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This Year's Hottest Investment Scams

Oct 01, 2015

You work hard for your money, and there are legions of people working just as hard to steal it from you. So what’s hot in five-star boiler rooms these days? Crowdfunding, variable annuities and pot, among other things.

Con artists are a busy lot. Last year, state securities regulators received 11,304 complaints from investors and conducted 4,853 investigations, according to the North American Securities Administrators Association. Many of the top scams are tried-and-true favorites: Ponzi schemes, phony private stock offerings, real estate investments, and oil and gas schemes.

Recently, however, crowdfunding schemes have risen to the top of state regulators’ concerns. The Jumpstart our Business Startups Act (JOBS), signed into law in 2012, eased requirements for raising money for small businesses. Crowdfunding, raising money for businesses and causes online, has been on a roll ever since. The problem: It can be tough to figure out what’s a good investment or worthy cause and what’s just a scam.

“Crowdfunding is a good way for small businesses to raise money locally,” says Vermont deputy securities commissioner Michael Pieciak. But sometimes the crowd is simply funding a con artist’s dreams of big house and a flashy car. And you may have limited legal liability if a crowdfunded investment doesn’t work as expected, NASAA warns. And unfortunately, the only way go get additional information about the investment is to research it carefully.

Schemes involving marijuana sales are also starting to crop up. While there’s always a burst of interest in new industries, some schemes are simply ways to bring a fraudster’s bank account to new highs. In July, the Securities and Exchange Commission settled charges with promoters for using pump-and-dump tactics for two penny pot stocks, GrowLife and Hemp, Inc. Both companies have resumed trading.

Another worry among state regulators at NASAA’s annual conference in San Juan, Puerto Rico this week: Annuity sales, particularly index annuity sales. These are complex products whose return are linked to stock indexes, such as the Standard and Poor’s 500. They sell well to older investors who have been burned by the stock market: At least in theory, you won’t lose money in an index annuity.

What agents may neglect to tell investors is the sales charge levied if you take out money in the first few years, and that’s where the brokers cross over the regulatory line. Investors who need access to their money because of health issues or other reasons can be shocked by the costs of early withdrawals, Pieciak says. Here again, investors have to be careful to ask questions – particularly about how the annuity’s returns are calculated and what penalties, if any, there are for making withdrawals in the first few years of the annuity.

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Securities regulators are also worried about agents who sell an investor a variable annuity, move to a new firm, and then move their clients into another variable annuity, increasing the time that their money is subject to trailing commissions – and, of course, generating extra commissions for themselves.

As the Baby Boom generation slides into retirement, elder fraud is on the rise as well. Roughly a quarter of all the cases state securities administrators see involve the elderly, says NASAA. Aside from problems with annuity sales, regulators worry about seminars that offer free meals and investment advice given by shady brokers.

If you’re interested in an investment – or if you think you’ve been defrauded – you can look up the contact information for your state securities office at www.nasaa.org. Your state securities administrator will tell you if an investment is registered for sale in your state, and whether the person trying to sell it is authorized to do so. While that’s no guarantee that your investment will be profitable, it will at least help you identify whether it’s a real investment or just a scam.

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