Fighting Financial Fraud and Identity Theft

Learn what it's like on the front lines on our ride along with the scam police.

Chances are, you may have been swindled at some point in your life, or you know someone who has. Nearly half of consumers surveyed recently by Stanford University's Center on Longevity and the Finra Investor Education Foundation reported being a victim of financial fraud in the previous year—a far higher tally than earlier surveys indicated. No socioeconomic or demographic group is immune. "Men and women, college students and retirees, rich and poor—all are potential targets," the report's authors found. Nearly 40% of victims never told anyone about the fraud.

Estimates are problematic, but Americans are thought to lose some $50 billion a year to financial scams. And there are indirect costs: bounced checks, late fees, trouble meeting monthly expenses and even bankruptcy. So it's not surprising that the emotional cost of fraud is also high, with 50% of victims reporting severe stress and more than one-third citing depression. The toll is compounded for senior victims, who have little time to make up for lost resources. "When elderly people lose their life savings, they lose hope," says Ricky Locklar, an investment fraud investigator at the Alabama Securities Commission. "To me, those crimes are worse than someone robbing the corner drugstore at gunpoint."

Sadly, the scam police are busier than ever. To find out what it's like on the front lines, we spent some time with the investigators and consumer advocates who fight investment fraud, identity theft and financial abuse of the elderly. Here's what we learned.

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Rooting Out Investment Fraud

Think of the securities regulators at the Alabama Securities Commission—based a stone's throw from the state capitol in Montgomery—as literally cops on the beat. The 13 investigating agents are sworn officers of the law. They've all been to a police academy, many are retired from previous careers in the local police department, and they carry guns. Although the commission mostly relies on local uniformed law enforcement to make arrests, the securities regulators in Alabama are among only a handful of state securities authorities with the power to slap on the handcuffs. That could explain the slight precinct-house vibe you feel in the ASC's government-issue offices, where the mission is fighting white-collar crime but the dress code runs more to khakis and open-collar shirts than to suits.

Senior special agent Locklar, in the enforcement division, and colleague Mike Gantt, the other senior special agent in the unit, worked as homicide detectives in the Montgomery muni­cipal police department—Locklar for nearly a decade, Gantt for almost two. "I've had enough violent crime for two lifetimes," says Gantt. But he says the crimes he investigates now are no less egregious. "I had one case that ruined 16 families," he says, recalling a recent Ponzi scheme. It involved a lawyer who took money from clients to invest in sham real estate and other "deals," paying early clients with funds from newer victims. The lawyer, who ended up stealing $10.5 million, was sentenced to 20 years, five of which were to be served behind bars.

The commission can bring both civil and criminal charges against those accused of breaking the rules or defrauding investors. An inside joke explains who gets hit with what kind of charge: "You lie, cheat or steal, you go to jail. Everything else we'll work out with an administrative order," says commission director Joseph Borg, who is also president of the North American Securities Administrators Association. Sanctions in the latter scenario might include a fine or a cease and desist order, for example. In the fiscal year ending September 30, the commission secured nine administrative orders, 11 arrests and nine criminal convictions, resulting in an estimated 42 years of jail time and nearly $3 million in restitution to victims.

Of course, Alabama is just one state, and the states are just one layer of securities regulation. Altogether, state regulators conducted more than 4,300 investigations for the most recent year reported, resulting in 1,606 administrative actions and 241 criminal proceedings. The Securities and Exchange Commission is the federal regulator for securities markets. It has authority to bring only civil cases but collaborates on enforcement issues with its state counterparts as well as with criminal prosecutors nationwide. The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, or Finra, is the industry's regulatory body, overseeing more than 600,000 brokers. It can levy fines, suspend or bar firms or individuals from the industry, and order restitution.

To understand how the layers fit together, think of it this way, says Borg: Finra is like a neighborhood watch with patrols on every corner, surveilling brokers. If Finra sees misconduct, the broker might be fined, or the case might be referred to a state regulator. Big cases are referred to the SEC. The SEC is like the Federal Bureau of Investigation—it takes on the big cases but doesn't typically get involved with burglaries on the street (or the investing equivalent). "We're the local cops and sheriffs in the counties," says Borg. The Commodity Futures Trading Commission is another federal layer. It polices the derivatives market, including options, futures and other products.

