FORECASTS & TRENDS E-LETTER
Gary D. Halbert
August 21, 2007
By Mike Posey
IN THIS ISSUE:
1. Taking Your Lump-Sum Distribution
2. Why Are Seniors Often Targeted?
3. Investment Scams Aimed At The Elderly
4. Other Scams Targeting Seniors
5. Fighting Back
My July 24 Retirement Focus issue was the first of a series of E-Letters designed to help individuals plan their income needs after retirement. That first article described the various types of annuity payouts available, and the pros and cons of each. In this week’s installment, I’m going to continue the retirement income planning series, though it may seem to some readers that I’m taking somewhat of a detour.
In this issue, I’m going to give you some practical tips on taking a lump-sum distribution from a qualified retirement plan, since that is the first step most retirees must take before considering how they will invest their nest eggs, and how much can be withdrawn for living expenses. There are many issues to consider when taking a retirement distribution, so a good heads-up is in order.
After that, I’m going to forewarn you of those who would gladly steal your nest egg and leave you destitute. This is very relevant to the issue of retirement income planning, since you can’t plan for an income from assets that no longer exist (or at least not in your account). And the scam artists are not just concentrating on investments, but also on many other senior needs.
Recent surveys have shown that a significant number of investors are concerned about whether they are prepared for retirement. Even those who have done a good job of pre-retirement planning may feel confused by the myriad of investment and withdrawal choices available from legitimate financial services companies. It is in just such an environment of uncertainty and confusion that scam artists can thrive.
One thing I have learned in my years of dealing with retirement planning is that high levels of anxiety and confusion often lead to poor decisions. After all, panic is just another form of fear, and Gary has written many times about how fear is one of the primary emotions that marketers (including scam artists) try to instill in you to sell products.
I hope I can empower you to be on the lookout for such scams for yourself, or for loved ones who may be at or near retirement. As always, feel free to forward this E-Letter to anyone you feel may benefit from the information we provide.
Taking Your Lump-Sum Distribution
Before launching into the different ways scam artists are trying to separate seniors from their hard-earned retirement dollars, I want to chase a rabbit and talk about taking lump-sum distributions from your retirement plan. After all, it is with this accumulated nest egg that you must plan for a remaining lifetime of income. Therefore, it is very important that you make the most of your lump-sum distribution.
Following are just a few things to think about when you are faced with taking a lump-sum distribution from a tax-qualified retirement plan:
Most defined contribution retirement plans (profit sharing, 401(k), etc.) will automatically assume you’ll take a lump-sum payment at retirement. However, some money purchase pension plans and almost all defined benefit plans provide a lump-sum distribution only as an optional form of payment. In a defined benefit plan, the amount of money paid as a lump-sum must be the actuarial equivalent of a life-only annuity.
It is important to realize that, in a defined benefit plan, the amount of your lump-sum distribution is a figure calculated at your retirement, and it may or may not be equivalent to what the employer may have set aside on your behalf or that may show on periodic pre-retirement statements. Therefore, you should make a decision about a lump-sum only after you have reviewed the actual retirement benefit options available to you. Your Plan Administrator will give you these options at the time you retire.
Depending upon the actuarial assumptions in your employer’s defined benefit plan, the amount of money available as a lump-sum may not be enough to provide a meaningful retirement income. That’s because the actuarial assumptions used in the plan may be very different from those used by insurance companies to calculate annuity payouts. If the lump-sum benefit is discounted too heavily, it may be better to take the annuity payout from the plan. In any event, it’s always good to review your retirement options with a financial planning professional before making a final decision.
As a general rule, lump-sum distributions are taxed as ordinary income in the year in which they are received. Thus, the tax bite can be considerable. That’s why most people choose to roll their distributions over to a Rollover IRA in order to escape this immediate taxation. However, there are certain classes of individuals that may be “grandfathered” and qualify for favorable tax treatment of their lump-sum distributions because of changes in tax laws over the years.
