For Billings resident Jack Johnson, educating Montana consumers about financial fraud isn’t a livelihood, it’s a way of life.
Although the 81-year-old Johnson retired nearly 25 years ago from his teaching career that included a long-running consumer education course, he continues to educate Montanans, particularly senior citizens, about protecting their assets and avoiding fraud.
“I’m a concerned citizen, always have been,” Johnson said. “I know that I can’t end fraud completely, but I sure hope to help reduce it.”
His efforts were recognized by state auditor and commissioner of securities and insurance Monica Lindeen with the 2012 Investor Protection Award on Wednesday. The award was part of a state tour screening a made-in-Montana documentary about investment fraud.
The event at the Billings Hotel and Convention Center drew a packed house of 160, many of whom knew about the event because of Johnson’s effort to spread the word about the tour.
“When it was brought to our attention that Jack had been screening the film at senior citizen centers and at retirement homes, we really wanted to applaud his efforts in raising awareness about consumer protection,” Lindeen said. “Jack is always looking for ways to help others and this was our way to show our appreciation.”
“Gold Diggers: Investment Fraud in the Treasure State,” tells the story of two of Montana’s most infamous investment scams in recent history.
Narrated by award-winning actor Bill Pullman, the film features interviews with victims, securities experts and the regulators and attorneys who investigated and prosecuted the two scams.
One out of every five citizens over the age of 65 has been victimized by a financial swindle, the Investor Protection Trust found in a survey it conducted two years ago.
“It’s very unfortunate and it’s widespread,” said Lindeen. “Our department can go out there and spread the word, but that alone will not make an impact unless we all work together speaking out and being watchful for others’ safety.”
Lindeen said most often, in order for someone to perpetuate a scam, especially financial fraud, a trust has been developed between the victim and the scammer.
She said most often, it is someone you know — a member of your community, of your church or even in some cases a family member.
“It’s hard to believe people could do such a thing,” Johnson said. “But the targeting of senior citizens has been a growing problem in the years of our recession.”
Senior citizens, Lindeen said, are prime targets because they tend to be polite and trusting and often have excellent credit.
Even with the increase in financial exploitation of seniors, Lindeen is encouraged by community-based efforts of people like Johnson.
“Prevention is the key,” Lindeen said. “We all need take responsibility in our community in helping to educate ourselves and others.”
But in addition to prevention, the department of Commissioner of Securities and Insurance aims for prosecution and restitution.
In the last four years, about $200 million has been paid back to Montana investors through restitution, 70 percent of which was paid to senior citizens, securities and insurance communications director Lucas Hamilton said.
But, he said, securities fraud often goes unreported.
“Victims don’t know where to go for help or they’re just too embarrassed to mention it,” Hamilton said. “Unfortunately, there is a stigma around being taken by a financial scam that can lead victims to never report the fraud.”
Johnson said the way he sees it, preventing identity theft is easier than catching and prosecuting the culprit.
“If it seems too good to be true, well, then it probably is,” Johnson said. “That’s what I tell people. It’s best to just never give out personal information to anybody and to really do your homework about fraud. It can happen to any one of us.”
The Commissioner of Securities and Insurance department produced “Gold Diggers” with a grant from the Investor Protection Trust, a nationally-recognized educational nonprofit that helps consumers make informed investment decisions. The grant also pays for the expenses associated with bringing the documentary across Montana. All funding for the Trust comes from voluntary and court-ordered contributions from criminals who commit investment fraud.
The remainder of the tour will be in Great Falls, Missoula, Seeley Lake, Kalispell and Ronan in September.
“We believe education is a silver bullet in stopping fraud, and Johnson has done a great job educating many people,” Hamilton said. “He’s made a huge impact.”
For more information and a complete schedule, visit the CSI website at http: //csi.mt.gov/GoldDiggers.
To report suspicious activity or fraud, call the commissioner’s office at 1-800-332-6148.