NEW YORK (CNNfn) - "Mary Smith," a retiree in Wichita Falls, Texas, was scammed out of her entire $100,000 savings after entrusting her account to a financial adviser she met through a friend.|
Mary's jaw dropped when she found out the planner skipped town with her retirement savings, along with several other clients' money, leaving only a bogus address and a dead phone line.
"I feel like I've been robbed," said Mary, 73, who didn't want her real name used. "I feel like, hey, you're the dumbest person in the world. I feel like there's a knot in my throat that I lost that much money."
Mary and at least a dozen other investors were lured into a pyramid scheme by a smooth-talking professional who used their savings to pay other investors. FBI officials eventually caught him and several accomplices, charging them with securities fraud.
Fraud on the rise
But Mary isn't the only investor whose lifelong savings went out the window at the hands of a con artist.
In the last three years, consumer complaints have led officials to uncover $90 million in fraud in the financial planning industry, according to a report by North American Securities Administrators Association (NASAA) and Council of Better Business Bureaus (BBB).
And in a high-profile case that hit headlines this month, Dana Giacchetto, the financial adviser to several Hollywood stars, was charged with fraud and lying to the Securities and Exchange Commission after allegedly misusing $6 million of his clients' money. If convicted, he faces up to 10 years in prison and fines that could reach in the millions.
So whether you're 25 or 85, you're a potential target of con artists calling themselves financial planners. They use phony real estate partnerships, bogus money market accounts, and Ponzi -- or pyramid -- schemes to strip investors of their hard-earned savings.
Should you go with the CFP?
Unfortunately, financial advisers aren't regulated like lawyers and accountants.
"The guy who brought you a pizza last night can be a financial planner today and be breaking no laws," said Noel Maye of the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards.
So how do you find a reputable financial adviser who won't rip you off?
For starters, you should know that certified financial planners who carry the CFP after their name are licensed by the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards and are members of the Financial Planning Association. They must pass a 10-hour exam, have at least three years experience as a planner or assistant to an adviser, agree to work under a code of ethics, and pay an annual $150 licensing fee, according to Maye.
Of course, there are bad apples in any profession, but it's less likely that someone who takes the time to obtain a CFP license and pay the fees is going to swindle you, said Marsha Bertrand, author of "How To Protect Yourself From Schemes, Scams, and Swindles."
As you're sitting in your new financial planner's office, everything seems normal: the cheesy wood paneling, photos of the wife and kids on his desk, and investing textbooks lining the bookcase.
But when he begins to promise you annual returns of 40 percent and to "Act Now!" and not delay, your palms should get sweaty.
Bertrand says fraudulent advisers often urge clients to whip out their checkbooks after promising them astronomical returns. The truth is, any investment with high profit carries high risk too. If it's too good to be true, then it probably isn't true, she said.
Other red flags to be aware of include:
- A promise of a "ground floor opportunity" to get the returns of a lifetime.
- Guarantees of a big profit in a short time.
- Claims that no risk is involved.
- Lots of pressure to act now because the "market is moving."
If you're in doubt, don't invest.
DeeAnn Martin, vice president of the Better Business Bureau Education Foundation for North Central Texas, says you should be especially guarded when purchasing a living trust.
"Without going through your lawyer, you're giving (con artists) access to everything you own," Martin said. "They use it as a tool to know everything about your finances."
The bottom line is that you have to do your homework, too.
"No one should ever go to a planner, open an account and say, 'Here's my money. You take care of it,'" Bertrand said.
Victims of all ages
"Old people like me think they know what they're doing," said Mary, the Wichita Falls, Texas, investor. "But these guys were smooth talking."
Although a senior, Mary was duped in a scheme that preys on investors of all ages. The unfortunate thing is that she probably won't recoup all of her losses.
But there are steps you can take once you've been wronged.
Act promptly. According to the SEC, you have only a limited time to take legal action.
Send a letter to NASD Regulation, Inc., which regulates most securities firms and brokers. You can also call NASD at 800-289-9999 to file a complaint.
Click here to learn how the SEC handles your complaint.
As for Mary, she lost her life savings and has to rely on Social Security and her deceased husband's pension for her retirement income.
"It just makes me feel that I have to live on my little ol' income that I have now," she said. "I was always able to buy what I wanted, but I have to watch my pennies now."
-- Click here to send comments about this story to Staff Writer Jennifer Karchmer.