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This story was published in partnership with The Daily Mail. Their version can be found here. Thousands of British people have lost millions of pounds to an international scheme that is sold as an investment opportunity but in reality is a gamble or straight-up scam.
While other countries have banned this business, a regulatory loophole has left UK victims completely unprotected — despite police saying it is now the biggest fraud in Britain.
The sale of what are known as binary options involves betting on whether financial assets, such as shares, currencies or commodities, will rise or fall over a specific time period. Victims are targeted by salespeople in call centres abroad — typically located in Israel and Romania — who use high-pressure tactics to convince them to invest. They are then led to believe that their investment is growing as bets are placed — but when they try to cash in their purported returns they are unable to.
The Bureau spoke to dozens of people across the UK who had been targeted by a range of different companies. Many people have had money taken off their credit cards without consent — in some cases thousands of pounds.
Hundreds of binary options companies exist around the world, making billions of pounds a year. Software is used which allows clients to check their purported account activity online, showing their funds rising and falling as the bets are supposedly made. There have been no successful prosecutions because the fraudsters are usually located abroad.
But the Gambling Commission only regulates operators that have equipment based in Great Britain. Many binary options firms operating globally are completely unregulated. Others register themselves in Cyprus, where the central bank allows financial companies from other countries to apply for operating licences, and where the trading is classed as investment rather than gambling.
The firms can then operate anywhere in the European Union EU , except where individual countries have introduced restrictions. The Bureau has seen internal documents from some of the companies listing the names of hundreds of UK victims and how much they have lost.
Typically people invest small sums to start with and are then drawn in with a series of false promises. The only condition was he would have to wait eight months before taking out the money. Inside Option sent him a letter guaranteeing that this would be the case on headed notepaper with a London address. All the payments were made on a credit card and George thought that meant he would be protected if it turned out to be a fraud.
He watched the trades taking place on his Inside Option electronic account and it appeared that the more money he put in the better he did. He was told the trader who had set up the account had left to look after his sick mother. Then Inside Option said it would have to bring in its legal department to check the validity of the deal, and after that he struggled to get hold of them.
He lost so much money on scams that he became even more vulnerable to new ones as he was desperate to make back his losses.
The police declined to comment on the outcome of the investigation. Most victims did not want their names published, in part because they feared being targeted by new scams.
The targets are typically older investors frustrated by zero interest rates, looking for a better place to put their money. They are told that binary options are a conservative investment strategy. At the same time the fraudsters also target younger investors, drawn in by pictures circulating on social media of happy binary options investors with gold Lamborghinis and Ferraris, with fake profiles bolstered by purchased followers.
Nearly a third of the people who go to the police are in their twenties. The web of binary options companies around the world is in a constant state of flux. As soon as there are too many complaints about one firm it is closed down and replaced by another. Even the larger and more legitimate operators in the sector have run into trouble.
The US bars binary options firms from selling to consumers unless they are operating through registered exchanges and contract markets, of which only a handful of companies are. The company, which says it has more than , customers in more than 80 countries, has also been fined this year by its regulators in Cyprus. Following queries from media organisations including the Bureau, Southampton FC ended its partnership with Banc de Binary last week. Belgium brought in a ban on binary option companies targeting consumers last month, and France is also considering introducing an advertising ban.
Israel bans the sale of binary options to its own citizens but there is no law stopping them targeting foreigners. The UK, on the other hand, has failed to take action, which has given traders a helping hand. Last year the insurance market Lloyds of London had to issue a warning that AA Option was falsely claiming to be insured by the institution, meaning depositors were covered for any losses they incurred.
No such insurance existed. The Bureau learned of dozens of investors who are now trying to get their money back.
Even grander claims have been made by other companies. Inside Option told one client the company was based in the famous Gherkin building in the City of London. One client which Inside Option told it was based in the Gherkin was even sent a copy of a fake lease agreement for office space in the building. It was previously registered in Anguilla, where last year the regulatory authorities issued a warning to the public stating the company was not licensed to trade in binary options.
