- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 2, 2003

The pitches sounded promising. In one case, sales agents in Colorado offered consumers the opportunity to “buy” a telephone booth for $7,000, which the company 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 seniors, and all were bogus. The investors lost thousands of dollars, federal and state securities regulators said.

“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 to 2001 and remain afraid of stocks, while others want more than the paltry 1 percent or 2 percent interest they are getting on savings accounts and money market funds.

“It’s in that condition that con artists thrive,” said Barbara Roper, director of investment protection for the Consumer Federation of America, based in Washington.

Miss 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.

Mr. 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.”

He also urged seniors to be especially wary of overly solicitous salesmen intent on gaining their confidence.

“That’s why they call them ‘con’ men,” he said.

David Yeske, president of the Financial Planning Association, said he believes many consumers are vulnerable because they are “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 or 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.


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