Americans lose an estimated $40 billion to $50 billion a year to investment scams, according to the Financial Fraud Research Center. And, contrary to popular perception, it’s not just the most vulnerable or gullible among us who fall prey.
In fact, a 2011 study by the AARP Foundation reported that investment and business opportunity fraud victims were more likely than the general population to have some college education and to make more than $50,000 per year. The list of Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme victims, to cite one example, included any number of people you might think would know better.
But professional con artists are just that – professionals – and they are very good at what they do, whether it’s penny stock scams, credit repair scams or whatever might be the latest twist. Despite a wealth of information on how to spot and avoid scams here at Investopedia and on the websites of government agencies that deal with the problem every day, many people still find themselves sucked in. What should you do if it happens to you? Here are some tips.
1. Listen to Your Suspicions.
If the person you’ve been dealing with stops returning your calls, that could be a sign that something is amiss. If you aren’t receiving regular account statements or if your statements show unexplained losses or consistent returns despite the ups and downs of the market, those could be signs as well. And if you get the runaround when you try to make withdrawals, your money could be long gone.
2. Report it to the Authorities.
You might be surprised how many scam victims just keep it to themselves, either out of embarrassment or for some other reason. The AARP Foundation study found that a mere 29% of victims contacted authorities. Similarly, a 2013 survey by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) reported that only 45% of victims told anyone. That survey’s respondents gave two main reasons for their reluctance: 53% said they didn’t think it would make any difference, while 43% said they didn’t know where to turn.
Gerri Walsh, president of the FINRA Investor Education Foundation, recommends that victims not only report the crime, but to tell as many agencies as possible. The FINRA Investor Complaint Center, for example, has an online tip form investors can use to report unfair or abusive practices. Other agencies that might be of assistance include the local FBI office, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Corporation, the federal Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force (StopFraud.gov), your state attorney general and your state's securities regulators. You can find contact information for that last group at the website of the North American Securities Administrators Association.
You might also want to consult a private attorney. But beware of any unsolicited offers you receive to help you recover your money. Fraud-recovery con artists swim with scammers like pilot fish with sharks, swooping in to take more bites of what's left of your cash. Be especially wary of any who ask for their fee in advance – a tactic that is illegal in itself, according to the Federal Trade Commission. Where do they get your name? Probably off a sucker list compiled and sold by the very crook who conned you in the first place.
3. Make Careful Notes and Save the Evidence.
“Write down your story contemporaneous with realizing you’ve been scammed,” Walsh says. “Investigations can take a long time, and even if you think you’ll remember, two years from now you might have a fuzzier memory.” Also keep copies of any account statements you received, along with canceled checks, emails and other relevant documents. Canceled checks, for example, could help investigators trace where the money was deposited.
4. Cut Your Losses.
Whatever you do, don’t put any more money into a deal you’ve come to regard with suspicion. You might think you’d never do that, but Walsh says it happens with heartbreaking regularity. Remember, these guys are masters of persuasion.
5. Don’t Blame Yourself.
Even though you may have missed what now seem like obvious red flags, you aren’t the first and, sadly, you won’t be the last. “It’s truly difficult in the moment to know that you’re being scammed,” Walsh says. So don’t be too hard on yourself. Remember: You aren’t the criminal. The criminal is the criminal.
6. Finally, Don’t Expect too Much.
Unfortunately, your odds of getting all your money back are pretty slim. Most experts say you’ll be lucky to receive even pennies on the dollar. Still, you might get something back, whereas if you don’t report it at all, you’re sure to get nothing.
You might also be eligible for a tax deduction, as with other types of thefts. IRS Publication 547, “Casualties, Disasters, and Thefts” explains what to do. Note that some special tax rules, enacted in the aftermath of the Madoff scandal, now apply to the victims of Ponzi schemes.
The Bottom Line
Of course, the best way to deal with investment scams is to avoid them in the first place. But if you’re ensnared by one, by all means report it, both for your own good and for that of others. If nothing else, you might have the satisfaction of helping put a scam artist out of business for a while.