A troubled economy and rising commodity prices have given the nation's scam artists something to work with in 2008:
Plenty of desperate investors seeking a quick fix for mounting financial woes.
"Financial criminals craft new scams to leverage current headlines," warned North Dakota Securities Commissioner Karen Tyler, who is also the president of the North American Securities Administrators Association. "They play off whatever is capturing the attention of consumers."
The film "There Will Be Blood" is even being brought up in sales pitches for oil investment, according to Texas Securities Commissioner Denise Voigt Crawford. Crooks point to its enticing theme of bold, self-made oil tycoons such as the one played by Daniel Day-Lewis striking it wildly rich.
Here, according to regulatory and legal experts, are the latest tricks investors are encountering:
• Social-networking chicanery. These popular Web sites in which people chat freely with each other are increasingly used by crooks to create a dialogue, build trust, then introduce an investment that may be a complete scam. Be as cautious about information received there as you are with online investment newsletters or stock tips from online bulletin boards.
• Bogus technologies for extracting oil. The premise is that sky-high oil prices provide renewed reason to reopen closed wells. You're being given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to invest in a breakthrough oil-well technology, which unfortunately may not exist. Energy investment also takes the form of oil and gas partnerships risky even when above-board and nothing but trouble if they lack documentation.
• Phony hedge funds. The popular, go-anywhere hedge-fund investment concept is pitched to average investors to attract money, but the promoter often simply spends all the money. Fictitious returns are reported to investors, who are given some of the money that has come in from new investors, which is the classic Ponzi scheme.
"They make unsubstantiated claims like 'We've been in the business 20 years and our investors have had enormous returns' or 'Look how much money you could have made in the past six months,"' said J. Boyd Page, senior partner in the Page Perry LLC law firm in Atlanta. "Arguments are appealing and people are trusting."
• Fraudulent real-estate contracts. Crooks pretend to be offering an instrument such as a reverse mortgage, which permits senior citizens to draw equity from their homes. But they're just using this as a ruse to obtain important personal financial information. With that knowledge, they pitch a variety of fraudulent investments designed to steal investor money.
"It's easy to get three bids on a roof, but hard when a fraudster is pitching you the deal of a lifetime and there's only one such deal," said Voigt Crawford. "Protect yourself by stepping back, finding out the background of the principals and learning whether the offering is registered."
Abuses rely on networking. If a crook can make a strong connection with a group or prominent individual, it expands opportunities.
Religious groups, schools and other trustworthy environments are abused by con artists. Jon Ervin of Mission Viejo, Calif., was arrested on federal wire fraud charges in May for running a fake commodities investment fund that netted more than $25 million by targeting Christian investors nationwide. Federal regulators also filed lawsuits and froze the assets of his firm, Safevest LLC.
High-visibility individuals who travel in wealthy, but not necessarily sophisticated, circles are also prime targets.
Former Denver Broncos star football player Steve Atwater recruited teammates to invest $20 million with him in the International Management Associates hedge fund run by the impressive Harvard-educated entrepreneur Kirk Wright. A total of $185 million was invested in the hedge fund by hundreds of investors who were promised great riches.
In May, Wright hanged himself in a suburban Atlanta jail. He had been convicted by a federal jury of 467 counts of mail fraud, securities fraud and money laundering. His hedge fund was a scam and everyone's money including that of Atwater and his trusting teammates was gone because it had gone to pay for Wright's lavish lifestyle.
Senior citizens are another target. Scam artist David Hilburn's Houston firm Texas Senior Services LLC fraudulently obtained $10 million from 80 older investors and misrepresented returns of his fund. He was sentenced last year to pay restitution and serve 20 years in jail.
The North American Securities Administrators Association, whose site www.nasaa.org is the gateway to all the nation's state securities regulators, offers this scam-avoidance checklist:
• Investigate a broker and firm with state securities authorities to check licensing and background. Your state securities regulator can check the Central Registration Depository for the disciplinary records. You can also contact the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (www.finra.org) for the broker and firm disciplinary records.
• Ask about commissions and other compensation. Obtain complete information about the firm offering the investment. Get everything in writing. In partnerships, find out how the partnership will end and what the tax incentive if it is unsuccessful.
• Be sure your funds won't be commingled with other funds or used for purposes other than specified.• When you do invest, read all statements and keep notes of meetings and phone conversations. Stay in charge of your money and never become a sucker for inflated promises, even in hard times.
Andrew Leckey answers questions only through the column. Address inquiries to Andrew Leckey, P.O. Box 874702, Tempe, AZ 85287-4702, or by e-mail at [email protected].