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Learn from Lowell & Nick, Avoid Unregistered Binary Options Trading Platforms

Posted by CFTC Staff /
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Lowell Enlow was a contractor for NASA and later operated several insurance agencies throughout Florida. Nick Morrison is a store manager in Central Illinois. Despite their years of investing and financial experience, both men were victims of a sophisticated online fraud.

They thought they were investing in a highly liquid options market that offered quick returns with a low cost of entry. Instead, they were lured into an unregistered binary options trading platform run by an off-shore operation. They’re sharing their stories so you can see just how difficult it can be to recognize binary options fraud, when it’s happening right before your eyes.

What’s real and what’s not

Traders use binary options to hedge against unforeseen circumstances, such as weather events. Unlike other options, there are no strike prices and traders don’t get the choice to exercise the option. Instead, they take a position on a specific market event to occur at a specific time. If the event happens as predicted, the option pays a return. If not, the trader loses all his/her money.

There are registered binary options exchanges in the United States. Registration is important because it means the exchange meets specific regulatory requirements for liquidity, safety and customer protection that are enforced by the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission or the U.S. Securities Exchange Commission.

If a binary options trading platform is doing business in the United States, soliciting money from U.S. residents, and is not registered with CFTC or SEC, it is likely fraudulent.

Spreading online

When Lowell first heard of binary options in an email, he wasn’t looking to make a fortune. He already had a healthy retirement stowed away. He was simply seeking a little more security. All it cost to get his feet wet was a few hundred dollars, and so he saw no harm in it. By the time he realized he was involved in a fraud, he had lost more than $60,000.

Nick first caught wind of binary options on an investor message board. There was a lot of chatter over this exotic way to trade. He lost more than $3,500 to the scam.

In all, this fraudulent operation stole more than $1 million from thousands of people just like Lowell and Nick with a sophisticated website, the appearance of phony profits, and smooth sales tactics.

Building trust

Fraudsters commonly use the accessibility and highly anonymized nature of the Internet to their advantage, creating the perception of legitimacy.

Here’s how they often do it:

  • They pretend to be based in the U.S., knowing this could make American investors feel safer working with them.
  • They build sophisticated websites and sell the idea of smart “bot” trading that makes them seem like they are technologically advanced experts.
  • They provide easy access to online accounts that makes the customer feel in control of their own money and trades.
  • They develop fake social media posts touting the platforms and their performance.
  • They post fake reviews and testimonials on other websites and investor forums to get people to believe other investors have endorsed the fraudulent platform.
  • They make up company materials, such as brochures and video tutorials that add to the appearance of credibility.
  • They use fast talking “brokers” to offer advice, but they are often just glorified salespeople attempting to overwhelm customers and get them to agree to the next offer.

Nick and Lowell were also offered insurance against losses. But, they had to pay extra for it. What they didn’t know was that the covered losses came at an even higher price.

In both cases, when Nick and Lowell tried to withdraw their money, they were told they had to pay extremely high fees to get any of their principal investment. This was the moment of truth, when it became clear to them both they were dealing with a dubious company.

Getting real about binary options

Because the fraudulent company turned out to be located overseas and not in the United States as it had claimed, it was very hard to track.

It took a lot of work for the CFTC to build a case against the company. Namely because its entire operation was fake—location, names and addresses, all manufactured—it made the process of finding the actual responsible parties very complicated.

The best way to avoid binary options fraud is to check the company’s registration status, and if you are dealing with a broker, you can check the broker’s registration status too. Registration is not a guarantee against fraud, but it can help you weed out those operating outside of U.S. law. Whether you are considering short-term or long-term strategies, take the extra step to include SmartCheck.gov as a regular part of your financial research.

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This article was prepared by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission’s Office of Customer Education and Outreach. The article is provided for general informational purposes only and does not provide legal or investment advice to any individual or entity. Please consult with your own legal adviser before taking any action based on this information.

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