Bert Whitehead, M.B.A., J.D.
1.Timeshares. This preposterous “investment” is based on the doubtful proposition that a $117,000 condo is really worth $585,000 because 50 chumps can be convinced to rent it one week a year for the rest of their natural lives, and pay most of the rent (totaling $11,700) in advance and the rest annually disguised as maintenance fees. These are always sold by very friendly people, usually named Joe, who cannot begin a sentence without grasping your forearms and saying, “Let me be honest with you.” In addition to a very fuzzy explanation of the investment potential, you will find out how you could get AIDS from hotel sheets (presumably not a danger at Vacation Ownership Resorts because they don’t have maid service).
a.A hint: If after reading this, you still can’t help yourself and simply must buy a timeshare, buy it on a the secondary market (i.e., look in the classified ads and buy one from some dummy who spent his kid’s college money for it last year and now is trying to dump it at half price). This is still twice what it is worth.
b.A better hint: Put your $11,700 in a well-balanced investment portfolio. Each year use the accrued earnings to rent a timeshare anywhere in the world. Then go job hunting while you’re there and write it off!
2.Lottery Tickets. Lotteries were designed by scheming Republicans as a patriotic way to entice poor people into voluntarily returning their welfare checks to the state coffers. They sort of work like variations of the old 50/50 church raffle except the church doesn’t tax your 50 percent and then pay you over 20 years. Assuming a tax bracket of 33 percent, and an annual present value of money at 8 percent instead of a return of 50 cents for every dollar bet, you actually “win” slightly less than 17 cents. This is not attractive, even compared to roulette tables in Las Vegas where they pay 95 cents for each dollar bet. Plus you get free drinks.
a.Hint: If you could borrow $7.7 million at 8 percent over 20 years and buy every single number on the Michigan lottery, you would be a sure winner if the jackpot was $22 million or more. (If you don’t have to split the pot with some bloke on the dole.)
3.Life Insurance Investments. These quaint arrangements were popular and considered by some to be relatively competitive in the Fabulous ‘50s. Then your only alternatives were U.S. Savings Bonds (which your elders still called “war bonds”), paying 4 percent, and savings accounts which aggressively paid 4.5 percent. Pseudo-tycoons had Christmas Club accounts, a scam whereby you gave money to the bank every week and then they gave it back to you at the end of the year. No interest, but no service charge either. Now, bank savings accounts pay virtually no interest which is dwarfed by service charges if you don’t have very much money and just let it sit there. The service charge compensates the tellers who take your money out for a walk every month until it all evaporates. But we digress: back to life investments. They are variously called whole life, variable life, universal life, permanent life, etc. They sport many supposed advantages none of which are exclusive to this investment vehicle. Despite reams of projections and lengthy enthusiastic explanations, these investments are bereft of S.E.C. scrutiny, and the investor thus usually is at the mercy of inscrutable policy language as explained by a hyperkinetic salesperson with a snappy patter but no prospectus to evaluate risk or disclose the sales commission. Moreover, these are inevitably touted as “Long-term Investments”. Long Term Investments in financial lingo refers to generally inferior investments that are impossible to fully understand on which salespeople earn very large commissions.
a.Hint: Continue to ask your insurance person A) exactly how much commission is paid for selling this to you and B) exactly how much of your money you get back if you bail out after two years. If you can get a straight answer, you will be amazed that the amount of money you will lose under B is uncannily close to the amount disclosed under A. If still in doubt, we will demonstrate how much better you will be buying term insurance and investing the difference in the S&P 500 Index mutual fund. NOTE: This does not mean you should cancel or cash-in existing policies.
4.Any Investment Sold Over the Phone. Legitimate investments are never sold over the phone. Period. If their investment was as good as they say it is, and then they wouldn’t be spending their time talking to strangers like you on the telephone. Actually we encourage clients to never buy anything over the phone because of the increased exposure to fraud. And also because it only encourages even more unsolicited telephone intrusions.
5.Any Investment Someone Comes to your House to Sell You. If you think it through: anytime someone comes out to see you , at your convenience, in the comfort of your own home, and you are under no obligation, you are going to get a very high pressure sales pitch for something you probably never before considered buying, at an outrageous price. The sales commission on these arrangements is usually 25-50 percent of your investment. This makes shopping at home very expensive.
* This article was originally written 20 years ago. Interest rates have changed, but the scams remain the same…