that may cost investors $400 million each year.
Sales of variable annuities have increased dramatically over the past decade. As sales have risen, so too have complaints from investors. Regulators are concerned that investors aren't being told about high surrender charges and the steep sales commissions agents often earn when they move investors into variable annuities. Some investors also are misled with claims of guaranteed returns when variable annuity returns actually are vulnerable to the volatility of the stock market. The benefits of variable annuities- tax-deferral, death benefits among others, come with strings attached and additional costs. High commissions often are the driving force for sales of variable annuities. Often pitched to seniors through investment seminars, regulators say these products are unsuitable for many retirees. Variable annuities make sense only for consumers willing to invest for 10 years or longer, making them unsuitable for many retirees who cannot afford to lock up their money for a longer period.
If you think you have been a victim of one of these scams, call the Minnesota Department of Commerce Market Assurance Division at 651-296-2488 or 1-800-657-3978. Additional consumer information is also available from the NASAA web site at: www.nasaa.org