For example, certain individuals participating in employer retirement plans who were born before 1936 may be eligible for special income tax treatment of their lump-sum distributions. Under certain conditions, these individuals have a one-time opportunity to use a 10-year forward averaging technique that may greatly reduce the amount of taxes owed on the distribution.
In addition, these individuals may also qualify for limited capital gains treatment of part of their distribution if they participated in the same plan prior to 1974. Granted, there are relatively few individuals still in the workforce to whom this would apply, but if you were born before 1936 and want to see if you qualify for this special tax treatment, contact your human resources department or your retirement plan administrator. If you happen to qualify for special tax treatment, there is no requirement that you use it. It’s just another option available to you.
It’s important to note that the 10-year averaging technique only reduces the taxes to be paid, it does not defer them as would be the case if you rolled your distribution over into a traditional IRA. Plus, using the averaging technique means that future earnings on the distribution will generally be taxable as they are earned. The 10-year averaging technique also requires that you elect this treatment for your whole distribution, so you couldn’t roll over part of the distribution to an IRA and use averaging on the rest.
As with most tax issues, it’s important that you consult with a qualified financial planner, CPA or other tax professional prior to making a final decision on how you take your lump-sum distribution. This is especially true if you qualify for one of these special income tax treatments.
Some retirees are surprised to find that, if they elect to receive a check for their lump-sum retirement distribution, an automatic 20% withholding applies. This is a not-so-nice little provision of tax law that requires the retirement plan to make sure the IRS gets paid. The biggest problem with this scenario is that you can still roll over the entire distribution to an IRA within 60 days of receipt, and you may get a full refund of the 20% withheld (depending upon your other taxable income). However, the refund comes only after you file your tax return after the end of the tax year. Thus, to roll over the 20% withheld, you must make up this amount from personal savings or other assets in order to get the benefit of rolling over the full distribution. Some retirees can’t come up with this 20% out of pocket, so they end up paying taxes on all or part of the 20% withheld.
If you happen to take a lump-sum distribution prior to age 59½, an extra 10% penalty tax may apply in addition to regular taxation. However, the 10% penalty tax does not apply if you roll the distribution over to a Rollover IRA within 60 days of receipt.
Fortunately, there’s a way out of these withholding and penalty tax predicaments. The law allows you to instruct your employer’s retirement plan to make a distribution directly to a Rollover IRA without any of the money coming to you. This particular election preserves the tax deferral of the entire lump-sum distribution without having to come up with any money out-of-pocket. In fact, you can even direct your employer plan to roll over part of the distribution, and pay the rest to you. Just remember that whatever amount is paid directly to you will be subject to the 20% automatic withholding (and possibly the 10% penalty tax if you are under age 59½).
Finally, there are retirement plans known as “Roth IRAs” and “Roth 401(k)s” that may qualify for tax-free treatment upon distribution. These arrangements allow for tax-free withdrawals of earnings in exchange for giving up the tax deduction on contributions as they are made, as long as the funds are held at least five years. Note, however, that you generally can’t roll over a traditional 401(k) or IRA distribution into a Roth Rollover IRA unless you take additional steps to convert the traditional program to a Roth.
Plus, if your employer has matched any of your Roth 401(k) contributions, the employer portion and related earnings cannot be withdrawn tax-free, and will fall under the rules for taxable lump-sum distributions described above. If you are covered by a Roth 401(k) plan, your distributions will likely contain a combination of taxable and non-taxable amounts, so again it’s important that you consult with a qualified financial planning or tax professional prior to taking any distributions.
Once you have made the decision about how to take your lump-sum distribution, your work has just started. You now need to plan on how and when to take income, how to invest your money, how to budget your expenditures and a myriad of other decisions. Future installments of this series on retirement income planning will discuss all of these issues, but first let’s talk about some traps to avoid.
Why Are Seniors Often The Target of Scams?
