Bernard Madoff and Allen Stanford might be the poster boys of Ponzi schemers and financial fraudsters, but they're just two examples--albeit high-profile ones--of a growing number of dubious ploys aimed at stealing individuals' money.
According to the Federal Trade Commission, Americans last year submitted more than 1.5 million complaints about financial fraud and other types of scams--a 62% jump from three years ago. A report from the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College (CRR) says these complaints don't capture the full extent of financial fraud because a lot of cases go unreported.
While Madoff and Stanford grabbed headlines with their multi-billion-dollar thefts, Federal Trade Commission statistics show that much of the fraud is a lot more low-key--the median loss per victim was $537 in 2011, up from $218 in 2002. And many perpetrators aren't caught because state and federal regulators don't have enough staff or resources to keep tabs on every registered investment advisor or those posing as one.
Many scammers target senior citizens, a demographic that's projected to grow as baby boomers shift into retirement and likely live longer than previous generations. Research shows that a person's ability to make sound financial decisions diminishes with age, as the CRR report points out.
According to the CRR, economic hard times following the recession have left many people in dire straits and more vulnerable to get-rich-quick schemes. More important, says the report, scammers are increasingly duping people over the Internet through bogus investment schemes. These so-called "phishing" tactics evidently still reel in a lot of gullible investors, and crooks are starting to target users of Facebook and LinkedIn.
The hallmarks of financial fraud include promises of returns that sound too good to be true, requests for steep up-front fees, "free lunch" come-ons to lure potential investors and overly complex investment structures that confuse investors. Financial advisors can play an important role in educating their clients about how to avoid financial scams. And, of course, investors can help their own cause by learning to recognize fraud.