Investment Swindles: How They Work and How to Avoid Them

While the vast majority of persons in the futures industry and other sectors of the investment community serve the investing public conscientiously and ethically, there are inevitably those few who seek to exploit the trust which others have labored so hard to earn.

The Multi-Billion Dollar Business of Investment Fraud

Americans are investors. We purchase stocks and bonds, contribute to savings programs, own real estate, participate in futures and options markets, acquire collectibles, provide start-up capital for new business ventures, buy franchises, and the list goes on. The strength of our economy is in large measure the product of our combined investments.

Perhaps more so than any people in the world, we enjoy an ever-expanding variety of investments to choose from, coupled with the freedom to make our own investment decisions. It's our money and we can invest it as we wish.

Unfortunately, some unscrupulous promoters abuse our freedom to choose by concocting investment schemes that have zero possibility of making money for anyone other than themselves. Such persons promise investment rewards they cannot possibly deliver and have no intention of delivering.

They are swindlers.

Many of them are very good at it. Their annual take through lying and deceit is in the billions of dollars. If one estimate of $10 billion a year lost to investment fraud is accurate, that's more money than the combined annual profits of the nation's three major automakers! Some say even that estimate may be too low.

Successful investment swindlers use every trick in the book, and some that aren't even recorded, to convince you that none of the descriptions and precautions in the following pages apply to them. After all, they are offering you a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make a lot of money quickly and you do trust them, don't you? As will be seen, some of their methods of gaining your trust are truly ingenious.

Who are the Investment Swindlers?

They are a faceless voice on a telephone. Or a friend of a friend. They may perform surgery on their victims' savings from a dingy back office or boiler-room or from an opulent suite in the new bank building. They may wear three-piece suits or they may wear hard hats. They may have no apparent connection to the investment business or they may have an alphabet-soup of impressive letters following their names. They may be glib and fast-talking or so seemingly shy and soft-spoken that you feel almost compelled to force your money on them.

The first rule of protecting yourself from an investment swindle is thus to rid yourself of any notions you might have as to what an investment swindler looks like or sounds like. Indeed, some swindlers don't start out to be swindlers. There are case histories in which individuals who held positions of trust and esteem-accountants, attorneys, bona fide investment brokers and even doctors-have sacrificed their ethics for the fast buck of running an investment scam.

In still other cases, investment programs that began with legitimate intentions went sour through happenstance or poor management--leading the promoter to mishandle or abscond with investors' capital. Whether an investment is planned as a scam or simply becomes one, the result is the same.

This is why, as we will discuss, protecting your savings against fraud involves at least three steps: Carefully check out the person and firm you would be dealing with; take a close and cautious look at the investment offer itself; and continue to monitor any investment that you decide to make. No one of these precautions alone may be sufficient.

Who are the Victims of Investment Fraud?

If you are absolutely certain it could never be you, the investment swindler starts with a big advantage. Investment fraud generally happens to people who think it couldn't happen to them.

Just as there is no typical profile for swindlers, neither is there one for their victims. While some scams target persons who are known or thought to have deep pockets, most swindlers take the attitude that everyone's money spends the same. It simply takes more small investors to fund a large fraud. In fact, some swindlers deliberately seek out families that may have limited means or financial difficulties--figuring such persons may be particularly receptive to a proposal that offers fast and large profits. A favorite pitch is that small investors can become rich only if they learn and employ the investment strategies used by wealthy persons. Naturally, the swindler will teach them!

Although victims of investment fraud can differ from one another in many ways, they do, unfortunately, have one trait in common: Greed that exceeds their caution. Plus a willingness to believe what they want to believe. Movie actors and athletes, professional persons and successful business executives, political leaders and internationally famous economists have all fallen victim to investment fraud. So have hundreds of thousands of others, including widows, retirees and working people--people who made their money the hard way and lost it the fast way.