Why do scammers target seniors? Because that’s where the money is! A recent Investment Company Institute survey estimated that total assets in all retirement plans now exceed $16 trillion, an 11% increase from 2006. Nearly 40% of all US household financial assets are now held in retirement savings vehicles. A significant part of this huge amount of money represents the future security of the 78 million Baby Boomers who are already starting to retire, as well as the many millions of seniors who are already retired.
Unfortunately, it also represents a potential windfall for fraudsters and scam artists who are intent upon getting a piece of this retirement wealth. Many of these scammers will try to lure retirees with bogus investment schemes, while others will seek to cheat them by selling overpriced or worthless goods and services, or even by falsely notifying seniors of fictitious prize winnings.
While investment scams are common among virtually all adult age ranges, the FBI indicates that many bogus schemes specifically target older Americans for a variety of reasons. First, seniors are more likely to have a nest egg to plunder than younger families. They also are more likely to have good credit and own a home, each of which can be accessed by skillful scam artists. In addition, as a general rule, people born in the 1930s, 40s and 50s were raised to be polite and trusting. Con-men are actually quite adept in using these personality traits to their advantage, often creating a level of trust that rivals that with other family members and even children.
The FBI says that seniors are increasingly singled out because they are also less likely to report a fraud because they either don’t know how or where to report it, or are too ashamed of admitting they’ve been swindled. In some cases, the individuals don’t even realize they have been scammed. Saddest of all, some seniors don’t report fraud because they fear that their families will come to the conclusion that they have decreased mental capacity and can no longer handle their own financial affairs.
Even when elderly victims do report frauds, the FBI reports that they often make poor witnesses because of age and impaired memory over time. At first, I questioned this assumption, but the FBI went on to say that it can be weeks, months or even years between being scammed and testifying in court. That kind of time frame would likely test the memory of almost anyone.
Finally, the FBI says that seniors are often easily scammed because the promotions are for things that are of specific interest to seniors, such as offers of increased cognitive function, virility, physical conditioning, cancer protection or a number of other schemes that promote the ability to regain lost youth. In this age where medicine and genetic advances are constantly producing new and promising therapies, it’s easy for some seniors to believe that bogus remedies are legitimate.
While I’m sure the above information fairly represents the FBI’s historical experience, it may paint a false stereotype of victims of senior investment fraud as being isolated, frail and gullible. However, the new Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) – formerly the NASD – has determined that those engaging in investment fraud look for seniors with the following characteristics:
* Optimistic and self-reliant when it comes to making decisions
* Above-average income and financial knowledge
* Experienced a recent health or financial setback
* Open to listening to new ideas or sales pitches
So, while it’s true that seniors with impaired cognitive abilities can be targets of investment fraud, it’s also true that educated and energetic seniors are just as much at risk. Therefore, never think that you or an elderly loved one cannot be the target of an investment scam just because you don’t fit the FBI’s “old and frail” stereotype.
Investment Scams That Target Seniors
While most investment scams target anyone with money, some are specifically designed to appeal to the elderly. Space does not permit me to go into all types of investment schemes, but back on September 5, 2006, Gary did an excellent job of highlighting the more common frauds uncovered by the authorities. You can click HERE to review Gary’s previous descriptions of these scams, and I will use the space below to concentrate on those that most often target seniors:
A primary concern of many seniors is the ability to invest so that they do not outlive their money. Scam artists can make inroads with seniors by promoting investments that will generate quick profits via unusually high returns, and sometimes with a full guarantee of principal. The underlying scam may be a Ponzi scheme, bogus promissory note, prime bank note or any of a number of other common investments frauds, but the pitch is directed toward seniors who want to increase the size of their nest egg to have greater retirement security.
A similar scheme may promote fraudulent investments as a way to increase the periodic income available from a senior’s investment portfolio. As I will point out as we continue the retirement income series, many experts recommend a relatively low withdrawal rate from investments in order to make the money last throughout retirement. Con-men may promise to double or triple the amount of income on the same amount of money, and then steal it.