Skin in the game. With five lawyers on staff, the Alabama Securities Commission prosecutes many cases in-house that other regulators might hand off to the Department of Justice, a district attorney or a U.S. attorney. At the ASC, says Borg, "the cases start here, they're investigated here, and the same people who work the case show up at trial. We've got more skin in the game."

Like their investigator colleagues, some of the ASC's lawyers came to securities fraud from grittier pasts. Greg Biggs keeps a memento from a particularly grizzly murder prosecution: a replica of a reconstructed skull that figured prominently in a case involving a lethal blow to the head and an attempt to cover it up by way of a bulldozer. These days, Biggs occupies a large and, by choice, windowless office with stacks of folders on the floor and giant whiteboards on the walls marked with flow charts tracking his cases. "I'm the guy for high-yield, prime bank fraud, and unfortunately, I'm covered up with work," he says.

In a prime bank scheme, perpetrators solicit targets with the promise that their money will be invested in high-yield, bank-issued securities that are not available to the general public. Victims may be stretching for yield in a low-interest-rate climate or desperately seeking funding for projects of their own—prime bank targets are often businesspeople with a dream. Investors are taken in by sophisticated financial terms and name-dropping of well-known institutions. Sports stars or other celebrities are often portrayed as fellow investors.

One such case started with a man who masqueraded as an international financier, while working out of an auto-detailing shop in Baldwin County. Over the better part of seven years, the case has uncovered a vast web of coconspirators and resulted in felony convictions in Alabama, Arizona, California and Italy.

Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria promise to wreak more havoc by spawning follow-on frauds, says ASC director Borg. "The best scams are ripped right out of the headlines," he says. State regulators have warned investors not to put their money in investment pools or bonds to help storm victims; water-removal or purification technologies; electricity-generating devices; or real estate remediation.

Concerns are also mounting in regulatory circles about "binary option" schemes and initial coin offerings. With binary options, investors bet online that a stock, index, currency or other asset will trade above or below a specific price at a certain time—a yes-or-no proposition that might last only minutes. Investors have complained about high-pressure sales tactics, unauthorized charges on credit cards used on binary options websites, and demands for excessive fees when investors ask to withdraw their money.

Initial coin offerings are riding a wave of Bitcoin notoriety to peddle virtual currency tokens with the promise of outsize returns, either in the coins themselves or in projects funded by their sale. In September, the SEC charged a man and two companies with defrauding investors via two such offerings. One touted the "first-ever cryptocurrency backed by real estate." The other was purportedly backed by diamonds.

Kiss the money goodbye. Restitution orders or no, it's rare that swindled investors get their money back. Tom Clement, a retired federal government contractor in Elberta, Ala., is one of the lucky ones. Clement invested more than $500,000 in a company called Polymer Global, which claimed to have a breakthrough rubber-recycling technology. Clement was promised returns on the order of 50%.

But the returns never materialized, and the securities were never legally registered. Three men were indicted in the case; two pleaded guilty, and one jumped bail and fled to Mexico. He was arrested in California in 2012, then returned to Alabama and ordered to make restitution. But it wasn't until this past July that Clement was repaid in full. "I feel sorry for investors in California who have no hope of getting their money back," he says.

Some cases strain credulity. One featured a portable breast-cancer screener that was actually a doctored stud finder of the sort carpenters use. "You can't make this stuff up," says Amanda Senn, the commission's general counsel and a ball of energy who works at a stand-up desk when she's not traveling to one of Alabama's 67 county courthouses. She mentions an electrical engineer who was among the victims taken in by a pitch to invest in a gadget that supposedly saved energy by allowing 220-volt lines to be plugged into 110-volt sockets. "We have victims from all walks of life—doctors, lawyers, engineers, brilliant people. These are crimes of trust," says Senn. That's why affinity fraud, which occurs when scammers exploit the trust and friendship of people with whom they have something in common—attending the same church, say—is the bane of stock cops everywhere.

The demographic profile of a typical investment-fraud victim might surprise you: college-educated, self-reliant, earning an above-average income. The crooks succeed because they're good at what they do, and they are relentless. Ask the ASC about the guy hawking the "no-risk, completely safe" gold-trading scheme. Even as the man sat in criminal court, awaiting arraignment, he worked his phone, seeking new targets. The irritated judge revoked the man's bond, and he waited 11 months in jail before pleading guilty and receiving five years' probation.

Greg Biggs is frustrated by such light sentences, a function of the overcrowding in the state's prisons. Says Biggs: "You see someone who's got a degree and is smart enough to know better, who slicks people out of their savings, destroying their lives. And he goes inside for a few months. It's frustrating. But there's nothing I can do—except try to slow 'em down a little bit."

