GO FINRA! Regulator Tackles Online HYIPs; Issues Warning On ‘Social Media-Linked Ponzi Schemes’; References P2P, Genius Funds, ‘Con Artists’ And ‘Bizarre Substratum’ Of Internet

EDITOR’S NOTE: It has become increasingly clear that regulators and the law-enforcement community are rallying around a common theme that web-based promoters are using discussion forums and social-networking sites in bids to sanitize HYIP Ponzi schemes by positioning them as attractive investment opportunities and even a thrilling form of gambling that pays commissions.

Today the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) launched an awareness campaign aimed at taking the lipstick off financial pigs and exposing them for the economy-killing, filthy hogs they are. FINRA did not mince words, calling the HYIP universe a “bizarre substratum of the Internet.”

Here, now, the story . . .

The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) has launched a public-awareness campaign and issued an investor alert on HYIP schemes that use social-media sites such as YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and online forums and “rating” sites to spread Ponzi misery globally.

“HYIPs are old-fashioned Ponzi schemes dressed up for a Web 2.0 world,” said John Gannon, FINRA’s senior vice president. “Some of these schemes encourage people to bring in new victims, while others entice investors to ‘ride the Ponzi’ by attempting to get in and get out before the scheme collapses.”

FINRA is supplementing its educational campaign with an advertising campaign.

“By using Google AdWords, we are hoping to reach anyone searching the Internet for HYIPs before they fall into the hands of con artists,” Gannon said.

FINRA’s campaign occurs against the backdrop of remarkable law-enforcement actions against the alleged Legisi Ponzi scheme pushed by Matt Gagnon of Mazu.com, the alleged Pathway To Prosperity (P2P) Ponzi scheme pushed on forums such as ASA Monitor, MoneyMakerGroup, Talk Gold and MyCashForums, and the collapse of an HYIP known as Genius Funds.

It also occurs against the backdrop of “prelaunch” buzz surrounding a mysterious program known as WebsiteTester.biz, which is spreading virally on the Internet through electronic news releases, references on promoters’ websites and daily updates on Twitter.

Promoters’ advertising is heavy for WebsiteTesterBiz, despite the fact the company’s domain name is registered behind a proxy, its purported parent company’s domain name is registered behind a proxy and there is a paucity of any verifiable information about either firm.

FINRA specifically referenced the alleged P2P Ponzi in its educational materials. It also provided a link to information published about the collapsed Genius Funds HYIP by the British Columbia Securities Commission. Alarmingly, FINRA said the Genius Funds’ fraud costs investors a staggering $400 million.

Federal prosecutors who filed criminal charges against P2P operator Nicholas Smirnow declared in May that “[a] large percentage, if not all, HYIPs, are Ponzi schemes.”

In its resource material, FINRA is building on that theme.

“[V]irtually every HYIP we have seen bears hallmarks of fraud,” FINRA said. “We are issuing this alert to warn investors worldwide to stay away from HYIPs.”

P2P gathered more than $70 million. Legisi also gathered more than $70 million, according to court records.

Separately, the alleged AdSurfDaily autosurf Ponzi scheme gathered at least $80 million and perhaps $100 million or more, according to records. Autosurfing is a form of HYIP fraud. The U.S. Secret Service acted against ASD in August 2008.

In February 2010, an autosurf known as INetGlobal also came under investigation by the Secret Service. The SEC has acted against autosurfs known as 12DailyPro, PhoenixSurf and CEP, which gathered tens of millions of dollars combined — fueled by online promotions.

Citing FBI statistics, FINRA said “the number of new HYIP investigations during fiscal year 2009 increased more than 100 percent over fiscal year 2008.”

The regulator specifically warned about websites that “Rank the latest programs and provide details of ‘payout options.'” At the same time, it warned about sites that “Allow web designers to buy ready-made HYIP templates and set up an ‘instant’ HYIP.” Meanwhile, it warned about sites that “Blog, chat and ‘teach’ about HYIPs.”

“Some HYIP ‘investors’ proffer strategies for maximizing profits and avoiding losses — everything from videos showing how to ‘make massive profits’ in HYIPs and ‘build a winning HYIP portfolio’ to an eBook on how to ‘ride the Ponzi’ and get in and out before a scheme collapses,” FINRA said.

“Other HYIP forums discuss how to enter ‘test spends,’ how to identify new HYIPs to maximize one’s chances of being an early stage payee and even how to check when a HYIP’s domain name expires so you can guess how long it might pay returns before shutting down,” FINRA noted.

One of the tips offered by FINRA was to be on the look out for “typos and poor grammar” in sales pitches.

“This is often a tip-off that scammers are at work,” FINRA said.

FINRA said HYIP scammers often don’t share critical information with investors.

“HYIP operators cloak themselves in secrecy regarding who manages investor money, where the company is located or where to go to get additional information,” FINRA said.

Claims about being “offshore” also are made, FINRA said.

“Be aware that generally persons or firms offering securities to U.S. residents must be licensed by FINRA and registered with the SEC,” FINRA said.

The sky often is positioned as the limit in the HYIP universe, which often relies on “online payment systems” — some of which “have been tied in recent years to criminal activity, including money laundering, identity theft and other scams,” FINRA warned.

“High-yield investment programs (HYIPs) are unregistered investments created and touted by unlicensed individuals,” FINRA said. “Typically offered through slick (and sometimes not-so-slick) websites, HYIPs dangle the contradictory promises of safety coupled with high, unsustainable rates of return — 20, 30, 100 or more percent per day—through vague or murky trading strategies.”

Read FINRA’s warning on HYIPs. (Make sure you click on the links in the body of the warning.)

Read a PP Blog story about an alleged penny-stock scheme that was operated on Facebook and Twitter. Read a PP Blog story on P2P, and also one on Genius Funds and others.

Read more about P2P. Read more about Legisi.

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23 Responses to “GO FINRA! Regulator Tackles Online HYIPs; Issues Warning On ‘Social Media-Linked Ponzi Schemes’; References P2P, Genius Funds, ‘Con Artists’ And ‘Bizarre Substratum’ Of Internet”

  1. Great Post Patrick!

    Thanks for the heads up on the FINRA link.



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