In such schemes, some investors may actually start receiving the higher payouts, possibly so they can serve as examples of satisfied customers in “free-lunch” seminars or other presentations. However, these payments won’t last long since the crooks will soon disappear with the money.
Real estate scams are also frequently directed at seniors who are looking for a warm and sunny retirement locale. Scam artists will sometimes buy worthless land and attempt to sell lots to unsuspecting seniors for rock-bottom prices. Real estate suitable for retirement homes is seldom cheap, so don’t be lured by low prices. You might just get a piece of swampland.
While not technically an investment fraud, some legitimate brokers may place retirees in investments that are too risky in order to try to reach a higher investment return target. As a general rule, the potential for higher returns rests primarily in investments that also take a greater amount of risk. However, this risk can lead to losses of principal, not to mention failure to reach the higher investment return. If principal losses occur early in retirement, they can hamper the portfolio’s ability to produce future income.
Likewise, some brokers and insurance agents may sell legitimate annuity and life insurance contracts that pay lucrative commissions but are not in the senior’s best interest. Many of these contracts cover the costs of high commissions by locking up the funds with an early surrender penalty that can last for many years. If you are offered an insurance contract of any kind, be sure to ask what happens if you change your mind one or two years down the road.
AARP also reports that some insurance agents sell annuities with deferred payment dates that may actually be beyond the life expectancy of the individual. One couple reportedly bought a tax-deferred annuity that wasn’t scheduled to begin payouts until the annuitant was 115 years old. Needless to say, he didn’t make it. While the surviving spouse did have access to the money, a significant early surrender charge applied.
Whenever you are presented the opportunity to purchase a variable or “equity indexed” annuity, be sure to check out all of the various provisions, especially those that may affect your ability to gain access to your investment. Some companies now offer penalty-free withdrawals within certain limits, but these are usually limited to a relatively small percentage of your total investment each year.
Viatical settlements, or “life settlements” as they are sometimes now called, are also frequently promoted to seniors. Under a viatical settlement, the senior buys all or part of a life insurance policy on a terminally ill individual, while in a “life settlement,” the investor purchases the policy of an older individual who no longer needs the insurance coverage. The salesperson stresses that the money helps the policyholder, so that (plus large “guaranteed” returns) often seal the deal.
While there are legitimate viatical and life settlements, it’s important to know that the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has closed down some firms that sold fictitious policies. Plus, some companies do not properly disclose that the investment is illiquid, or that the policyholder could live longer than assumed so additional premium payments may be necessary to keep the policy in force. Because seniors are more likely to need short-term liquidity for living expenses or medical treatment, it’s usually best for seniors to just say NO to viaticals and life settlements.
The above examples are not all that may come your way, but do represent a fair sampling of the kinds of scams that you may encounter. It is important to note that not every invitation to an investment seminar or promotion of an investment offering greater potential returns is a scam. However, it’s also important that you check out any such offerings carefully and ask a lot of questions. Just remember what Gary has said in this E-Letter many times, if an investment opportunity sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Scams Not Limited To Investments
Unfortunately, investment scams are just the tip of the iceberg in regard to bogus schemes targeting the elderly. The special needs or desires of seniors often lend themselves to being abused by con-men intent on stealing their money. It’s literally impossible to list all of the senior-related scams, since it seems that new ones are being developed every day. The best thing to know is that there are resources available to help you check out any offers you may receive, and I have listed a number of them at the end of this article for your convenience.
Just to give you an idea of the various types of non-investment scams you may encounter, I have compiled the following list containing brief descriptions of just a few of the senior-related scams as reported by the FBI, AARP and other trusted sources:
Travel-Related Scams: Upon retirement, many seniors finally have the time to travel. Some pay thousands of dollars to join travel clubs, lured by the promise of special deals exclusively for members. However, some of these organizations are scams, as members have gone online and received deals as good as or better than those offered by the travel club. Other travel clubs offer luxury accommodations, but provide only substandard lodging, while still others offer “free” trips that can sometimes end up costing hundreds of dollars.
