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'Free Meal' Seminars Work: Researchers

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Academic researchers who dislike free meal seminars have published a new bit of evidence illustrating the power of free meal seminars.

They found that about 2.7% of U.S. residents ages 50 and older reporting having made some kind of investment after attending a “free meal seminar” in the past five years.

The researchers’ came up with that figure by using a survey question that defines “investment” as “some sort of investment, including, but not limited to, a vacation timeshare or an annuity product.”

(Related: ‘Leave Your Checkbook at Home’: New Seminar Alert Update)

Marguerite DeLiema, a researcher at the Stanford Center on Longevity, and three colleague have published the meal seminar impact data in a new working paper. A working paper is a research paper that has not yet gone through a complete peer review process.

A copy of the paper is available here, behind a paywall, on the website of the National Bureau of Economic Research.

The Context

DeLiema and her colleagues included data on the effects of free meal seminars in a look at financial fraud among older Americans. To conduct their research, they developed an “experimental module,” or extra list of survey questions, for the team at the University of Michigan that conducts the Health and Retirement Study (HRS) survey.

The HRS program is a major U.S. academic survey program. The HRS team interviews about 20,000 people every two years.

The HRS team used the DeLiema question list in interviews with 1,268 survey participants in 2016.

The Experimental Module

The experimental module that DeLiema’s team developed includes 27 questions related to “financial mismanagement at older ages.”

Some of the questions are supposed to assess a survey participant’s basic mathematical literacy.

In one of the questions, for example, the survey team asks, “Suppose you had $100 in a savings account and the interest rate was 2% per year. After 5 years, how much do you think you would have in the account if you left the money to grow — more than $102, exactly $102, or less than $102?”

The possible answers are “More than $102,” “Exactly $102,” ‘Less than $102,” “Don’t know,” and “Refuse to answer.”

Other questions rate how much participants are interested in various types of sales propositions, such as “Are you worried about running out of money during your retirement?” and “There is no way to lose on this investment; it is fully guaranteed.”

Data Analysis

DeLiema and her colleagues assumed, when they compiled the data, that all investments made in response to sales strategies they classify as objectionable involved possible cases of fraud.

They assumed, for example, that any investment a survey participant made after a free meal seminar or after a telephone call from an unknown person involved fraud.

They also assumed that any participant investment in penny stocks or in oil or gas exploration involved fraud, and that any payments a participant made to collect lottery winnings or other prizes involved fraud.

The researchers found that 2.7% of the participants reported having made an investment after a free meal seminar in the past five years.

Roughly 0.9% said they had made an investment based on an investment from an unknown person during that five-year period.

About 4.3% said they had paid money to collect prizes.

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