How Investment Swindlers Find (or Attract) Their Victims

Swindlers attempt to mimic the sales approaches of legitimate investment firms and salespersons. Thus, the fact that someone may contact you in a particular way--by phone, mail, or even through a referral--should not in itself be viewed as an indication that the investment is or isn't shady. Many totally reputable firms also use the same methods to effectively and economically identify individuals who may have an interest in their investment products and services.

Bearing in mind that investigate before you invest is good advice no matter how you are approached, these are some of the methods con men commonly employ to contact their victims-to-be.

Techniques Investment Swindlers Use

Their techniques are as varied as their methods of establishing contact. If there is a common denominator, however, it is their ability to be convincing. The skills that make them successful are essentially the same skills that enable any good salesperson to be successful.

But swindlers have a decided advantage: They don't have to make good on their promises. In the absence of this responsibility, they have no reluctance to promise whatever it takes to persuade you to part with your money. These are some of their techniques:

Several Investment Swindles and How They Worked

There's a saying among swindlers that it's not the scam that counts, it's the sell. Judging from the number of arcane and often outlandish schemes that have been employed to separate otherwise prudent people from their money, the saying would seem to reflect reality. The evidence is that if people can be made believers, they can be sold practically anything. Consider several of the ways in which hustlers of phony investments have won the confidence of persons whom they planned to victimize.

The Old-Fashioned Ponzi Scheme

It's become one of the oldest and most often employed investment schemes because it's proven to be one of the most lucrative. While there are innumerable variations, here is how a person we will call Frank C. practiced it. At the outset, Frank approached a relatively small number of influential persons in the community and offered them the opportunity to invest--with a guaranteed high return--in a computer-generated program of arbitrage in foreign currency fluctuations. To be sure, it sounded high tech and sophisticated but Frank had his eye on sophisticated and well-heeled victims.

Within a short period of time, he approached and sold the scheme to still other investors--then promptly used a portion of the money invested by these persons to pay large profits to the original group of investors. As word spread of Frank's genius for making money and paying profits, even more would-be investors anxiously put up even larger sums of money. Some of it was used to recycle the fictitious profit payments and, like a pebble in the water, the word of fast and fabulous rewards produced an ever-widening circle of eager investors. And more money poured in.

And Frank C. left town a wealthy man.

The Infallible Forecaster

Jim L. (among his many aliases) had a full-time job in the daytime, but with assets that consisted only of a phone, patience and an easy way of talking he managed to parlay a nighttime sideline into an ill-gotten fortune. The routine went like this.

Jim would phone someone we'll call Mrs. Smith and quickly assure her that, "No," he didn't want her to invest a single cent. "Never invest with someone you don't know," he preached. But he said he would like to demonstrate his firm's "research skill" by sharing with her the forecast that so-and-so a commodity was about to experience a significant price increase. Sure enough, the price soon went up.

A second phone call didn't solicit an investment either. Jim simply wanted to share with Mrs. Smith a prediction that the price of so-and-so a commodity was about to go down. "Our forecasts will help you decide whether ours is the kind of firm you might someday want to invest with," he added. As predicted, the price of the commodity subsequently declined.

By the time Mrs. Smith received a third call, she was a believer. She not only wanted to invest but insisted on it--with a big enough investment to make up for the opportunities she had already missed out on.

What Mrs. Smith had no way of knowing was that Jim had begun with a calling list of 200 persons. In the first call, he told 100 that the price of so-and-so a commodity would go up and the other 100 were told it would go down. When it went up, he made a second call to the 100 who had been given the "correct forecast." Of these, 50 were told the next price move would be up and 50 were told it would be down.

The end result: Once the predicted price decline occurred, Jim had a list of 50 persons eager to invest. After all, how could they go wrong with someone so obviously infallible in forecasting prices?

But go wrong they did, the moment they decided to send Jim a half million dollars from their collective savings accounts.

