Rogue firms are trying to entice cash-strapped pension savers into freeing up their retirement pot before the law allows, a campaign by regulators has warned.
Campaigners fear that people are not always being made aware that the tax charges and fees from doing so could wipe out most of their pension pot, leaving them with little cash for their retirement.
Accessing a pension before the age of 55 can result in an "unauthorised payment", which can attract significant tax charges and penalties.
The Pensions Regulator, which is one of the agencies involved in the campaign, estimates that around £400 million has been transferred from funds in this way and it believes that more people are being tempted into liberating their pensions too early due to the tough economic climate.
Firms often work alongside "introducers" who bombard consumers with spam texts, make cold calls and put up website promotions to encourage people to release a portion of their cash before they reach the age of 55.
The campaign, which is also being backed by the City watchdog and the tax authorities, warned that people should be wary if they are approached out of the blue by text or cold called. They should also watch out for companies offering a "loan", a "savings advance" or "cashback" from a pension as well as any reference to "loopholes" or overseas investments.
The Financial Services Authority's head of financial crime Sharon Campbell said: "Savers should be very wary of pension release schemes which often carry punitive, hidden rates of commission and where the promised investments may just be scams. They could end up losing all of their hard-earned pension."
Pensions Minister Steve Webb said: "Money in a pension is there for retirement and should not be released before at least the age of 55. The Government is investigating a number of schemes where firms appear to be preying on people when times are tight, and I am working closely with the Pensions Regulator to ensure rules are not being broken."
The campaign comes at a time when the Government is trying to encourage more people into pension saving, with its automatic enrolment scheme which will eventually see around 10 million people saving into workplace pensions.
HM Revenue and Customs' head of pensions business Graeme Hood said: "HMRC is committed to ensuring savings built up with the benefit of generous tax reliefs are not misused. We will take action to detect and pursue those who deliberately break or bend the rules, including those offering schemes to access pension savings other than as intended by Parliament."
Seven retirement nightmares
Alert over pension release schemes
Figures from charity Age UK show that 29% of those over 60 feel uncertain or negative about their current financial situation - with millions facing poverty and hardship. Even though saving for retirement is not much fun, the message is therefore that having to rely on dwindling state benefits in retirement is even less so. To avoid ending up in this situation, adviser Hargreaves Lansdown recommends saving a proportion of your salary equal to half your age at the time of starting a pension. In other words, if you are 30 when you start a pension, you should put in 15% throughout your working life. If you start at 24, saving 12% of your salary a year should produce a similar return.
Many older couples rely on the pension income of one person - often the man. Should that person die first, the other person can therefore be left in a difficult position financially.
One way to prevent financial hardship for the surviving person is to take out a joint life annuity that will continue to pay out up to 67% of the original payments to the surviving partner should one of them die.
The disadvantage of this approach, however, is that the rate you receive will be lower. Again, the Pensions Advisory Service on 0845 601 2923 is a useful first port of call if you are unsure what to do.
Around 427,000 households in the over-70 age groups are either three months behind with a debt repayment or subject to some form of debt action such as insolvency, according to the Consumer Credit Counselling Service (CCCS).
Its figures also show that those aged 60 or older who came to the CCCS for help last year owed an average of £22,330. Whether you are retired or not, the best way to tackle debt problems is head on.
Free counselling services from the likes of CCCS and Citizens Advice can help with budgeting and dealing with creditors.
Importantly, they can also conduct a welfare benefits check to make sure you are receiving the pension credit, housing and council tax benefits, attendance and disability living allowances you are entitled to.
The average UK pensioner household faces a £111,400 tax bill in retirement as increasing longevity means pensioners are living on average up to 19 years past the age of 65, according to figures from MetLife. And every year in retirement adds an extra £5,864 in direct and indirect taxes based on current tax rates to the costs for the average pensioner household. You can be forced to go bankrupt if you fail to pay your taxes, so it is vital to factor these costs into your retirement planning.It is also important to check that you are receiving all the benefits and tax breaks you are entitled to if you want to make the most of your retirement cash.
The cost of a room in a care home in many parts of the country is now over £30,000 a year, according to figures from Prestige Nursing and Care. So even if the prime minister announces a cap on care costs - last year the economist Andrew Dilnot called for a new system of funding which would mean that no one would pay more than £35,000 for lifetime care - families will still face huge accommodation costs. Ways to cut this cost include opting for home care rather than a care home. Jonathan Bruce, managing director of Prestige Nursing and Care, said: "For older people who may need care in the shorter term, home care is an option which allows people to maintain their independence for longer while living in their own home and should be included in the cap." However, the only other answer is to save more while you can.
Older Britons are often targeted by unscrupulous criminals - especially if they have a bit of money put away. For example, many over 50s were victims of the so-called courier scam that tricked into keying their pin numbers into their phones and handing their cards to "couriers" who visited their homes. It parted consumers from £1.5 million in under two years. Detective Chief Inspector Paul Barnard, head of the bank sponsored dedicated cheque and plastic crime unit (DCPCU), said: "Many of us feel confident that we can spot fraudsters, but this type of crime can be sophisticated and could happen to anyone." The same is true of boiler room scams that target wealthier Britons with money to invest, offering "once-in-a-lifetime" opportunities to snap up shares at bargain prices. Tactics to watch out for include cold calling, putting you under pressure to pay up or lose the opportunity for good, and claiming to have insider information that they are prepared to share with you.