Even savvy investors can fall for scams
The profile for investors who get swindled by fraudulent enterprises like the film “Birth of Innocence” aren’t gullible or new to investing, and they certainly aren’t dumb, according to the head of a college program devoted to financial literacy.
“The average demographic trend that I’ve seen is males age 55 to 65 who are financially literate and college educated, who have had a recent change in their financial or physical situation,” said John Pelletier, director of the Center for Financial Literacy at Champlain College in Burlington.
“They’re not unintelligent or unfamiliar with the financial world,” he said. “Usually, they’ve suffered some sort of financial setback and they’re willing to double down to try to make up the loss.”
Not all of the nearly 700 investors who gave money to Malcolm “Mac” Parker for the “Innocence” film venture match that description, but Robert Melik Finkle certainly does.
The retired Rochester architect told a federal judge last week at Parker’s criminal sentencing that he wasn’t earning enough on his bank certificates of deposit in 2002 when he was approached by the well-known Addison County storyteller and performer.
In exchange for a promised 15 percent rate of return, Finkle invested everything — his $345,000 life savings.
“Now, at 77 I’m barely subsisting on Social Security and welfare,” he said before Parker was sentenced to 4½ years in jail on convictions of conspiracy to defraud and filing fraudulent tax returns. “I trusted Mac Parker, and Parker in his greed took advantage of that trust.”
Finkle was far from the only intelligent person to speak at the hearing last week.
A physical therapist, an 80-year-old dairy farmer and a motel owner who gave Parker the proceeds of the sale of his rubbish-removal company were among those who addressed the court.
They each told a story of trust in Parker, whose honest reputation was proof enough for many — and an opportunity as the filmmaker promised rates of return that would eventually exceed 30 percent.
The scam perpetuated by Parker and his silent partner, Louis Soteriou, may be unique in its purported interest to deliver to the world a film of such spiritual purity that all who saw it would be touched and the world changed forever by its message.
But the Ponzi-scheme mechanism used to cheat investors is an all-too-common means of deception, Pelletier said.
While sophisticated schemes like the $50 billion fraud orchestrated by former NASDAQ chairman Bernard Madoff might be difficult to detect, many dubious ventures can be exposed by a simple phone call or search of the state Department of Financial Regulation website.
Both Pelletier and Thomas Candon, deputy commissioner of the DFR securities division, agree that the first step prospective investors should take when considering a venture is to investigate the seller.
By law, broker-dealers and some investment advisors must be registered in Vermont to do business here. Prospective investors can learn whether a seller is registered or has a history of violations or complaints by visiting the DFR securities page at www.dfr.vermont.gov/securities/home or by calling the division toll free at 877-550-3907.
Candon’s division also encourages investors to educate themselves about a company or individual by doing independent research, including a review of the seller’s prospectus or offering circular, and the company’s financial statement.
But one of the primary things investors can do — and sometimes the hardest — is ask themselves if an investment opportunity is too good to be true.
During his career prior to coming to Champlain College, Pelletier worked as the chief operating officer of a financial management firm that oversaw $80 billion in assets.
He said he knew many highly successful brokers, but added that not one of them could deliver on the promises made by the majority of charlatans who try to bilk investors by luring them into get-rich-quick schemes like “Birth of Innocence.”
“When someone tells you they haven’t had a down year in 10 years, they’re lying,” Pelletier said. “Whenever someone shows you an investment that can’t lose money, they’re referring to something unlike any investment I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Along with the promise of a high return, fraudulent sellers usually demand a quick decision by investors, Pelletier and Candon said.
“Whenever someone bangs on you wanting an answer now, or if they’re getting offended that you’re looking into them, that should be a red flag,” Pelletier said.
Candon’s division has been trying to help financial investors recognize red flags — and make wise financial decisions in general — by holding “Investor Education” talks statewide at functions ranging from Rotary meetings to senior citizens’ events.
It was at one of those educational talks that the first step in unraveling the 10-year “Innocence” scam took place.
At the end of one of the financial talks in 2009, Candon said a member of his office was approached about a filmmaker named Mac Parker who had been approaching a large number of investors.
The deputy commissioner said that revelation led investigators to follow up, first by learning that Parker was soliciting funds without being registered with the state. A first meeting with the filmmaker in October 2009 was followed months later by a federal investigation.
“It works both ways,” Candon said. “We try to educate investors and sometimes we learn something very important from the people we meet who have questions about investment offers they’ve seen.”
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