2023 Senior Investor Protection Conference: The Latest Trends, Scams and Schemes
In March, FINRA hosted the Senior Investor Protection Conference, a one-day event dedicated to sharing the most up-to-date regulatory information, effective strategies and solutions for protecting senior and other vulnerable investors from exploitation.
On this episode, we're taking an abridged look at one of the conference sessions on the various trends, scams and schemes currently impacting investors. Brooks Brown, Senior Director of FINRA's High-Risk Representative Unit, moderates the conversation with Amy Nofziger, Director of Victim Support for the AARP’s Fraud Watch Network, Mayur Patel, Senior Principal Intelligence Specialist with FINRA's Financial Intelligence Unit, and Elizabeth Yoka, Manager with FINRA's Vulnerable Adults and Seniors team.
Resources mentioned in this episode:
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00:01 - 00:22
Kaitlyn Kiernan: In March, FINRA hosted the Senior Investor Protection Conference, a one-day event dedicated to sharing the most up-to-date regulatory information, effective strategies and solutions for protecting senior and other vulnerable investors from exploitation. On this episode, we're taking an abridged look at one of the conference sessions on the various trends, scams and schemes currently impacting investors.
00:22 – 00:31
00:31 - 00:52
Brooks Brown: Welcome everyone. You are now here for the Trends, Scams and Schemes Panel. My name is Brooks Brown, I'm a Senior Director with FINRA. I oversee the investigative side of our Vulnerable Adults and Seniors team, as well as our High-Risk Representative investigative team. I'll let each of our panelists introduce themselves. Amy, you want to start?
00:52 - 01:13
Amy Nofziger: So, my name is Amy Nofziger, I work at AARP with the Fraud Watch Network Helpline. I've been there for a little over 21 years. I'm a Certified Fraud Examiner and the majority of my time I work on our Helpline, which is a free resource for anyone of any age. You don't have to be an AARP member to call. And we get over 400 phone calls a day from people who have been experiencing fraud.
01:14 - 01:21
Mayur Patel: Afternoon, everyone. My name is Mayur Patel. I'm a Senior Principal Intelligence Specialist with FINRA's Financial Intelligence Unit.
01:23 - 01:32
Elizabeth Yoka: Hello, everyone. My name is Liz Yoka, and I am the manager for VAST intake. Essentially, we man the FINRA Securities Helpline for seniors.
01:32 - 01:55
Brooks Brown: Thank you. Excited to have you all here. I think we're well positioned to give some more information on some of the schemes that we've talked about already and then maybe highlight a few more. So, we're going to jump right in now. And the first one that we're going to dive into is what we call the relationship and romance scam. And Amy, we'll start with you. What types of maybe, different elements of this scam are you seeing with the AARP Fraud Watch Network?
01:55 - 03:14
Amy Nofziger: So, again, because we help anyone of any age, you don't always have to be 50 to call us. So, we see romance scams of any age, 18 years old up to 98 years old. So, what we're seeing right now are the traditional romance scams where you meet on Match.com, Christian Mingle, Tinder, Grindr, wherever it is. Same old, "My boyfriend works on an oil rig, needs money." We have people losing millions of dollars. Just last year alone, FTC said $1.3 billion was lost to romance scams. I would take that and multiply it by 10 to even 15 because of these scams that go unreported. People are embarrassed, people are ashamed. This is insane. This is a huge problem.
The other scams we're seeing are affecting a little bit of a younger crowd. We call them sexploitation scams. This is where you just meet a flirt online, you share naked pictures and then they start to extort and blackmail you for these. This is actually leading to people to die by suicide. And again, you want to talk about the therapy that my staff and our volunteers have to go through to hear this. I know our friends at the FBI have heard this countless times. This is crazy that children, kids, and adults are dying by suicide because they just met someone online and is extorting money from them.
03:14 - 03:28
Brooks Brown: Yes, terrifying. Amy, one of the things we talked about was the distinction between a shorter-term, dating-type scam and a longer-term, romance relationship scam. Would you say there are maybe different types of red flags you would see with each?
