Too good to be true?

Investment too good to be true

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Are the investments being offered to you a little too good to be true? We look at some past examples where people have lost capital through fraudsters and failed schemes, and reveal some red flags you should look out for.

We’re all familiar with the saying, “If the investment is too good to be true, it probably is”, and there is a good reason for that. There is no shortage of individuals, even companies, that will try to sell you an investment under the false promise of large, guaranteed returns – often within a short period of time.

From outright scams to high-risk ventures being misrepresented as a sure and easy win, investing can be a minefield for anyone willing to place their trust without performing thorough research or receiving the guidance and advice of an expert.

Key takeaways

  • Beware unlicensed individuals or companies and unregistered investments
  • Say ‘no’ to high-pressure tactics – you need time to do your research and seek advice
  • Be wary of anyone who approaches you with promises of unrealistic gains
  • Ensure the investment opportunity has documentation and data to be fact-checked
  • Ask the question ‘How?’ – If something is being offered that is way more than the level of central bank base rates, how will the returns be achieved, and what are the risk implications? If you don’t get an answer you can understand that is a warning sign.

It’s happened before – it will happen again

Charles Ponzi is possibly the most infamous scammer, defrauding individuals by promising 50% returns in 45 days or 100% in three months by investing in postal stamps. There was no actual investing going on, he was simply using the money from new clients to pay his older ones – a system that continues only as long as the influx of new clients can be maintained. The ‘Ponzi’ scheme, named after its creator, is still a common scam to this day.

You may remember the notorious Barlow Clowes case, where around 15,000 people, many of them retirees, were invested in the fund which was wound up by the high court in 1988 owing £190 million.  The fund claimed to be invested in low-risk government gilts but promised returns higher than gilts were paying. In retrospect, you would ask where the returns were going to come from when they exceeded the market gain of the asset in question.

Equitable Life carries another cautionary tale. This was a reputable company that came unstuck after offering customers higher than average rates – a move that allowed 800,000 policy holders to be caught out when inflation and interest rates dropped, leaving the mutual insurance society struggling to fund its commitments.

In 2009, there was the well-documented fraud of Bernard Madoff – another ‘Ponzi’ scheme where money from new clients was used to pay older ones. Bernard lured investors through promises of between 10 and 12% annual returns on investment – by the time the US government caught up with him, he had cheated clients out of $65 billion.

These are just a few examples. As long as there are markets, there will be those trying to get rich by selling hope to the less informed. Those taken in by these schemes were intelligent people – victims often of misleading claims by an individual or company they believed they could trust. Renowned English cleric, author and art collector Charles Caleb Colton once said,

“There are some frauds so well conducted that it would be stupidity not to be deceived by them”.

A statement that describes the cunning, charm and resourcefulness of fraudsters, and the vigilance and discernment we must maintain whenever we are asked to invest our money.

Common types of investment fraud to look out for

Where there is opportunity for investment growth and returns, a degree of risk must be accepted. The greater the promise of return, the higher the risk. If you are offered a  ‘guaranteed investment’ ask to read the small print as to how ‘copper-bottom that ‘guarantee’ really is. Investment scams take many forms, and bad actors are always thinking up new and creative ways to hook their victims.

The money you have set aside for your retirement may have taken years to accumulate, and it is important to invest it wisely in line with your appetite for risk to protect you and your family, so it makes sense to be able to recognise the signs of an investment scam in order to protect it.

Some of the more common fraudulent schemes tend to fall into the following:

  • Ponzi Schemes
    A Ponzi scheme is where a central individual or company will collect money from new clients and use some to pay the promised returns to earlier investors. No money is managed through actual investment, and a steady stream of incoming cash is needed for the scheme to keep running.

  • Pyramid Schemes
    These often come with the promise of converting small investments into large profits within a short time scale. In reality, participants only make money by recruiting new investors into the scheme. Fraudsters behind Pyramid schemes are known to take great efforts to make their organisation appear legitimate, such as a multi-level marketing venture for example.

