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Elderly Americans are prime targets of investment con artists, according to the North American Securities Administrators Association. But all investors are potential scam victims. Based on past investigations and complaints by state securities agencies, NASAA has developed a set of guidelines to help investors avoid the most common forms of fraud and abuse. NASAA's recommendations:

1. Don't be a "courtesy victim." "A stranger who calls and asks for your money should be regarded with the utmost caution. It is not impolite to explain that you are not interested and hang up the phone."2. Check out strangers and their touted "deals." "Background information on investment salespeople and firms is available from the Central Registration Depository files available from your state securities agency or from the National Association of Securities Dealers (1-800-289-9999)." Call NASAA at 1-202-737-0900 for the number of your state agency.

3. Always stay in charge of your money. "Beware of any financial professional who suggests putting your money into something you don't understand or who urges that you leave everything in his or her hands," says NASAA.

4. Never judge a person's integrity by how he or she sounds. "Successful con artists sound extremely professional and have the ability to make even the flimsiest investment deal sound as safe and sound as putting money in the bank."

5. Watch out for salespeople who prey on your fears. "Fear and greed can cloud your judgment and leave you in a much worse financial posture. An investment that is right for you will make sense because you understand it and feel comfortable with the degree of risk involved."

6. Exercise particular caution if you are an older woman with no experience handling money. "Sadly, many women who are now in their retirement years received little education in their youth about how to handle money. One resource available nationwide is the Women's Financial Information Program at the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP, Consumer Affairs, 601 E St. N.W., Washington, DC 20049; 1-202-434-6030)."

7. Monitor your investments and ask tough questions. "Insist upon regular written and oral reports. Look for signs of excessive or unauthorized trading of your funds. Do not be swayed by assurances that such practices are routine or in your best interests. Do not permit a false sense of friendship or trust to keep you from demanding a return on your savings."

8. Beware of trouble retrieving your principal or cashing out profits. "If any individual with whom you have invested stalls you when you want to pull out your principal or even just your profits, you may have uncovered someone who wants to cheat you."

9. Don't let embarrassment or fear keep you from reporting investment fraud or abuse. "Con artists know about such sensitivities and count on them delaying the point at which authorities are notified of a scam."

10. Beware of "reload" scams. "Faced with a loss of funds in a con artist's scheme, some investors will go along with a second scam in which the con artist promises to make good on the original funds and possibly even generate new returns."