Spotting a Scam: Live Chat Today

Michelle Singletary
Thursday, January 29, 2009; 7:00 AM

Wondering what a Ponzi Scheme is or how to prevent yourself from getting taken by this type of scam? Join me today at noon for the monthly Color of Money Book Club discussion. This month we're reading "Ponzi's Scheme: The True Story of a Financial Legend," by Mitchell Zuckoff, which explains how the scheme originated. If you can't join me live send your questions early or read the transcript later.

Ponzi schemes are a tried-and-true con in which the money collected from later investors is used to pay early investors. The con collapses when not enough investors can be recruited to keep paying those who got in early. It's hard to recover money.

Read my column Investor Beware: The Con Is On (April 24, 2005) for more about investment schemes.

Down But Not Out

Are you staring at your bills, wondering what to pay and what you may have to let go until next month? Do you feel like a failure because you are renting again after being a homeowner?

If you answered yes to either question, enter to become part of the 2009 Color of Money Challenge. The theme for the challenge this year is "down but not out." Specifically, I'm looking for individuals or couples who have recently lost a job or their home to foreclosure. The focus will be to give the challengers the tools and the motivation to financially get back on their feet.

To participate in the Color of Money Challenge, you have to be willing to share all your financial information -- income, debt and savings. Some of the information may be used for publication. So write and tell me your story. How did you end up losing your home? What mistakes did you make that you want to correct starting this year? Could you have fared better financially after your job loss if you'd had a budget or emergency savings? Because it's important that I meet with the challengers face to face, I'm only accepting entries from people living in the Washington metro area. So if you meet the criteria for the contest and you want help send an e-mail to by Sunday, Feb. 8. Please put "2009 Color of Money Challenge" in the subject line and include your name, address, and daytime and evening telephone numbers.

If It's A True Credit Go For It

As Congress begins debating what type of stimulus plan to put forth there could be a change to the recently passed $7,500 tax credit that turned out to really be a 15-year loan to the IRS.

In his recent Nation's Housing column, A Home-Buyer Tax Credit Worthy of the Name (Jan. 24), Kenneth R. Harney writes that if the $7,500 loan actually becomes a true tax credit, it's worthy of a second look.

I agree.

As Harney pointed out: the $7,500 was more like an interest-free installment loan from the government than a straightforward dollar-for-dollar reduction on buyers' tax bills. To qualify, you needed to have closed on a house between April 8, 2008, and this coming July 1.

I'm not a fan of the credit/loan as it stands now. Check out why in these past columns:

* Unwrapped, Housing Tax 'Credit' Is Really a Loan (July 31)

* Think of Tax Credit as 15-Year Loan, And Rethink Whether You Need It (Aug. 14)

* Before You Take That New Housing Credit... (Aug. 17)

Parallels Between Sports and the Economy

Sports columnist Thomas Boswell writes that some of the financial landmarks seen during the last few months were seen in baseball years ago.

"Sport is sometimes an area that tips us off to what's coming," Boswell wrote. "Before the bosses of finance, already rich beyond imagination, took on too much risk and debt, baseball had broken fresh ground on greed, lax rules, indifference to risk and an anything-goes-if-it-makes- a-buck ethos," says Boswell.

Leverage was Wall Street's downfall. For baseball, it was steroids. Take a look at Big and Rich (Jan. 22) for more.

Investor Wants to Cash Out

One reader asks Kiplinger's Kimberly Lankford whether he or she should cash out of a variable annuity that's lost about $10,000 in cash value.

Lankford advises that cashing out may not be the best course of action. If the annuity has withdrawal guarantees or income, you could lose those benefits. She lists other reason why cashing out is a bad idea. Check out Things to Consider Before Cashing Out A Variable Annuity (Jan. 25).

Their Two Cents

Two readers had some good additional insight to one person's questions during my last online chat.

Here's the original question:

Q: "Michelle, my husband will not look at a budget. Doesn't want to know the math. He trusts me when I say we can or cannot afford something, and is very frugal by nature, so the issue isn't his spending. I'm just getting more and more frustrated being in charge of everything financial. I don't want to carry this burden alone. I enjoy budgeting and financial planning and am decent at it, but it's OUR money and I'm just not comfortable with the situation as is. Should I just accept this is who he is (he really does get very very anxious when money matters come up - high blood pressure and nauseated, even) and that this is how my marriage works, or should I keep pushing? I tried a monthly "beer and budget" date, but he keeps wiggling out of it."

I told the wife to keep with it by trying to get her husband to participate in a financial literacy program or course.

Lisa Greaves of Silver Spring, Md., wrote after the chat that perhaps this wife could take tiny, controlled steps: "So maybe if she just asks him to review one thing, like their life happens fund. Something small and easy. Maybe groceries or utilities. Ask him to come up with some calming techniques, a plan for dealing with the fear so he is making the effort, too. Hold his hand. Go slow. Praise him for taking a tiny step."

Valeria Edwards in Olathe, Kan., says, "I agree with you that the site is a good one for financial education, along with community colleges. In addition, every state has a land grant university with an extension service, an adjunct of the university out in each community, whose mission is to bring knowledge and education from the University to the people... Many of the state Extension Services offer excellent financial education programs."

You are welcome to e-mail comments and questions to Please include your name and hometown; your comments may be used in a future column or newsletter unless otherwise requested.

Charity Brown contributed to this e-letter.

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