My client Norm called to discuss an investment he’d heard about from friends. They told him about a remarkable return that incurred almost no risk. “I know it sounds too good to be true,” Norm said, “but how can you pass up an opportunity like that when the stock market is bound to suffer a correction and interest rates on bonds are so low? They’re getting checks every month.”
My answer was simple and direct. “If it sounds too good to be true, it is.” Regrettably, a lot of people resist that message. And scammers know it.
People want to believe that a special deal is always out there, that if they just look for it, an incredible opportunity will pop up. Sometimes, we hear friends boast about a terrific investment and how smart they are to have taken advantage of it. Often, a small voice in our head says, “Look, you’re smarter than those ordinary people making ordinary returns. You deserve more.”
Scammers succeed because one of the great fears in America is leaving money on the table. No one wants to be a sucker, and nothing rankles like the thought that someone is outsmarting us. So, many investors plunge ahead and end up being just that: suckers. In particular, scam artists understand the vulnerability of older people, which often requires children or friends to help look after seniors’ interests. I mentioned that to Norm. “I have a ways to go before I’m a senior,” he said. “I know,” I said, “but fear and greed can sway the judgment of people at any age.
Take investments. Not all of Bernie Madoff’s victims were older Americans. What the losers in America’s biggest Ponzi scheme had in common was an inability to resist the allure of returns no one else was offering and not asking how this was possible. What exactly was Madoff, whose scheme defrauded thousands of investors of billions of dollars — or any other scammer — investing in? The investors didn’t know. And since a time-tested maxim informs us that risk is commensurate with reward, how can high reward team up with low risk?
“I guess it can’t,” Norm said. “Once someone understands that, they’ll make better decisions.” I responded that we should hope so, but we can’t always expect it.
It turns out that a scammer’s best prospects are people who have already been victimized by scams. The people who should know best — victims — make the easiest targets because their dissatisfaction with current investment returns keeps getting the best of them. They can’t help believing that they’re missing out. “Kind of a get-rich-quick mentality,” Norm said. He bowed his head. “Look, I haven’t been scammed. Yet. But I guess I’m as normal as the next person. How do you keep things in perspective?”
I offered Norm a checklist that would guide him in our future discussions. I started with investing.
• If it sounds too good to be true it probably is. If you have doubts, don’t do it.
• Check out potential financial advisors at finra.org. If you’re hiring a broker or a Registered Investment Advisor, go to adviserinfo.sec.gov/IAPD/Content/Search/iapd_Search.aspx. Read all disclosure documents and look for any previous regulatory and compliance violations.
• When looking at financial advisors, hire only a fiduciary. These are professionals who by law must put their clients’ interests first. Generally if you are working with a fee only planner/advisor they are a fiduciary.
Of course, not all financial scams are “investments.” Scams come in all forms — and there are lots of them. You can do several things to protect yourself:
• Never commit to give or send money when you’re meeting with a salesperson or talking on the phone. Take at least 48 hours to think about investing or buying anything. If a salesperson demands a commitment now, end the conversation.
• Never give anyone you don’t know your credit card numbers or bank account numbers — or access to them.
• Don’t open unsolicited emails or click on links from unknown senders — or a sender you do know until you check that you haven’t received spam.
• Regularly review your bank, credit card and brokerage statements for unusual activities.
• Request copies of your credit report from the three bureaus that track this information. You’re entitled to one free copy per year. Go to AnnualCreditReport.com.
Fortunately, Norm has me to help put the brakes on. Still, resisting scams and protecting assets is every investor’s personal responsibility. “That,” Norm agreed, “couldn’t be more true.”
Ira Fateman is a certified financial planner at SAS in San Francisco who conducts free personal finance workshops for Hebrew Free Loan (www.hflasf.org/financialfitness). Reach him at email@example.com.