In early 2013, a young Israeli businessman registered a web domain in London for a company called NRGbinary.com. The online options trading website offered clients the opportunity to make large amounts of money from simple bets on the movement of financial markets, stocks and commodities.
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But there were a few peculiarities to the company. While it was initially registered in Britain, NRGbinary was run from Israel and sold its products to clients in the Middle East, Canada and South Africa. Within months it had shifted its registration to Cyprus and then to the Seychelles.
Within two years, according to London lawyers and scores of former clients, around a dozen of whom spoke to Reuters, NRGbinary and other companies linked to the same parent group had defrauded hundreds of people out of anywhere between $10,000 and several hundreds of thousands of dollars - millions in all.
Guy Galboiz, the 37-year old who registered the website in his name, declined to comment. Reuters also tried to speak to others at NRGbinary but email and phone messages were not returned.
The case of NRGbinary is another example of the way scammers can hide in the gaps between regulators in different jurisdictions. Israeli regulators say they never looked at the company, or others like it, that did not sell their products in Israel. In Britain, the sector is overseen by the Gambling Commission, which said it had never heard of NRG.
The tale underscores broader concerns around binary options trading. The fast-growing industry sells itself as a legitimate investment method (see below). But some companies selling binary options are little more than scams, say the partners of a law firm acting for more than 3,000 former clients of binary options schemes including NRGbinary.
The lawyers say their clients were bombarded by high-pressure selling. Some firms transferred money between accounts without customer approval and even stopped customers withdrawing their own funds, clients say. A Reuters analysis shows companies switched where they were registered, which kept them one step ahead of oversight.
After numerous complaints, Israel banned binary options this year. British regulators including the Gambling Commission have issued general warnings about binary options brokers. Fraud helpline Action Fraud received an average of 27 reports about binary options a month from June 2015 to last May, say City of London police.
France has blacklisted NRGbinary and related companies, saying they failed to provide accurate information to clients or to act honestly and fairly. Paris recently sent investigators to Israel to question directors from binary options companies. France's market regulator, AMF, recently described the binary options industry as "highly risky and very dangerous." The Paris public prosecutor's office estimated as much as 4.5 billion euros ($5 billion) in France alone has been lost on what AMF called "illegal forex and binary options websites and scams through false transfer orders" in the past six years.
Other countries, including Belgium, have banned binary options trading. The United States requires binary options to be traded on regulated markets. Elsewhere, online operators continue to operate freely, and are effectively unregulated.
Binary options look simple. Anyone with money in a trading account can place a bet on whether the value of a financial asset - a currency, a commodity, a company's shares or a stock index - will rise or fall in a fixed timeframe.
For example, you might bet $1,000 that Facebook's shares will increase in value by more than Google's in the next minute. If you are right, many brokers offer a profit of as much as 70 percent on top of your stake, depending on the terms of the option. If you are wrong, you lose your $1,000.
The industry is growing fast. In China, Japan, the United States and across Europe, trading in binary options has soared over the last decade, although precise figures are hard to nail down. Two Israeli trading platforms, SpotOption and TechFinancials, which supply technology to online brokers, say they handle a combined $8 billion in volume annually.
One of the best-known brokers is Israeli-owned and Cyprus-registered Banc de Binary, which earlier this year paid $11 million in restitution and penalties in the United States over allegations it had signed up U.S. investors illegally. Banc de Binary told Reuters it is "committed to investing in its customer care and compliance functions and that has been a major feature of our development in the last two years." It said it is "helping to lead the way in the introduction of customer friendly policies in what has been a fast evolving Binary Options market."
Timothy McDermott, chief executive of Nadex, the main U.S. exchange for the industry, said, "We've always been concerned that folks operating from overseas are giving our business a bad reputation."
Despite Israel's ban, several of the biggest binary options businesses are either run from there with Israeli technology, sales and support staff, or are registered to Israeli citizens.
"Be careful, you're in a jungle!" Shmuel Hauser, the head of the Israel Securities Authority, told a financial conference in March, urging attendees to steer clear of miscreant binary options brokers, whom he described as "big bad wolves."
