On Monday evening, after the Knesset’s winter session had opened with headline-making speeches by Messrs Rivlin, Netanyahu and Herzog, after four new MKs had been sworn in, and after parliament had voted to extend Israel’s state of emergency, the first order of new Knesset business was to vote on government-backed legislation to close down Israel’s widely fraudulent binary options industry. This our legislators dutifully did — voting by 53 to zero in favor of the law, which gives the binary options fraudsters three months to close down their operations or face up to two years in jail.
The Times of Israel, and particularly our investigative reporter Simona Weinglass, were directly responsible for the passage of this legislation. It was Weinglass who wrote our initial exposé of the multi-billion dollar fraud in March 2016, revealing that thousands of Israelis were going to work each day, pretending to be financial experts, pretending to be based in one or another global financial capital, calling people all over the world who had been duped by an email, a video, a fake financial news site or other means into expressing an interest in their ostensibly legitimate product, and using every foul means to fleece these good-faith customers of all that they owned. Weinglass and I then went to interview Shmuel Hauser, the head of the Israel Securities Authority, and found ourselves, somewhat to our dismay, explaining to him exactly what was going on.
So we alerted members of Knesset, and Karine Elharrar, chair of the State Control Committee, horrified by what we told her, set about convening the first Knesset committee sessions on the subject. Jewish Agency chair Natan Sharansky, updated by us about the despicable world of thievery into which immense numbers of prized foreign-language-speaking immigrants were being drawn, publicly expressed his repugnance and warned new arrivals not to take jobs in the field. We alerted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the vast global scam, and his office issued a statement urging that binary options be banned outright worldwide, no less.
And thus began the tortuous process of drafting legislation, initial Knesset and ministerial approval, a frenzied effort by the appallingly well-connected industry to subvert the bill, and Monday’s eventual passage of the law.
Ultimately then, one might be forgiven for thinking, this is a happy tale. A victory for investigative journalism. A credit to Israel’s legislators. The shuttering of a fraudulent industry that destroyed uncountable numbers of lives around the world. Perhaps, given that there have been cases of suicide among binary options victims, the new law may even have saved some lives.
And that is indeed part of the story. But it’s not the whole story. And there are numerous elements of this tale that are not happy at all — elements that were not wrapped up when the 53 Knesset members who were in the hall on Monday night cast their votes for this long-overdue legislation. Elements that raise extremely disturbing questions about the power of Israel’s criminal classes, the integrity of some of our legislators, and the quality of our law enforcement authorities. Elements that should preoccupy everybody who cares about the State of Israel and its moral and democratic well-being.
In this article, I’ve detailed what went on these past 19 months, from Weinglass’s first article to the passage of the legislation, looking in turn at the roles played by the police, the regulators, the Knesset, Hebrew media, and the criminals themselves. At the bottom of the piece is a short video in which Weinglass discusses the authorities’ shocking reluctance to tackle the fraud her reporting exposed, the small “dent” in crime that the new law constitutes, and her concerns for what lies ahead.
No, it is not a happy tale. And the worst of it is that it is emphatically not over.
1. The police: When we first began reporting on binary options fraud, and victims starting contacting us to tell us how they had been defrauded, we naturally suggested that they also file complaints with Israel Police. But it quickly emerged that the police complaints bureaucracy is set up in such a way as to make it almost impossible for overseas victims of crime hatched in Israel to so much as report the matter. When we approached Israel Police directly, via its spokespeople and other avenues, we were rudely rebuffed. We told them that an army of Israelis in Ramat Gan, Herzliya, Caesarea and beyond had for years been stealing staggering sums of money from people all over the world, and they could not have been less interested. Later, when the Knesset’s State Control Committee convened its first session on the blight, the police didn’t even bother to show up — claiming later there had been some kind of mix-up.
Later still, when a Canadian father of four named Fred Turbide took his own life after an Israeli binary options firm stole all his money, and a clear paper trail established exactly who had defrauded him, the police did not take any action against the individuals and company involved, which continued to operate.
I should stress: No new legislation was required for the police to begin investigating. Theft is already an offense on the Israeli statute books.
In the course of the lengthy process that finally yielded Monday’s law, police Superintendent Gabi Biton emerged as an impressive figure, telling the various owners, staffers and lobbyists of the binary options firms at one session of the Knesset Reforms Committee that binary options fraud “is a massive organized criminal enterprise” of “monstrous proportions.”
But Biton is one cop, and it became clear to us that those units of the police attempting to tackle age-old criminality’s modern, high-tech iterations — in which crooks register companies overseas, intermittently create and close companies, use false identities, manipulate the internet and more — are hopelessly under-resourced and all too easily outmaneuvered by the criminals. As of this writing, not a single Israeli binary options villain — in an industry that has fleeced billions of dollars since 2007 — has ever been convicted in this country.
