Scams target investors frantic for safe returns

By Gail MarksJarvis Chicago Tribune

Question: My retirement CDs, which are currently paying 5.2 percent, will mature next year. Of course, I’m concerned about where I can put the money when that happens. I’m a 74-year-old widow who has been living on Social Security and the required minimum distribution from my IRA. My newspaper in Arizona has ads for what looks like too-good-to-be-true returns. It says: Attention CD owners 7.0 percent APY, and principal and interest are totally secure. The firm, according to the ad, has an A+ rating with the Better Business Bureau and has been serving clients for over 11 years. Can this be a safe investment?

— V. M.

Answer: This is too good to be true and you should feel “totally secure” that it will not protect your principal and interest.

I feel sick thinking about all the seniors who have been lured into awful investments with these misleading promises lately. Seniors are easy pickings — whether at banks, financial planning offices, insurance firms or investment firms — because retirees are living off their savings and starved for income. The Federal Reserve is making it impossible for savers to use safe investments and earn income much above 1 or 2 percent. This could last awhile, because the Fed has said it is likely to keep interest rates near zero until late 2014.

Let me translate this to anyone dreaming of a 7 percent return on anything protected. It cannot happen because the Fed has designed the system so high interest and safe returns do not go together. The Fed is trying to get people to take chances with their money because Americans are scared, and yet the economy needs chance-taking on stocks and risky bonds to spur growth. As long as the Fed keeps interest rates low no one can offer a high-interest, safe investment because financial firms can’t earn a high return without taking risks.

“People are getting desperate,” said Sylvia Matteson, a Tucson, Ariz., financial planner. “We have people coming to us with offers like 7 percent guaranteed all the time.”

If the ad you have seen does apply to a CD, it may be like those Matteson has seen: 7 percent interest might apply to maybe the first $500 you invest along with another $19,500 in a $20,000 CD. And the 7 percent teaser rate on the $500 might evaporate after a short time — maybe six months — though your $20,000 must stay invested much longer.

The product you’ve seen advertised might not be a CD at all. Notice the wording: “Attention CD owners.” This merely means they are preying on CD owners who are frantic for interest income.