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Dangers of Early Withdrawals

A Business Week article recently described predators that prey on early retirees.

Many retirees and pre-retirees are woefully unprepared for the shift from "wealth accumulation," or saving and investing, to "wealth distribution," or drawing down those assets throughout their golden years.

If the Me Generation isn't careful, it could become the Poor-Me Generation. Over the next 20 years, a record $17 trillion will move from pension funds and 401(k) accounts into the hands of freshly minted retirees, says trade group Investment Company Institute. Not surprisingly, that money pot—and the fat asset management fees it will generate—has financial-services firms salivating.

Aggressive investment brokers are focusing on that yawning gap between perception and reality. Promising early retirement, fat investment returns, and big annual cash withdrawals, they're increasingly succeeding at seducing investors to turn over their retirement accounts—and then putting them in high-fee and often inappropriate investments. "This is emerging as a big problem," says Mary L. Schapiro, former CEO of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority. (FINRA), the securities industry's private oversight group, which recently launched a program to train corporate benefits managers to vet financial advisers who run in-house seminars. "The issue has intensified for the next generation of retirees—the largest we've ever seen."

Despite the increased scrutiny, in some ways it's getting easier for rogue advisers to operate. More are tapping into pools of workers from inside employers' offices. According to benefits consultant Hewitt Associates, many of companies with 401(k) plans now offer investment advisory services in which outside firms educate employees on financial issues. Those numbers don't include the many on-site seminars taking place without management's explicit consent.

In some fraud cases, brokers seek to take advantage of a little-known tax loophole that allows investors to tap into their 401(k) or other retirement accounts without penalty before they reach 591/2. Under IRS rule 72(t), enacted in 1974, investors can withdraw money from their tax-free accounts if they commit to take out the same amount each month for at least five years. "Clients get lulled into the belief that because this is a government exemption, these [moves] are blessed by the IRS," says Frederick Rosenberg, an attorney in East Hanover, N.J. "Nobody ever shows you that there's more than a 50% chance you'll be destitute."

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