In August 2014, H.M. Yahya, an Arab American engineer from California who lives and works in Saudi Arabia, says he received an approach from a woman via LinkedIn.
The woman, whose profile no longer appears on the site, wanted to know if Yahya was interested in investing in currencies. He had experience of gold trading but not currencies, he says. After he received reassurances that the business complied with Islamic laws, the married father of four opened an account with NRGbinary with a deposit of $350. The account was in his wife's name as a gift for her, he said. He retained control of it.
He then received a call from an NRGbinary representative who described himself as a Palestinian from Nablus living in London. The man said his name was Bashar El-Ahmadey and he would be the account's dedicated VIP manager.
Yahya says the man was pushy and demanding. He convinced the engineer that he could make big money if he traded in high volumes, which meant paying in more cash to his NRG account. Yahya added a $15,000 credit card charge to the account, an NRGbinary receipt shows. He thought he would take advantage of trades that El-Ahmadey said would make at least a 50 percent profit. To make up for Yahya's lack of experience, El-Ahmadey said others would trade for him.
At first, the trades shown on account statements made steady profits with occasional small losses. Yahya paid in around $80,000 more, bank transfer documents show. But during a holiday in October 2014, Yahya says El-Ahmadey made currency trades without permission. The account statements show losses in the tens of thousands of dollars.
Over the following three weeks Yahya says he asked El-Ahmadey, who like other NRGbinary staff could not be reached for this story, to close the loss-making positions. El-Ahmadey did not respond, but then finally contacted Yahya and told him the NRG account was at zero. He asked Yahya to transfer $57,000 and said NRG would match that amount.
Yahya did so, bank documents show.
El-Ahmadey then made three losing currency orders and Yahya said he asked to have the balance in his account transferred to his wife's bank account in Jordan. A few days later, Yahya said he was contacted by a man named Khaled Radwan, who said he was a financial manager from Alfa Media Group, the parent of NRGbinary. The account recovered to show big profits and a balance of $607,999.39, and Yahya again asked to withdraw his funds.
He said he received a letter from Alfa Media stating that he owed a "loan" of $47,300. Yahya's wife could withdraw "any amount available" on the account but only after $47,300 had been deposited. He transferred the money. Ten days later, he said, the account was shown as closed with a balance of zero.
In all, bank documents show, Yahya paid in a little over $180,000.
"They enticed me into depositing large sums of money with the promise of huge gains via a well-trained account manager," the 51-year-old told Reuters by phone from Khobar, a city in eastern Saudi Arabia. "I was so naive."
Having lost the money he had saved for his children's college fees, Yahya decided to get to the bottom of what had happened.
On an online forum called Forex Peace Army, he found hundreds of others like him. Desperate people from as far afield as Australia, South Africa, Canada and Singapore now use Forex Peace Army as a platform to exchange experiences and try to fight to get back some of the tens of millions of dollars they say they have lost to various online companies.
When NRGbinary's website was first set up in February 2013, it was registered to 007 Security Solutions, with the administrative contact listed as Guy Galb. In May that year, the contact name was changed to Guy G and the address updated to 2 Woodberry Grove - a two-storey house near a spiritualist church in north London. It shared that address with another company called the Alfa Media Group, a little known online marketing firm.
According to Internet domain records, Alfa Media Group was registered to Guy Galboiz. U.K. Companies House lists him as an Israeli born in March 1979, and a former director of Alfa Capital and NRG Capital Ltd - companies which were incorporated in 2013 and since dissolved.
Galboiz, who has a public profile on social media and describes himself as a "technology enthusiast and an Internet marketing specialist," declined via his secretary to speak to Reuters.
Yahya wanted to see who he had actually been dealing with. He examined data from his Skype calls and found it was not a London-based account manager, but an Arabic-speaking person in Israel. The man on the other end of the line had been working from an apartment in the coastal city of Netanya.
Reuters visited the address and found a four-storey residential apartment building. El-Ahmadey's name was not listed.
