Slowly, far, far, too slowly, Israel is waking up to the gigantic fraud being perpetrated from here by binary options crooks: to the scale of the crime; to the heartlessness of the criminals; to the staggering lack of will by the regulatory authorities, the police and the political leadership to tackle what may well be the single greatest corruption scandal in the history of modern Israel (in terms of how much money is being fleeced from duped “investors” all over the world).

The Times of Israel has been writing about the fraud, article after article, for the past three months. We were not the first Israeli media outlet to cover it; we are the only Israeli media outlet that has made exposing the despicable industry an ongoing editorial priority. Slowly, as I said, some parts of the Hebrew media are starting to catch up.

Most notably in this regard, Israel’s Channel 2 — the nation’s most watched news broadcast — last week carried a lengthy report on the crime. Its reporters, commendably, interviewed workers in this industry of theft who made plain that there are no innocents among the thousands, possibly tens of thousands who work for the corrupt companies, since rookie trainees are told on day one that they’ll have to leave their consciences at the door. Commendably, too, the report included an on-camera interview in which an insider acknowledged that 96% of customers lose all their money. What the TV report failed to state explicitly is that, far from investment, or even regulated gambling, the industry is engaged in outright theft — a theft it perpetrates largely, though not solely, by allegedly rigging its trading platforms.

For those of you who are hearing for the first time about the vast and pernicious binary options fraud industry that Israel hosts, and that Israel’s authorities have refused to tackle, I want to summarize the key evils. For those of you who have read our coverage to date, this makes for a handy, grim recap.

Yoni Avital, of Tradesmarter, tells a recent conference that, in Israel, the binary options industry has become a world of trading platforms that manipulate the prices, aggressive salespeople, and money laundering (YouTube screenshot)

Yoni Avital, of Tradesmarter, tells a recent conference that, in Israel, the binary options industry has become a world of trading platforms that manipulate the prices, aggressive salespeople, and money laundering (YouTube screenshot)

1. Terms like “binary options” and “forex” trading can have legitimate connotations. In the Israeli context, however, “binary options” has largely been co-opted by a fraudulent industry that has snowballed in the past decade and become increasingly reckless and vicious, dedicated to stealing as much money as possible from as many people as possible, all over the world, by duping them into thinking they are making potentially lucrative short-term investments. A rare public summation of the Israeli industry was provided at a recent conference by one expert, Yoni Avital, about 6 minutes into this video clip.)

2. Earlier this year, the flaccid Israel Securities Authority, which is supposed to regulate the country’s financial trading environment, finally managed to stir itself into banning the fleecing of Israelis by the local fraudulent binary options firms. In other words, the industry today, according to Israel’s own regulations, can only steal from people abroad. A shameful reality, that is, of Israelis stealing from foreigners with the tacit consent of the Israeli government.

An ex-employee told us just last week that her company turns a monthly profit of $10 million, or $120 million per year

3. The scale of the industry is hard to assess, but it is vast. The Times of Israel believes there are well over 100 Israeli or Israel-connected binary options companies (many of them trading under multiple names) operating out of office buildings in Tel Aviv, Ramat Gan, Herzliya, Caesarea and beyond. We know that many of these firms employ hundreds of people. We have been told by some insiders that the industry employs thousands of Israelis; others speak of tens of thousands. An ex-employee told us just last week that her particular requirement was to make 150 calls per day to “leads” — potential clients around the world, from a data file supplied by the firm — and to bring in $100,000 in deposits each month, a target she easily surpassed. She said her company turns a monthly profit of $10 million, or $120 million per year. Insiders have given us estimates ranging from $1 billion to $10 billion for the annual profit of the industry. By way of comparison, Israel’s total annual exports are in the order of $65 billion.

4. The industry is not unsophisticated. When speaking to clients, the salespeople whose job is to persuade them to part with their money use false names, cite false qualifications and expertise, claim to be in false locations — telling whatever cover story is most effective in building trust. The single goal of the sales and retention crooks is to persuade the mark to believe in them, and then to entrust them with real money. That’s why immigrants, especially from French- and English-speaking countries, are so sought-after by the Israeli firms. (Israeli Arabs too; the Israeli firms are ripping off the Arab world as well.) And the more unscrupulous the better.

