But scammers have gotten more crafty, are possibly larger in number, are becoming even harder to pin down, see aging Baby Boomers as potential new prey, and given the economic meltdown, may be more desperate than ever to part you from your money, experts say.   

Financial fraud -- which can range from Ponzi schemes to online phishing scams to work-at-home schemes -- swindles Americans out of billions of dollars each year, according to the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority.

Because of the enormity of the problem, Stanford University's Center on Longevity and the Finra Investor Education Foundation have teamed up to launch the Research Center on the Prevention of Financial Fraud, an interdisciplinary resource for law enforcement, government and research groups studying financial fraud.

The goal of the partnership, say officials, is developing a nationwide strategy to identify and prevent fraud.

"We really needed to think more broadly," said Dr. Laura Carstensen, a Stanford public policy and psychology professor and founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity.

"It's not just about, 'let's just do a couple of projects,' but how can we really begin to activate a national effort to understand fraud and, particularly, what might be done to prevent it," Carstensen said.

"The idea behind this is to get academics together with practitioners to test and measure the best way to prevent this," said Doug Schadel, director of the Washington State AARP, "and then to channel that work in this domain to use those best practices."

Getting an accurate picture on the actual amount of financial fraud nationwide annually isn't easy, say experts, given the stigma attached to being financially fleeced.

"The number is not knowable. The reason: People will not always want to tell you," says Schadel, who in 2004 teamed up with Finra to identify financial fraud perpetrators.

Schadel said Finra once interviewed an estimated 723 people who had lost money to scams. But when questioned, only 40 percent of those people admitted that they had been taken.

Carstensen calls financial fraud "a serious economic and social problem for people of all ages and our rapidly aging population places an increasing number of older adults at risk for fraud."

"In some ways, it might be good news that there's more attention being given to it," Carstensen said. "So far, we don't really know; there aren't really good estimates of the prevalence of financial fraud. We also don't really know whether older people are more susceptible to it than other age groups."

Carstensen cited a Securities and Exchange Commission study where SEC staff called people from a documented fraud victims list. "They were asked the question, 'Have you ever been victimized?' A large percentage of those people said 'no.' I guess there is a certain amount of denial in being victimized.''

In some cases, the perpetrator is a close friend or even a member in their own family, Carstensen said.

"Some of the most heartbreaking cases are children stealing the house from underneath their folks," she added.

Carstensen says one area that needs investigation is how the financial industry reviews advisors.

"How do you triangulate these trust relationships between client investor, a financial advisor and the industry?" Carstensen said. "How do you have oversight of advisors and family members and friends who may also perpetrate fraud?"

One major assumption dispelled by Finra's first research study is that the less financially literate are easier prey. Schadel said the survey found that those scammed were more financially literate than the general population.

"While they may be more financially literate, they are less what we call 'persuasion literate,''' Schadel said. "When it comes to spotting pitch lines and so forth, they're not so savvy. They just seem to be more open and vulnerable to the sales pitch process."

Fraud, like the economy, is cyclical, says Schadel. When the economy is in a recession, fraud increases; and when everything is booming, fraud goes down.

"People see their 401(K) balances plummeting from the stock market fluctuation, and it just causes them to want to make more risks,'' Schadel said.

Schadel said in talking to hundreds of con men over the years, one common thread among them, he said, is they all attempt to get the investor "under the ether."

"It's to get them into a heightened emotional state -- work them up in an emotional frenzy," Schadel said. "Once you are in the ether, you don't make judgments as rational as you did before."

Scammers, says Schadel, would much rather try their con on a man than a woman. "Our research has found out that more of the victims -- about 60 percent -- are more likely men," he said.

But why?

"The general comment from among the con men is that with men, you can manipulate their ego more; that the guys that they are calling tend to have done this before, so they're willing to pull the trigger faster," Schadel said. "They see it as a sign of weakness to do due diligence."

From his experience, Schadel said, financial investors who concoct scams typically are one who themselves find themselves in dire financial straits and are prompted to do so.

"It's not to say that registered financial advisors don't do this," Schadel said. "But the ones who do were themselves in some kind of a financial crisis, so they are selling investments that aren't registered, selling them without telling the company they work for."

"This is more likely to happen when you are in a financial recession," Schadel said. "And those brokers themselves are encountering financial difficulties, start throwing caution to the wind and start exploiting relationships that were perfectly fine for 20 years."

"Greed is a factor, for sure," Schadel said. "But right now, it's also motivated by hardship in some ways."

- Jim McConville