Singletary: Cheaters find new niche on the Web

Your social media account on Twitter or Facebook may have connected you to a forgotten classmate or sweetheart, but it can also lead you straight into the hands of a predator.

All this Internet openness has made it much easier for people to be preyed upon by con artists who specialize in affinity fraud, using someone’s connection to certain groups to gain their trust and ultimately their life savings.

The North American Securities Administrators Association (NASAA) recently warned investors to look out for shady investment deals pitched by people they connect with on social networking sites. State security regulators warn that con artists are using the information you post to make highly targeted pitches within your social group.

“We issued the warning because we had more and more people calling in saying they had lost money over the Internet,” said Jack E. Herstein, NASAA’s president.

For years, con artists have found victims through offline social networks such as faith-based, civic, community and professional groups. They join the groups and ingratiate themselves, making connections in person. This takes time and you have to come face-to-face with your victims.

Online fraudsters can target more people in less time and never have to travel. Last year, Maine’s security regulator issued a cease-and-desist

order for an online investment scam operating on the island nation of Vanuatu in the South Pacific. The scam targeted people participating on chat sites popular within the deaf community.

However you get pitched an investment, here are some red flags to watch out for, according to NASAA:

  • An investment that is supposedly low risk with a high return. Just remember: Risk and reward are equal partners. If the risk is low, the return is low. If the risk is high, the return is potentially high. If anyone is promising a low-risk investment with a return that is far above recent average returns, you are probably about to be scammed.

  • Someone says he’s got an investment opportunity with foreign operations. Many people don’t even bother to check out an investment opportunity with stateside operations, so how can you really check out the legitimacy of a foreign operation? You usually can’t.

  • If you’re being offered a bonus to sign up friends for an investment deal, use caution.

  • Con artists will tell you to go to a website to get more information. But when you do, there’s little concrete information. This should be a gigantic red flag. My 11-year-old can create a website. Even if a site looks professional, click away from it if it offers little or no information about the company or details about the investment, NASAA says.

  • If an investment promoter won’t give you written information, walk away from the deal. With a legitimate investment opportunity you’ll get a prospectus or other written information detailing the risks of the investment and procedures to get your money out.

    The most common affinity groups targeted were elderly, retired and religious groups, according to the study conducted by Marquet International, a security consulting firm. Just keep in mind that by sharing small details of your life, you are making yourself more vulnerable.

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