Internet Scams: Seniors represent one of the fastest-growing demographics on the Internet. As a result, they are often the targets of a variety of scams via unsolicited (SPAM) e-mails. Some fraudulent schemes pose as banks or other financial services organizations in order to get private information and account numbers and gain access to your money. The scary thing about these e-mails is that they use the logos of the financial institutions and appear to be “official.”
Most e-mail scams seek to obtain your personal information (especially your Social Security Number) for identity theft purposes. However, others offer bogus goods and services, and some even try to convince you that they are notifying you of lost property or foreign lottery winnings.
Telemarketing Fraud: As I noted above, many seniors are simply too polite to hang up on unwanted telemarketing calls. While many such calls are legitimate, some are scam artists that know the longer they can keep you on the phone, the better chance they have of selling you their fraudulent product or service.
Telemarketing scams are often successful because the caller finds a way to build trust with the senior. In some cases, the telemarketer will convince the senior that their own children are the “enemy” and do not want them to reap the benefits of whatever kind of con is being sold.
Bogus Home Repairs: Elderly widows are often singled out for shoddy or even unneeded home repairs. Scammers know that many of these widows are unfamiliar with home repairs, and can literally bilk them out of thousands of dollars for repairs that are sometimes never even completed. You should beware of any contractor who knocks on your door after supposedly noticing a problem with your home.
It’s usually a good idea to work only with contractors who are licensed and insured, and always ask for references. Plus, most contractors have a line of credit for materials, so never pay money up-front. Pay only after the work is completed and you are satisfied with the job done. It also never hurts to get a “second opinion” from another qualified contractor.
Advance-Fee Schemes: This type of scheme usually involves a call or e-mail notifying a senior that they have won a lottery or sweepstakes. All they need to do to collect is pay fees and taxes to claim the prize. Unfortunately, once these fees and taxes are paid, the prize never materializes.
Health-Related Scams: Let’s face it, the older we get, the more likely it is that we’ll utilize health care facilities, but making sure Medicare, the new Part D drug benefit and private health insurance are set up correctly is sometimes confusing. This, in turn, creates an opportunity for scam artists who attempt to sell everything from bogus health insurance policies to quack medical devices.
Other health-related scams include counterfeit prescription drugs (usually via the Internet), worthless medical discount cards and all sorts of anti-aging formulas, creams, etc. On this last category, I’ll just provide a quote from Thomas Perls, M.D., of Boston University School of Medicine, director of the world's largest study on centenarians:
“To date, there is absolutely no scientific proof that any commercially available product will stop or reverse aging."
Grave Robbery: No, I’m not talking about a Frankenstein-like operation, but rather scammers who gather names from local obituary pages and then access their Social Security Numbers and credit histories from Internet sources. Armed with this information, the scammers can apply for credit and charge goods to the name of the deceased. Upon default, the bad credit is reported in the deceased’s name.
While the deceased’s family is not likely to have to pay these debts, it can take quite a bit of time and effort to clear the credit history and stop collection calls. One way to combat this practice is to avoid putting details such as address and birth date in a newspaper obituary. Also be wary of calls from bogus insurance companies or even fictitious government agencies after a loved one’s death, as they might just be a scam artist trying to get personal information.
Funeral and Cemetery Fraud: While most funeral homes are upright in their dealings, some that offer pre-need services can be rip-offs. Many seniors want to take the burden of funeral planning off of their loved ones, so they pre-plan and pre-pay for funeral services. Unfortunately, in some cases, the funeral homes provide nowhere near the level of service that was paid for in advance. At least one expert on funeral planning says you should never buy a pre-paid funeral plan. His advice is, “pre-plan, but don’t pre-pay.”