All that Glitters

Not only did the two brothers have a fancy office building with their own company name on it, but the investment offer seemed sound and straightforward: "Instead of buying gold outright and holding it for appreciation, make a small down payment that the firm could use to secure financing that would permit much larger quantities of gold to be bought and held for the investor's account." That way, when the price of gold rose--as was "sure to happen"--investors stood to realize highly leveraged profits.

The company provided storage vaults where investors could view the wall-to-wall stacks of glittering bullion. By the time authorities caught wind of the scheme's suspicious smell and looked for themselves, it turned out the only thing gold was the color of the paint on the cardboard used to construct look-alike bars of bullion.

The counterfeit gold, however, proved far easier to find than the millions of dollars of investors' money. Most of that is still missing.

16 Questions that Can Turn Off an Investment Swindler

The first line of defense against investment fraud is your inalienable right to ask questions and--until you get the right answers--to say "No." And mean no. Not surprisingly, this is usually an investment swindler's first point of attack. To keep you from asking questions, he asks them! Invariably, the questions have "yes" answers, such as "You would at least be interested in hearing about such a fantastic investment opportunity, wouldn't you?" or "You would like to make a large amount of money in a short period of time with little or no risk, right?"

One difference between a reputable investment firm and a swindler is that reputable firms encourage you to ask questions, to obtain as much information as possible, to clearly understand the risks involved, and to be entirely comfortable with any investment decision you make. The only thing a swindler wants is your money These are some of the questions that swindlers don't like to hear:

  1. Where did you get my name?

    If the response is that you were chosen from a "select list of intelligent and prudent investors," that select list may be the telephone directory, or a purchased list of persons who've bought certain types of books, subscribed to particular magazines, or responded to newspaper ads. If you have made ill-advised investments in the past, you can be pretty sure your name is on someone's alumni list. It's the list swindlers prize most: Easy preys who are eager to recoup (but are doomed to repeat) their earlier losses.

  2. What risks are involved in the proposed investment?

    Except for obligations of the U.S. Treasury, which are considered risk-free, all investments involve some degree of risk. And some investments, by their nature, involve greater risks than others. Keep in mind that if the salesman had knowledge of a sure-thing, big-profit investment opportunity, he wouldn't be on the phone talking with you.

  3. Can you send me a written explanation of your investment so I can consider it at my leisure?

    For someone peddling fraudulent investments, that can be a double turnoff. For one thing, most crooks are reluctant to put anything in writing that might cause them to run afoul of postal authorities or provide material that, at some point, might become evidence in a fraud trial. Secondly, swindlers don't want you to do anything at your leisure. They want your money now.

    Accordingly, it's a good rule of thumb that any investment which "absolutely has to be made immediately" shouldn't be made at all. You may not always be right, but you are less likely to be sorry.

  4. Would you mind explaining your investment proposal to some third party, such as my attorney, accountant, investment advisor or banker?

    If the answer goes something along the lines of "normally, I'd be glad to, but there isn't time for that," or if the salesman snaps back by asking "can't you make your own investment decisions." these are virtually certain clues that your final answer should be an emphatic "No."

  5. Can you give me the names of your firm's principals and officers?

    Although some persons who establish and operate dishonest firms change their own names as often as they change their firms' names, even the hint that you are the kind of investor who checks into things like that can be a fast turn-off for a swindler.

  6. Can you provide references?

    Not just another list of other investors who supposedly became fabulously wealthy (the names you get may be the salesman's boss or someone sitting at the next phone), but reputable and reliable recommendations such as a bank or well-known brokerage firm that you can easily contact.

  7. Do you have any documents such as a prospectus or risk disclosure statement that you can provide?

    This may not be available in connection with all types of investments but in many investment areas--such as securities, futures and options trading--it's required. And there can be requirements that you be provided with this information and acknowledge in writing that you have read and understood it. Obviously, it's not the sort of information a swindler is likely to distribute.

