John Kelleher Havre Daily News email@example.com
Every year, Montanans lose hundreds of millions of dollars in various investment scams. The sour economy has made some people more susceptible to fraud perpetrated by con artists, said Montana State Auditor Monica Lindeen, who is also the state commissioner of securities and insurance. Lindeen has a two-pronged effort to curb scams. She hopes to educate people to look out for crooked businessmen, and she hopes to go after scammers and punish them. To help meet the first goal, she is on a statewide tour, talking to people about The problem. Touring the Hi-Line, she was in Glasgow and Malta before arriving in Havre late Thursday. She ended the day with a program in front of about 150 people at the Eagles Club, where the crowd, mostly seniors, were treated to a dinner sponsored by the the non-profit Investment Protection Trust. The biggest problems seem to be unscrupulous salesmen convincing people to invest in Ponzi schemes, oil and natural gas schemes, and deals on real estate that don't exist, she said. Thirty-two Montanans lost a total of $20 million in the massive Bernard Madoff scandal, she said. But most of the problems come from less-well-known cases. In Livingston, Lindeen said, a woman came to her with a FedEx package sent to her by someone who wanted her to make an investment in an Oklahoma oil deal. "It contained all kinds of information," she said. "There was a certificate that looked very impressive." But it was a fraud. Lindeen convinced her not to take part in the investment. In Kalispell and Helena, two frauds each costing consumers more than $1 million have been broken up, she said. "In all, $82 million in fines have been levied against the bad actors," said Lynne Egan, the deputy commissioner for securities. Some people get their money returned, she said. But the best solution is not to get involved in such scams to begin with, she said. "It's absolutely incredible what they will do to take your hard-earned money," she said. Senior citizens are more likely to be victims, she said, because they generally have more money and tend to be more trusting. Lindeen said her office has information on all brokers in the state. In all, 75,000 people are licensed to sell securities in Montana, Egan said. Only about 3,000 are Montanans. People can call the commissioner's office and find information on anyone who tried to sell them stock or securities, she said. They can find out if they are licensed, and if they are not, the office can take immediate action. If they are licensed, people can find out how many complaints have been filed against them and on what grounds, Lindeen said. A red flag should go off, she said, if someone promises a guaranteed rate of return on an investment. "It's an old adage, but it's true," she said. "If it sounds too good to be true, it is."