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Con artists are lurking in the shadows of your Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin and eHarmony accounts, according to the North American Securities Administrators Association, the oldest international investor protection association.

Crooks have always gravitated to so-called “affinity” frauds, which target the members of a set group such as members of a particular church, alumni association or country club. That’s because victims let down their guard when they’re introduced through a friend, even if that introduction is second-hand. (Think: “I was referred to you by Father Jim.” Or “Susan suggested that I give you a call.”)

In fact, scammers purposefully infiltrate tight-knit groups, figuring that common hobbies, lifestyles, professions or faith will help them establish a bond with their victims. Because we assume that our friends won’t betray us, that bond increases the likelihood that even a reasonable, thoughtful individual will become a victim.

Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, and eHarmony have become a particular targets of affinity fraudsters because it’s so easy to break into these groups, according to the investor protection group. You may be selective about the group you accept as friends and connections online, for example. But you might be tempted to accept connection requests from “friends of friends.” If just a few of your legitimate friends are less selective than you are, you could get connection requests from people who know people that you went to high school or college with, for example.

You might assume this “friend” is an old acquaintance that you’ve simply forgotten. The formula: the faux friend will post often and regularly interact with your group of friends. The name becomes increasingly familiar. Months into your online “relationship” with this person, a big move in the stock market might cause him or her to mention that he/she is an “investment professional.”

“Don’t worry,” he might say. “This market reversal is just temporary.”

In these tumultuous times, even savvy investors are looking for good advice. If the con artist is smooth enough, he won’t even approach you. You’ll approach him. The next thing you know, he’s commiserating with you about how rotten all the traditional investments are. Then, ever so smoothly, he moves to the pitch: “Well there is one thing you can invest in, but it’s not for everybody….”

You may get sucked into the affinity fraud vortex, thinking that you’re getting this opportunity because your long-lost (and suspiciously missing from the year book) high school classmate is willing to let you in because he knows you. In fact, many victims of affinity frauds end up so certain that the con artist is legitimately helping them that they end up promoting the bogus “opportunity” to their own close friends and families.

“A con artist can take advantage of how easily people share background and personal information online by using this information to make a highly targeted pitch to friends within that social group,” said David Massey, North Carolina’s Deputy Securities Administrator and President of NASAA. “Just because someone has friended you online doesn’t mean that person is your friend when it comes to investing.”

What signs might tip you off that the investment is fraudulent?

  • Lack of public information. If you’re offered an investment that’s not listed on a major stock exchange (anything that can’t be looked up on Yahoo Finance), insist on seeing the prospectus filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission. If there isn’t one, walk away.
  • Promises of high returns with little or no risk
  • Sense of urgency. (”I can only leave this deal open for you until the end of the week”; “this opportunity won’t last”; “there are a limited number of shares”)
  • Request for payment through e-currency web sites.
  • Testimonials from “satisfied” investors
  • Hard-to-verify information — i.e. “this investment is registered but it’s registered with securities regulators in Bermuda, rather than the U.S.”

For further signs of financial fraud and information on where to report it, check out NASAA’s alert here.

Kathy Kristof is the author of Investing 101.

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