Family Finance: Investment scams target seniors
EILEEN AJ CONNELLY,AP Personal Finance Writer
NEW YORK (AP) — Bernie Madoff is the name everyone remembers, but shady investment "advisers" don't have to bilk billions to do real harm.
In just the last two weeks, The Associated Press reported on at least a dozen cases in which advisers were accused of stealing, on average, just over $416 million from unsuspecting investors. Their alleged frauds touched clients in as many as 22 states.
Senior citizens are especially vulnerable to con artists peddling Ponzi schemes and other dead-end deals.
Most victims are older and many of them have cognitive impairment, said Denise Voigt Crawford, the Texas state securities commissioner. The problem is going to get worse as baby boomers age, she said, adding that one new twist is that many of the newest hucksters are also elderly.
"The people who are vulnerable can't even trust people who are their own age," Crawford said.
And it's not just criminal schemes that can cost. Inappropriate investments, whether they're particularly risky or include products that lock up cash for long periods of time, may be perfectly legal but nearly as problematic for seniors. "They don't have the luxury of making mistakes," said Don Blandin, CEO of Investor Protection Trust, an advocacy group. "The suitability issue is very important here."
With market performance weak and interest rates even weaker, retirees concerned about running out of money or leaving a legacy for their families may be more susceptible than ever. They may fall too easily for promises of guaranteed gains or ways to recoup losses.
"There's nothing worse than seeing an elderly couple who's been scammed out of $50,000 or $60,000 or $70,000 — oftentimes their life savings," said Michael Kappas, CEO of Apprisen Financial Advocates in Columbus, Ohio.
Seniors who live alone may be the most vulnerable — the "elderly widow" is a con artist's classic target. And the rapid migration of seniors online may expose this population to even more fraud. Nielsen estimates the number of Internet users age 65 and older shot up 55 percent in the last five years.
It's possible to protect older relatives from investment scams, but first you have to learn details of their financial lives they may be reluctant to reveal. "Oftentimes, while it shouldn't be, it's the most uncomfortable conversation" that parents have with their kids, Kappas said. "Or in many cases, they won't have it."
In the same way the recession created an environment that may make scams more prevalent, however, it can also provide an entry point for starting the conversation. Bonnie Kirchner, a certified financial planner and author of "Who Can You Trust With Your Money?" suggested raising the issue by talking about reviewing your own investments in light of the economic downturn.
Once the subject in on the table, here are some points that should be covered:
Types of investments
What's the mix of investments in their portfolio?
You can help seniors organize their paperwork as a first step. This is also a good time to make sure they're up to date with all of their bills, which can provide clues as to their overall ability to handle money.
Are they getting regular statements that show details like purchases and sales, or are they receiving only performance statements? Are they getting consistent returns even in today's volatile market?
Kirchner's ex-husband, Bradford Bleidt, ran a $32.6 million Ponzi scheme that was uncovered in 2005. It targeted retirees, among others. She said incomplete paperwork and suspiciously good performance are big red flags. "With Bernie Madoff and my ex-husband, they were actually creating their own performance statements with no basis behind them."
Who is their financial adviser? How is he or she compensated, and what's their investment strategy?
You can show your newly Internet-connected folks how to search for licensing information, complaints about, or judgments against brokers and advisers using the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority's Broker Check at www.finra.org and the Securities and Exchange Commission's public disclosure site at http://sec.gov/investor/brokers.htm. Even a simple Google search can produce information about lawsuits or other results that might raise concerns.
Dave Geschke of Ameriprise Financial said a reputable financial planner will be willing to meet with a client's children or heirs. Without permission, they can't discuss portfolio holdings, but they should be willing to review investment philosophy and related issues.
Common Scam Techniques
Ask if they've been approached by anyone new, attended any "free lunch" seminars or received suspicious calls or e-mails?
Make sure older relatives are aware that legitimate banks and brokers don't ask for account information or other sensitive details through e-mail. Let seniors know that they're always better off providing information only when they've made a call themselves, not received one.
AARP has a program that sends volunteers to monitor investment seminars, which often are advertised as educational programs but turn out to be sales pitches. Project manager Andres Castillo said certain products, like annuities with high commissions, are often promoted at these events. Information about the program and a checklist for evaluating seminars is available at AARP.
Is their will, power of attorney and other paperwork up to date? Will your relative make you an authorized user on accounts, or provide passwords, so you can check the accounts periodically, especially if you live out of state?
Laws vary by state, so it's important to know what's required if you believe it's time to step in and help manage money or investments, said Ruth Phelps, a California lawyer and member of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys. It's unlikely that one mistake will be enough to have someone declared incompetent, she said, but guardianship may be a necessary step if the senior is showing signs of dementia or Alzheimer's.
If mild cognitive impairment is an issue, hiring an accountant or daily money manager may help. Putting a neutral third party in the role of intermediary may also be a good step if you've had your own financial problems, or your parents don't trust you to access their financial details for other reasons.
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