Guarding Your Identity

On any given day, you might find U.S. Secret Service senior special agent Matt Hayes on the other side of the globe, wearing a black suit and an earpiece serving on a security detail to protect a politician or another VIP. Today, on his home turf of Charlotte, N.C., Hayes is on a lesser-known but crucial Secret Service mission: cracking down on financial crimes. Tomorrow, he'll request a federal search warrant allowing him to examine laptops seized in an investigation. The next day, he'll meet with a local police detective to discuss identity-theft cases and visit gas stations to check fuel pumps for "skimmers"—devices criminals affix to payment terminals to steal customers' credit and debit card data. Wherever he is, Hayes picks up his phone or laptop in spare moments, following up on cases and fielding calls and e-mails from police officers, bank fraud investigators and other detectives who help catch the perpetrators.

Skilled investigators such as Hayes, an 18-year Secret Service veteran, don't lack for work. Financial fraud is a big business, in part because the up-front costs are low. Criminals can buy stolen payment-card information for a few bucks per card on black-market internet forums. By spending a few hundred dollars more on equipment found on sites such as or eBay, crooks are on their way to transferring the stolen data to counterfeit cards.

And the penalties are often light compared with those for other types of crime. In federal courts, the theft of $150,000 might earn the culprit a couple of years in prison, says Hayes. Crooks lower their chances of being caught by drifting from city to city or from state to state, keeping under the radar because the financial damage is relatively small in each area.

In one case, for which Hayes was recognized by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police department, a group of criminals traveled to small towns within a few hours of Charlotte and used stolen information to apply for lines of credit at retail stores and to finance car purchases. Hayes, along with detectives from the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and the Charlotte police, noticed that the suspects repeatedly appeared in bulletins from various local law enforcement entities. Fraud losses in that case tallied more than $250,000. The ringleader got almost eight years in federal prison.

Gas station gold. The U.S. is transitioning to credit and debit cards embedded with microchips and to chip-enabled payment terminals. The reason: The technology prevents crooks from using a skimmer to intercept data they could use to produce counterfeit cards. But the switchover to the new system isn't complete. Gas pumps in particular are still vulnerable—and skimming is on the upswing as crooks make last-ditch attempts to steal card data. So, after a lunch of North Carolina barbecue, Hayes climbs into a black government-issue SUV and heads to a gas station where skimmers have been pulled from the pumps four times in a nine-month period. Located in an affluent Charlotte neighborhood, the station is convenient for commuters who need to fuel up on their way downtown.

Hayes retrieves keys from the station attendant and unlocks the compartment housing the payment terminal on each fuel dispenser, starting with the one farthest from the station's convenience store. Pumps on a station's outskirts, where a thief can slip in a skimmer unnoticed, are prime targets. Typically, there are no signs of tampering with the locks; criminals find or make keys that fit. Hayes pokes at the wiring inside, looking for a small circuit board covered in tape or insulation wrap—the telltale sign of a skimmer. The gizmo collects and stores payment-card information—including the PIN for a debit card—and has a tiny Bluetooth antenna attached. A thief need only come near with a Bluetooth-capable device to grab the data. Hayes finds no skimmers today.

Although gas-pump skimmers are usually invisible to customers, you may be able to spot an ATM skimmer (on machines that aren't yet upgraded for chip transactions) by pulling on the card reader slot. If it moves, that's an indication that a thief has glued or taped on an overlay that collects card data. The fraudsters who skim cards at ATMs for a living are often nomadic, says Hayes, driving old minivans with temporary license tags that they can purchase online. Hayes hit pay dirt with one such van, spotted by a patrol officer in a Greensboro hotel parking lot. When Hayes and his counterparts arrested the suspects, they found cloned payment cards in their vehicles and skimmer components in their hotel rooms. Eventually, the main suspect was prosecuted by the feds for skimming crimes in four states.

Back at the office, Hayes brings out an array of confiscated devices that were used to make counterfeit cards: a printer that can emblazon images of payment cards (or driver's licenses) onto blank cards; a magnetic-stripe reader/writer, which transfers stolen card data from a computer to the new cards; an embossing machine, to imprint names and numbers on the cards; and a machine that fastens silver or gold foil onto the embossed characters for a polished look. Hayes lays out several fake cards. Other than a thin white line around the border and a smooth signature line on the back—a genuine card's signature line typically has a slightly raised or rough texture—the cards are almost indistinguishable from the real thing.

