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Falling for the Fraud

Posted  October 24, 2013
CC Attorney Marlene Koury

By Marlene Koury

We have all been the target of one of those too-good-to-be-true fraud schemes at one time or another.  From the promises of inflated or guaranteed investment returns, to a free lunch seminar that turns out to be a sales pitch, to the ubiquitous Nigerian emails looking for help with a money transfer.  Not to mention the flood of emails inviting participation in lottery scams, pyramid schemes, and charity shams.  The list goes on and on with ever-increasing frequency and variety these days.  But not to worry, most of us would never succumb to these far-fetched frauds.  They are so easily detectable.  But a recent survey finds that we may all be a lot more vulnerable than we think to this scourge of sneaky swindlers.

This comes from the FINRA Investor Education Foundation, a non-profit that provides financial education to underserved Americans.  It looked into the questions of how widespread consumer fraud is today and how susceptible we are to falling for it.  It surveyed approximately two thousand forty-and-overs to see how easily they could be duped by one of these sneaky schemes.  And the surprising finding was that 40 percent of them were susceptible because they could not detect classic signs of fraud.  The apparent reason is that the average person lacks a basic understanding of the finer points of investing.

For example, nearly half of the respondents thought an annual return of 110 percent for an investment was credible. The same amount of respondents felt the same way about investments that are “fully guaranteed.”  Of course, annual returns over 100 percent are highly improbable, if not impossible, and there is virtually no investment that is risk-free.  Nevertheless, these promises of inflated returns and guarantees are common pitches of fraudsters because, despite our intelligence, our diligence, and our common sense, these types of pitches often get the better of us.  Other shady propositions that many respondents seemed to buy into included:

  • An opportunity to get in on the “ground floor of a company about to roll out a revolutionary new technology.”
  • A stock repeatedly outperforming the Dow Jones Industrial Average.
  • Investments that have made millionaires out of hundreds of people.
  • A minimum annual return of 50%.

But it is not just a lack of financial understanding that makes many of us vulnerable to these schemes.  There is also a psychology to the susceptibility.  The survey found increased vulnerability where the scammers are socially connected to the victim.  Like that weird scheming uncle that you should not be trusting, but you do because he is family.  Or from the so-called “affinity” fraud scheme, which preys upon members of identifiable groups, such as religious or ethnic groups.  And perhaps most surprising, the survey found that younger, educated, high-income males were generally the most susceptible to invest in fraudulent schemes.  According to the survey, that may be because susceptibility is closely associated with an ability and the willingness to take on investment risk, which, the survey found, is correlated with a higher household income and education.

The takeaway is that fraudsters have a pitch and a scheme for everyone.  Some will exploit emotions and draw on family ties or group associations and some will present seemingly straightforward opportunities to those with a little money to throw around.  They know what works.  It is up to us to educate ourselves in recognizing the red flags or we will continue to hand our money over to scammers, schemers and fraudsters.  So the next time you are invited to invest in something that sounds too good to be true, take a step back.  It probably is.