03:28 - 04:38
Amy Nofziger: Definitely with the traditional romance scams, the person is claiming they're an American living overseas, working abroad. We saw this a lot during the pandemic. People would claim that they're doing relief work, COVID vaccines, whatnot, in third-world countries, and they just needed money. We still have a lot of people apparently dropping their iPhones into the ocean off the oil rigs because that is one we hear a lot. And I don't mean to make a joke about it, but again, this is a safe place because we hear a lot of bad stuff and sometimes, we need to, like, get it out. And so, then the short-term ones are the ones that I talked about.
So, if you're familiar with the app Grindr, it's particularly an LGBTQ app for people to meet, have relationships and meet people. Last year alone, $6 million was reported lost to the FBI on Grindr alone. $6 million. That is insane. That is one of the short-term ones that go on there, maybe they share some provocative photos with each other. The next thing you know, the scammer blackmails them, says, I'm going to tell your employer, I'm going to tell your spouse, I'm going to tell your family, I'm going to tell your church, because maybe they're not out of the closet yet. And that's what we're seeing with the short-term scams.
04:39 - 04:45
Brooks Brown: The Securities Helpline for Seniors at FINRA—what types of information are you receiving related to romance scams?
04:45 - 06:08
Elizabeth Yoka: Since the pandemic, this number has dramatically increased. So, we saw a huge increase in calls to the Helpline relating to romance scams, and the trend has just increased, it's just continued. Most of the time, the seniors that are calling us obviously during the pandemic either lost family members, they lost their spouse, they're lonely, so they tend to go to social media—WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter—a lot of these social media forums where they then get a random text from a WhatsApp just with a "Hi," nothing else, and then they just continue that conversation. And once they continue the conversation, it's, "Oh, you know, by the way, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to text you. I texted the wrong person. But by the way, I have a friend who is really good with cryptocurrency, and we can get you some investments and you can double your money." This is how they get them started.
It's unbelievable, some of the scenarios that we get on the helpline—individuals who claim their fiancé, who they met on WhatsApp, who are now getting married but they have to meet them somewhere and they have to wire money out of their account, those are the types of things that we're seeing on the Helpline, which is kind of scary because the amounts of money that are going out of these individuals' accounts are in the thousands, thousands that we see in each different scenario. And we get so many of them that it's just mind-boggling.
06:09 - 06:17
Brooks Brown: Thank you. And Liz, for our broker-dealer firms that are watching, are there any particular key red flags you can think of that they would look out for in this space?
06:17 - 07:11
Elizabeth Yoka: Know who your customer is. Because if you have a relationship with your customer and you know what the transaction history is on their account, if they're making a withdrawal, usually what happens is that they start off with small withdrawals. They'll start off with $1,000 and then subsequently then they'll go in with another one and do $5,000, and then it continues to increase. So, if you see that there's a pattern, if you see that there's something that doesn't look right for your particular customer, ask those questions. That's what we need to really drill into the firms. They need to ask the questions and get the documentation, because a lot of the times the scammers are telling these seniors what to say, so they need to ask those questions and dig further and get documentation. If they're asking for money to buy a property, get the documentation. If they're looking to give their grandchild some money, ask for tuition or something, ask for documents. I think that's the biggest thing.
07:12 - 07:28
Brooks Brown: Just to further drill into that, we've got a question. How do you get through to your senior client that's clearly being victimized as part of this type of scam, but is 1,000% convinced that it's legitimate and that they're doing what they want to do? Amy, do you have any thoughts there? I'll turn to you first.
07:28 - 09:02
Amy Nofziger: Oh, I was just going to listen to your thoughts. I was like, please tell me what it is. Honestly, it's one of the hardest things. We have family members call us every day on the Helpline and say, how do I convince my mom that this person doesn't love her? And again, you're going to laugh, but how do we convince this 55-year-old man that he's not marrying Taylor Swift this weekend? Legit story, last week. I was like, she's in Vegas right now anyways, doing a show.
