Investment seminars’ claims too often false

In my house, my children know they will receive a harsher punishment for a lie used to cover up a misdeed than for the offense itself.

This should also be the rule for those increasingly popular so-called educational investment seminars or workshops. If these gatherings — often with a free lunch or dinner included — promise that you won’t get pitched a product but then the organizers try to sell you something, this should be grounds for double trouble. They should be punished for the lie by losing any chance of doing business with you.

This is an important personal rule you need to implement because in an examination of 110 investments seminars — many of which had promised participants that nothing would be sold — 100 percent were sales presentations, according to a new joint report by the Securities and Exchange Commission, Financial Industry Regulatory Authority and the North American Securities Administrators Association.

The finding doesn’t surprise me, but the report is yet another reminder that you can never lose sight of the fact that the sponsors of these free lunch or dinner seminars are feeding you for one purpose — to get you to buy something, perhaps not at that meeting but eventually.

Summarizing the results of their study, the federal and state securities regulators said they found everything from misleading or exaggerated claims to outright fraud. More than a third of the seminars offered unsuitable investment recommendations.

“These findings are a wake-up call for securities regulators, the financial services industry and especially older investors,” SEC Chairman Christopher Cox said during a Seniors Summit held recently at the agency to highlight investment fraud and abusive sales practices. “The SEC and our fellow regulators intend to put a stop to this. We will step in whenever false claims are being made. We will sanction crooks who try to feast on the life savings of older investors.”

That’s a bold proclamation. I just wish it were so easy.

The regulators are fighting people who are like cockroaches, one of the hardiest pests on Earth. Stamp out one and others appear. Regulators found possible fraudulent practices in 13 percent of the seminars studied.

And here are just a few examples of some of the exaggerated or misleading claims:

“If you are between the ages of 65 and 85, join me for the most fascinating hour of your LIFE and I will show you how to immediately earn as much as $100,000, $200,000 or $300,000 … or more with the stroke of a pen.”

“Immediately add $100,000 to your net worth.”

“You’ll learn how to generate returns starting at 40 percent while your capital is held in an FDIC-insured account.”

“Get double-digit growth potential with no risk of loss and no fees.”

Here’s another rule. If someone tells you they have a high-return investment for you with no or low risk, it’s a low-down dirty lie. With a higher return, there is always higher risk.

The report details a lot of the lowly tricks used in these seminars.

In one case, the report noted that an investment adviser scheduled one-on-one meetings with interested individuals on the pretext of preparing a financial plan for them. Then during these meetings, the adviser convinced seniors to sign several blank authorization forms. He claimed that he needed the forms to obtain additional financial information.

Instead, he used the forms to liquidate the clients’ existing portfolios and purchase, without their authorization, equity-indexed annuities. These annuities are very complex and their high fees and hefty multiyear surrender charges make them unsuitable for many seniors.

The Florida Department of Financial Services recently revoked the license of a south Florida insurance agent for selling unsuitable annuity products to senior citizens, some suffering from dementia. One 83-year-old retiree was persuaded to put his entire savings in an equity-indexed annuity that provided no immediate income and carried 13 years of surrender charges as high as 17 percent.

During some seminars, paid pitchmen gave what appeared to be unsolicited testimonials. For example, one broker-dealer hired an elderly gentleman on a part-time basis to attend seminars. He would tell folks he was a current customer of the firm. However, he did not disclose that he was paid to provide the testimonial.

Just guess the percentage of seminars where regulators found no problems or deficiencies, including no pitches with misleading information or fraudulent or inappropriate investments?

Only 4 percent of those examined. That leaves you with pretty poor odds of getting solid, helpful and appropriate investment advice. As I’ve said before, buy your own meal. It’s cheaper.

&Copy; Washington Post Writers Group

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