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Your Financial Future

It's No Free Lunch

It’s actually sort of amazing. Here you are in your late 50s or early 60s, when you might think your powers of attraction are waning, and suddenly, you’re popular!

Offers of free lunches and free dinners begin pouring in. What a deal! But then you think, maybe it’s not me that’s the big attraction. Maybe it’s my money.

And it is. The would-be investment advisers offering the free meals know where the money is, and a lot of it is in the hands of retirees and those approaching retirement. About $12.4 trillion was stashed away in 401(k)s, IRAs and other retirement savings accounts in 2008, according to global consulting firm Wyatt Watson Worldwide. And there are those—scrupulous and unscrupulous—who want to tell you how to invest it.

If you’ve wanted to attend one of these lunches or dinners, hoping that you might get legitimate advice but concerned that you might be pressured to buy something that’s not in your interest, there is a new tool to empower you. It’s AARP’s Free Lunch Seminar Monitor program.

The free lunch checklist

Launched last October, the program provides volunteers with a questionnaire to take to the free meals. Their answers provide useful information to members of the North American Securities Administrators Association (NASAA), a member organization representing all U.S. state securities regulators that cosponsors the program along with the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, an independent securities regulator.

The “What to Listen for Checklist” is designed to test the legitimacy of the program and the presenters. For example:

• Did the speaker say or suggest in any way that AARP, the federal Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), NASAA or a state regulator was involved, had endorsed the session or the product, had sponsored the event, or had provided your name for the invitation list?

• Were high-pressure phrases, such as “You have to decide today” or “Only a few opportunities are left,” used in the seminar?

AARP’s project manager for financial security, Andrés Castillo, said that thousands of invitations have been sent and hundreds of completed checklists have been collected from volunteers. Some of these may lead to state enforcement actions, he said, but because the project is so new, it’s hard to tell how many.

Why the project was started

“Free lunch seminars aren’t necessarily bad,” said Castillo, but the checklist program was started because “we’d heard too many stories from our members and others that attend these meetings and are talked into investing in products that are not suitable or that are completely nonexistent, bogus products.”

Judging from the comments the AARP Free Lunch Seminar Monitor program has collected, many operators are trying to sell equity-indexed annuities, an insurance product that state regulators say is often unsuitable for older investors because they can incur steep surrender charges if they need their money early.

Another popular product is living trusts, for which investors are charged a relatively high fee for language that is often boilerplate, and then incur additional legal fees when they want to make changes.

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