But it is one of the hardest things to do. And I think if any of us had the answer, none of us would be sitting in this room right now. And we're all looking for that magic wand and there is none. I think there's many things to try and to do. You have to try almost every tool in the toolbox to see which one works. And then ultimately, and this is what I say to family every single day, no tool might work. So, then, what you need to do is almost look at this person in some sort of way or capacity that they're in an addict role right now. They're having an addiction mentality, but for some reason we can't accept that. But with these people who have gone on these scams for five years, the family's exhausted. The family needs to set up boundaries for themselves.
The family needs to pay attention to their own mental health because they can't convince them, and they start to blame themselves. But for you to say this is not true is almost saying like 'cocaine is bad, meth is bad,' and you expect them to be like, 'okay, well, I'll stop.' It's the same thing, you have to go into that mindset. So, it is very difficult. Of course, you guys know the rules and restrictions of FINRA and stuff. I'm just talking about from the psychological angle of having these conversations with family in the client itself.
09:03 - 10:17
Elizabeth Yoka: Honestly, Amy, we have the same conversations on the phone with seniors every single day. People tell us stories and we're trying to tell them this is the signs of a scam and they're so adamant or they're just so lonely that they want to believe it so bad. They want to really believe that this is a true investment, or they want to believe that there's someone out there that really loves them and that wants to be with them. And I think that's the hardest part. And honestly, the only thing I could say is pool all your resources together. At FINRA, we have a really great relationship with Adult Protective Services, and the States, and FBI, and we're constantly reporting whatever cases that we get that are not under our jurisdiction. Adult Protective Services is really great with reaching out. They'll do wellness visits to the individuals' homes, the FBI, sometimes local law enforcement will also visit the individuals at their homes and give them a little bit of a shaking and say, 'Hey, this is a scam, this is not real.' We have tons of resources on FINRA.org, Investor Alerts, FINRA Foundation has a lot of different resources out there that you can print out and mail out to the individuals as far as like the different types of scams. I would just say pool in all your resources as much as you can.
10:17 - 10:43
Brooks Brown: Great information on the emotional context underlying a lot of these scams and some of the resources that you can leverage. But we're going to pivot now quickly to a different angle, but sometimes scams that overlap with romance scams, and that's, first, cryptocurrency. But then, also, even in market-based scams such as microcap fraud. So, Mayur, I'll turn to you. Is there anything that you're seeing in the Financial Intelligence Unit related to cryptocurrency-based fraud right now?
10:44 - 11:33
Mayur Patel: Yeah. So, it's interesting in the sense of when we talk about cryptocurrency and digital assets, given the regulatory landscapes or lack of regulatory landscapes, what we've been seeing recently in the FIU is existing scams that we all know of, but just with touch points to crypto or digital assets. So, as we've talked about here, those romance-based scams being used, which we'll talk about in a bit in equities-based market manipulation schemes, but also crypto- and digital asset issuer- based penny stock and microcap scams. And in addition to that, a lot of what is outside of our jurisdiction. We'll talk about also imposter websites we've been seeing an increase of. But the point really is because of where we're at regulatory landscape-wise, a lot of the different versions of scams that we've seen in the past with touch points to crypto and digital assets.
11:34 - 11:38
Brooks Brown: Got you. Amy, what about AARP? From a crypto standpoint?
11:39 - 11:40
Amy Nofziger: Am I allowed to say I hate crypto?
11:40 - 11:42
Brooks Brown: Certainly.
11:43 - 13:50
Amy Nofziger: So, what we're seeing is we're seeing the investments, like you were saying, and the wrong number text message right now is hot. And I'm sure every single person in this room have gotten it. You just don't realize it. It might be happening right now. It's "Hey, Dr. Smith, Scruffy is really sick. Can I get him in for an appointment?" You're like, oh, no, the dog's sick. I have to tell him it's the wrong number. "I'm sorry. This is not Dr. Smith, but I hope Scruffy feels better." Next thing you know, it's like, "Oh, you're really nice," "Oh, thanks." And then all of a sudden, "Hey, have you ever thought about going on the exchange?" Very, very popular.
