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Con artists pose as FINRA to scam clients

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What’s the latest hoax scammers are using to trip up potential victims? They’re posing as FINRA’s CEO.

The regulator issued an alert Friday, warning clients about con artists who pose as FINRA representatives to pitch fraudulent investment opportunities with guaranteed returns. A recent scam even involved a fake signature from FINRA CEO Robert Cook.

Commonly, the schemes ask for upfront fees to cover the administrative costs to buy back shares of stock that are currently worthless, the regulator says. Once the investors send the money, the scammer is never heard from again.

“Financial fraudsters go to great lengths to appear legitimate, making it difficult for investors to recognize their ruses,” says Gerri Walsh, FINRA's senior vice president for investor education. “That's why we are telling investors flat out that FINRA does not guarantee investments, and our officers play no role in facilitating investment opportunities.”

Another recent scam involved an email, supposedly originating from Cook, that alleged, “approval has been granted for the release and payment of your outstanding inheritance fund.” It also incorrectly identified Cook as a financial manager with the IMF. A third scheme used FINRA’s name and logo on an official-looking letter, the regulator says.

“Cons lie, and they will lie about their affiliations to convince you to send them money or to collect your personal information,” Walsh says. “If you're unsure whether an investment solicitation is legitimate, do your own independent search for the official number for the government agency, office or employee and call to confirm its authenticity.”

FINRA suggests hanging up on suspicious callers or deleting the email. Red flags include the use of quasi-legal language, repeated use of the term “guarantee” and the incorrect names of FINRA leadership titles, says the regulator.

“Over the last couple of years, [scammers] have gotten more patient and more sophisticated,” Andy Zolper, chief information security officer with Raymond James, said in an October interview.

While advisors are becoming savvier about fraudsters, Raymond James scans millions of emails on its platform and discards 2.5 million per day. While not all of those are attacks, almost eight in 10 messages received are rejected, according to Raymond James.

Zolper suggests using two-factor authentication — a password that requires an additional form of verification when clients sign in to an account for the first time — to thwart scammers, adding that the would-be criminals are often not very smart.

“Hackers’ greatest skills are as social engineers,” Zolper says.

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