`Cold calls' should give you the shivers

``I've been doing this for six years, and I can't tell you how many times I've seen people send in checks for $10,000 after one phone call.'' Sending in those checks, these people apparently believe, will be the first step in saving them a lot on their taxes and perhaps making a little profit in the bargain.

More often, says Michael Unger, director of the division of security in the Massachusetts Secretary of State's office, that will be the last time they see much of the money. An IRS audit may be included, too.

To help prevent problems like this, Mr. Unger offers some ideas to consider before sending in money to a tax shelter investment.

``We don't judge the merits of particular investments here, other than to make sure they are what they say they are in the prospectus,'' Mr. Unger says. ``But if someone calls me about a tax shelter or some other investment, the first question I ask is `How did you hear about it?' ''

If the answer is a telephone call from a broker they never heard of before, Unger says, ``I tell them to be very careful.'' Many brokers get names of people that might be good prospects for investing in stocks, mutual funds, or tax shelters and make ``cold calls'' to people who are, until then, strangers.

Cold calls aren't necesarily bad, Unger notes, but customers should check out the reputation and record of the broker and his firm and carefully examine the investment.

``You should also ask where they're calling from,'' he advises. If you get a call ``out of the clear blue sky'' from southern California, Denver, Salt Lake City, or the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., area, ``watch out,'' he says. This is particularly true if you don't live near one of those areas. While many perfectly legitimate brokers operate out of these areas, they have also been frequent nesting spots for ``boiler room'' operations where hundreds of calls are made every day by people selling questionable i nvestments.

``I also ask people how hard the selling pressure is,'' Unger says. ``If someone says this opportunity won't be available tomorrow, I tell them to let it go.'' A prospect may also be told that a check must be sent in now to ``hold'' an investment until the prospect makes a final decision. Don't bother with this one, either, Unger cautions.

A limited partnership must be registered in each state where it is seeking customers, he points out. So that's another thing to ask the broker about. Registration, however, does not mean approval. It just means that all the relevant facts about the investment are included in the prospectus and other offering literature.

Some states, including Massachusetts, do keep an eye out for shelters that might have trouble passing Internal Revenue Service muster in such areas as valuation or excessive write-offs.

``About once a week a guy from the IRS picks up what we've collected,'' Unger says.

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