2. The regulators: Shmuel Hauser, the chairman of the Israel Securities Authority, is one of the relative heroes of the legislation that passed on Monday night. It was Hauser who drafted the law, and shepherded it through parliament. But the ISA allowed the fraud to mushroom for eight years before it wheeled into action, prompted by The Times of Israel. The binary options crooks were barred from targeting Israelis in March 2016, but were being allowed to continue to steal from foreigners — and still are, in fact, because Monday’s law only goes into effect three months from now.
The ISA has a formidable team that checks every dot and comma when it comes to Israel’s regulated financial sector, but essentially ignored the binary options fraud because it was unregulated — and therefore, the ISA seemed to believe, not its responsibility. One lawyer desperately attempting to act on behalf of several victims likened the ISA’s approach to that of a traffic police department that would stop and fine a licensed motorist for a broken tail light but take no action whatsoever against a drunken, speeding driver without a license.
3. The Knesset: Karine Elharrar (Yesh Atid), head of the State Control Committee, responded to our reporting by holding three sessions during which the scale and perniciousness of binary options fraud began to register in parliament for the first time. (Former MK Einat Wilf had tried years earlier to shutter the industry, but was shrugged aside. Banker Ariel Marom tried to blow the whistle once again, in 2013, giving media interviews and meeting with MKs and the ISA, describing to them the shocking fraud he had witnessed working inside the industry, to no avail.)
It was out of those sessions, early this year, that the legislation began to take shape.
But something very disturbing happened between the framing of the initial draft and the finalizing of the text months later. Hauser’s original law would not only have closed down binary options, but would also have thwarted other, similar gambits. After private consultations, including with advocates for the very industries that Hauser wished to ban, the original text was watered down — creating loopholes through which binary options and other rogues, simply by retooling what they do, will be able to continue to prosper.
In the public consultations that followed, at the Knesset Reforms Committee under Rachel Azaria (Kulanu), binary options owners, senior staffers and lobbyists attempted unsuccessfully to browbeat the legislators into further weakening the bill.
The key binary options online trading platform provider, a firm called SpotOption, insisted during the committee sessions that its platform is entirely kosher, that the fraud is solely the responsibility of the client firms that use its platform, that it should be exempt from any ban, and that the legislation would constitute an unjust blow to Israel’s technology industry.
An FBI affidavit, issued ahead of the arrest last month of an Israeli binary options company’s CEO named Lee Elbaz, tells a very different story. SpotOption — which calls itself the “world’s leading binary options provider” — “worked together” with its client firms “to increase the likelihood that particular customers would lose money on trades,” the FBI affidavit alleges, and to “insure that clients who were having a high success rate of winning trades would lose future trades.” SpotOption, the affidavit further alleges, engaged in “the adjustment of customer risk settings” and “the manipulation of the option returns.”
Representatives of binary options firms and their lobbyists, familiar figures in the corridors of the Knesset, contributed to an intimidating atmosphere outside and even inside the committee rooms. A former employee of the industry, an American immigrant, said he was testifying as a form of “repentance” — an act of particular courage in the acutely uncomfortable milieu of a Knesset committee room filled with the owners, senior staff, lobbyists and lawyers of the industry whose nefarious practices he was detailing.
A source involved in the legislation told The Times of Israel during that committee stage in August that the original bill, the bill that Hauser wanted, “would have been ideal” but “I do not think it would be able to pass a final Knesset vote, even if the committee approved it. You cannot imagine the amount of pressure being exerted on Knesset members to weaken this bill,” this source said. “The industry has vast amounts of money and is exerting massive pressure.”
Indeed, David Bitan, the Likud MK who is also the coalition chief, and who is a member of the Reforms Committee, arrived at the committee room soon after the legislation was finalized and approved in a final committee vote on August 7, and asked to make changes to the law that would allow SpotOption and other binary options platform providers to continue to operate from Israel. Told by Azaria that it was too late, and that the bill had been voted through, Bitan then declared that he would not convene the Knesset plenary to vote on the proposed law in the near future, and did not think passage of the binary options ban was “urgent.”
Then, we reported at the time: “In a semi-private conversation that was overheard by many of those who remained in the room after the committee meeting, MK Azaria pleaded with Bitan to convene the plenary right away to pass the bill despite the fact that the Knesset is currently in summer recess. ‘This law is very important,’ she urged. ‘Binary options is causing anti-Semitism around the world.’ Soon after Azaria said this, a Knesset usher asked reporters to leave the room. But a source who remained told The Times of Israel that Bitan told Azaria and other government officials that members of a family prominently involved in SpotOption are leaders of the Georgian faction of the Likud Central Committee and that he needs their support to maintain his position in the Likud.”
Not long afterwards, a Knesset member told me and Weinglass that three-quarters of the 120 parliamentarians are in thrall to special interest groups, whose lobbyists and PR flacks crowd the halls of the Knesset, and are relentlessly pressured to the point where the public interest, this MK lamented, becomes a weak voice in the back of their heads.
4. Hebrew media. In a country where, to give just one for-instance, alleged real estate fraud perpetrated by a woman named Inbal Or can be deemed so important as to generate nightly TV news leads and vast print and online coverage, one might expect that the systematic theft of billions from victims worldwide by an Israel-based industry employing thousands would be a central Hebrew media focus, with cops, courts and cabinet ministers compelled to crack down. With a few honorable and intermittent exceptions, one would be mistaken.
