WASHINGTON - An investigation by federal and state regulators of "free lunch" investment seminars aimed at seniors has found high-pressure sales pitches masquerading as educational sessions, pervasive misleading claims for unsuitable financial products, and even fraud.
Much of the blame goes to investment firms for failing to properly supervise employees who put on the seminars for seniors, according to the report of the investigation made public yesterday. By law, the sales pitches made at the seminars and the materials provided to participants must be approved by a brokerage or investment firm's supervisors.
The examination by the Securities and Exchange Commission, state regulators and the securities industry's self-policing organization, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, covered seven states that have large numbers of retirees: Alabama, Arizona, California, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas.
SEC chairman Christopher Cox called the investigation's findings "a wake-up call for securities regulators, the financial-services industry and, especially, older investors."
"The SEC and our fellow regulators intend to put a stop to this," Cox said in a statement.
Among the findings:
The popular "free lunch" or dinner seminars, often held at upscale hotels, restaurants and golf courses, are advertised as educational sessions or workshops at which no products will be sold. They are actually sales presentations, pushing those attending to open new accounts and make investments on the spot or in follow-up meetings with the salespeople.
Nearly 60 percent of the 110 investment firms and branch offices examined showed evidence of weak supervision of the employees running the seminars, including failure to review the seminar materials.
Exaggerated or misleading claims - like "Immediately add $100,000 to your net worth" - showed up in about half of the 110 inspections performed by the regulators.
Recommendations for unsuitable investments were found in 23 percent of them.
Thirteen percent showed apparent instances of fraud, such as liquidating accounts without a customer's knowledge or consent, or selling bogus investments.
People 60 and older make up 15 percent of the country's population but account for an estimated 30 percent of fraud victims. With baby boomers swelling the ranks of retirees, regulators expect an increase in scams targeting them.
In the last two years, the SEC has brought more than 40 enforcement cases involving alleged fraud against seniors, many in coordination with state authorities. In addition, FINRA, known until recently as the National Association of Securities Dealers, has filed cases against a number of brokerage firms and individual employees.
FINRA also has been conducting inspection "sweeps" in several other areas affecting seniors: pitches for people to retire early and cash out their 401(k) accounts under an IRS rule; sales of collateralized mortgage obligations, complex and potentially risky investments tied to mortgage securities; so-called senior financial investment specialists, a designation said to be devoid of real value; and life settlements, in which the holder of a life insurance policy sells it to a third party for more than its cash surrender value but less than the net death benefit.