By: Nancy P. Johnson, AARP Bulletin Today, March 1, 2010
Larry Katz was lucky. He only lost $6,000. His mother lost $25,000, a big chunk of her nest egg.
The Katz family fell prey to Michael Boehm, who ran an investment scheme in the South Bend area bilking people of more than $4.5 million before drawing a prison sentence in 2006. Boehm promised Katz a 22 percent return on promissory notes, claiming that he could easily pay investors this exceptional return because he lent money to high-risk borrowers and charged them up to 35 percent a month.
By the time Katz heard that Boehm was hurting financially, he had already withdrawn most of his money for other investments. But Katz didn’t know his mother still had her money invested with Boehm.
“The next thing you know, the guy was arrested,” said the Elkhart businessman.
A longtime banker, Boehm capitalized on his reputation in a variation of a Ponzi scheme, paying investors dividends using the investments of other clients rather than any actual profit.
Boehm was a local version of Bernard Madoff, the financier now behind bars for his massive Ponzi scheme that fleeced investors of $50 billion. According to an Associated Press analysis, 150 Ponzi schemes collapsed across the nation in 2009 compared with 40 a year earlier. The Securities and Exchange Commission has twice as many Ponzi investigations as it did five years ago.
Older people are prime targets for con artists because they have set aside money to finance their retirement, said Sally Hurme, senior project manager in AARP’s education and outreach office.
Unfortunately, the financial crisis and recession have created a rich environment for exploitation because the investment marketplace is so confusing, even to experts. Those who lost a big portion of savings could be sitting ducks for those who promise “a marvelous investment to rapidly increase their nest egg,” Hurme said.
Indiana is taking a tough stance against fraud committed against older people. In July 2009, the Indiana Securities Act raised the felony level for fraud against those age 60 and older from class C to class B, increasing the maximum prison sentence from eight to 20 years.
“Indiana’s seniors have worked hard, and many have the savings to show for it. Fraudsters know this, too, and are targeting them, so it’s important that we reach out to seniors directly to educate and protect them and help them protect themselves,” said Indiana Secretary of State Todd Rokita, a Republican.
Larry Katz has learned his lesson about investments that sound too good to be true. “I was able to survive,” he said. “It didn’t kill me, but I’d love to have that money back … I don’t expect to see any.”
To avoid scams, here are some suggestions from Hurme:
• Make sure the investment promoter and the securities are licensed through the state securities commissioner. Search the Indiana Securities Division database or call 1-800-223-8791 or 317-232-6681.
• Check if the firm or investment adviser is registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission or the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority.
• Stay diversified. Some of Madoff’s clients invested their entire life savings with him and lost everything.
• Stick with investments you can understand and don’t be fooled by fancy brochures. If you can’t explain it to someone else, you should not invest in it.
• Don’t believe everything you hear.