2017 Top Investor Threats
~ By Gerald Rome, Colorado Securities Commissioner ~
Every year securities regulators across the country take stock of the frauds and scams that are most prevalent among our cases. This helps us do our job more effectively, but it’s a good practice for investors to read up on the biggest threats in the market as well. It’s best to learn before you get burned.
In that spirit, here’s a review of some of the top investor threats of 2017:
PROMISSORY NOTES: A promissory note is a written promise to pay (or repay) a specified sum of money at a stated time in the future or upon demand. Companies may sell promissory notes to raise capital, and usually offer them only to sophisticated or institutional investors. But not all promissory notes are sold in this way. Promissory notes from legitimate issuers can provide reasonable investment returns at an acceptable level of risk, although state securities regulators have identified an unfortunately high number of promissory note frauds. Investors should be cautious about promissory notes with durations of nine months or less, as these notes generally do not require federal or state securities registration. Such short-term notes have been the source of most (though not all) of the fraudulent activity involving promissory notes identified by securities regulators.
REAL ESTATE INVESTMENTS: The promise of earning quick money through investments related to real estate continues to lure investors. Investors should be cautious about real estate investment seminars, especially those marketed aggressively as an alternative to more traditional retirement planning strategies involving stocks, bonds and mutual funds. Two of the most popular current investment pitches at these seminars involve so-called “hard-money lending” and “property flipping.” Hard-money lending is a term used to refer to real estate investments financed through means other than traditional bank borrowing. Investors may be tempted by the opportunity to earn greater rates of return by participating on a hard-money loan and may (or may not) appreciate the potential risks. Property flipping is the practice of purchasing distressed real estate, refurbishing it, and then immediately re-selling it in hopes of earning a profit. Property flipping financed through borrowed funds or outside investments can be done entirely lawfully, but it can also be a source for fraud. A scammer may, for example, defraud potential investors in the flip by misrepresenting the value of the underlying property or its profit potential.
VARIABLE ANNUITY SALES PRACTICES: Variable annuities are hybrid investments containing both securities and insurance features. While these products are entirely legitimate, they are not suitable for all investors and state securities regulators are concerned about the risks of sales practice abuses. Senior investors, in particular, should beware of the high surrender fees and steep sales commissions agents often earn when they move investors into variable annuities. Commissions to those who sell variable annuities are very high, which provides incentive for sellers to engage in inappropriate sales. Investors should be especially wary of any broker who wants to sell a variable annuity to hold inside a qualified retirement plan, such as a 401(k) plan or Individual Retirement Account (IRA), as these types of retirement account will already benefit from tax deferment. Putting a variable annuity into a qualified retirement plan adds a layer of expense and investment restriction without any additional tax benefit.
The Division of Securities offers a wealth of free investor education materials and can help investors research the background of those selling or advising the purchase of an investment. Call us at (303) 894-2320 or visit www.askdora.colorado.gov.