Investment scams prey on your hope to earn interest or a return on investment on the amount of money that you invest. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) offers overviews of many common investment frauds, and tips to avoid being a victim.
Types of Fraud
Investment fraud comes in many forms. Whether you are a first-time investor or have been investing for many years, here are some basic facts you should know about different types of fraud.
Advance Fee Fraud
Binary Options Fraud
High Yield Investment Programs
Internet and Social Media Fraud
Pre-IPO Investment Scams
“Prime Bank” Investments
Pump and Dump Schemes
Information on the following frauds is available on the Commodity Futures Trading Commission website at the links below.
Affinity frauds target members of identifiable groups, such as the elderly, or religious or ethnic communities. The fraudsters involved in affinity scams often are – or pretend to be – members of the group. They may enlist respected leaders from the group to spread the word about the scheme, convincing them it is legitimate and worthwhile. Many times, those leaders become unwitting victims of the fraud they helped to promote.
These scams exploit the trust and friendship that exists in groups of people. Because of the tight-knit structure of many groups, outsiders may not know about the affinity scam. Victims may try to work things out within the group rather than notify authorities or pursue legal remedies.
Advance Fee Fraud
Advance fee frauds ask investors to pay a fee up front – in advance of receiving any proceeds, money, stock, or warrants – in order for the deal to go through. The advance payment may be described as a fee, tax, commission, or incidental expense that will be repaid later. Some advance fee schemes target investors who already purchased underperforming securities and offer to sell those securities if an “advance fee” is paid, or target investors who have already lost money in investment schemes. Fraudsters often direct investors to wire advance fees to escrow agents or lawyers to give investors comfort and to lend an air of legitimacy to their schemes. Fraudsters also may try to fool investors with official-sounding websites and e-mail addresses.
Advance fee frauds may involve the sale of products or services, the offering of investments, lottery winnings, found money, or many other so-called opportunities. Fraudsters carrying out advance fee schemes may:
- Offer common financial instruments such as bank guarantees, old government or corporate bonds, medium or long term notes, stand-by letters of credit, blocked funds programs, “fresh cut” or “seasoned” paper, and proofs of funds;
- Offer to find financing arrangements for clients who pay a “finder’s fee” in advance; or
- Pose as legitimate U.S. brokers or firms and offer to help investors recover their stock market losses by exchanging worthless stock, but requiring investors to pay an upfront “security deposit” or post an “insurance” or “performance bond.”
Binary Options Fraud
Much of the binary options market operates through Internet-based trading platforms that are not necessarily complying with applicable U.S. regulatory requirements and may be engaging in illegal activity. Investors should be aware of fraudulent promotion schemes involving binary options and binary options trading platforms.
What is a Binary Option?
A binary option is a type of options contract in which the payout depends entirely on the outcome of a yes/no proposition and typically relates to whether the price of a particular asset will rise above or fall below a specified amount. Once the option is acquired, there is no further decision for the holder to make regarding the exercise of the binary option because binary options exercise automatically. Unlike other types of options, a binary option does not give the holder the right to buy or sell the specified asset. When the binary option expires, the option holder receives either a pre-determined amount of cash or nothing at all.
Investor Complaints Relating To Fraudulent Binary Options Trading Platforms
The SEC has received numerous complaints of fraud associated with websites that offer an opportunity to buy or trade binary options through Internet-based trading platforms. The complaints fall into at least three categories:
- Refusal to credit customer accounts or reimburse funds to customers
These complaints typically involve customers who have deposited money into their binary options trading account and who are then encouraged by “brokers” over the telephone to deposit additional funds into the customer account. When customers later attempt to withdraw their original deposit or the return they have been promised, the trading platforms allegedly cancel customers’ withdrawal requests, refuse to credit their accounts, or ignore their telephone calls and emails.
- Identity theft
These complaints allege that certain Internet-based binary options trading platforms may be collecting customer information (including copies of customers’ credit cards, passports, and driver’s licenses) for unspecified uses. Do not provide personal data.
- Manipulation of software to generate losing trades
These complaints allege that the Internet-based binary options trading platforms manipulate the trading software to distort binary options prices and payouts. For example, when a customer’s trade is “winning,” the countdown to expiration is extended arbitrarily until the trade becomes a loss.
Beware of Overstated Investment Returns for Binary Options
Additionally, some binary options Internet-based trading platforms may overstate the average return on investment by advertising a higher average return on investment than a customer should expect, given the payout structure.
For example, a customer may be asked to pay $50 for a binary option contract that promises a 50% return if the stock price of XYZ company is above $5 per share when the option expires. Assuming a 50/50 chance of winning, the payout structure has been designed in such a way that the expected return on investment is actually negative, resulting in a net loss to the customer. This is because the consequence if the option expires out of the money (approximately a 100% loss) significantly outweighs the payout if the option expires in the money (approximately a 50% gain). In this example, an investor could expect — on average — to lose money.
Always Check the Background of a Firm or Financial Professional
Before investing, check out the background, including registration or license status, of any firm or financial professional you are considering dealing with through the SEC’s Investment Adviser Public Disclosure (IAPD) database, available on Investor.gov, and the National Futures Association Background Affiliation Status Information Center’s BASIC Search. If you cannot verify that they are registered, don’t trade with them, don’t give them any money, and don’t share your personal information with them.
High Yield Investment Programs
The Internet is awash in so-called “high-yield investment programs” or “HYIPs.” These are unregistered investments typically run by unlicensed individuals – and they are often frauds. The hallmark of an HYIP scam is the promise of incredible returns at little or no risk to the investor. A HYIP website might promise annual (or even monthly, weekly, or daily!) returns of 30 or 40 percent – or more. Some of these scams may use the term “prime bank” program. If you are approached online to invest in one of these, you should exercise extreme caution – it is likely a fraud.