MONEY

Protecting people's money

Economic self-sufficiency for women and protection against con artists are the missions of these two Money heroes.

  • Empowering women through finance

    Stacy Francis, 38, founder of a nonprofit that offers women free financial educatio<strong>n

    Troubled that her grandmother stayed in an abusive relationship for lack of fiscal wherewithal, Francis began Savvy Ladies in 2003, the year she started work as a financial planner.

    Via classes, workbooks, and a hotline, business people and other volunteers at the New York nonprofit have taught more than 10,000 women — ranging in age from their twenties to their sixties — money skills they need to gain more control over their lives.

    Free courses include Investment Management Boot Camp and Learning to Budget: One Less Latte.

    “Women ask, ‘How can I get control of my money? That’s the question we hear most often.”

  • Protection against con artists

    Letha L. Sparks, 73, forensic accountant, Texas State Securities Board (Enforcement Division)

    Sparks, an accounting major who finished college at age 41, found she had a passion for uncovering fraud.

    Since 1998 she has pursued scammers, seeking out suspects undercover by posing as an investor.

    In 2009 she analyzed thousands of documents relating to an insurance scheme in mere days, finding evidence that enabled a speedy shutdown and the return of nearly 70% of investors’ money — an unusually big recovery. Over the past three years, she has helped expose over $750 million worth of rip-offs targeting more than 4,000 people.

    “Little by little, I can whittle away at the con man and make a difference. I can make sure justice prevails.”

  • When alarm bells should ring

    Caution — always a virtue when it comes to money — is especially warranted if you’re presented with any of these investment “opportunities”:

    Crowdfunding

    A 2012 law lets startups raise money in online investment pools.

    First, though, the SEC has to set crowdfunding rules, so for now skip any come-ons using that buzzword, says Consumer Federation of America’s Barbara Roper. Until the SEC acts, she says, “any project you see is almost certainly a scam.”

    Self-directed IRAs

    Their lure is that you can pick from a wider investment menu than what’s typically allowed at banks and brokerages — think partnerships or direct ownership of real estate. But illiquid investments can burn you if you have to take an IRA distribution.

    And criminals are increasingly using these IRAs to make frauds look credible, say regulators.

    Free seminars

    Targeting special groups such as retirees, these gatherings can include good advice.

    Advisers running them, however, are often just stoking fears so they can sell you something, says AARP’s Sally Hurme. Don’t buy in until you run the deal by an objective, informed third party.

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