The crooks are still out there, their ill-gotten gains intact. The most senior scammers are in the shadows, scheming
Does the Hebrew press not care because, since spring 2016, it was “only” foreigners who were being defrauded by our home-based crooks? Was our Hebrew press — which never shrinks from berating politicians and military chiefs, and which boasts some brave and enterprising investigative journalists — intimidated by the binary options crooks? I don’t know the answer.
I do find it incomprehensible that even when journalists were specifically invited to Azaria’s committee sessions, nobody from the mainstream Hebrew media bothered to turn up. The passage of the ban on Monday night was barely reported. Last October, when the Prime Minister’s Office issued its statement demanding that the entire binary options industry be banned worldwide, that too was ignored by Hebrew media: The prime minister of Israel, a figure under constant scrutiny by an army of Hebrew journalists, urging that thousands of his own citizens be thrown out of work — and almost nobody in Hebrew media, handed the story on a plate, thought this worth reporting. Go figure.
5. The criminals. The widely fraudulent Israeli binary options industry has been estimated to have generated between $5 billion and $10 billion a year. At its height, it was estimated to number well over 100 companies, and to employ between 5,000 and tens of thousands of employees here. The fraudulent firms ostensibly offer customers worldwide a potentially profitable short-term investment. But in reality — through rigged trading platforms, refusal to pay out, and all manner of 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 FBI affidavit against Elbaz goes into considerable detail to explain the fraud, in all its miserable manifestations.)
As The Times of Israel began reporting on the fraud, starting with Weinglass’s March 2016 article entitled “The wolves of Tel Aviv: Israel’s vast, amoral binary options scam exposed,” we found ourselves subjected to a welter of legal threats and instances of illegal threats and intimidation. When you are scamming billions, you can evidently afford the country’s most prestigious law firms; to their abiding discredit, we saw, several of the country’s most prestigious law firms were quite happy to take their money.
The crooks are still out there. Some binary options firms have closed down. Others have relocated overseas, including to Cyprus and Ukraine. Some of the prime movers and shakers have already adjusted their focus to other fraudulent fields — in the fields of diamond sales, cryptocurrencies, initial coin offerings and predatory business loans. Top scammers are still enjoying the vast overseas bank accounts, the yachts, luxury cars, exotic holidays and other profits of their ill-gotten gains.
The still more senior ones prefer to stay in the shadows, scheming. Some of them, as was illustrated during the passage of the legislation through the Knesset this year, are exceptionally well-connected. The ranks of binary options owners and investors include former senior employees of the state, well-known public figures, relatives of former senior police officers and more. Immensely wealthy, some of the key figures make substantial charity donations — which in turn give them access to political figures all the way to the very top of the Israeli hierarchy. They also donate to Jewish religious causes, for example Tel Aviv’s Great Synagogue, again with consequent friends in high places.
Rather than banning binary options overnight, the law passed Monday gives the firms three full months to shut down — which amounts to a license, given police inaction to date, to engage in a frenzied final orgy of theft. The police have made a handful of arrests in recent months of figures connected to the binary options industry, but there is no indication that the police and state prosecutors are dedicating significant resources to apprehending and charging the criminals. Every official with whom we have talked in these past 19 months has ducked responsibility for trying to actually get the victims their money back.
Some aspects of binary options fraud, like simply refusing to allow victims to withdraw their funds, are fairly crude. But others — including the manipulation of the online trading platforms, using big data to precisely target victims, and duping the banking and credit card system to process payments — are highly sophisticated. Some of those thousands of Israelis who have been drawn into lives of crime in the industry — cynical swindlers posing as financial experts and advisers, gloating at the naivety of their victims — are extremely cunning. And many of the higher-ups — including the computer coders, the lawyers, the affiliate marketers, and the SEO experts who manipulate Google and social media to ensure the prominence of seductive content hyping the ostensible potential for profit — are despicably smart. They will not go down without a fight. Israeli law enforcement seems largely disinclined even to try to tackle them, much less capable of doing so.
Monday’s legislation was catalyzed by the outcry our reporting helped trigger among overseas law enforcement agencies, with the FBI at the forefront, that Israel was allowing this “monstrous” fraud to flourish year after year. As the Lee Elbaz case underlines, if there is to be a true day of reckoning for the perpetrators of this scam, it will not be at the hands of Israel’s largely disinterested and impotent law enforcement authorities, but the far better resourced and far more resolute overseas agencies such as the FBI.
Unless or until that happens, the sorry truth is that the crooks will find new ways to steal, the dark side of the startup nation will thrive, the gray and black portion of the Israeli economy will continue to grow, and the power and influence of criminal forces in this country — already profound — will deepen still further. That is why Monday night’s passage of the law banning binary options was but a small winning battle in what, to this extremely worried Israeli, looks for now like a losing war, a war Israel is barely bothering to fight, against a toxic cocktail of corruption.