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Financial scams expected to boom as boomers age

In Michigan, an advertisement offers this come-on to those 60 and older: "Come learn from the IRA Technician" at a seminar that more than 10,000 seniors have attended. Top sirloin steak will be served — along with tips on "how to guarantee your IRA will never run out, regardless of market fluctuations."

Just don't bring your financial adviser. Agents and brokers are not invited, the ad says.

As the first of 79 million baby boomers turn 60 this year, free-this and free-that financial seminars are thriving. Community centers and hotels have become a backdrop for what regulators see as aggressive sales pitches geared to seniors.

While people 60 and older make up 15% of the U.S. population, they account for about 30% of fraud victims, estimates Consumer Action, a consumer-advocacy group.

As this gargantuan generation of boomers starts to retire, "You're going to see more of these seminars and more of these sales pitches," says James Nelson, assistant secretary of state in Mississippi. "Wherever retirees are congregated, you're going to have these people preying on them."

Older people have long been a lucrative market for the financial-services industry because of the assets they've accumulated. But the sheer number of baby boomers approaching retirement and seeking a place to park their assets is causing a frenzy of aggressive sales tactics.

Boomers have more than $8.5 trillion in investable assets. Over the next 40 years, they stand to inherit at least $7 trillion from their parents, research firm Cerulli Associates estimates

As baby boomers swell the retiree population, regulators worry not just about estate-planning seminars for seniors but also about sales of promissory notes, unregistered securities and lottery scams.

"It's the topic of the next few decades: senior investments and senior fraud," says Patricia Struck, president of the North American Securities Administrators Association, or NASAA.

"There are marketing seminars that are being held nightly and in every city," says Bryan Lantagne of the Massachusetts Securities Division. "They get you to come in and do a financial plan. Their goal is to put you in one of these products."

Senior estate-planning seminars aren't new. But they're drawing more regulatory scrutiny because they're ramping up in areas with large elderly populations. Typically, the people who attend them need advice about leaving assets to their children, managing income or minimizing taxes in retirement.

Beverly Buhs, 81, of Millbrae, Calif., attended one of these financial seminars with her husband, Art, in 1997. They bought a living trust on the spot, she says. They were told it would let them avoid probate court, the sometimes expensive process by which your assets are allocated after you die.

After her husband died, Buhs found the trust didn't fully protect their assets from probate. And she couldn't access the money in the annuity without paying big penalties. Her complaints are part of a class-action lawsuit against the financial agents and companies involved in the seminar.

A 'major problem'

These seminars are a "major problem" in Texas, where many boomers retire, says Denise Voigt Crawford, the state securities commissioner.

North Dakota Securities Commissioner Karen Tyler calls these seminars a bait-and-switch tactic. The free seminar is the bait; the switch comes when the agents urge investors to liquidate the portfolio and put the money into other products, Tyler says.

Dan Danbom of the Society of Certified Senior Advisors — which helps train insurance agents, brokers and others to conduct senior seminars — says there's nothing "inherently dishonest about seminars, any more than there's anything inherently dishonest about advertising or direct mail."

And some agents argue that their financial seminars fill seniors' very real need for education. Theresa Bischoff, an insurance agent in Palatine, Ill., says she holds seminars because, "Baby boomers are starving for information on retirement and estate planning."

But regulators worry that seminars often serve as tools for unscrupulous salespeople. NASAA issued an alert in December cautioning investors that such seminars were sometimes being used by "bogus" senior specialists. The specialists may take only a few courses to earn their titles, then use these designations to create a "false level of comfort" about their expertise, according to NASAA.

In a typical scenario, financial agents will find out, at the seminar and in follow-up meetings, what assets seniors have, NASAA says. Then they'll recommend these assets be liquidated and put into equity-index or variable annuities. (State regulators say these recommendations could be considered investment advice, and anyone not registered as an investment adviser could face enforcement action.)

Variable and equity-index annuities are complex insurance products whose returns vary with market performance. Variable annuities' returns are tied to the stock market. Equity-index annuities' returns fluctuate with the market but also provide a minimum guarantee.

