The Knesset on Monday unanimously passed a law to ban Israel’s binary options industry, a vast, multibillion dollar scam that has defrauded millions of victims worldwide for a decade.
The law, which will go into effect three months from now, came about as a direct result of The Times of Israel’s investigative reporting on the fraud, which began with a March 2016 article entitled “The wolves of Tel Aviv: Israel’s vast, amoral binary options scam exposed.” The law gives all binary options firms the intervening three months to cease operations. After that, anyone involved in binary options is punishable with up to two years in jail.
Fifty-three Knesset members voted for the law and none voted against it.
The binary options industry, some of which has closed down in Israel in recent months as the legislation made its way through the Knesset, is an Israel-based enterprise which flourished with almost no intervention by law enforcement since 2007.
Fewer than 20 Israelis have been arrested for binary options fraud, and none has been indicted. In September, the FBI arrested binary options CEO Lee Elbaz, when she disembarked from an airplane at JFK airport, underlining growing efforts by international law enforcement to tackle the crime.
“We worry about the BDS movement,” said MK Rachel Azaria (Kulanu) in her introduction to the law. “This industry has a huge impact on how Israel is viewed throughout the world. Our government officials go to international conferences and their colleagues abroad raise their eyebrows because of this industry.”
The law to ban the industry took shape after Israel Securities Authority Chairman Shmuel Hauser, alerted to the scale of the fraud by The Times of Israel, promised in August 2016 that he would take the necessary steps to thwart the fraudsters. That same month, Jewish Agency chief Natan Sharansky urged the government to close down the “repugnant, immoral” industry. The Prime Minister’s Office last fall called for it to be banned worldwide.
In response to The Times of Israel’s reporting, the Knesset’s State Control Committee, headed by Yesh Atid’s Karine Elharar, convened a series of sessions early this year to discuss how to tackle the fraud. Once Hauser’s bill was drafted and received initial ministerial approval, it was shepherded toward Monday’s final Knesset approval by the Knesset Reforms Committee, chaired by Azaria, over furious opposition by key players in the industry and their lobbyists.
In a bombshell speech at a meeting of the Reforms Committee in August, Israel Police Superintendent Gabi Biton said Israeli crime kingpins were behind the binary options industry and that organized crime in the country has been massively enriched and strengthened as a result of law enforcement’s failure for many years to grasp the vastness of the problem.
“Our eyes have been opened,” said Biton, who investigates financial fraud and money laundering. “What we’re seeing here is a massive organized criminal enterprise. We are talking about criminals at various levels of crime organizations, up to the very top.”
He vowed: “We will use all the tools at our disposal to uproot this phenomenon.”
The Times of Israel arranged for victims of the fraud to testify to the committee, including the family of Fred Turbide — a Canadian father of four who died by suicide in December having been duped out of his life savings by an Israel-based binary options firm.
At its height, binary options was estimated to bring in $5 billion-$10 billion a year. Hundreds of firms have operated from Israel, employing thousands of Israelis, defrauding customers all over the world.
Fraudulent Israeli binary options companies ostensibly offer customers worldwide a potentially profitable short-term investment. But in reality — through rigged trading platforms, refusal to pay out, and other ruses — these companies fleece the vast majority of customers of most or all of their money. The fraudulent salespeople routinely conceal where they are located, misrepresent what they are selling, and use false identities.
The law that passed on Monday was a constrained version of the draft law that was introduced earlier this year. The original bill would not only have banned the entire binary options industry, but also forex and CFD companies that operate from Israel without a license. It was subsequently watered down to apply narrowly to binary options. Critics have charged that this creates a loophole and that, with the new law in place, fraudulent binary options companies can simply tweak the product they offer and continue to operate.
Some former binary options operatives have started to focus on opportunities to profit in the fields of diamond sales, cryptocurrencies, Initial Coin Offerings and predatory business loans. Others have moved their activities overseas — including to Ukraine and Cyprus.