  • Promissory Note Fraud
    Like a form of debt, promissory notes are sometimes used by companies to raise money. When sold fraudulently, a scammer will make false claims about the company, and the terms of the promissory note. Be on the lookout for unrealistic statements such as: “the notes are backed by collateral to guarantee them”, and “investors will receive very high, guaranteed returns.

  • Advance Fee Scams
    These schemes generally start with an offer to pay a high price for worthless stock in your portfolio to entice you. However, to take the deal, you must pay a fee in advance. If you pay the fee, it is unlikely you will ever see that money again.

  • Pump-and-Dump
    The fraudster will deliberately buy large quantities of low-priced, or near-worthless stock, then use a variety of methods to drum up interest to increase market price. The fraudster will then ‘dump’ the stock at a high price and vanish. In today’s markets, pump-and-dump scams are particularly prevalent within the cryptocurrency sphere.

The risk of crypto investment

By now, we are all aware of cryptocurrency, with Bitcoin making the headlines of financial news several times over recent years. However, since Bitcoin’s inception, thousands of alternative coins and tokens (known as altcoins) have entered the marketplace.

It is important to note that anybody can create a cryptocurrency, and it is quite rare for one to present any real-world use. The cryptocurrency space is highly volatile, where market prices have been known to rise and fall drastically within hours, sometimes without any discernible influence.

ICOs (the crypto version of an IPO) have been banned in several countries and from popular social media platforms including Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter after several instances where developers and promoters who collected funds suddenly disappeared – typically known as an ‘Exit Scam’.

If you are determined to invest some of your funds in cryptocurrency, however, here are a few tips that might help ensure your money goes into a viable investment, and not toward a risky gamble.

  • Founder involvement
    Is the cryptocurrency well-established with its founder still heavily involved in the project? This is the first check you should make. It doesn’t bode well if the founder has already abandoned ship. (Note that some blockchains are maintained by a community rather than a founder – in these cases, check the strength and participation of the community and planned updates for the blockchain).

  • Use case
    Does the cryptocurrency have a practical use case? Just like any good investment, your cryptocurrency should provide a solution to a modern economic or industry problem if you expect its value to increase.

  • Future relevance
    Spending time in the markets is far more effective than an attempt at timing the markets. Do you believe in the future of the invested project, and will it be around for years to come?

As stated, the crypto sphere is unpredictable and these tips are by no means any kind of guarantee, but they may help you a little in separating the wheat from the chaff. And make sure you don’t overcommit your hard-earned wealth, especially if you find the area confusing.

Avoid investments that sound too good to be true

So, why do intelligent, financially successful individuals fall victim to investment fraud? The simple truth – scam artists are professionals at what they do, able to tailor their persuasion techniques to your psychological profile.

Be wary of promises that guarantee high returns. There aren’t any absolute guarantees with investment, and you’ll likely get a lower return the safer your money is. Compare the yields that have been promised with current returns on well-known stock indexes. If the numbers don’t match up, where could such returns possibly be coming from?

Be wary of anyone pressuring you with a sense of urgency. There is never a reason to act rapidly on investment – and no reputable professional would push you to make an immediate decision.

To protect the financial security you have built for you and your family, consult the advice of an expert that is regulated by a reputable authority before committing to any investment being sold to you – and focus on the fundamentals. You have probably worked hard over decades to build your wealth for you and your family – if something seems too good to be true, don’t put that wealth at undue risk.

Blevins Franks has been helping our clients for more than 45 years. We focus extensively on working with you to establish what your risk appetite, goals and timescales are, and the diversified multi-manager investments that we offer provide access to avenues of investment that aren’t typically available to the average private investor.

Our company operates under the regulation of leading authorities, and our experienced advisers receive additional support from our in-house investment specialists.

For more information on how we can help you on your investment journey, contact us now.

All advice received from Blevins Franks is personalised and provided in writing. This article, however, should not be construed as providing any personalised taxation or investment advice.

Tax rates, scope and reliefs may change. Any statements concerning taxation are based upon our understanding of current taxation laws and practices which are subject to change. Tax information has been summarised; individuals should seek personalised advice.