The Securities and Exchange Commission’s (SEC) Office of Investor Education and Advocacy on Wednesday issued an Investor Alert to help educate investors about affinity fraud, a type of investment scam that the agency is seeing more of that preys upon members of identifiable groups, such as religious or ethnic communities or the elderly.
As the SEC explains, affinity fraud almost always involves either a fake investment or an investment where the fraudster lies about important details (such as the risk of loss, the track record of the investment, or the background of the promoter of the scheme). "Many affinity frauds are Ponzi or pyramid schemes, where money given to the promoter by new investors is paid to earlier investors to create the illusion that the so-called investment is successful," the SEC says.
Fraudsters who carry out affinity scams frequently are (or pretend to be) members of the group they are trying to defraud. “Fraudsters target any group they think they can convince to trust them with the group members’ hard-earned savings,” the SEC says.
For instance, a recent SEC action was against a Ponzi scheme promoter who sold promissory notes bearing purported annual interest rates of 12% to 20%, telling primarily African-American investors that the funds would be used to purchase and support small businesses such as a laundry, juice bar, or gas station. The promoter, the SEC says, also sold “sweepstakes machines” that he claimed would generate investor returns of as much as 300% or more in the first year.
At its core, the SEC says, “affinity fraud exploits the trust and friendship that exist in groups of people who have something in common.” And “because of the tight-knit structure of many groups, it can be difficult for regulators or law enforcement officials to detect an affinity scam.” Victims often fail to notify authorities or pursue legal remedies. Instead, they try to work things out within the group. This is particularly true where the fraudsters have used respected community or religious leaders to convince others to join the investment.
The SEC recommended five tips to help investors avoid affinity fraud:
- Even if you know the person making the investment offer, be sure to research the person’s background, as well as the investment itself – no matter how trustworthy the person who brings the investment opportunity to your attention seems to be. Be aware that the person telling you about the investment may have been fooled into believing that the investment is legitimate when it is not.
- Never make an investment based solely on the recommendation of a member of an organization or group to which you belong. This is especially true if the recommendation is made online. An investment pitch made through an online group of which you are a member, or on a chat room or bulletin board catered to an interest you have, may be a fraud.
- Do not fall for investments that promise spectacular profits or “guaranteed” returns. Similarly, be extremely leery of any investment that is said to have no risks. Very few investments are risk-free. Promises of quick and high profits, with little or no risk, are classic warning signs of fraud.
- Be skeptical of any investment opportunity that you can’t get put in writing. Fraudsters often avoid putting things in writing. Avoid an investment if you are told they do “not have the time to put in writing” the particulars about the investment. You should also be suspicious if you are told to keep the investment opportunity confidential or a secret.
- Don’t be pressured or rushed into buying an investment before you have a chance to research the “opportunity.” Just because someone you know made money, or claims to have made money, doesn’t mean you will, too. Be especially skeptical of investments that are pitched as “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunities, particularly when the salesperson bases the recommendation on “inside” or confidential information.