Why hasn’t Israel shut down binary options scam? A former MK describes how she tried

Five years ago, Einat Wilf realized forex/binary options was, at best, an industry founded on illegal gambling. But she was outflanked by lobbyists, and defeated by regulators and her Knesset colleagues — whose inability to grapple with the complexities has echoes of ‘The Big Short’

Simona Weinglass is an investigative reporter at The Times of Israel.

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

The Times of Israel last month published an investigation into Israel’s forex and binary options industry, revealing that much of the industry is fraudulent — a vast, flourishing world of thievery. In the best-case scenario, companies offer gambling disguised as an investment, while in many cases, once customers deposit money they will simply never see any of it again. In the vast majority of companies, the customer’s loss is the company’s revenue. Involving over 100 companies and many thousands of employees, the industry is estimated to turn over hundreds of millions of dollars a year, at least.

As one former retention agent at a large, Cyprus-regulated binary options firm in Ramat Gan told The Times of Israel last week, “85 percent of our customers lose everything, 9 percent manage to withdraw the last 50 or 100 euros of their original deposit, and 1 percent actually win something.” And on the extremely rare occasion that a customer wins more than once, he said, “the company tells them to take their money and f*ck off.”

With hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of victims worldwide in the decade or so over which it has grown to horrifying proportions, why has this corrupt business model, which sprouted on the margins of Israel’s high-tech sector, been allowed to thrive? Why have Israel’s regulators not closed it down? Why have Israel’s politicians not demanded that they do so? Put another way, why has Israel turned a continued blind eye to the fleecing by Israeli con artists of would-be investors around the world?

In fact, there have been a few attempts in the Knesset to shut down the forex and binary options scam. But all of them, sources said, were stymied by lobbyists who managed to persuade MKs and regulators that the industry is legitimate.

Einat Wilf, a former Knesset member for Labor and Ehud Barak’s short-lived Independence Party, put forward a bill in 2011 that would have declared the entire “forex” industry, even then estimated to bring in revenues of hundreds of millions of US dollars per year, to be a form of gambling and therefore illegal.

“Forex companies are selling gambling services disguised as investments,” Wilf wrote in a letter to then-banking supervisor Dudu Zaken, which she showed to The Times of Israel last week. “Their customers are lured by fraudulent promises of profits, yet in the end, everyone loses their entire investment to the high fees charged by the ‘house.’ The losses often reach astronomical sums and even end up destroying families.”

David Zaken, the supervisor of banks, at a Knesset Finance Committee meeting on June 25, 2013. (Photo credit: Flash90)
David Zaken, then supervisor of banks, at a Knesset Finance Committee meeting, June 25, 2013 (Flash90)

In fact, Wilf argued at the time, “these companies are worse than online gambling sites because they misrepresent themselves as legitimate financial firms, thus causing ordinary people who would normally shy away from gambling to let down their guard and put down astronomical sums of money.”

Wilf remembered that regulators with the Israel Securities Authority were shocked by her statements, and reluctant to believe them.

“My view was considered very extreme, very out of left field. The Israel Securities Authority thought of the forex companies as somewhat legitimate and felt they just needed better regulation. Their view was to try to work with the companies,” Wilf recalled.

Representing the forex and binary options industry during discussions in the Finance Committee, where she sought to advance her legislation, were representatives from two forex companies, Ava and GoForex, and the Israel Trading Arena Association, as well as numerous lobbyists. Wilf said one of the industry’s main arguments was that there were both legitimate and fraudulent companies and that the legitimate players welcomed regulation in order to weed out the bad actors.

“Their whole positioning was ‘Yes, regulation is good. There’s a legit part of the industry and a scam part, and regulation will help rule out the real scammers. But the regulation has to be fine-tuned so it doesn’t hurt legitimate forex trading.’”

But Wilf did not accept this argument because, she felt, the entire premise of Israel’s online forex trading companies was to lure and manipulate unsuspecting targets into gambling.

“There were no good ones and bad ones,” said Wilf, who holds an MBA from France’s INSEAD and has worked both in venture capital and as a McKinsey consultant. “They’re all bad. They’re all scams.”

She said that the Israel Securities Authority and other Knesset members viewed her concern as odd and far from the mainstream, and showed an inability to grapple with the cynical complexities of the scam’s operation.

“It really required a lot of knowledge and understanding of fraud and finance to understand the extent of the scam,” she recalled. “Very few people have that knowledge. The Israel Securities Authority wanted to emphasize things like proper reporting, no conflict of interest, stability. And we kept saying all of that is bullshit. We don’t want to regulate.”

Did you want to shut the whole industry down? “As close as possible to that.”

The Big Short (Courtesy)
The Big Short (Courtesy)

“We wanted to outlaw this under the existing law against gambling. The regulators wanted to leave it as something [to be regulated] as a financial product. It was hard to make them understand that this was criminal.” Asked Wilf, “Have you seen the movie, The Big Short?”