  8. Are the investments you are offering traded on a regulated exchange, such as a securities or futures exchange?

    Some bona fide investments are and some aren't, but fraudulent investments never are. Exchanges have strict rules designed to assure fair dealing and competitive price determination. There are also in-place mechanisms to provide for rule enforcement and to impose severe sanctions against those who fail to observe the rules.

  9. What governmental or industry regulatory supervision is your firm subject to?

    If the salesman rattles off a list that ranges from the FBI to the Boy Scouts, tell him you'd like to check the firm's good standing before making an important investment decision. Then verify the response. Few things discourage a swindler faster than the thought that his first visitor the next morning may be from a regulatory agency.

    If, on the other hand, you are told his particular area of investment isn't subject to regulation (perhaps because everyone in his business is an ethical, upstanding citizen), take that explanation for whatever you think it's worth. At the very least, keep in mind that any ongoing supervision which isn't being provided by a regulatory organization or agency will have to be provided by you.

  10. How long has your company been in business?

    In any kind of business activity, there can be advantages to dealing with a known, established company. This isn't to say that new businesses aren't starting up all the time or that the vast majority aren't perfectly reputable. But if you find yourself talking with someone who doesn't seem to have a past, it can be worthwhile to find out why. Many swindlers have been running scams for years but understandably aren't anxious to talk about it.

  11. What has your track record been?

    Before you accept a salesman's assurance that he can make money for you, you have the right to know what his performance has been in making money for others. And ask to have the information (if there is any) in writing. Boasting over the phone is one thing; putting it down on paper is quite another. In any case, even if you are able to obtain a documented performance record, don't lose sight of the fact that past performance in itself provides no assurance of future performance.

  12. When and where can I meet with you or with another representative of your firm?

    Chances are a crooked operator--particularly if he is operating out of a telephone boiler-room--isn't going to take the time to visit with you and even more certainly doesn't want you to see his place of business.

  13. Where, exactly, will my money be? And what type of regular accounting statements do you provide?

    In many investment areas, such as futures trading, firms are required to maintain their customers' funds in segregated accounts at all times. Any mingling of investors' funds with those of the firm or its principals is prohibited. You might also want to find out what, if any, routine outside audits the firm's account records are subject to.

  14. How much of my money would go for commissions, management fees and the like?

    And ask whether there will be other costs such as interest or storage charges, or whether the investment agreement involves any type of profit sharing arrangement in which the firms' principals participate. Insist on specific answers, not glib and evasive responses such as "that's not important" or "what's really important is how much money you are going to make." And, again, get it in writing, just as you would any other type of contract.

  15. How can I liquidate (i.e. sell the item I'd be investing in) if and when I decide I want my money?

    If you find that the investment is illiquid, or there would be substantial costs if liquidated, or that you are unable to get straight and solid answers, these are all things to consider in deciding whether you want to invest.

  16. If disputes should arise, how can they be resolved?

    Short of having to go to court to sue someone, does the company or regulatory organization provide a mechanism for resolving disputes equitably and inexpensively through arbitration, mediation, or a reparations procedure? Aside from seeking important information, you may be able to detect whether the salesperson is uncomfortable or impatient with this line of questioning. Swindlers generally will be.

Before You Invest, Investigate

Asking some or even all of the questions just suggested isn't likely to produce straight answers from a crooked investment promoter but, as indicated, the very fact that you are asking such questions can be a turn-off. Bear in mind, however, that no matter how persistently or skillfully you pose the questions, experienced con men are at least equally skilled in evading them, in providing downright dishonest answers, and in refocusing the conversation on your "tremendous profit opportunity."

Bear in mind also that, while separating you from your money is the swindler's primary goal, the very last thing he wants you to do is check him out. That could cause you not to invest or, worse still, alert regulators that someone they know well has set up shop in a new area or is running a new scam.

