A news item that surfaced last week was particularly interesting and personal for me. Several years ago, my wife and I invested in a project called “Sanctuary Belize,” and, like many of the investors, we were incredibly excited about the prospect of retiring in paradise.
After a time, things just weren’t adding up, which prompted my column, “Tarnished Dreams.” The company supposedly put controls in place to reverse course, but we exited the project. I wrote “Renewed Hope,” with a focus on the improvements and controls that were promised. However, as it turned out, they either were not put in place or failed.
A Slew of Scams
The U.S. Federal Trade Commission last week announced that it had shut the thing down and highlighted it as one of the largest scams in its history, with damages estimated to exceed $100 million. There appears to be little chance that those who stayed with the project will recover much of their investment.
The Securities and Exchange Commission recently has pointed out problems with companies ranging from Snap to Tesla (Musk seems to be balancing between financial genius and scam artist at the moment).
Last week, I wrote about Dan Lyons’ new book Lab Rats. While focused mostly on employee abuse at scale, it also covers the scam represented by many unicorn companies, which typically carry valuations of $1 billion or more, unsupported by profit or revenue.
And then there was the whopping $6 billion gold scam that set the entire gold industry on its ear.
The Belize thing was a huge learning experience for me. As an analyst, an ex-auditor, and an ex-cop, I once held the false belief that I was immune to scams. One of the things that makes many scams work is that they make you part of the effort to fool yourself. A huge problem is that the folks who get caught up in the scam will attack people who catch on to it almost as if they were religious heretics (which, in a way, we are).
Rather than covering the details of each scam, I’ll suggest ways to avoid falling for one because there are folks trying to trick us out of our money daily. Check out the seven most common scams attacking older folks at the moment. I’ve gotten calls from folks trying all of them on me, except for the roofing scam, and the approaches are getting ever more sophisticated.
I’m not sure if losing money or the embarrassment of falling for one of these scams is worse. I’ll offer my thoughts on how to keep safe and close with my product of the week: the one thing I’m most looking forward to getting this month.
10 Rules to Avoid Losing Your Retirement
- One thing you really have to get, no matter how smart you think you are, is that anyone can get scammed. It doesn’t matter if you are a kid, grandparent, CEO, cop, or even an ex-auditor. If the scam is packaged well enough, you’ll fall for it.
I recall that Steve Jobs tricked some very smart people into investing in NeXt, using VHS videos showing scripted demos of a product that didn’t exist. He tricked Carly Fiorina into exiting the iPod market before HP had even entered it. That guy could sell nonfunctional refrigerators to Eskimos.
Once you realize that anyone can be scammed, you’ll have a tendency to look at things more skeptically.
- This is an old saying but still valid: If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.
The easy ones to spot are the lotteries you won without ever entering or the widow you’ve never met who’s dying of cancer and wants your help to distribute her millions or billions. My father-in-law fell for the former and likely died believing he was still going to get the Cadillac and cash he “won” in the Canadian lottery he never entered.
- Break the script. Scams tend to be scripted. Like most magic tricks, they restrict your view to what the scam artist wants you to see. We figured out the Belize problem by going to the resort unannounced and outside of a regular tour. If someone had broken the flow of the NeXt demo, the script and fraud would have become obvious.
- Avoid investments in areas you know nothing about. That is because the scam artist then can become the “expert” you rely on, and you don’t even know what questions you should be asking.
However, knowing about a topic doesn’t necessarily mean you are an expert in it. I once was tricked into buying a motorcycle because it never occurred to me the guy would lie about its age. (I won in court, but the judge clearly thought, and I tend to agree, that I was an idiot.) In that instance, I knew enough to rebuild the bike — but I got caught up on what a great deal it was, and I was so pressured for time that I didn’t reflect on the changes made to the line since I’d last owned one.
- Take your time. One of the tricks with a scammer (or someone negotiating a contract), is to rush you. Take all the time you need to make a decision, even though it might mean delaying a flight. Deadlines are often artificial. (They are selling this stuff all the time, or that mysterious “other buyer” likely doesn’t exist.) Don’t rush. It is better to miss a deal than to be rushed into making one.