Both can be appropriate for people who want tax-advantaged savings or an income stream in retirement. But they're generally ill-suited for people in their 60s, 70s or 80s who'll need access to their money over the next decade. These costly products usually have stiff penalties for withdrawing money before the end of a surrender period that can last up to 15 years.

Louise Renne, a former San Francisco city attorney, says financial seminars often "are really fronts for (insurance) agents who want to sell annuities to seniors." Renne represents Buhs and others in three lawsuits against financial pros who conducted the seminars and companies that supplied the products.

Michael DeGeorge, general counsel for the National Association for Variable Annuities, says, "The vast majority of annuity recommendations are done appropriately."

Emotional pain

Whether scams involve inappropriate product sales or telemarketing fraud, they can be emotionally and financially devastating for victims of all ages.

Seniors, though, are particularly hard hit. Scams can wipe out an entire lifetime of savings. Unlike younger investors, seniors have few or no working years to recapture their losses.

The emotional pain of being scammed can also be magnified for seniors who keep silent about losing money. Many of them don't report suspected fraud out of shame and "fear that if the family realizes they've been ripped off, they'll be placed in an institution," seen as unfit to manage their finances and lives, says Jenefer Duane, chief executive of the Elder Financial Protection Network.

Thus, complaints about senior financial fraud are probably lower than they should be, Duane says. In 2005, consumers 50 and older filed 151,000 fraud and identity-theft-related complaints with the Federal Trade Commission. That total represented nearly one-third of total fraud and one-fifth of all identity-theft complaints among those who reported their age.

Online and telemarketing scams rank among the top complaints filed by older consumers.

Seniors who've been scammed often have to work longer than they'd planned — and harder. Take Neal Dukes, 71, of Grand Ledge, Mich. Dukes lost $250,000 a few years ago after a financial adviser persuaded him and 17 other people, mostly seniors, to put money into what the adviser said were high-interest-earning annuities.

The adviser, Daniel Neuenschwander, pleaded guilty, admitting he didn't invest the money in annuities but instead lost much of it in the commodities market or used it to support his family.

A Michigan circuit judge sentenced Neuenschwander in 2002 to up to 10 years in prison and ordered him to pay $2.2 million back to the seniors.

"It's tragic. Mr. Neuenschwander is very remorseful," says John Maurer, Neuenschwander's attorney.

Dukes says he hasn't gotten a dime back and isn't hopeful he will. He's been working eight to 10 hours a few days a week at his insecticide-spraying business to earn money.

'No golden years left'

"When you're 71 years old, you should be able to enjoy your life and your golden years," Dukes says. "But when you've been taken like this, there are no golden years left."

Financial recovery in senior scams is rare but not hopeless. Shlimoon Youkhana, 80, was one of the lucky ones. He got his money back after what had seemed to be a promising investment turned sour, draining his money with it.

A few years ago, he and his children invested $15,000 in the stock of a company that was supposed to file for an initial public offering. But the company never gave them their stock certificates. It eventually merged with another entity and changed its name.

Youkhana, of Rosemont, Ill., spent more than two years and hundreds of hours researching the company and documenting his experience, reporting his findings along the way to the Illinois Securities Department. The department did its own investigation and recovered investors' money.

Now, Youkhana offers to help other seniors in his community do research before they invest. "I'm not a Don Quixote or anything," he says. He just doesn't want others to be victims, he says.

The easiest way to avoid scams? Beware of any opportunity that sounds too good to be true. Seniors who are pressured to make a financial decision on the spot should run — not walk — away.

Robert Inman, 69, was wary about the living trust and annuity being pitched during a December free-lunch seminar he attended in Jackson, Mich.

He didn't feel the presenters adequately answered his questions — such as, what happens if the company that created the trust goes under? And he was bothered that they wanted people to sign up on the spot.

Also, a salesman called him multiple times after the seminar, stopping only after being invited to the house. "We thought that maybe this is the way to get rid of him," Inman says.

He consulted an attorney and decided to forgo the products. Inman's advice to seniors? "Don't jump into anything hastily. Take some time to do some checking."

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