Beware of breaches. Skimming isn't the only way to steal your ID. Thieves who get ahold of your name, Social Security number and birth date can open credit card and bank accounts, apply for loans, file for a tax refund—even rent an apartment. Crooks gather such sensitive data through the many breaches in the past several years (the recent hack at credit agency Equifax, for one, exposed the SSNs, birth dates and addresses of as many as 146 million people) or by buying data on the dark web, stealing mail or tricking victims into handing it over in phishing schemes. In the $250,000 ID theft case mentioned above, one of the criminals' sources was a medical office worker who sold employee and patient biographical data for just $10 a person.

In another case, a suspect filed fraudulent tax returns in the names of 61 people and had the refunds sent to cohorts so he could collect the checks without the IRS knowing his address. He altered the checks so they would yield higher dollar amounts, then deposited them in bank accounts he'd opened in the corresponding victims' names. He'd wire money from account to account, creating a convoluted trail for detectives to follow. But he used his home internet connection to file the tax returns, and the associated IP address linked him to the crime. His personal computers contained fake W-2 tax forms as well as evidence affirming his identity, including information on his personal bank accounts, driver's license and passport—plus photos of his college graduation.

Social media is sometimes a crook's undoing. "We've found in the last year or so that these suspects post photos of themselves holding guns and cash," says Hayes, noting that many of those who engage in financial fraud schemes also have violent criminal histories. Just down the hall from Hayes's office, the evidence vault holds about 50 guns seized in investigations. The lion's share of public attention may be focused on violent crimes involving drugs or murders, but Hayes emphasizes that law enforcement takes financial crime and identity fraud just as seriously. "We understand that financial crime affects everybody," he says. "It's not a matter of if you become a victim. It's a matter of when."

Fighting Senior Scams

A carnival atmosphere fills the lobby of the Lower Bucks Hospital, in Bristol, Pa. The local radio station is broadcasting live, the free coffee is flowing, and the room is packed with retirees visiting dozens of booths to gather information about local services.

It's the seventh annual senior expo, hosted by state representative Tina Davis. One of the most popular booths is sponsored by the Bucks County Department of Consumer Protection. A constant stream of people stop by to pick up the bright-red "Helpful Contacts to Stop Scammers" guide, with instructions for stopping robo calls, telemarketers and spam e-mails, and steps to take if you suspect a scam.

Michael Bannon, director of the county's Office of Consumer Protection, and Tom Rorvik, consumer investigator, spend the morning answering questions about potential scams and warning people about some of the most prevalent problems. "One man came by and realized he had been duped out of $300 in a tech-support scam," says Rorvik. He had given a "tech expert" money for a contract to fix a home computer when problems cropped up, but the scammer never answered his calls when he needed help. Rorvik planned to investigate.

The consumer advocates have been dealing with a lot of tech-support scams, as well as solicitations from fake charities—especially after the recent natural disasters. They are also dealing with contractors who prey on seniors needing home repairs and run off with the money before finishing the project. A new twist in impostor scams involves crooks posing as tax collectors asking for money—they've even started posing as representatives of the Bucks County Treasurer's Office, says Bannon. Just picking up the phone puts the consumer at risk of being placed on a list of potential targets to be shared with other scammers, says Bannon. "These are professional con people. It's important to take steps to protect yourself," he says.

Bannon and Rorvik help residents of all ages, but they spend a lot of time on scams that target seniors. Retirees are prime targets for scam artists because they tend to be home when telemarketers call, and they often need help with tech support, caregiving, home maintenance or managing their finances as they get older. Seniors generally have regular income from a pension or Social Security and savings that they're looking to maximize. They're also a large group, with 10,000 people turning 65 every day. Retirees have more at stake than younger victims because there's less time to make up for money that has been stolen.

Dialing for your dollars. A group of men circle around the booth to commiserate about telemarketing calls and share their strategies for thwarting scam artists. Dennis, who lives in Bristol, says he received eight telemarketing calls the day before, starting at 8:20 a.m. One included a recorded message from someone claiming to be from the IRS. By afternoon, when yet another telemarketer called, he was ready to fight back. "I said, ‘You're just in time for a parade!' and I blew a whistle into the phone," he says.

