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Don’t Be Fooled By These 3 Money Scams

It’s surprisingly easy to fall prey to a financial con, and not just because we want to believe that we, too, can get rich quick.

Even if you’re making sincere efforts to save and invest for your future, it can be hard to get ahead financially. Making that task even harder is that many of us occasionally fall for scams that can rob us not only of money but also of time and energy.

Here, then, is a review of three money scams that you might run across, with tips for spotting them and avoiding them and other financial scams.

Image source: Getty Images.

The penny-stock pump and dump

Penny stocks ensnare many investors — especially newer and less sophisticated ones. That’s because if you don’t understand some investing basics, they can seem like wonderful opportunities.

A penny stock is one that’s trading for less than about $5 per share. Such low prices can make it seem like the stock is a bargain — to those who don’t understand that a stock’s price alone means little. A $1 stock can still plunge and become a $0.25 one. And a $200 stock can always grow into a $400 one.

Penny stocks are usually tied to unproven, volatile companies, often with little to no earnings. And while the companies themselves may be entirely legitimate — albeit young or small — their stock prices are easily manipulated by scammers because they have relatively small market caps, and don’t usually trade heavily.

The classic pump-and-dump maneuver is an unfortunately great example: First, the ambitious con artists buy lots of shares of a penny stock, then starts hyping the company in newsletters, online, in day trader chat rooms, and elsewhere. They’ll present a compelling story, claiming that the company is on the verge of curing cancer, proving a new oil field, or exploiting some other figurative gold mine.

Naive investors will get excited, start buying shares, and push the price higher. The rising prices will often excite further investors to buy in too, adding more hot air to the bubble. The scammers will then quickly sell their shares at the inflated prices and reap the profits. Afterward, they turn off the hype machine, (and the company may publicly debunk the rumors) share prices fall back to their natural levels, and those who took the bait get stuck with the losses.

You can avoid penny stock heartaches simply by steering clear of companies with very low share prices — no matter how much you might love to own, say, 5,000 shares of a company for only $500. Also, beware of compelling stories that seem too good to be true. If the stock is really so great, those in the know would be buying all the shares they could, not telling others to do so.

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Ponzi schemes

There may be fewer Ponzi schemes out there than penny stock cons, but it’s valuable to be able to spot their characteristics — because there are some criminals out there using the model. The most famous one — they tend only to become famous after their frauds unravel — is now-jailed Bernie Madoff.

Ponzi schemes claim to offer high and consistent returns via “secret” investing strategies or other vague but profitable-sounding techniques — but in fact, they are cooking the books, and using the money from new investors to create illusory “profits” for the earlier ones. The investors’ assets aren’t growing, of course. There’s no savvy money management nor clever investing tactics — just schemers moving funds around behind the curtain, and siphoning off large amounts of it for themselves. But at some point, investors in need of their funds will invariably attempt to cash out more than the fraudsters have left in the tank, and if the new money has dried up, the whole thing will implode as con artists have to admit they can’t pay their investors what they’ve been promised.

Per the Securities and Exchange Commission, here are some signs of a Ponzi scheme. (These red flags apply to many other kinds of scams, too.)

  • Low risk, high returns: If you’re presented with any investment opportunity that’s described as offering very low risk and very high returns — or, worse, an opportunity that’s “guaranteed” to deliver high returns, beware. In general, high potential returns are linked to high risk. Lottery tickets, for example, feature a high possible reward, but a much higher risk of losing all the money you spend on them, while government bonds offer a relatively low rewards, but little risk.
  • Unregistered investments: Any time you plan to park your hard-earned dollars in an investment, make sure that it’s registered with the SEC or state regulators. As the SEC explains, “Registration is important because it provides investors with access to information about the company’s management, products, services, and finances.” Look into the registration status of any unusual investment opportunity you’re offered — do not just take the seller’s word for it.
  • Unlicensed sellers: Federal and state laws require people and companies selling investments to be registered or licensed. Ask about the status of anyone you’re dealing with, and then verify it.
  • Complex and secret strategies: How will your friendly fraudsters deliver those massive returns they promise? Naturally, it’s because they’ve found a secret formula. It’s complicated. They could show you the math, but it’s proprietary and you wouldn’t understand it anyway. Just. trust them. (Well, they can’t just come out and tell you that they’re scamming you, right?) If you don’t understand an investment, stay away from it.
  • Paperwork problems: Solid investment companies have solid reporting systems, regularly sending accurate and statements to investors that are relatively easy to understand. If you’re not getting statements on time, or if you’re spotting errors or confusing things in them, that’s not professional or reassuring. Take a closer look, and ask questions.
  • Difficulty receiving payments: If you experience any resistance when trying to withdraw money, or you’re don’t receive promised payments on time, that’s a huge red flag. If, when trying to withdraw money, you’re offered even better returns to stay invested, that’s another warning sign.
  • Unnaturally consistent returns: Ponzi schemes and other scams often feature very consistent returns — but that deserves your skepticism, not admiration. Yes, over long periods the stock market has always tended to go up, but from week to week and year to year, its results are lumpy, and even the most clever hedging strategy can’t turn those lumps perfectly smooth. The table below lists the S&P 500’s returns over the past 18 years, clearly showing why any investment tied to the stock market is likely to feature varying returns, not consistent ones.

