The FINRA Securities Helpline for Seniors (1-844-574-3577) has fielded more than 2,500 calls and helped investors recover nearly $750,000 in voluntary reimbursements from firms since its launch in April 2015. In its year-end report, FINRA highlights important lessons for investors of any age.
One message coming in loud and clear from hotline calls is that fraud is alive and well, and takes many forms. FINRA fielded calls -- and subsequently issued investor alerts -- related to fraud centering on taxes, bogus lottery winnings, and binary options. The bottom line is that most of us -- more than 80% -- are on the receiving end of schemes that are potentially fraudulent, according a 2013 FINRA Foundation study.
Knowing how to recognize the warning signs of fraud is key, and the good news is that many callers were immediately suspicious of tactics like time pressure, promises of guaranteed profits or prizes, and false claims such as being affiliated with a government agency or other well-known organization. Unfortunately, some callers fell for these traps and lost money.
Yesterday's winner can be today's loser
Another frequent concern of callers was investments that had dropped in value. Energy investments, in particular, were the source of numerous calls. The oil and gas sector was hot when international demand was strong and energy prices were high. It's a different story today, and prices in oil and gas stocks and other investments reflect the turnaround.
It's important to remember that investment returns fluctuate, sometimes significantly. Each year brings winners and losers to the markets. With that in mind, here are four tips for all investors:
- Diversify your portfolio. Don't put all of your money in the latest "hot" sector (as energy was a few years back). You can better protect your money if you spread it out among different sectors, along with different asset classes such as stocks, bonds, and cash. A prudent tip for 2016 is to monitor your concentration of interest-rate-sensitive bond investments and understand how a change in interest rates might affect your overall portfolio. Remember to check the holdings of your retirement fund or any mutual fund investments, which may already be investing in the same sectors or asset classes of other investments you own.
- Don't follow the herd. The "crowd" often chases performance, but as the dot-com boom and the housing bubble showed us, the herd can be wrong. When investing, you should determine whether the investment is right for you based on your financial goals, timeline, and risk tolerance. Not only should you evaluate investments independent of the herd, but you should also remember the basic maxim that greater returns come with greater risk. Determine how long you intend to invest and factor in your own tolerance for risk. Generally speaking, the longer your investment horizon, the less impact the herd will have on your portfolio's ultimate value.
- Dollar-cost average. Incrementally investing over long periods of time can help manage risk. When you regularly invest small amounts -- say, $50 a month -- you take advantage of the market's ups and downs through dollar-cost averaging, which means routine investments made at regular intervals and for set amounts. Over the long term, you typically end up buying more shares when their costs are low and fewer when they are expensive.
- Stay up to date on your statements and investment terms -- especially if you purchase a particular stock because of the dividends it historically paid. Dividends are not guaranteed, and a company can increase, decrease, or suspend them. You can keep track of dividends by checking the investor relations or financials section of a company's website, or you can use Nasdaq's database of historical dividends.
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