A short history of forex and binary options

Roey S., a high-tech veteran with knowledge of the forex industry, said that originally, before the advent of the Internet, the term forex simply referred to the buying and selling of currencies.

“I buy dollars and a month later I sell them. This is a type of contract called a future and it’s sold on stock exchanges and in banks.”

Roey explained that traditionally, forex trading was an entirely legitimate way for banks or large companies to manage their risks. But around the year 2005 or 2006, he said, a bunch of online forex trading platforms began sprouting up in Israel offering forex trading to private individuals.

“Banks don’t market options on foreign currency to ordinary customers. It’s something where if you’re the CFO of a company and you know that this year you have income of $10 million and expenses of NIS 30 million, then you buy futures on $10 million.”

Roey said that what the retail forex brokers — those who began offering trades to private customers — did at the time was to offer leverage, so if you put down $100, you could buy 100 times that, or $10,000, of a kind of fictional money for the purposes of the trade. If the dollar goes down by one percent, even for a fraction of a second, you lose. The company sells your position at a loss and closes it.

On the other hand, if the dollar goes up by 1 percent, you double your money. The main problem, said Roey, is the fees the companies charge. Many will tell customers, for instance, that they charge 0.1 percent per trade. “But after the leverage, if you multiply it by 100, the fee is actually 10 percent of your money. If you put down $1,000, you are charged a fee of $100 from the get-go, so you’re left with $900.”

Roey said that Israeli forex companies often encouraged their customers to do short-term trades, taking positions that last a day or a week. Because only a handful of financial geniuses are able to predict the movement of currencies, a person’s odds of being right are no better than random, he noted. “After 10 trades you’ve lost all your money. With a fee of 10 percent per transaction your money is bound to disappear; there’s not much you can do.”

According to Roey, Israelis did not invent retail forex. But around 2005-6 they began to market it very aggressively to clients in Israel and abroad.

“They used very aggressive sales tactics, targeting poor people and people who have no idea what they’re doing. It’s worse than gambling because people don’t understand that they’re gambling. They think it’s an investment, with low fees. They think it all makes sense, but they discover after a few months that their money has disappeared.”

A Knesset Finance Committee meeting, March 5, 2013. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
A Knesset Finance Committee meeting, March 5, 2013 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Roey said that, when initially confronted by Israel’s securities regulators, forex companies defended their operations by saying that any government interference might disrupt legitimate forex trading, the kind done by banks and large companies. But it is very rare that a private individual would have any legitimate use for foreign currency futures, he said — perhaps in a case where a person pays rent in dollars but earns money in shekels.

“Forex companies will point to the one person in 1,000 who might use forex to protect herself from risk in her rental contract. They use this excuse to market it to the other 99.9 percent.”

Summarized Roey: “They find the weakest people in the world, and sell them illusions, tell them they can make 100-percent profits. I met a woman who was proud that people in Darfur were trading forex with her. Some customers put their last money on this in the hope of getting out of poverty.”

Binary options

Unlike retail forex, said Roey, binary options may have been an Israeli invention, at least in the way it is offered by online trading platforms here.

“Over time the companies tried to find more and more things that would interest people. There is nothing special about currencies. You can gamble on anything. So some companies started selling futures on oil and gold with the same 100x leverage — which just shows you how little it has to do with hedging or risk management.”

Roey said the forex companies had encountered two problems. First, “the whole idea of leverage and fractions of percentage points confused people. It caused a lot of complaints.”

By contrast, binary options, he said, was a simplified, easier-to-understand version of what was essentially the same scheme. “If the price goes up, you earn this; if it goes down, you lose this.”

Second, to make more money and save on labor costs, forex companies were eager to push customers toward shorter trading cycles.

“The shorter the gambling cycle, the faster you take all of the victim’s money. With forex, people could take positions that lasted a week or a month. With time they would get addicted and start to take positions of two days. But binary options was faster.”

Roey said he first started seeing binary options in Israel around 2010. Asked if he is aware of binary options companies that fix the results of the trade as described to The Times of Israel by multiple employees of the industry, Roey replied, “I am not aware of companies that fake the results of the gamble. It’s unnecessary. It’s such an efficient money-making machine even if the odds are 50-50.”

Gambling or not?

On November 14, 2011, the Knesset Finance Committee debated Wilf’s proposed law, and the discussion quickly centered on whether forex trading should be defined as gambling or not.

“There is a difference between speculation and gambling,” chimed in then-MK Zevulun Orlev of the National Religious Party. “With speculation, a person thinks they will achieve the result they want.”

“Many gamblers think that, too,” replied Wilf.

“No, the definition of gambling is that you enter it and you have no idea what the result will be.”

“In forex, the private investor has no way of knowing the result,” Wilf countered.

“That’s subjective,” said Orlev.