So, when someone calls the Helpline and they say they got involved in a crypto investment, my first two questions, because I just want to get to the chase is, did you get a text or meet them on WhatsApp? And they pause and they're like, how'd you know? And it's like, okay. So, we're seeing a lot of that. And then what we're seeing are the regular, everyday scams like the tech support scams, the romance scams, et cetera, where people are paying with crypto. Prepaid gift cards are still number one preferred method, but then crypto. And where are they sending these people to pay their crypto? The ATM machines. Because, apparently, we think it's okay to have crypto ATM machines located at liquor stores, vape stores, gas stations, grocery stores, all those places.
I had an 82-year-old woman from Vegas last week, 82 years old— $25,000 in cash at, they called it a smoke shop, it's a vape store, just inputting her money like this. And her son says, isn't the vape store accountable? And I said no. But again, you think about the fact that all the vape store did was lease two feet by two feet for this crypto ATM machine, for Coinbase, Coinfinder, whatever one it is. They get foot traffic, they have no money, regulation, training, rules, guidelines, anything. And the scammers are sending them in. That's it. It's all that has to happen. When is it okay? And who is investing crypto at a vape store? If you're a legitimate crypto investor, if there even is such a thing, are you really going to a vape store to do your trading and your investment? I don't think so. So, anyways, that's where we're seeing and hearing a lot of it right now.
13:51 - 13:52
Brooks Brown: Understood.
13:52 - 13:53
Amy Nofziger: Listen, soapbox, okay?
13:55 - 14:04
Brooks Brown: Let's pivot back to Mayur. I think there are some more novel, equity market-based schemes that we've observed over the last year or two. Can you talk a bit about that?
14:04 - 16:01
Mayur Patel: Yeah, so, it's been interesting. This is fairly new, but what Amy and Liz have talked about in the context of getting that phone number or random phone number and building that relationship, what we've seen the transition into using that as part of a larger market manipulation in equity, specifically small cap IPOs. And so, what we've seen is that this crypto-based scam is part of a larger scam which is migrated from Hong Kong-based equities to U.S. Markets known as ramp and dump schemes. And I think we're all familiar with pump and dump schemes.
The key difference between a ramp and a pump is in a ramp, the price increases primarily because of manipulative trading activity. So, behind the scenes, versus a pump, the price increases for a variety of factors, a lot of them public—suspicious or misleading press releases issued, financial statements are misleading or promotional activity that is out in the public usually is what we traditionally see. And so, these characteristics that we've seen with these ramp and dump schemes are they're small cap IPOs listed on the lower tiers of Nasdaq and NYSE.
What we've seen is that bad actors are able to acquire large percentages of the IPO allocations, nearly 90% in some instances, and when the IPO commences, they're withholding those shares and the price increases. And where this crypto-related, romance type of scam is occurring is that these bad actors are building that relationship, but at a point they're requesting or telling the individual investor, seniors a lot of the time, that to purchase the stock at its highest point and shortly after that is being purchased, the stock price collapses significantly because the bad actors are liquidating their shares. So, the end result is what we've always seen in a pump and dump scheme, but it's not really being used in soliciting crypto investments, but more so in this larger scheme of equities-based scams.
16:01 - 16:12
Brooks Brown: And I'll give a quick plug to the resources that we've included in the materials. So, FINRA Reg Notice 22-25 goes into great depth on this scheme in particular.
16:12 - 16:50
Mayur Patel: Yeah, so, it goes into depth not only talking about the characteristics that I identified, but then existing obligations and guidance to member firms that we've put out in the past, reminding them of the AML guidelines and requirements under the Bank Secrecy Act. But it also provides information on how to report this activity, as I think the general theme is going to be a lot of this is outside of our jurisdiction and FINRA's jurisdiction and our member firms' jurisdiction. So, a lot of the information in the Reg Notice also provides how to report that activity, not only to FINRA so we can review and analyze that, but also criminal authorities and external parties that could bring certain actions.