For this reason, most con men deliberately make themselves difficult to investigate: By tailoring their schemes to operate in regulatory cracks where federal or national regulatory organizations may lack clear-cut jurisdiction; by operating in states or communities where authorities are known to be short-staffed or occupied with more pressing criminal activities; by changing their names or modus operandi, by stressing the urgency of the investment so you won't have time to investigate; and by targeting victims who may not know how or where to check them out.

Moreover, as described in swindle scenarios in this article, con men have numerous and ingenious ways of seeking to convince you there is no need to investigate. For example, your friends, neighbors or business associates invested and they made money, right? That, of course, is why ever-popular Ponzi schemes (named after the first person to perfect the referral technique) are so prevalent--and why you should never make investments based on tips, no matter how trustworthy the source.

While there is no way to know for certain whether a particular investment will make money or lose money, there is one thing you can be certain of: Any money you hand over to an investment swindler is lost the moment you part with it. The question is, how do you check out someone who is offering what sounds like an irresistible investment offer? Here are some of the ways:

Sure it can take some time, effort and possibly expense to thoroughly check out an investment proposal, but if you have any doubt about whether it's worth the trouble, talk with people who didn't and wish they had!

Finally, Don't Lose Touch with Your Money

The need to exercise good financial sense doesn't stop once you've decided to invest. It's possible, all your precautions notwithstanding, that you may have turned your money over to a swindler. It's also possible that what didn't start out to be a swindle may turn into one if the promoter finds himself in financial trouble or with too many poor investments on his hands. That can lead to cover-up bookkeeping or, worse yet, a decision by the promoter to take flight with what's left of his customers' money.

It's important to continuously monitor your investments and to be alert for any telltale signs that things aren't quite the way they should be. The person who sold you the investment, for example, may suddenly become inaccessible--continuously tied up on the telephone or unwilling to return your calls, busy with clients, or out-of-town on important business matters. Or various documents or accounting statements you were promised don't arrive. Or information you do receive is vague or at variance from what you had been led to expect. Or money that was supposed to have been paid to you isn't received, and instead of checks you get excuses.

If you become suspicious or overly uncomfortable with an investment you've made--and if you are unable to totally resolve your concerns--the best thing you can do is try to get out of it. And do so as quickly as possible. That means demanding your money back, accompanied, if necessary, by threats to contact authorities.

You might or might not get it. The best you can hope for, if indeed there's fraud involved, is that the swindler may decide to refund your money rather than risk having you blow the whistle while he is still on the prowl for new investors. If that happens, consider yourself more fortunate than most.

Be aware, if you do decide to try and get a refund, that the person who was smooth-talking enough to get your money in the first place will unleash all his skills to persuade you to leave it with him. No doubt, he will have some answer for all of your concerns. And some explanation for all apparent irregularities. And, no doubt you will be told that backing out now would be anything from contractually illegal to a terrible financial mistake. Swindlers figure that every once in a while some of their more fidgety investors simply have to be reconvinced. He may tell you that you are so close to making really big money, or the investment now looks even more profitable than originally expected.

Believe him at your own peril.

If you do insist on a refund of your investment, insist on it immediately Ask to pick it up yourself, or offer to pay the cost of having it sent by overnight mail or wired directly to your bank. Don't settle for "it will take a week or two" or "the check is in the mail." As everyone knows, checks seem to be lost more often than any other type of mail!

If you don't get your investment back (and chances are you won't), or even if you do and still suspect a swindle, report it promptly to the appropriate authorities and regulatory officials. They may be able to conduct an investigation and, if called for, seek legal action to impound whatever funds the firm still has.

Bottom line, the unfortunate reality is that very few victims of investment fraud ever again see a cent of their money. It's also a reality that the business of swindling will continue to flourish as long as unwary investors provide prey for unscrupulous promoters. Hopefully, the information in this booklet--if heeded--will help to assure that a swindler's next fortune won't be made at the expense of your misfortune.

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