“No, it’s objective that the expected returns for a private investor in forex is zero.”

Zevulun Orlev (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Zevulun Orlev (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Why was this important? The Times of Israel spoke to a professional options trader and asked what is and isn’t fraudulent in the legitimate trading world. Isn’t the entire stock market a bit like gambling?

“If a company finds a way to make a customer lose reliably, as a business model, I can’t understand that as anything other than cheating the client,” he said.

But on April 24, 2012, Wilf received a letter from the banking supervisor at the Bank of Israel, Dudu Zaken.

“We share your concerns about the use of foreign exchange markets for gambling, and about the dishonest conduct of some of the players in this arena. However, we do not think this activity should be [reclassified as gambling].”

Zaken’s letter goes on to say that the Bank of Israel believes regulation should be used to rein in practices of non-legitimate players in the field, and that companies should be required to obtain licenses from the Israel Securities Authority.

Is binary options the only problem?

On Sunday, April 3, a spokeswoman for the Israel Securities Authority said that it was moving to prohibit Israeli online trading companies from offering binary options to customers in Israel. The ISA’s Itzik Shurki had said last month that “with binary options we’ve already informed the companies that our intention is probably not to approve this product. Its basis is problematic. Because ultimately — I don’t want to use the word ‘gambling’ because it is a financial product — but in the way it is offered and in the short time frame, and with all its complexity, in our view it brings it closer to a guessing game than a financial product where you can evaluate its worth.”

Itzik Shurki of the ISA (Courtesy)
Itzik Shurki of the ISA (Courtesy)

The ISA is also promising tighter regulation of other financial instruments, like retail forex and CFDs. But these “trades” will not be outlawed — even if they are used in schemes where the company plays the role of the “house” and has arranged the trading so that it cannot lose.

Worse still, the prohibition and the promised tighter regulation do not apply to non-Israeli customers — who are the overwhelming majority of the scam victims. As of this writing, an estimated 5,000-10,000 employees of forex and binary options companies continue to ply their wares to customers abroad, with either no regulation or much-criticized regulation by countries like Cyprus.

Wilf believes the Knesset and ISA failed to outlaw forex in 2011-12 because they did not fully understand the problem, and that they still have not internalized the crime even as it has metastasized and deepened in the years since.

“They seemed not to understand the extent to which this is really a scam and they seemed to be buying the arguments that if they were to regulate this effectively, it would somehow damage legitimate foreign exchange trading.”

Asked if she thought some people had been paid off by the industry, Wilf replied, “No, no, there was just a real sense that they didn’t get it.”

A conspiracy of silence?

Ariel Marom, a Russian-Israeli whistle-blower who lobbied the Knesset two years later (after Wilf had lost her Knesset seat) to outlaw an industry he described as “economic terrorism,” takes a more conspiratorial view.

Ariel Marom (Screenshot il24TV.ru)
Ariel Marom (Screenshot il24TV.ru)

“The MKs in the Finance Committee preferred lobbyists of private companies over the Israeli public, which is no surprise. Some of the MKs are connected to these companies, they have relatives or business partners who are involved, and benefit financially from the industry,” he charged in an interview last week.

In 2014, when he was alerting the public to the extent of fraud in the forex and binary options industry, he sent letters to 30 Knesset members from every party. “The only person who responded saying she supported me was (Labor MK) Shelly Yachimovich. All the others were silent,” he said.

“Many people compare forex to a casino,” Marom wrote in his November 2014 letter to the Knesset Finance Committee, “but it’s worse than a casino. A casino hands you your winnings immediately. Forex companies — and I’m talking about most of them — simply do not allow people to withdraw money.”

In addition, Marom said, most forex and binary options companies engage in fraudulent practices like rigging the trades, so that your odds of winning any particular bet are 45 percent or 30 percent as opposed to 50-50.

As a result, whereas an Israeli bank has profits of 10 percent, Marom said, binary options companies often have profits of 90 percent.

Tough love

Jenna P., an ex-employee of several binary options companies, contacted The Times of Israel to describe her experience working in customer service at an unregulated firm.

“Customers would send me screenshots of our site and Bloomberg at the same time, and I saw that the numbers were different. I would get hundreds of emails: Europeans, Asians and Africans. There were threatening emails, begging emails, people saying ‘I have no money, I have no way to feed my children, please give me my money back.’”

“Sorry,” Jenna’s boss would dismiss the pleas. “Tough love. They have to learn their lesson.”

Said Roey: “If the industry were transparent, and people truly knew what their chances were of winning, if they knew precisely what percentage of people win and lose and understood the fees, all the companies would disappear overnight.”

The required transparency, however, would require Knesset legislation or a more rigorous approach from the regulators that addresses the milking of overseas victims.

Read: The wolves of Tel Aviv: Israel’s vast, amoral binary options scam exposed

Read: Times of Israel Editorial. Binary options: An Israeli scam that has to be stopped

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