16:50 - 17:22
Brooks Brown: Great. Okay, we're now going to pivot to imposter scams. I think we've all observed how these schemes have evolved over the last couple of years. They're becoming more sophisticated; reasons are probably becoming obvious. Technology is becoming more advanced and more readily available to fraudsters, and so it's more difficult to detect. But what are the types of schemes that we're now seeing more recently? We've seen it through FINRA from the firm and broker website imposter perspective. Can you comment on that first?
17:22 - 19:58
Elizabeth Yoka: That's one of the most prevalent imposter schemes that we see coming through the Helpline. Specifically, an individual is impersonating a registered rep or impersonating the fact that they work for a registered broker-dealer. And the way they actually do it is that they formulate very similar websites to the actual broker-dealer, very similar email addresses. They have the actual registered representative's CRD number or identification number for the broker for the firm. They have very similar addresses. But then when you are going to send the money, the wire instructions are somewhere overseas. So, that's the major difference. But they're using legitimate person's phone number, legitimate person's name at the broker-dealer.
So, what happens? The individuals, the seniors call us on the Helpline, and they say, we want to know if John Smith at XYZ firm is registered with FINRA, is this person a legitimate person? Well, on the surface, yes, there is a John Smith who works for XYZ firm. But when we start asking deeper questions, okay, well, what type of investment are you looking for? What type of investment did Mr. John Smith recommend to you? 'Oh, they're talking about a cryptocurrency platform that I can invest in.' That's where we start to realize this is more of an imposter firm, this is not a legitimate situation here.
Another imposter scheme that we see very often on the Helpline is where not only they're impersonating the firm, but they're impersonating someone in operations. So, an unknown name that doesn't have a CRD number, usually the person or the senior is having an issue with their computer. They call this person, they say, "Oh, we need to gain access to your computer." The person gives them access to their computer, gives them access to their passwords, access to all their financial information, and then that's how they can gain access to their funds, they can make withdrawals, they can essentially act as the customer because they have full access to their computer.
We also see FINRA being impostered, where individuals call us saying, you know, we received a letter with FINRA letterhead on it saying that you're going to help me recover my funds, that I was scammed on last year and you're going to help me, or someone that allegedly works at FINRA is going to help me regain my funds. Most of the time when they call us with those types of scenarios, we know right off the bat that this is not something that FINRA does, or we won't be able to do or help them with that. So, those are the types of scenarios that we see very often.
19:58 - 20:04
Brooks Brown: And they're prominent. And Mayur, I believe FINRA has recently issued guidance directed towards that scam. Is that right?
20:04 - 20:44
Mayur Patel: Yeah, we've issued a couple of Reg Notices on the topic that basically identify or provide characteristics of what Liz just talked about, but more so it was not a novel approach. But the only way to really identify these is to be proactive and in the guidance, a simple way to identify this is we recommend member firms and their reps Google their names every now and then, because that is the key way to identify some of these imposter websites because we've seen in trying to proactively identify these websites where you find them and within a day or two they change, the URL changes and another website is created. So, some of that guidance is what we've kind of issued in the past couple of years.
20:45 - 20:51
Brooks Brown: And Amy, to switch gears to the AARP Fraud Watch Network, you're seeing this trend unfold as well.
20:51 - 20:52
Amy Nofziger: Yeah, a little different.
20:52 - 20:52
Brooks Brown: Yes.
20:52 - 22:25
Amy Nofziger: So, our top imposter scams right now are government imposter scams, business imposter scams, but one that is just out of control and just, it's hard to understand, but are the celebrity imposter scams. I think after the pandemic and during the pandemic, a lot of celebrities connected with their fans online. They did free shows, they did art classes. I remember we all gathered around the computer to hear like, a pianist play. Remember those days? But now we have a lot of people who are giving money to people who are pretending to be celebrities.
