Jonathan, a 41-year-old construction worker from Manitoba, Canada, had been going through a rough time. His wife had left him for another man, and he had spent the last few years battling her for shared custody of their four children.
That’s why, when a broker from the online trading platform Plustocks called him and promised high returns if he invested with the firm, Jonathan (who has asked us not to use his real name) felt his luck was finally changing.
“I thought, wow this is great, Finally something good is happening. I was excited, so I invested. A lot. Pretty much everything I had.”
Over the course of six months, from January until last month, Jonathan “invested,” and lost, 85,000 Canadian dollars ($65,500).
The Times of Israel has been detailing massive fraud by Israeli binary options firms in recent months, beginning in March with an article entitled “The Wolves of Tel Aviv.” The fraudulent firms purport to be guiding their customers in making lucrative short-term investments, but are in fact using various ruses, including allegedly manipulating rigged trading platforms, to simply steal their clients’ money. Local binary options firms have now been banned by the Israel Securities Authority from targeting Israelis, but they are still free to target people abroad. France, Romania, Canada and other countries are investigating the Israeli fraudsters’ activities in their countries. Israel’s police and law enforcement have thus far proved unwilling or unable to tackle the snowballing fraud, which is estimated to involve hundreds of firms, with thousands of employees in Israel, turning over more than a billion dollars a year.
‘I was too trusting’
For Jonathan, it all started when he saw a video online about someone who had earned extra cash investing in coffee. The video was produced by an affiliate marketer of Plustocks, and when Jonathan signed up to learn more, the marketing company passed on his contact information to Plustocks.
The very next day, a Plustocks broker by the name of “Leo Bowman” phoned him.
“How much do you know about investing?” Bowman asked.
“Not much,” admitted Jonathan. Bowman told him not to worry, he would teach him and that there was a lot of money to be made.
For the next several months, Bowman sent Jonathan articles, and gradually persuaded him to “invest” first in coffee options and then in oil trades and trades involving companies like BMW and Tesla. Initially, Jonathan deposited $5,000. But after he gave Bowman his credit card number, Bowman began taking money from it without authorization, Jonathan says.
“When I spoke to him about it, he was reassuring that I would be happy with the results, and made big promises. I didn’t fight it too much at the time because I guess I was still pretty hopeful.”
Several weeks and many thousands of dollars invested later, Jonathan got a $5,000 payment, described as a “return on investment” from Plustocks. This reassured Jonathan, even though Plustocks by this stage had much more than $5,000 of his money. At the urging of Leo Bowman, he proceeded to invest many thousands more.
“I was too trusting,” he now admits.
A knight in shining armor
Earning his trust with that $5,000 payment was just a ruse, Jonathan now believes.
“He would call me every day at around the same time,” Jonathan recalls. “We talked about family. He asked me how it’s going, and called me buddy. He also sounded knowledgeable about investing.”
The desire to hope against hope that his life was taking a turn for the better made Jonathan ignore the red flags, like the unauthorized credit card charges.
“Partially I thought, because I had had a couple of really bad years, maybe this was kind of a (financial) knight in shining armor. The stories you saw online [in videos made by binary options affiliates] were so illustrious [sic]. You saw people driving fancy cars or living in a huge house and just a year ago supposedly they were living paycheck to paycheck.”
Plustocks told Jonathan that it was based in London and had offices in Switzerland, but in the course of his dealings with the company, Jonathan was asked to wire some of his “investments” to a branch of the United Bulgarian Bank in Sofia. (Another Bulgarian bank, TBI, which is owned by Israel’s Kardan Group, is reported by Bulgarian investigative reporting site Bivol to also have accepted wire transfers from customers of binary options firms.)
Jonathan traded from January till June of this year, ultimately depositing 85 Canadian dollars ($65,000) — just about everything he had. Many of his “trades” were “successful.” But when he tried to withdraw some of his earnings last month, he could not. He called Plustocks, but suddenly no one would answer his calls.
“Some of the time I would try to Skype them. Skype would show that they are online but they wouldn’t take my calls.”
Jonathan considered getting on a plane and going to the Plustocks offices in London to have a word with them. But a friend who had also lost money to the company had hired a private investigator. And the investigator claimed the company was actually located in Israel.
Fraud investigator Jason Roy of the Manitoba Securities Commission confirmed in a phone call to Jonathan that Plustocks was a scam and likely linked to Israel. (Plustocks operates its call center in Ramat Gan.)
In fact, on July 4, the MSC issued an investor alert against the company: “The Manitoba Securities Commission (MSC) is strongly cautioning the public to reconsider investing with so-called ‘binary options’ trading firms. Three Manitobans have made complaints to MSC after losing a combined $144,446 through Plustocks, an online binary options trading company not registered to conduct business in Canada.”
“One victim learned of PluStocks through an Internet advertisement and created an account,” the MSC’s Roy noted in a press release. “Early on, he was able to withdraw some of his ‘investment’ and encouraged two friends to invest on the belief he’d found a zero-risk, high yield opportunity. All three were told to expect a potential 75% gain within 30 days, and that they could withdraw their money at any time. Next came a series of unauthorized credit card charges from companies they didn’t recognize. When the friends realized there was a problem, requests to withdraw their money were ignored. It was too late. Unfortunately, we’re seeing this pattern far too often.”
“These companies are exceptionally good at what they do — parting people with their money,” Roy added in his press release. “They can destroy a person’s future.”
The Times of Israel phoned Plustocks on Monday. A polite young man with an American accent said the company intended to respond. However, The Times of Israel had not received a response at time of publication.
Roy, the fraud investigator, told Jonathan he could try to lodge a complaint with the Israeli authorities. But Jonathan balks at the prospect.
“I’m a small town guy. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Manitoba, but I’m surrounded by prairies and farms. I grew up very trusting, I still don’t lock my doors to this day. To me, even the internet is kind of big and scary.”
Jonathan has had to remortgage his home and has used all the money in his retirement account to pay off his credit cards. “I have nothing left.”
He has told his four kids that they will have to subsist on vegetables from their garden this summer. “We don’t have money to buy meat. Do [the binary options brokers] realize how they are destroying families? Even if it’s $1,000 it sucks, but this is almost $100,000, it’s a lot of money.”
Apart from Bowman, Jonathan says other Plustocks employees with whom he dealt with told him their names were Edward Barnes, Ryan Anderson, David King and Frank Herbert — almost certainly not their real names, he now realizes. “Get a real job, and give me back my money,” he pleads.
“I’ve worked in construction for 20 years. When it’s plus 30 degrees, I sweat my ass off and when its minus 30, I freeze my ass off. At the end of the day I felt good about the money that I made. I don’t know how they can feel good.”
He wonders out loud how human beings can do what they do to others and says he hopes that they will one day feel remorse for their actions. “When I found out this was a scam, I thought, how can they sleep at night? People have children.”
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