The following concepts and excerpts are from the list of the Top 10 financial products and practices that threaten to trap unwary investors that was compiled by the securities regulators in the North American Securities Administrators Association’s Enforcement Section.

New Threats

Crowdfunding and Internet Offers. Many states and provinces report a recent increase in active investigations or recent enforcement actions involving crowdfunding and Internet fraud.  Investors must remember that small startups are among the riskiest of investment categories under the best of situations.

Inappropriate Advice or Practices from Investment Advisers. The Bernie Madoff case opened a number of eyes and ears to the problems that could exist undetected in an investment advisory firm. Investment advisers are licensed to give specific investment advice and owe their clients a fiduciary duty, unlike brokers that may merely effect suitable securities transactions for their clients.

Scam Artists Using Self-Directed IRAs to Mask Fraud. Scam artists, forever on the lookout for new ways to entice investors, are using self-directed IRAs to increase the appeal of their fraudulent schemes. State securities regulators have investigated numerous cases where a self-directed IRA was used in an attempt to lend credibility to a bogus venture. Fraud promoters pushing a Ponzi scheme or other investment fraud can misrepresent the responsibilities of self-directed IRA custodians to deceive investors into believing that their investments are legitimate or protected against losses. While a scam artist may suggest that self-directed IRA custodians analyze and validate investments, those custodians only hold the assets in a self-directed IRA and generally do not evaluate the quality or legitimacy of any investment.

Fraudsters also exploit the tax-deferred characteristics of self-directed IRAs, and know that the financial penalty for early withdrawal may cause investors to be more passive or to keep funds in a fraudulent scheme longer than those who invest through other means. Self-directed IRAs also allow investors to hold alternative investments such as real estate, mortgages, tax liens, precious metals, and private placement securities; financial and other information necessary to make a prudent investment decision may not be as readily available for these alternative investments. While self-directed IRAs can be a legitimate way to hold retirement assets, investors should be mindful of potential fraudulent schemes when considering investments for their self-directed IRA. Custodians and trustees of self-directed IRAs may have limited duties to investors, and generally will not evaluate the quality or legitimacy of an investment or its promoters.

EB-5 Investment-for-Visa Schemes. The Immigrant Investor Program, also known as EB-5, is an immigration program linked to job-creation that is growing in popularity, but investors must beware of promoters who falsely claim that an investment in their venture is safer or guaranteed due to an influx of foreign cash. Unscrupulous promoters may seek to prop up the plausibility of their scheme by highlighting a connection with a federal jobs program. Similarly, investors may be intrigued by the prospect of big funding from investors in China or other foreign countries with traditional or growing economic power. In a recent case, the developer of a failed artificial sweetener factory planned for a small Missouri town sought Chinese investors through the EB-5 program, and made that a key component in pitching and then selling the underlying government bonds issued for the project. While the existence of Chinese funding may have seemed promising to the city issuing the bonds and the investors who bought them, the developer defaulted on the first bond payment, leaving the city and investors out millions of dollars. Investors considering any enterprise with an EB-5 or IIP feature should make sure to obtain full information on every component of the venture, including all funding sources and the background of all promoters.

Persistent Threats

Gold and Precious Metals. The hype surrounding gold, silver and other precious metals continues despite both the fact that these investments are just as vulnerable to risk as others, and signs that some precious metal markets are declining or increasingly turbulent. The promise of continuing increases in value pitched by high-profile celebrities on television, radio or the Internet too often lure unsuspecting investors into any number of scams. Often, scams begin with an unsolicited communication such as an email or telephone call offering to sell investors gold coins, bullion, bars or other forms of the precious metal that the promoter will hold in safekeeping for the investor. Far too often, the gold simply does not exist.

Risky Oil and Gas Drilling Programs. Investors considering alternatives to traditional securities may be attracted to the lucrative returns often associated with investments in oil and gas drilling programs. These investments also may appeal to those who are frustrated with the volatility of the stock market or skeptical of the culture of Wall Street. Unfortunately, energy investments often prove to be a poor substitute for traditional retirement planning. Investments in oil and gas drilling programs typically involve a high degree of risk and are suitable only for investors who can bear the loss of the entirety of their principal. Moreover, some promoters will conceal these risks, using high pressure sales tactics and deceptive marketing practices to peddle worthless investments in oil wells to the investing public.In a recent survey of the states, oil and gas fraud was ranked as the fourth most common product or practice leading to investigations and enforcement actions.

Promissory Notes. Promissory notes are often promoted as a safe and secure way for investors to earn returns in excess of those prevailing on conventional investments. Promoters flaunt high returns from private loan agreements, interim short term financing or startup capital opportunities. Investors must be wary of promises of security and liquidity in these promissory notes, which are very often false or overstated. Investments of this nature are highly speculative and the risk of total loss of the funds invested is high. But issuers often use notes and prior relationships with investors to downplay the true nature and risk of these investments. Sales of promissory notes are very often the favored investment vehicle for Ponzi schemes. In a recent survey, 20 states identified promissory notes as one of the top five most common products or features in fraudulent schemes, and notes are a commonly reported violation to Canadian regulators. Promissory notes, for the most part, are securities and are subject to state and provincial regulation. As with all investment opportunities, investors are encouraged to do their due diligence, ask questions and check with state or provincial regulators.

Real Estate Investment Schemes. As news of a possible bottom being reached in the U.S. housing market has spread, the popularity of investment offerings involving distressed real estate has continued to increase. While legitimate real estate investments can be an important component of a diversified portfolio, investors should be aware that schemes related to buying, renovating, flipping or pooling distressed properties also are popular with con artists. In a recent survey of the states, real estate fraud was ranked as the third most common product or practice leading to investigations and enforcement actions.

Even with legitimate real estate investments, there are substantial risks with properties that are bank-owned, pending short-sale, or in foreclosure. And the field is littered with non-legitimate scam artists intent on fleecing middle-class investors. In October 2011, Utah regulators took action against a man that solicited $4 million from investors to purchase and refurbish properties and provide a “diversified portfolio” of hard-money loans. Investors were given personal guarantees and promised minimum returns of 18 percent per year in an investment with risk that was “literally zero,” but in reality, the funds were directed to a single, highly leveraged development project that went bust. As with all investments, careful vetting and due diligence is a must with real estate investments.

Regulation D Rule 506 Private Offerings. In the most recent survey of state securities regulators, fraudulent private placement offerings were ranked as the most common product or scheme leading to investigations and enforcement actions. These offerings also are commonly referred to as Regulation D Rule 506 offerings (the exemption in federal securities laws that allows private placements to be sold to investors without registration). By definition these are limited investment offerings that are highly illiquid, generally lack transparency and have little regulatory oversight.

Unlicensed Salesmen Giving Liquidation Recommendations. As in years past, the liquidation of securities by insurance-licensed firms or agents who are not registered to sell securities is a significant source of complaints and inquiries for the states. With losses in their retirement funds due to market fluctuations, senior investors are often enticed to shift their investments from traditional securities to annuities sold with the promise of guaranteed income and a mechanism for easy transfer of the value of the annuity to beneficiaries upon death. While annuities may be appropriate retirement products for some, they are not suitable for all investors and the liquidation of securities holdings is not always the best approach to funding an annuity purchase.

Insurance agents who are not also licensed securities professionals do not have the training and have not demonstrated the expertise necessary to determine the suitability of liquidating securities products to fund the purchase of an insurance product. A specific license is required before anyone can recommend the purchase or sale of securities. Being licensed as an insurance agent is not a substitute for a securities license. Investors should demand to see proof that a salesperson is licensed to make a recommendation to sell securities before agreeing to any transaction involving securities.