News Release

Investor Alert: Self-Directed IRAs and the Risk of Fraud

The Arizona Corporation Commission’s Securities Division is warning investors of the potential risks associated with self-directed IRAs. 

Self-directed,  IRAs (Individual Retirement Accounts) permit a broader portfolio of assets that may include real estate, private placement securities, promissory notes, tax lien certificates, precious metals and cryptocurrency, but they can also include the increased possibility of fraudulent schemes, high fees and volatile performance that can result in financial loss.

Risks of Self-Directed IRAs

While most investments have risk, self-directed IRAs have some risks that differ from those involved with IRAs offered by registered broker-dealers and investment advisers. These risks include a lack of legal and regulatory protection and a heightened risk of fraud, particularly when investing in alternative assets.

Risk #1: No Review – With a self-directed IRA you have sole responsibility for evaluating and understanding the investments in the account. Due to federal laws and regulatory rules related to selling investment products or providing investment advice, most custodians for other types of IRAs limit the holdings in IRA accounts to firm-approved stocks, bonds, mutual funds, and certificate of deposits (CD)s. However, these limitations do not apply to self-directed IRAs. It is important to know that custodians of self-directed IRAs:  

  • DO NOT sell investment products or provide investment advice
  • DO NOT evaluate the quality or legitimacy of any investment in the self-directed IRA or its promoters; and
  • DO NOT verify the accuracy of any financial information that is provided for an investment in the account.

Self-directed IRA custodians are only responsible for holding and administering the assets in the account and not typically responsible for investment performance.  For additional information on self-directed IRA custodians, visit resources and read “Are you an informed investor? Third-Party Custodians of Self-Directed IRAs and Other Qualified Plans.”

Self-directed IRA promoters are individuals or companies that promote and solicit money from investors for self-directed IRA investments that may not be licensed investment professionals subject to the same regulatory oversight and investor protection rules that govern the securities industry.  Promoters may be IRA custodians or they may be affiliated with one or more self-directed IRA custodians. 

Risk #2: Lack of Information and Liquidity Self-directed IRAs allow you to hold alternative investments that, unlike publicly traded securities, may only provide limited disclosures.  Even when financial information for these alternative investments is available, it may not be audited by a public accounting firm. Again, self-directed IRA custodians usually do not check the accuracy of any financial information that is provided for an investment in the account.

Additionally, alternative investments may lack liquidity either because of extended holding periods, restrictions on redemptions, limited markets, or some combination of these factors. This can make it difficult for you to easily sell these investments when you want to, including when you retire, or when you have to take required minimum distributions (RMDs).

Risk #3: High-risk investments offered Some self-directed IRAs may offer investments in “crypto assets” such as virtual currencies, coins, and tokens. Crypto assets may be securities that are offered without SEC registration or a valid exemption from registration, and may not be accompanied by complete or accurate information to aid investors in making informed decisions. In addition, many of the trading platforms for these crypto assets refer to themselves as “exchanges,” which may give investors the misimpression that they have registered with the SEC.

Risk #4: Fertile Ground for Fraud – Fraudsters may be more likely to exploit self-directed IRAs because custodians or trustees of these accounts may offer only limited protections. Using a legitimate custodian to buy an investment DOES NOT make that investment legitimate. Fraudsters may still attempt to sell you fraudulent investments through legitimate custodians. Here are some examples of how fraudsters may try to use self-directed IRAs to perpetrate a fraud on unsuspecting investors:

  • Fake Custodians – Fraudsters may use a fake self-directed custodian to attempt to steal your money. Before depositing any money with a self-directed IRA custodian, make sure that the self-directed IRA custodian is legitimate. Custodians may include banks, trust companies, or any entity approved by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to act as an IRA custodian. One resource for verifying nonbank custodians is this list on the IRS website. However, this IRS resource is not a complete list of every custodian. If a custodian does not appear on this list, you should conduct additional research into the custodian and consider consulting a licensed, unbiased investment professional or an attorney before opening an account. 
  • Misrepresentations Regarding Custodial Responsibilities – Fraudsters sometimes misrepresent the duties of self-directed IRA custodians to deceive investors into believing that their investments are legitimate or protected against losses. For example, fraudsters often falsely claim or imply that self-directed IRA custodians investigate and validate any investment in a self-directed IRA. 
  • Exploitation of Tax-Deferred Account Characteristics As with other IRAs, self-directed IRAs are tax-deferred accounts that carry a financial penalty for prematurely withdrawing money before the accountholder reaches a certain age. The prospect of an early withdrawal penalty may encourage an investor to take a passive approach to managing the account, which may result in a less detailed review of account information than a managed account might receive, allowing a fraudster to perpetrate the fraud longer. 

Risk #5: Complex Tax Rules Investing through a self-directed IRA requires you to follow complex IRS tax rules that do not apply to other IRAs. Failure to follow these rules may result in unintended tax consequences such as extra taxes, financial penalties, or even loss of the account’s tax deferred status. Consult with a tax advisor before investing through a self-directed IRA to confirm that any potential investment or investment strategy follows these IRS rules. More information about these tax rules can be found on the Internal Revenue Service website.

Risk #6: High Fees Fees for self-directed IRAs may be significantly higher than those for other types of investment accounts. In addition to transaction fees, there may be account opening fees, annual account fees, administrative fees and asset specific fees in the account. These fees vary among self-directed IRA trustees and custodians. Before opening a self-directed IRA, make sure you understand these fees and how they could impact the performance of investments in your account.

Ways to Avoid Fraud with Self-Directed IRAs

There are important steps that investors can take to reduce the risk of fraud: 

  • Verify information in self-directed IRA account statements. Alternative investments may be illiquid and difficult to value. As a result, self-directed IRA custodians often list the value of the investment as the original purchase price, the original purchase price plus returns reported by the promoter, or a price provided by the promoter. If possible, take steps to independently verify information – such as prices and asset values – provided in account statements. This might include obtaining a valuation from an independent, third-party professional or market expert, or researching tax assessment records.
  • Avoid unsolicited investment offers. Use extreme caution before investing in an unsolicited investment offer that promotes the use of a self-directed IRA. Fraudsters may attempt to lure you into transferring money from traditional IRAs and other retirement accounts into new self-directed IRAs. 
  • Ask questions. Always ask if the person offering the investment is registered or licensed, and if the investment itself is registered. Then verify that information with your state securities regulator.
  • Be wary of “guaranteed” returns. All investments have risk, and investors should question any so-called “guaranteed” returns. Be wary of anyone who promises that you will receive a high rate of return on your investment, especially with little or no risk. Claims such as “risk-free,” “zero risk,” “absolutely safe,” and “guaranteed profit” are hallmarks of investment fraud.
  • Consult with a professional. For investment opportunities like alternative assets in self-directed IRAs, you should consider getting a second opinion from a licensed, unbiased investment professional or a securities attorney. This is especially important if you are opening or creating a new account outside of a traditional financial institution or investment firm.

Recourse for Defrauded Investors

If you have lost money in a fraudulent investment scheme involving a self-directed IRA or third-party custodian, or have information about one of these scams, you should report it to the Securities Division’s Investigator on Duty at or call 602-542-0662. The duty officer can direct you on how to begin the investor complaint process. Visit for more helpful  information on wise investing and fraud prevention.


Arizona Corporation Commission

1200 W. Washington Street

Phoenix, AZ 85007


Corporations Division

1300 W. Washington Street

Phoenix, AZ 85007


Tucson Office (Walk-ins only)

400 W. Congress Street

Tucson, AZ 85701