Affinity Frauds: Because seniors are sometimes more trusting than the general population, they are often singled out for affinity fraud. This type of scam usually comes from someone who gains trust with the senior because they are a member of the same church, civic club or other organization. In his September 26, 2006 E-Letter, Gary wrote an excellent article about the dangers of affinity fraud, so I won’t repeat it here. Click on THIS LINK to go back and read this important information.
Bogus Charitable Causes: Many seniors are generous with their money, especially when confronted with a well-known need. It seems that every time there is a national catastrophe such as 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina, bogus charities begin calling seniors seeking contributions. Unfortunately, many of these contributions rarely make it to the intended victims of the tragedy.
As I noted above, it’s virtually impossible to list all of the various types of scams and fraud targeting seniors today. Since you can’t possibly keep up with all of the various schemes being hatched by con-men, it’s important that you learn how to fight back in other ways, as I will discuss below.
If you are a senior, the first step toward fighting scams is to recognize that some of your own traits might be used against you. If you are too polite to hang up on someone, or easily place trust in individuals you don’t know, you are just the kind of person scam artists are looking for.
Next, you need to determine if the offer makes sense. One of the older scams is known as the “Nigerian Letter,” where a person from a foreign country asks you to help him move a large amount of money (usually millions) out of his country in exchange for a percentage. Think about it – what are the chances that a foreign national would select you to do a legitimate banking transaction? That’s right, virtually nil – it’s a scam.
Or, how could you win a lottery or sweepstakes that you don’t remember entering, especially one in a foreign country? Again, you didn’t – it’s a scam. You should be suspicious of any unsolicited e-mail, telephone call or piece of junk mail offering you large amounts of money for doing nothing.
Other good ways to fight back against senior scams and frauds are as follows:
Hang Up! It is not rude to hang up on a telemarketer who has called you at your home. Just say, “I’m sorry, but I’m not interested” and then immediately hang up the phone. Don’t wait for the caller to answer because they are trained to keep you on the phone.
If the communication is through an e-mail, don’t open it unless you know who it is from. Sly Internet firms have many ways of finding your e-mail address, and sometimes make it appear as though they know you. If you don’t know the sender, or don’t recognize the title, don’t open the e-mail.
Ask Questions. Turn the tables on the caller by asking detailed questions about the product, service or charity being promoted, and for references from satisfied customers. If the caller is selling insurance or investments, ask how they are licensed and who their primary regulator is. If the call is about home repair, ask about licensing and insurance. Bogus telemarketers will sometimes quickly terminate a call if you ask too many questions.
Recognize Certain Warning Signs. Be wary of statements that imply you have to make a hurried decision, or warnings to not tell anyone about this opportunity (especially your grown children). High-pressure sales tactics are almost sure signs of a scam.
You should also be wary of anyone who asks for your bank account number, Social Security Number, drivers license number or any other personal information in a phone call or unsolicited e-mail. Never give this information to strangers, even if they sound or look “official.”
Use Do Not Call Lists. Take your name off of telemarketing and junk mail lists by contacting the following:
For telemarketing calls, visit www.donotcall.gov or call (888) 382-1222
Direct mail and e-mail offers, visit www.dmaconsumers.org
Credit Card Offers, visit www.optoutprescreen.com
Online offers, visit www.networkadvertising.org
Do Your Homework. There are a variety of ways you can check out offers you may receive. First, you can talk to a friend or trusted advisor and see if they are familiar with the offer. For investment sales, check out the salesperson with the FINRA at www.finra.org, the SEC at www.sec.gov, or contact your state securities regulatory agency. For insurance sales, contact your state’s department of insurance.
To check out a charity to see if it is legitimate, contact the Institute of Philanthropy at www.charitywatch.org, or call (773) 529-2300.
Other valuable resources:
Above all, always remember that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
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