I mentioned Taylor Swift—country music stars, for whatever reason, are a very hot topic. One, again, because I think they have a downhome feel and they do connect with their fans on social media. Keanu Reeves, he's super popular. Why? Because, I mean, it's Keanu Reeves. Let's protect the man at all costs. But you hear about him in the news. He's nice, he's caring, he does very generous things. Last week, we had a victim whose wife called on behalf of the spouse because he was a big fan of a WWE celebrity. They were sending a limo to pick him up, to take him to this WWE bout, but he just had to pay for the gas money with pre-paid gift cards. I get it. We all have a celebrity crush. Or maybe just me, but you do get under that ether when you feel like this person thinks you're special. You know, I hate to say it, you're not that special. Taylor Swift is not marrying you this weekend. But again, people are losing millions of dollars to these celebrity imposter scams.
22:25 - 22:46
Brooks Brown: So, we did receive a question in advance that relates to this. And the question was so how prevalent are scams involving Deepfake video technology? What are effective methods of convincing a client who claims to be video conferencing with a celebrity who is, of course, asking them for money? Amy, are you seeing, quote unquote, deepfake or AI?
22:46 - 23:39
Amy Nofziger: I think we're, yeah, I think we're seeing it more in the news than we're actually seeing it in practice. Because, honestly, criminals don't need the deepfake to victimize people. I've had a full-time job for 21 years doing this and we didn't have deepfake that long ago. I mean, there's people here who have been doing it longer than me. They don't need that. I think where we might see it, and I'm sure it's out there, but where we might see it are more of the business compromise scams. You were saying earlier, someone in operations gets an email that they have to wire something to somebody else and you think it's the boss. I think we're going to see it with that. But again, bottom line and you said it, they're asking for money. Taylor Swift does not need a pre-paid gift card. She's got plenty. And so, I think that's a red flag, regardless of if it's a grandparent scam and you think it's your grandchild calling you and it's their voice, their name, their everything. If they're asking for money in a non-traditional way, that's the red flag and stop—regardless of if it's AI or not.
23:40 - 24:04
Brooks Brown: Right. And I don't know if this falls under the category of deepfake technology that the question was alluding to, but no doubt with the proliferation of AI and just how publicly available this technology is becoming, those schemes like business email compromises, they're going to become much more realistic and effective, I would think, in terms of using natural language that don't have those grammar mistakes that a ninth grade English expert would catch.
24:04 - 24:19
Amy Nofziger: Yeah, it might, but they've already gotten billions of dollars from us without it, regardless of their speaking and poor English or not, we're still losing billions of dollars to these scams because there's so much more than just the obvious red flag that they we think they are. It's the emotional side of it, so.
24:19 - 24:37
Brooks Brown: Definitely. One question came in—understanding that available resources may change by state, is there one place that a broker-dealer could go to identify the resources, the characteristics and authority? Amy, would you have any perspective to add there in terms of central places that firms can look at?
24:37 - 24:55
Amy Nofziger: AARP Fraud Watch Network Web page has hundreds of scams, resources, how to have the conversation. We have a fraud support group; we have a podcast. It's all out there. People just need to grab it and access it and do something with it. And the Seniors Helpline, another fantastic resource, we refer people all the time.
24:55 - 25:29
Elizabeth Yoka: The Senior Helpline is a big resource for anyone who wants to get guidance or just talk about a particular situation that they're going through at their firm. But NASAA also has a really good senior website where they have resources available by state. So, you can actually click on the state, and you can see the insurance commissioner or the state securities regulator. You can see who the Adult Protective Services in that particular state is, and then you can narrow it down by county. So, that's a really good resource if you don't know the particular state that you're dealing with or their laws, you can go on the particular state there.
25:29 - 25:36
Brooks Brown: Okay. We are out of time. Thank you all for your time and attention, hopefully this helps everybody feels collectively a little better. Thank you.
25:36 - 26:05
Kaitlyn Kiernan: Thank you. That's it for today's episode of FINRA Unscripted. Check out the show notes for links to all the resources mentioned during the episode and for a link to where you can learn more about all of FINRA's upcoming conferences and events. If you have any ideas for future episodes, you can email us at [email protected]. Today's episode was produced by me, Kaitlyn Kiernan, engineered by John Williams and coordinated by Hannah Krobock. A special thanks to all the panelists that participated in this year's Senior Investor Protection Conference.
26:05 – 26:10
26:10 - 26:38
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