BANGOR, Maine — A Brewer couple who invested thousands in a windmill scheme told their story to others at a financial wellness conference on Saturday in hopes people would learn from their mistakes.
“At first we didn’t realize we were getting scammed,” Carolyn Thompson said, sitting beside her husband, Ray, at the beginning of the half-day Consumer University: Exercising Financial Wellness conference held at the Spectacular Events Center.
The couple was approached by friends who told them about a unique sail-type windmill that could be installed on houses or in backyards that could provide a home’s energy, and any extra power generated could be sold to operators of the local electricity grid, the couple said, describing the scam they fell into.
“What got us excited about these windmills is they were different,” Ray Thompson said. “They were designed like a sail on a boat.”
The couple invested $10,000 three times and also got their friends to invest.
“That’s what we feel bad about,” Carolyn Thompson said. “We were very, very excited about it.”
While the Brewer couple and others will never see their money again, the man who scammed them was convicted in June of mail fraud and 10 counts of wire fraud in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles.
Maine’s Office of Securities partnered with the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, AARP of Maine, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and other consumer protection and law enforcement agencies to present the free conference designed to provide resources on protecting assets and guarding against financial exploitation.
“We are all consumer protection agencies,” Christine Kieffer, FINRA senior director, said just before the event began.
The consumer conference focused on reverse mortgages, investment products, how to outsmart investment fraud and avoiding mail and identity theft.
“We’re going to be talking about the red flags that you should look out for,” Kieffer said.
Judy Shaw, Maine Office of Securities administrator, said scam artists feed on the elderly and those looking to make a quick buck.
“People are desperate because of the economy,” she said. “They’ve lost their investment money … [and] they don’t trust the stock market anymore so it’s ripe for scams.”
Education is key to helping potential investors protect their funds, because once it’s gone, it usually is gone forever, Shaw said, adding the other mission for the Maine Office of Securities is to prosecute the scam artists who take the money.
Another thing the conference does is educate people about who is most often scammed, Kieffer said.
“It’s not the stereotype,” she said. “The most targeted population is 55- to 65-year-old males.”
“Intelligent, talented individuals do get scammed,” Shaw said.
U.S. Securities and Exchange Commissioner Elisse Walter was on hand to talk about how her agency has changed in recent years to provide more protections to investors, but said because “fraud can take many forms,” the work will never be done.
There is one basic rule people considering investing money in something should always remember, Walter said.
“If it sounds to good to be true, it is to good to be true,” she said.
Troy Morton, deputy chief of the Penobscot County Sheriff’s Department, was on hand Saturday representing the Penobscot County Triad, an organization made up of senior citizens, law enforcement and social service agencies who work together to fight elderly crimes, abuse and fraud.
He had several pieces of advice that anyone can use.
“Shred financial statement, don’t give out information to callers on the phone and take your mail inside,” Morton said. “Be cautious.”
Mainers should also check their monthly bank statements to make sure someone else hasn’t used the account and should “take advantage of the state’s free annual credit report,” he said.
The Thompsons have decided to take what they learned by being scammed and educate others in hopes others can avoid what they went through. There are two things people should do when dealing with possible investments, they said.
“Educate yourself and do a strong background check,” Ray Thompson said.
“If I had Googled this man I would have got a lot of information,” Carolyn Thompson said.