The technical coding involved in rigging the platforms was described to The Times of Israel by one ex-employee who actually wrote some of the code

The online trading platforms to which the marks are given access look legitimate. In fact, however, the platforms are allegedly rigged by the fraudulent firms, so that the numbers flashing across the screen can be manipulated to ensure that the customer cannot profit. The fraudsters can and do rig the numbers so that customers think they are making money on their trades for a while, and are thus inveigled into depositing still more; the losses come when the victim is deemed to have been milked dry. The technical coding involved in rigging the platforms was described to The Times of Israel by one ex-employee who actually wrote some of the code. Again, therefore, this is not investing. With these fraudulent firms and their duplicitous sales teams, nobody is purchasing a legitimate, conventional option to buy or sell a commodity. The clients, rather, are being played for fools — their funds manipulated as they are expertly squeezed and then cynically discarded.

5. The big-fish companies that supply the trading platforms to smaller binary options firms are therefore central to the fraud. In some cases, we have been told, these big-fish firms charge a 20% fee to the smaller firms for the use of the platform. In one case, we have been told, one such supplier has recently been given a government grant to expand its operations to a major world power with which Israel is working to boost trade — the government using our taxpayer shekels, unwittingly, to finance the potential further global expansion of Israeli binary options fraud.

6. I mentioned above that some of the fraudsters have become increasingly reckless as the years have passed and nobody has come to put them in jail. That recklessness now sees some firms not even bothering to present the appearance of normal trading, but rather, when customers have been fully fleeced, informing them that their money has been lost on unsuccessful trades made on their behalf. More reckless still, when customers become tenacious in demanding their money back, some firms simply stop taking their calls. (Other ruses employed to separate victims from their money are described here.) The false names and untraceable phone numbers mean that the victims have a hard time tracking down the crooks.

The Times of Israel has been told of powerful lobbying efforts by well-connected individuals to ensure that the industry is allowed to continue to flourish

7. The industry is facilitated by a range of side industries. There are the SEO (search engine optimization) experts, who ensure that the thieving firms appear high on Google search result pages — readily available to potential customers. The SEO experts also ensure that websites purporting to help would-be investors with information on binary options — websites that are themselves often set up and maintained by the self-same corrupt firms — pop up high on Google, too. Then there are the email experts, sending out attractive “make money from home” and “boost your savings” offers worldwide — producing the leads. There are the production teams, writers and actors making video ads for the industry, deceptively extolling the virtues of this expert and that revolutionary trading platform. There are the technical writers, preparing content for the firms’ websites and other marketing materials. Abysmally, reputable Israeli organizations have helped the corrupt binary options industry to attract staffers — in some cases unwittingly. But nobody, at this stage, can credibly claim ignorance. Since we began highlighting the fraud, several official organizations and private manpower firms, to their credit, have begun barring binary options firms from using their recruitment services or advertising on their sites. Some, but not all.

8. The world’s banking and credit card systems are also part of the equation. We have been told about some credit card firms that are scrupulous in protecting their customers from the fraudsters, and others that are less so. The same goes for banks. The fraudulent firms accept initial deposits via credit card, but much prefer to fleece their marks of larger sums via bank transfer. A number of banks, some of their names known to us, play a leading role in this process. The worst word a fraudulent binary options firm ever wants to hear is “chargeback” — an effort by a duped customer to get his credit card payment returned because he has been ripped off. When requests for chargebacks mount, the credit card firms get suspicious, and that spells trouble for the fraudsters, who will therefore go to extreme lengths to avoid such repayments.

Thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of young Israelis get up and go to work each day to commit robbery

9. The binary options fraud is by no means the only dismal dark side of Israel’s start-up nation success. Unscrupulous Israeli firms we have come across use SEO and other expertise to cheat and steal in other online areas. With the possible exception of online gambling, another cash cow with plenty of Israeli involvement whose integrity and regulation we have yet to investigate, however, nothing remotely compares to the scale and cynicism of binary options fraud.

