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Take care to avoid investment scams

Con artists have a broad reach and often target the elderly.

Marian Sullivan and her husband thought they had done things right.

They heard about Jack Sewall through his radio programs, just as many other customers did. He was pitching annuities and they called him to find out more.

"He said, "I've got something better,' " said Mrs. Sullivan, 69. "He comes on beautifully, let me tell you."

Sewall said he was starting an entertainment promotions company. He was looking for investors and promising handsome returns. The Sullivans were interested, maybe, but they wanted to do some checking "before we invested any money."

They called the state Department of Insurance, just to make sure Sewall was licensed and wasn't some scam artist. At that time, in 1994, he was licensed. So they loaned him $5,000 once, then twice.

Today, Sewall stands convicted of organized fraud and grand theft and is awaiting sentencing for defrauding three dozen elderly investors, including the Sullivans, of nearly $1-million. He was stripped of his license to sell insurance in December 1996 for misappropriating funds, according to Department of Insurance records.

It's a familiar story to investigators with various state and local agencies who follow investor fraud. And while the Sullivans took more precautions than some victims of such crimes, there are other safety tips for prospective investors.

The problem is, there's always someone else with a new wrinkle in an old scam. The person offering the great deal seldom fits the stereotypical image of a guy wearing a trench coat standing in a dimly lit alley, investigators say.

Ellie Macko, 69, the owner of Ellie's Yarns in Inverness, said people frequently stop by her store trying to sell her something.

"There's always some shooter trying to show you some curve," she said. "Naturally, I'm hip to that."

Macko had a policy through Sewall's office, JMS Insurance. She met him over lunch. He invited her to some of the shows he was booking at the Curtis Peterson Auditorium. He invited her to parties, including one that baseball great Ted Williams was to attend. He said he wore a toupe once worn by a famous celebrity.

Soon he was soliciting investments. He had a contract. When she was uneasy and asked to show a first draft to her attorney, he got uneasy and had a new contract drafted, she said.

He showed her all the checks from other investors.

"I couldn't see the names on them, but they sure had a lot of zeroes," Macko said.

Soon, she was in for nearly $30,000.

Perpetrators of scams generally will come on smooth and friendly. Often, they can be a person previously held in a trusted position. Like Sewall, they will even put the deal in writing.

Even getting a guarantee in writing is worth little, said Ron Poindexter, director of the state division of insurance fraud.

"I imagine that agent is so slick that they might be able to run that piece of paper past you or me," he said.

The Department of Insurance investigated around 500 reports of fraud among agents last year and arrested about 100 agents, Poindexter said.

There are about 180,000 licensed insurance sales agents in Florida, said Philip Fountain, chief of the bureau that investigates insurance fraud for the Department of Insurance. But the scam artists among them have a broad reach and target the elderly.

There are a few reasons for this. Older folks tend to have more disposable income. They come from an era that was more trusting, in which salesmen sold goods door to door. Some, particularly when it comes to insurance and investment fraud, are afraid to report a scam, fearing their adult children will think they are no longer capable of living alone.

"The kids have already been telling her, "Ma, you can't take care of yourself,' then she reports that she's a victim of fraud and it's the straw that broke the camel's back," said John Wood, chief investigator for Pinellas County consumer protection.

For these folks, and others, a few rules of the road, and tips if you suspect a scam:

Insurance agents must be licensed. To check the status of an agent's license and learn if past complaints have been filed against him or her, call (800) 342-2762. The Department of Insurance also operates a tip line, (800) 378-0445.

Similarly, anyone offering investment also must be licensed. To check on a stock broker or investment consultant, call (800) 848-3892. Victims may call the same number, though they may be h transferred to a regional office to reach an investigator.

The Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has a catch-all number for citizens to report suspected fraud or consumer theft: (800) HELP-FLA (435-7352).

"If there have been complaints on someone already, that would be something in our database," said Liz Compton, a public information officer with the department.

Investigators working fraud cases offer a few other words of wisdom.

Look into the product being pitched, not just the person pitching it. Ask to see the numbers that back the lofty returns, but be skeptical of them.

People promising a good deal often will offer up people to legitimize their claims _ a lawyer, other investors. Such was the case with Sewall, said many of his victims. Almost all of them signed a contract prepared by his lawyer.