Last spring a young Englishman posted an Instagram video of himself singing and larking around in an office in the Electra tower, a storey block in the heart of Tel Aviv. The man, Jonathan Baker, was born and raised in Birmingham before moving to Israel some seven years ago. His Facebook posts show how he tempted people into the business: When contacted by the Bureau Yedibaslar said he had worked for Express Target Marketing, not Inside Option, and insisted he was entirely innocent of any wrongdoing.
Lorry driver Steve Taylor, 59, lost the money he had been saving for his wedding to partner Kim Innes after betting it on binary options. He went on to open an account with another company, AA Option, and then got a call from a salesman there. That evening, he got an automated call from his bank — the Bank of Scotland — alerting him to suspicious activity on his account.
The bank initially returned the money but once it established Steve had given AA Option his card details it took the money out again. After that Steve decided to withdraw the money he had placed with Inside Option. It refused, saying that because he had a new bank card it could not be sure he was who he said he was, even after he had given the company clear proof. However this binary options story — unlike most — does have a happy ending.
After being contacted by the Bureau, Bank of Scotland said it would refund the couple with the full amount taken by AA Option.
SpotOption is one of six major providers of binary option trading platforms, all of which are based in Israel. It charges brands like Inside Option a percentage commission on its turnover.
The Treasury carried out a consultation last year which considered whether binary options sellers should be regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority FCA , but no conclusions were published and no legislative changes have been brought about. If these companies were regulated by the FCA the regulator could warn investors against specific fraudsters — but many of the victims we spoke to say they want a complete ban on binary options firms selling to the general public.
Binary options are not currently regulated by the FCA so your investment is not protected. Melanie has been at the Bureau since , reporting on areas such as lobbying, health and social care and police response to rape. Meirion is an award-winning journalist best known for investigations into Jimmy Savile, Trafigura, vulture funds and the 'fake sheikh'.
Abigail reports on counter-terrorism, corporations in warzones and other international stories and was formerly the FT Beirut correspondent. I have been scammed by a company in Bulgaria. Instead all of this was taken from my credit card even though I had not authorised it. The bank will not repay any of my money even though when it was pending I reported it to them. If you flushed your money down the toilet with a binary broker then just learn your lesson and move on, there is no money to recover, just scammers looking to take more of your money.
He has so far failed to get the money returned on his credit card. Gold Lamborghinis and Ferraris The targets are typically older investors frustrated by zero interest rates, looking for a better place to put their money.
A Facebook post aiming to recruit new binary options salespeople. Adopting British identities The UK, on the other hand, has failed to take action, which has given traders a helping hand. Other binary options companies falsely claim on their websites to be regulated in Britain. But the Bureau has discovered Inside Option is actually operating from a call centre in Israel. Steve Taylor and Kim Innes Lorry driver Steve Taylor, 59, lost the money he had been saving for his wedding to partner Kim Innes after betting it on binary options.
The SpotOption platform SpotOption is one of six major providers of binary option trading platforms, all of which are based in Israel. Peter was not involved in the embezzlement, but was convicted of forging signatures on cheques. Lack of UK action The Treasury carried out a consultation last year which considered whether binary options sellers should be regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority FCA , but no conclusions were published and no legislative changes have been brought about.
About The Authors Melanie Newman Melanie has been at the Bureau since , reporting on areas such as lobbying, health and social care and police response to rape. Meirion Jones Meirion is an award-winning journalist best known for investigations into Jimmy Savile, Trafigura, vulture funds and the 'fake sheikh'.
Abigail Fielding-Smith Abigail reports on counter-terrorism, corporations in warzones and other international stories and was formerly the FT Beirut correspondent. Nick Mathiason More by Nick Mathiason. Comments Elize Cohen May 1st, Himanshu Ipad Jul 7th, Keith Schultheiss Jul 12th, David West Jul 16th, Annelie Jul 17th, Tony Donnelly Jul 20th, Michael Jul 27th, Hung Trong Nguyen Nguyen Aug 1st, Sara Aug 3rd, Amykecik Aug 10th, Kane Aug 25th, Lucas Aug 25th, Williams Sep 2nd, Hartie Sep 4th,