10. When it comes to the impact on the victims, the personal consequences of this mammoth fraud can only be imagined. We were told by one ex-salesman that he quit the industry, finally, after years of silencing his conscience, when he heard a colleague call a client whose wife answered the phone and said her husband was not available; he had just committed suicide because of their binary options losses. Other ex-traders told us they knew of other suicides. We have spoken to victims who told us they were considering suicide, and to victims who told us they have had to sell their homes and cannot see how they will ever recover financially. Again, were these victims just foolish gamblers, addicted to self-destructive financial decisions, one would have less sympathy. But these are trusting people who had been sweet-talked into parting with their savings by men and women using false names, making false promises, claiming to be enabling them to make wise investments, and then stealing their money.

Einat Wilf addresses the Knesset, October 15, 2012. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Former MK Einat Wilf addresses the Knesset in 2012. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

11. The Israel Securities Authority, belatedly protecting Israelis from their fellow citizen-crooks, claims to lack the authority to prevent Israeli firms stealing from people abroad — an interpretation of its mandate that some experts contend is incorrect. The Israel Police, for its part, has told overseas victims that it cannot handle complaints by email or phone, and that they need to fly to Israel and register a complaint at an Israeli police station. An effort by former Knesset member Einat Wilf to have the industry shut down went nowhere. The Times of Israel has been told of powerful lobbying efforts by well-connected individuals to ensure that the industry is allowed to continue to flourish. The Times of Israel has also been told horror stories about corruption in high places ostensibly central to the failure of the authorities to intervene, but we have no hard evidence of this.

12. While the Israeli authorities have failed to take action, however, class action suits are now being prepared in London, raids have been taking place involving Israeli suspects in Romania, French investigators have visited Israel to probe complaints on behalf of French nationals, and Canadian regulators are digging into the corrupt Israeli firms. The US, Canada, Australia and other countries issue watchlists and warning notices that highlight Israeli firms. Overseas media is taking increasing note. The implications for Israel are grave. Israel has attracted an enviable reputation as a stable environment for business and finance. The dizzying scale of the binary options fraud, and the appalling failure of the Israeli authorities to tackle it, constitute a tangible threat to that hard-won reputation, and thus to ongoing international investment and business development in Israel.

Models in Greek-themed costume greet conference attendees at the IFX Expo Cyprus conference, May 2016 (Hunter Stuart)

Models in Greek-themed costume greet conference attendees at the IFX Expo Cyprus conference, May 2016 (Hunter Stuart)

13. If that were not serious enough, however, there is the matter of morals and ethics — the bitter reality that Israel is a world leader in a cynical industry of theft. Thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of largely young Israelis get up and go to work each day to commit robbery. Some of them brag about it. Some of them love ringing that bell and basking in the applause of their fellow crooks when they extract a big new deposit from some dupe on the phone. Some of them brag that they earn more than their parents. They love the foreign trips the firms sometimes provide. They love those salaries. Some of them blame the clients for allowing themselves to be fooled. Some of them say it’s not so bad, since they’re only stealing from foreigners. (This claim was actually made on camera in the TV report last Tuesday night.) Some of them are being eaten up inside with the knowledge of the crime they are perpetrating, but carry on doing so regardless.

Last week, after my colleague Simona Weinglass and I had met with an insider who recently, finally, walked away from her job duping marks into giving her their money, we happened to pass a building where a company that writes marketing materials for a binary options firm has its offices. A young man was emerging, about to head into the traffic on his electric bicycle. I asked him if he worked for the firm; he said he did. I told him he should be ashamed of himself. He told me he had turned down “you don’t know how many offers” to work for the thieving firms themselves, directly stealing the money, but that he had to make a living, and this was a lesser evil. I asked him if his mother knows what he does for a living. The argument grew louder, and then became more civil. As he rode off, I called after him to please find another job.

Every day that the fraudulent binary options industry continues to thrive is an affront to the values we should all hold dear

I hope he does. I hope everybody reading this who, directly or indirectly, is facilitating this vast blight — as an employee of the industry, or of its related industries, or of the authorities that ought to have long since shut this all down and sent the perpetrators to jail — sobers up and remembers that little commandment: Thou Shalt Not Steal.

This is not what Israel was revived for. This is not what Israelis daily protect this country from its enemies for. Every day that the fraudulent binary options industry continues to thrive is an affront to the values we should all hold dear. Every day that the enforcement authorities in this country allow it to thrive is an affront to the values they are charged to uphold.