Seniors are a particular target of those looking to illegally separate them from their cash.
"I think they're seen as those who have the money," said Keith Woodwell, director of the Utah Division of Securities. "They've had an entire career to save up a nest egg, and now they're living off the pot of money they've saved for retirement."
Americans 69 and older lost $2.9 billion in 2010 to what is known as financial exploitation, said Jenefer Duane, a program analyst with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a new federal agency created by the Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation.
"We call it a hidden epidemic," Duane told the small crowd at the session of the expo, which ends Friday.
Woodwell's agency enforces state financial laws and regulations, and offers seniors and other investors help to avoid being scammed. One problem is that people often don't do any checking until after they make an investment, and only then do they get suspicious, he said.
"People know how to do the due diligence [but] you see a lot of them doing it after the fact," Woodwell said. "At some point they decide, 'I think this guy is screwing me' and then they do the due diligence."
That research should be done up front before any money changes hands, he said, pointing seniors to the agency's website at http://www.securities.utah.gov. They also may call for information at 801-530-6600.
Duane said seniors should plan ahead in case they become unable to direct their own finances. She also warned that no one should be pushed into making an financial decision.
"Don't ever let anyone frighten you like that," Duane said.
Mark Hirata, an assistant U.S. attorney in Salt Lake City and the office's health care fraud coordinator, warned audience members to protect their financial information, particularly Medicaid and Medicare identification numbers.
"That's no different from your date of birth and Social Security number," he said.
He also said that any investment where the promoter is touting big returns such as 5 percent a month is most likely a fraud, even if a family member or someone from church says they have been getting a steady stream of checks.
"Don't fall into that trap," he said. "I can tell you right now that the family member or friend didn't try to defraud you, they actually are a victim."
Helen Maxfield says she also has a solution for all the calls she gets asking for money.
"I hang up," she said.
Top 10 investor threats in Utah
1 • "Crowdfunding" and Internet investment offers
A new law will allow small companies to offer investment opportunities to the public on "crowdfunding" websites. But that doesn't change the fact that small startups are among the riskiest investments.
2 • Gold and precious metals
The celebrity pitches surrounding these commodities continue despite the risky nature of these investments and market signs that some precious metals are declining or increasingly turbulent.
3 • Real estate investment schemes
Although legitimate real estate investments can play a role in a diversified portfolio, investors should be aware that scams related to buying, renovating, flipping or pooling distressed properties also are very popular with con artists. Even with legitimate real estate investments, there are substantial risks with properties that are bank-owned, pending short-sale, or in foreclosure.
4 • Risky oil and gas drilling programs
Investments in these endeavors typically involve a high degree of risk and are suitable only for those who can bear chancing their entire principal investment.
5 • Promissory notes
Investors must be wary of promises of security and liquidity investment vehicles, which are very often false or overstated.
6 • Self-directed IRAs
Scam artists are at work here, pushing a Ponzi scheme or other investment by claiming it has been checked out by the IRA custodian and is therefore protected against losses.
7 • Unlicensed salesmen promoting liquidation
Insurance firms or agents who are not registered to sell securities improperly advise investors to liquidate their securities to fund annuity purchases. The elderly are often enticed to shift their investments from traditional securities to annuities with the promise of guaranteed income.
8 • Regulation D Rule 506 Private Offerings
Fraudulent private placement offerings are one of the most common investment schemes seen in Utah because of a federal exemption that allows these investments without oversight from a state agency.
9 • Inappropriate advice or practices from investment advisers
They are licensed and owe their clients a fiduciary duty, unlike brokers, who may pitch various securities.
10 • Foreign funds for visas scheme
Commonly known as an EB-5 Investment-for-Visa Scheme, investors are often told this is a "safe" investment because of an influx of foreign cash.