Correction to This Article
The article incorrectly said that the Financial Planning Association administers training for certified financial planners. The certification program is administered by the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards, an independent professional organization.

Investment Pitches Prey On Elderly

By Carrie Johnson and John Solomon
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Less than a year before he died, Arthur Moyer converted his $500,000 life savings into a complex investment he could not tap for a decade without incurring steep fees.

The 79-year-old former machinist from Pennsylvania poured his money into a deferred annuity at the urging of a salesman who presented himself as a retirement expert and collected a hefty commission, according to Moyer's son and a family adviser. They said Moyer, ailing and confined to a wheelchair, spent the final weeks of his life slumped with his head between his knees, fending off depression.

On the day Moyer was buried, a letter arrived, saying that the insurance company had agreed to the family's demands to unwind the deal and return his life savings. His son Craig slipped a copy of the letter into the front pocket of Arthur Moyer's dark gray funeral suit, "just so that he would know that it was taken care of, and that we got resolution on it," Craig recalled last week.

State and federal authorities say the Moyer case reflects the kind of misleading sales pitches directed at senior citizens, who control more than $14 trillion in assets, according to AARP's Public Policy Institute. Government officials worry that unscrupulous financial advisers are preying on retirees by calling themselves senior experts, using fancy titles to lure the elderly to marketing seminars and then locking up their savings in investments that carry high commissions and withdrawal fees.

Federal regulators and authorities in seven states are set to release the results of an investigation of firms that run "free lunch" investment seminars, which draw large numbers of retirees. The results, said Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Christopher Cox, are "deeply disturbing" and have produced multiple law enforcement referrals.

"Every rock that we turned over seemed to have a bug or a worm crawling out underneath," Cox said in an interview. "In each of the sweeps we conducted, we found significant fraud."

SEC leaders and their state counterparts will host a day-long summit Monday to discuss a nationwide approach to combating bogus yet official-sounding titles that salesmen use to curry favor with older investors.

Meanwhile, the Senate Special Committee on Aging will hold a hearing today to spotlight the problem and call for reforms. "We've discovered that the training and education required for at least some of these titles is so flimsy that using them to advise seniors is misleading," said committee Chairman Herb Kohl (D-Wis.).

There are credible alternatives -- people with established credentials, such as certified financial planners. In a program operated by the Financial Planning Association, for instance, advisers undergo years of intense coursework and submit to oversight by an independent board.

But entrepreneurs drawn by the rising number of older Americans and their retirement savings increasingly bill themselves as experts by using certifications that involve little training, regulators said. One staff member on the Senate panel on aging, who said he had no financial expertise, passed a battery of Internet exams with a 94 percent average on such topics as "advanced retirement planning" in a little more than four hours. He simply searched online for the answers to the open-book tests.

Another common way salesmen reach out to retirees is by sending them investment advice booklets that appear to have been written by the sales representatives, committee staff members said. In fact, some pamphlets are created by marketing companies, which sell them to financial advisers and affix the salesman's name and photograph to the cover.

Javelin Marketing, which has not been charged with any wrongdoing, is one of several businesses offering the booklets to salesmen prospecting for leads. Seniors "think that everything in writing is credible and true -- and that people who write must be experts," a Javelin Web site says.

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