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Protecting Senior Investors: Report of Examination of Securities Firms Providing "Free Lunch" Sales Seminars

Protecting Senior Investors: Report of Examination of Securities Firms Providing "Free Lunch" Sales Seminars

With the aging of the baby boom generation, a growing number of our nation’s investors are at or near retirement age. Indeed, data presented at the first “Seniors Summit” held by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in July 2006 indicated that 75% of the nation’s consumer financial assets, valued at $16 trillion, are held by households headed by someone who is 50 or older. Within the next 20 years, 75 million people will have celebrated their 60th birthday. Because these “senior investors” are a growing segment of investors, financial services firms are increasingly focusing their marketing and sales of investment products towards the senior investor or those investors nearing retirement age. Within this broader context, securities regulators are concerned about the possibility of unscrupulous and abusive sales practices and investment frauds targeted towards senior investors. In fact, some data indicates that although individuals aged 60 or older make up 15% of the U.S. population, they account for 30% of fraud victims.

In response to this concern, in May 2006, the SEC and the North American Securities Administrators Association (NASAA) announced a coordinated national initiative designed to protect seniors from investment fraud and sales of unsuitable securities.Working together with the NASD and the NYSE Member Regulation Inc. (now consolidated as the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, or FINRA), the SEC and NASAA initiative includes three components: active investor education and outreach to seniors and those nearing retirement age; targeted examinations to detect abusive sales tactics aimed at seniors; and aggressive enforcement of securities laws in cases of fraud against seniors. This joint and collaborative initiative by securities regulators is designed to build on the existing efforts that each regulator had underway, toward a shared mission to protect senior investors. This initiative is active and ongoing.

As part of this effort to protect senior investors, regulators initiated a series of coordinated on-site examinations of broker-dealers, investment advisers and other financial services firms that offer so-called “free lunch” sales seminars. These seminars are widely offered by financial services firms seeking to sell financial products, and they often include a free meal for attendees. Sales seminars are often advertised in local newspapers, through mass-mailed invitations, mass-email, and on websites. While specific data is not available regarding the actual number of sales seminars being conducted, regulators believe that the number of sales seminars has increased in recent years, as financial services firms are increasingly seeking to provide advice to seniors and those approaching retirement.