Choosing a structured product - some of the most illiquid, complex and opaque retail offerings coming from Wall Street - is like peeling an onion. Your eyes may water at the cost and complexity. Notes with stated yields and maturity dates are sold aggressively to income-oriented investors drawn by the ever-popular hope of better returns with less risk. While hardly a household name, they are hot sellers: Structured products with a face value of more than $52 billion were sold last year in the U.S., and sales are growing 24% a year, according to structured retailproducts .com, which follows the sector.

Many investors, such as buyers of Lehman Brothers' principal-protected notes, have not wound up in the winner's circle. Lehman's structured products became worthless after the firm failed. The biggest seller, UBS, has denied any wrongdoing. Overall, investors have lost more than $113 billion in structured products since 2008, according to a study by Demos and the Nation Institute. Many were packaged with bond mutual funds and other investments pitched by brokers as "safe and secure."

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