BANGOR, Maine — It seemed like a reputable company.

The free lunch investment seminar in Florida was packed with people and staffed by sophisticated advisers.

The expected returns would be modest at first — 5 percent — but might jump to as much as 20 percent within a few years.

So Sally Reed, 67, of Bangor decided to put $10,000 of her hard-earned money into the investment advisers’ capable-looking hands — and that’s where her troubles began.

Reed was one of more than 80 senior citizens who attended a conference Saturday at the Spectacular Event Center on wise and safe investing, organized by Maine’s Office of Securities and the AARP.

“I’ve been through the mill with this,” she said of her brush with investor fraud that began in 2001. “Naivete. What can I say? That was my retirement.”

Reed’s retirement savings joined the hundreds of millions of dollars that have been stolen from senior citizens nationwide, and in some ways, she’s one of the lucky ones. Her investment advisers were caught; some are behind bars and she has recovered about $3,000, but her lawyer told her not to expect any more.

“I just had to save more to build up my retirement income of savings all over again,” she said. “I’m old enough to know better.”

Conference attendees listened attentively to a panel of experts and scribbled notes on how they could avoid being bilked by scam artists who target senior citizens because “that’s where the money is,” according to David Bergers, regional director of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

People in the United States age 65 and older hold $16 trillion, he said. Maine has one of the country’s oldest populations, with about 120,000 senior citizens.

“Your group holds the most assets of any group in the United States,” Bergers said.

He and others who spoke, including Gov. John Baldacci, warned attendees that the tough economic climate may mean that even more fraudulent investors crawl out of the woodwork.

“This is a very difficult time and a very timely conference,” Baldacci said. “We can all take steps to safeguard our resources and protect ourselves against becoming the victim of financial fraud.”

The seniors heard horror stories of how people have lost 85 percent, or even 100 percent, of their life savings in investor fraud.

“We have a lot of sad stories,” Bergers said. “We want to avoid more of them.”

Bergers and other experts said that in order to avoid pyramid schemes and other fraudulent investments, investors should:

ä Check to see if the investment is registered in Maine or with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

ä Understand all the important features of the product, including commissions, holding periods and tax consequences. Get all the information before proceeding.

ä Avoid financial advisers who pressure clients to act quickly or make claims including: “There’s no risk,” “Profits are guaranteed” or “You’ll never have to worry about your financial health again.”

ä Be especially wary of “free lunch” investment seminars.

Bergers said the goal of the conference wasn’t to scare seniors away from investing, but instead help them evaluate an investment for “suitability.”

“The good news is that there are thousands of good, honest investments and brokers out there,” he said.

Attendee Jane Plummer, 79, of Eddington said she was learning a lot. She said she has received suspicious phone calls from people who sound like they’d like her money, but she just hangs up.

“I’m learning how to handle this stuff,” she said. “I think the people who are doing [investor fraud] are real smart.”

For information about a broker or an investment, call the Maine Office of Securities at 877-624-8551 or visit the Web site