When the economy is weak, watch out for dishonest individuals who come on strong with enticing investment offers. Low interest rates and slumping stocks have many consumers looking for alternative investments. The Better Business Bureau (BBB) warns you to be careful. This type of economic climate is ripe for investment scams that typically start with offers of "guaranteed" big returns, business opportunities and other "no-risk" deals.
The BBB, along with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), reminds you about the following investment schemes that continue to lure victims.
- Fraudulent sales of stocks, bonds and other financial instruments: Watch out for age-old "Ponzi" and "pyramid" schemes, in which scam artists promise high returns and use the money of some investors to pay off other investors, or life insurance agents who have overstepped their licenses to sell stocks, bonds and other securities. Also, be careful of investment seminars promising easy money, as many times these only enrich the sponsor.
- False or misleading sales of certificates of deposit (CDs): The trusted bank CD issued by FDIC-insured institutions has long been considered to be among the safest financial investments available because of the deposit insurance protection of up to $100,000. However, criminals or unscrupulous brokers who use improper or confusing disclosure statements or outright fraud increasingly are victimizing unsuspecting consumers. There also have been reports of Internet or newspaper advertisements claiming to offer unusually high interest rates for CDs from banks that investors later learned were bogus.
- Promissory note fraud: A promissory note is an interest-paying IOU generally issued by companies wanting to raise cash to finance operations. Investors in these notes tend to be other corporations, not consumers, because a sophisticated analysis is recommended before putting up money. However, criminals have preyed on unsuspecting consumers by offering guaranteed high rates of return on promissory notes that are bogus, often for non-existent companies; investors soon discover that their entire investment is lost.
- The Nigerian Scam: This fraud has been around since the 1980s and has bilked investors out of billions of dollars. Despite repeated warnings from the BBB and other consumer organizations, this scam is alive and well. It generally works like this: You receive an unsolicited fax, email, or letter from someone claiming to be a foreign government official, business executive or citizen asking for help in one of many scenarios. The letters usually offers a lucrative award or business opportunity if you allow the perpetrators to "park" funds in your U.S. bank account. But first, you will be required to pay various types of government "fees" and "taxes." For those who comply, their money is gone forever. The fraud is widely know as the "Nigerian Scam" because it originated in Nigeria and still flourishes there, but be advised that crooks in other countries are copying it.
To avoid being scammed by these and other fraudulent investment offers, the BBB suggests the following:
- Be wary of unsolicited investment offers. Never divulge your personal information or account numbers in response to unsolicited phone calls or letters. Be especially skeptical if the sales pitch includes promises of guaranteed profits or yields that far exceed traditional investments.
- Deal with legitimate, reputable marketers. Before sending money or personal information to an unfamiliar person or company, do your research. Contact the Better Business Bureau for a reliability report on the company.
- Get key details in writing and independently research the investment. Reputable companies will be happy to answer questions or provide requested documentation. If a company will not disclose information in writing, do not invest.
- Never invest in anything you do not fully understand and do not believe claims that promise high returns along with "little to no" risk.