Gerald, who lives in Croydon, Pa., says that he and his wife received a number of telemarketing calls over the past week because his wife is about to turn 65—and everyone seems to be trying to sell her a medigap or Medicare Advantage plan. Some callers claim that they're from Medicare or Social Security and need her personal information. He says a friend almost fell for a fake IRS call, complete with a Washington, D.C., caller ID. "They said he had 24 hours to pay up or a U.S. marshal would come," he says.

The county recently warned seniors about the "grandparent scam," which starts with a frantic call from someone claiming to be a grandchild who needs money because of an accident or other trouble. Some crooks scour social media for names of the grandkids to make it sound legitimate. Callers ask the grandparent to wire money or to send a gift card or iTunes gift card number, which is harder to trace.

The most devastating scams are when a caretaker or a family member takes advantage of an older person. Victims may not report the scams because they depend on the unscrupulous caregivers or service providers or because they don't want anyone to think they're losing their mental abilities. Or they may not recognize the problem. So Bannon's office works with others who come in contact with seniors, such as home health aides, Meals on Wheels volunteers, financial institutions and adult children, to identify red flags. "We've had a number of cases of caretaker fraud ending in criminal convictions," says Bannon.

He recently heard from a home health aide who had started working for an elderly woman and discovered that she'd paid $10,000 to the previous aide's boyfriend to replace a roof. He never fixed the roof, and he "left the house in shambles," says Bannon, who is working with the district attorney's office and others on the case.

In need and betrayed. The expo ends at 1 p.m. Rorvik returns to the office. He'll get a spike in calls from people who read the literature, suspect they've been targeted by scams and want to talk in private. Bannon heads to a meeting of the Bucks County Crimes Against Older Adults Task Force, which takes place at the Area Agency on Aging office in historic Doylestown, near the spot where George Washington crossed the Delaware River during the Revolutionary War. The task force formed about 13 years ago after a local man died in a nursing home. Over time, the focus of the group has shifted. "We're not seeing as much physical abuse, but more financial abuse," says Kathleen Byrne, the county's assistant district attorney, who specializes in senior scams.

Seated around a large table are experts from a variety of local agencies, as well as others in a position to identify, warn about or prosecute senior scams and help the victims. "We have so many interlocking layers of protection," says district attorney Matthew Weintraub. The group discusses calls, public education efforts and recent cases, including the roof-contractor scam. The elderly woman who is out $10,000 has applied to receive a small sum from the state's victims' assistance fund, and a lawyer from the Senior Law Center is seeking restitution from the company that hired the aide who facilitated the scam. If they can't negotiate a resolution, civil action and criminal charges may result.

The experts around the table brainstorm ways to deal with such issues as what to do if a bank teller suspects someone is withdrawing money to pay for a scam, or how to stop someone who obtains a power of attorney and then steals money from the person whose finances he or she now controls. "We've seen an increase in power of attorney abuse," says Deanna Giorno, of the Register of Wills office.

They discuss a case going to trial the following week. A 92-year-old man gave his neighbor power of attorney in 2015 to help with his finances after his wife died. The neighbor started stealing money from the man's accounts, then took out credit cards in his name and even stole his medications to resell them. "It often starts small, and if no one questions it, they'll take a little more," says Byrne. In this case, the power of attorney gave the neighbor "a rubber stamp," she says.

The district attorney's office hired a forensic accountant to comb through bank records and sort the legitimate expenses from the theft. The neighbor ended up stealing about $215,000. She pleaded guilty to criminal charges of identity theft and credit card fraud, and is awaiting sentencing. The victim got $1,400 from an assistance fund at the Network of Victim Assistance, a nonprofit in Bucks County. "It's sad that the 92-year-old victim will probably never get that money back," says Bannon. "But I hope a message was sent to others who may consider such a crime."

Anne Kates Smith
Executive Editor, Kiplinger's Personal Finance

Anne Kates Smith brings Wall Street to Main Street, with decades of experience covering investments and personal finance for real people trying to navigate fast-changing markets, preserve financial security or plan for the future. She oversees the magazine's investing coverage,  authors Kiplinger’s biannual stock-market outlooks and writes the "Your Mind and Your Money" column, a take on behavioral finance and how investors can get out of their own way. Smith began her journalism career as a writer and columnist for USA Today. Prior to joining Kiplinger, she was a senior editor at U.S. News & World Report and a contributing columnist for TheStreet. Smith is a graduate of St. John's College in Annapolis, Md., the third-oldest college in America.