- Have a good idea of what you are willing to spend and lock that down. I’ve seen folks massively overpay at auctions because they get caught up in the moment or enter into timeshare agreements because the payments sound like a good deal. (I’d avoid timeshares in general, but if you want one, buy it on the secondary market because they drop like a rock once sold.) Don’t risk more than you can afford to lose.
- Get an attorney involved before you sign any contract — one who is both qualified and loyal to you. Fine print, terms you don’t understand, and hidden pitfalls are what a good contract attorney is an expert at ferreting out. Your attorney actually may have seen scams like the one you otherwise might be tricked into, and that could save your butt.
Yes, lawyers are expensive, but they are a ton cheaper than losing your investment or having to litigate after the fact. Not getting a good attorney, with an emphasis on “good,” is definitely being penny-wise and pound-foolish.
- Avoid contracts with arbitration clauses. They provide a huge advantage to scam artists. Arbitration can be as expensive as a trial, but the awards tend to be far lower, and the quality of the arbitrator is far less certain than the expertise of a judge. While arbitration can be cheaper, it isn’t that much cheaper to be worth the risk.
- Find your own sources for due diligence. The scammer will supply shills, and you need to find your own sources of past investors. The Web is your friend. The longer a scam goes on, the higher the number of folks who have been screwed by it.
Granted, there may be aggressive uses of nondisclosure agreements, and social networking sites that host discussions of the subject can be shut down (both common tactics in the case of Sanctuary Belize), but the Web is a big place, and whack-a-mole isn’t working very well at the moment. Realize that not finding any independent comments on something likely is a huge red flag in and of itself.
- Remember the rule of “sunk costs.” Even when people realized that the Belize project was iffy, some kept putting money into it in the mistaken belief that it would help secure their investment. It didn’t. Throwing good money after bad only increases your pain.
If you have never lost your retirement and no one close to you has had that experience, you have no idea of the stress and pain it can cause. As noted in the FTC briefing on Sanctuary Belize (later renamed “The Reserve Belize“), there are thousands of people who likely will never see their dream retirement opportunity come to fruition. Many died waiting for it.
Still, scams like the ones the FTC has brought allegations on are ongoing. They extend from unicorn companies to contest winnings, and every one of us, given the right set of circumstances, is vulnerable.
Our only defense is to realize our retirement is under attack and work aggressively to defend against those attacks. (Boy, I suddenly really miss pensions, though pension funds had their own problems.)
One final comment: If you are in an investment and someone rises up and says something to the effect of “the emperor has no clothes,” maybe rather than attacking the messenger, you should listen and actually consider running for the hills. Just saying
I’ve had a number of smartwatches, with the most disappointing coming from New Balance. It was based on Intel technology and thus bricked shortly after Intel exited the segment. I’m not wearing a Fitbit Versa. The Versa has been the best by far — mostly because it is extremely focused on quantifying exercise and has a battery life measured in days, not hours.
All smartwatches have one issue in common, though: They aren’t very good watches in that their displays are blacked out most of the time. The really cool features, like GPS, typically have required a second wrist-mounted device because they sucked so much power.
That is why I got excited about the Fossil Sport Smartwatch. It uses the new Snapdragon Wear platform that provides decent battery life (up to three days, depending on settings) while still leaving the display active.
It has GPS built in; it is swimproof (apparently, you can’t dive deep with it, but you can wear it in the pool or shower); it looks like a watch; it connects to your Android phone and iOS (so you aren’t locked into Apple); and it has heart rate monitoring and all the other Android Wear features.
Fossil Sport Smartwatch
This means you can talk into your watch if you don’t want to pick up your phone, control your music, use Google Pay to pay for stuff, get messages on your watch, leave your phone behind if you just want to listen to music (it’s kind of an iPod replacement); and take advantage of the typical watch features (stopwatch, alarm, customized watch faces, etc.).
I don’t have the watch yet but damned if I’m not counting the hours till it arrives. If it is as good as I hope, it is in the running for my product of the year. Now, if it just had a case more like an Invicta watch.