Investor Alert: Promissory Notes Don’t Offer Much Promise

Ben Dell’Orto, Spring 2018 IAC Student Intern

When the North American Securities Administrators Association (NASAA) polled state securities regulators on the “top five current investment practices, products or schemes” leading to a customer complaint or investigation, the results were overwhelming: 74% of those surveyed listed promissory notes among the top five.

So what is a promissory note? On the surface, the concept is simple; companies in need of capital reach out to investors to lend them some money with the promise of eventually returning the initial investment along with fixed interest payments. The length of time the company has to repay can vary from months to years.

Though this sounds like a simple process with potential for high returns, most of us are unlikely to get an offer to purchase legitimate promissory notes. The NASAA notes that “legitimate promissory notes are marketed and sold almost exclusively to sophisticated or corporate investors with the resources to research the companies issuing the notes and to determine whether the issuers have the capacity to pay the promised interest and principal.” This means that most offers the average investor receives for promissory notes are actually fraudulent.

While FINRA notes that fraudsters offering promissory notes most frequently target elderly investors with fixed income for their retirement savings, anyone is at risk. This brochure, produced by FINRA, the NASAA and others describes instances where a coffee company sold $4 million in notes to at least 100 investors and a veterinarian in Kansas sold $1.3 million in notes to friends and church members. In both situations, the investors lost everything. Last April, an insurance agent plead guilty to defrauding almost eighty of his clients out of $8.2 million by promising a 10 percent return to borrow against their life insurance plan.

The key to avoiding fraudulent promissory notes is the same as avoiding most scams: research. Use the SEC’s EDGAR search tool to make sure your promissory note is properly registered. Also avoid any notes which claim to be “guaranteed,” as nothing is.