How to Spot an Investment Scam in 6 Steps

Financial fraudsters use sophisticated and effective tactics to get people to part with their money. Here are six steps you can take to help you spot an investment scam.

SCAM WATCH

Investment schemes involve getting you or your business to part with money on the promise of a questionable financial opportunity.

Common types of investment scams

Investment cold calls

A scammer claiming to be a stock broker or portfolio manager calls you and offers financial or investments advice. They will claim what they are offering is low-risk and will provide you with quick and high returns, or encourage you to invest in overseas companies. The scammer’s offer will sound legitimate and they may have resources to back up their claims. They will be persistent, and may keep calling you back.

The scammer may claim that they do not need an Australian Financial Services licence, or that that they are approved by a real government regulator or affiliated with a genuine company.

The investments offered in these type of cold calls are usually share, mortgage, or real estate high-return schemes, options trading or foreign currency trading. The scammer is operating from overseas, and will not have an Australian Financial Services licence.

Share promotions and hot tips

The scammer encourages you to buy shares in a company that they predict is about to increase in value. You may be contacted by email or the message will be posted in a forum. The message will seem like an inside tip and stress that you need to act quickly. The scammer is trying to boost the price of stock so they can sell shares they have already bought, and make a huge profit. The share value will then go down dramatically.

If you invest you will be left with large losses or shares that are virtually worthless.

Investment seminars

Investment seminars are promoted by promising motivational speakers, investment experts, or self-made millionaires who will give you expert advice on investing. They are designed to convince you into following high risk investment strategies such as borrowing large sums of money to buy property, or investments that involve lending money on a no security basis or other risky terms.

Promoters make money by charging you an attendance fee, selling overpriced reports or books, and by selling investments and property without letting you get independent advice. The investments on offer are generally overvalued and you may end up having to pay fees and commissions that the promoters did not tell you about. High pressure sales tactics or false and misleading claims are often used to pressure you into investing, such as guaranteed rent or discounts for buying off the plan.

If you invest there is a high chance you will lose money.

Visit ASIC’s MoneySmart for more information about investment seminar scams.

Superannuation

Superannuation scams offer to give you early access to your super fund, often through a self-managed super fund or for a fee. The offer may come from a financial adviser, or a scammer posing as one. The scammer may ask you to agree to a story to ensure the early release of your money and then, acting as your financial adviser, they will deceive your superannuation company into paying out your super benefits directly to them. Once they have your money, the scammer may take large ‘fees’ out of the released fund or leave you with nothing at all.

You cannot legally access the preserved part of your super until you are between 55 and 60, depending what year you were born. There are certain exceptions such as severe financial hardship or compassionate grounds – but anyone who otherwise offers early access to your super is acting illegally.

Visit ASIC’s MoneySmart for more information about how super works.

Warning signs

  • You receive a call, or repeated calls, from someone offering unsolicited advice on investments. They may try to keep you on the phone for a long time, or try and transfer you to a more senior person. You are told that you need to act quickly and invest or you will miss out.
  • You receive an email from a stranger offering advice on the share price of a particular company. It may not be addressed to you personally, and may even give the impression it was sent to you by mistake.
  • An advertisement or seminar makes claims such as ‘risk-free investment’, ‘be a millionaire in three years’, or ‘get-rich quick’.
  • You are invited to attend a free seminar, but there are high fees to attend any further sessions. The scammer, posing as the promoter, may offer you a loan to cover both the cost of your attendance at the additional seminars and investments.
  • You see an advertisement promising a quick and easy way to ‘unlock’ your superannuation early.

Protect yourself

  • Do not give your details to an unsolicited caller or reply to emails offering financial advice or investment opportunities – just hang up or delete the email.
  • Be suspicious of investment opportunities that promise a high return with little or no risk.
  • Check if a financial advisor is registered via the ASIC website. Any business or person that offers or advises you about financial products must be an Australian Financial Services (AFS) licence holder.
  • Check ASIC’s list of companies you should not deal with. If the company that called you is on the list – do not deal with them.
  • Do not let anyone pressure you into making decisions about your money or investments and never commit to any investment at a seminar – always get independent legal or financial advice.
  • Do not respond to emails from strangers offering predictions on shares, investment tips, or investment advice.
  • If you feel an offer to buy shares might be legitimate, always check the company’s listing on the stock exchange for its current value and recent shares performance. Some offers to buy your shares may be well below market value.
  • Never commit to any investment at a seminar – always take time to consider the opportunity and seek independent financial advice.
  • If you are under 55, watch out for offers promoting easy access to your preserved superannuation benefits. If you illegally access your super early, you may face penalties under taxation law.

Have you been scammed?

If you think you have provided your account details to a scammer, contact your bank or financial institution immediately.

We encourage you to report scams to the ACCC via the report a scam page. This helps us to warn people about current scams, monitor trends and disrupt scams where possible. Please include details of the scam contact you received, for example, email or screenshot.

Scams that relate to financial services can also be reported to ASIC.

Spread the word to your friends and family to protect them.

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