This article is a reprint from May 2020 Ingham County Bar Association Briefs magazine.
According to the American Association of Retired Persons, so-called “free lunch” seminars are often used to lure people into investing in unsuitable or even fraudulent products. To help older Americans avoid being scammed out of their investments, AARP and the North American Securities Administrators Association developed the Free Lunch Monitor Program.
Volunteer monitors attend free lunch or dinner investment seminars and, using a checklist developed by AARP, report what takes place. The first-hand observations help AARP and regulators determine if investment professionals are truly working in the best interest of investors. Information on the program is available at https://createthegood.aarp. org/volunteer-guides/spot-free-lunch-investment-scam.html.
Soon after I retired, sure enough, I began receiving colorful postcards inviting me to free seminars on “retirement planning,” “new tax laws,” “Social Security maximization,” “wealth management,” and like topics. All involved dinners, not lunches, and most featured a picture of a steak or the logo of a local steakhouse. Like many retirees, three of my favorite words are Food, Finances, and Free. So, I enlisted as an AARP monitor. This is my experience.
My first investment seminar took place at the Henry Center, attached to the University Club in Lansing. The invitation promised a “complimentary gourmet meal” where “our guests can expect to have a little fun, a good meal and obtain some meaningful information.” A luscious steak was pictured.
Our host, a SEC Registered Investment Advisor, ran a one-man firm in Grand Ledge, associated with a multistate securities brokerage. He was down-to-earth, promising to “help you guys out big time.” He promised a “fiduciary level of service” which means “doing the right thing for you.”
The program--which I learned always comes first--lasted about an hour. It was very general. He offered “full-service retirement planning” to those who accepted his invitation to make an office appointment. No products were pitched, other than his services. Steak was indeed among the limited menu choices following the seminar. There was precious little fun, or actionable information, but the meal was good.
I declined an office appointment. There was no pressure and no follow-up. I sent my checklist to AARP but felt like a failure for not identifying anything untoward.
My second invitation was to a “complimentary financial dining event” at Spag’s restaurant in Williamston. The postcard promised information on “new tax laws,” and “new changes to IRAs.” But nothing in the hour-and-a-half presentation dealt with any new laws or regulations.
Our host was from Fowlerville. I later learned from brokercheck.finra.org that an individual by the same name, from the same town, was barred by the SEC for attempted cheating on a licensing exam. Coincidence?
I think his main purpose was to sell annuities. One product he mentioned paid 3¼% for 10 years. That didn’t sound impressive to me. Nor was the meal anything special, a limited menu of pasta and such. But then, no steak was promised or pictured.
Things improved markedly with the next invitation, for a “complimentary gourmet meal” at Lansing’s Capital Prime steakhouse. “Expect to have a little fun, a good meal and obtain some meaningful information,” it promised. Where have I read that before?
The hosts were two Registered Investment Advisors, one from Portland and one from Sunfield. Recalling that previous hosts were from Grand Ledge and Fowlerville, I could understand why they were prospecting in Lansing. But why would they think Lansingites would travel to the boonies for investment advice?
Again, the presentation didn’t match up with the invitation, which promised that we would learn about: “How to avoid taxes on IRA distributions,” “Where you should never put your IRA,” and “Good versus Bad IRAs.” Instead, the pitch was for equity-indexed annuities. Do seminar hosts even read their invitations?
But steak was on the limited menu we were offered, and it was excellent. Later I learned that the chart on display, which showed how an annuity outpaced the S&P 500 index over the past twenty years, did not include stock dividends. With dividends reinvested, the S&P would have outpaced the annuity by 33%.
This time it was back to Capital Prime in response to an invitation that promised, “Come listen to an attorney, CPA, and licensed Wealth Managers deliver a UNIQUE presentation on life, taxes, Michigan laws, finances and how they relate to each other!” Now that’s a tall order.
Although the weather was clear, only one speaker showed up. He was neither a lawyer nor a CPA (nor a Registered Investment Advisor), but he did have one year of law school. He was from Tawas City--another out-of-towner.
He talked a lot about trusts, including advice that if your assets were more than $2 million, use a revocable trust; otherwise use an irrevocable trust to avoid Medicare spend-down requirements. It was probably the most specific advice I received from any speaker. He offered trusts at the special price of $250 through an affiliated law firm.
The dinner was the best yet. Steak was again on the menu, plus free mixed drinks for the asking. How can he afford it on $250 trusts?
Finally, a local guy who lives and works in nearby Okemos. And a Registered Investment Advisor. His postcard, picturing a steak, promised to tell us “10 things about IRA Required Minimum Distributions” at my new favorite restaurant, Capital Prime. And he came accompanied by two assistants and at least four satisfied clients. Come to think of it, some of my tablemates at prior seminars were clients as well.
Unfortunately, only about fifteen minutes of his one-hour presentation touched on RMDs. Most of his time was devoted minimizing fees, taxes, and risk. Particularly risk: “I don’t believe in risk,” he said. And “We need to make adjustments to your portfolio to reduce your risk.” Annuities, maybe?
This time we were invited to order off the main menu, but mixed drinks were on us. Tiring of steak, I went for the $19 lamb chops. As with other seminars, someone came around to our table to schedule an office appointment. And, again, a simple “No, thank you” sufficed.
Different invitation, different location, but it turned out to be the same guy from Okemos. This time the postcard offered “An inside look into leaving a legacy: What the wealthy know, and you should, too” with “a deep dive into some of the current strategies available that redesign the way people do retirement.” A steak was pictured, but the location was the Coral Gables restaurant in East Lansing.
The host was a polished speaker, but his anecdotes (which I had already heard once) went on too long. This might be because, according to information on the SEC’s website (adviserinfo.sec. gov), he is a former church pastor. In addition to his Okemos investment firm, he runs an insurance agency with a very similar name to which he devotes more than 50% of his time. His only associate spends 80% of his time selling insurance.
I received a third invitation from the Okemos advisor, this one on “Trump’s New Tax Plan: Help or Hindrance?” Although his program was back at Capital Prime, I declined. Been there, heard that.
Then all of a sudden, the investment-seminar postcards stopped. Had I been found out? I still encounter free-meal invitations to learn about timeshares, reverse mortgages, retirement facilities, pre-planned funerals, and even replacement windows. I decline them all; I’m a monitor, not a moocher.
During my year as a Free Lunch MonitorI did not observe any fraudulent representations or high-pressure tactics. But then I also never accepted invitations for a one-on-one meeting with a sponsor to learn what really was being pitched, and how.
My Do’s and Don’ts for seniors receiving investment-seminar invitations are these:
- Don’t expect the topics discussed to necessarily match the invitation.
- Don’t expect the information to be specific enough to act on.
- Do expect to be encouraged to meet with the host for a follow-up consultation; and
- Do enjoy the steak . . . with more than a few grains of salt.
Otto Stockmeyer is a retired member of the faculty of Western Michigan University-Cooley Law School. He is a Life Fellow of the Michigan and American Bar Foundations and a former member of the ABA House of Delegates. He is also a past president of Scribes-The American Society of Legal Writers. Read Otto's blog posts at info.cooley.edu/blog/author/otto-stockmeyer.