In February 2015 legal firm Gabriele Giambrone, acting for Yahya, approached a bank in Singapore to which NRGbinary had asked Yahya to transfer money. The lawyers asked the bank to close down an NRGbinary account there. The bank, DBS, declined to comment.
The same day, Yahya said, he received around 20 phone calls from NRGbinary representatives. He told them to "contact my lawyer."
The forefront of innovation?
Jutta Strake, 58, a self-employed business coach and consultant from Germany, says she is another victim.
Strake had lost money in the stock market and was looking to boost her retirement savings. Strake showed Reuters emails from her account manager, Michael Vinyard, who said he was based in Britain. "Almost no risk involved," he wrote in one. "The money is on the floor - just pick it up!"
In March 2014 she deposited 13,000 euros with NRGbinary. Within months, the money had been transferred from one trading account to another without her authorization, and she lost everything.
In another email chain, she asks for her money back. Vinyard's email address changes mid-correspondence from an NRGbinary domain to Algo Capitals, another forex and binary options site.
Algo Capitals claims on its website to be "at the forefront of innovation" in binary options and forex trading. The website shows four photos of its "executive team." Each of the pictures appears elsewhere on the Internet as a stock photograph. Algo Capitals did not respond to requests for comment.
In late 2014, Strake took her case to the German police, who could not track Vinyard in the U.K., she said. Extensive searches on social media found no evidence of him, either. Frustrated, Strake found her way to the Forex Peace Army forum, where she has become a leading lobbyist for action against NRGbinary and other high-pressure brokers.
"I would tell people 'never, never, never' trade in binary options," Strake told Reuters from her home in Cologne. "NRGbinary is well known and no one is doing anything about it."
She said she had written to the Israeli embassy in Berlin and to a state prosecutor in Tel Aviv to have them look into the case but there had been no progress. Her lawyer did not suggest contacting U.K. regulators as the company was registered in the Seychelles at the time.
Israel's Justice Ministry told Reuters that it could not comment and referred questions to the securities authority, which says it is not responsible for foreign citizens.
"If you're scammed no one will help you," said Strake.
As complaints against NRGbinary built, regulators in France, Canada, Cyprus, Portugal and Australia issued warnings about the company, putting it on blacklists.
Canadian authorities had grown suspicious of NRGbinary in the middle of 2014. A member of the Financial and Consumer Services Commission in New Brunswick opened an account with the firm under an assumed name. After several months, the agency determined that the broker was using aggressive sales techniques, promising what NRG called "guaranteed money" and using stock photos of random people on its website, claiming they were NRGbinary analysts.
Jake van der Laan, Director of Enforcement at the Financial and Consumer Services Commission in New Brunswick, said the province had barred NRGbinary because it "was operating illegally ... by soliciting potential clients."
Van der Laan said there was "a consistent trend" in Canada of people losing money on binary option websites. "The problem with binary options is there is no way for us to verify their legitimacy," he said.
Online advertisements show that online binary options brokerages seek to hire new migrants to Israel for their language skills.
Itzik Shurki, who supervises trading platforms at the Israel Securities Authority, the agency that banned binary options trading in Israel, said the industry is dangerous. He said most online platforms allowed investors to trade directly against a broker. That incentivizes the broker to have the client lose money, he said.
Shurki likened the short timeframe of some binary options trading - trying to guess the movement of a currency or stock in as little as 60 seconds, say - to gambling.
"A financial expert cannot have any real insight when dealing with the short time frames you have in binary options," he said. "Yes there are broader trends, but along the way are random fluctuations, and trying to guess those fluctuations is like gambling." Shurki said regulation won't solve the problem and that binary options trading needed to be banned.
Yehoshua Shohat Gurtler disagrees. Shohat Gurtler is a partner in the e-commerce department at Israeli law firm Herzog Fox & Neeman, which represents 10 of the larger binary option and forex brokers. He said the industry was legitimate as long as it was well policed.
"The key word here is regulation. More and stricter regulation is what will ensure sustainability in the long term," he said. Banks, he said, should simply never work with unregulated companies. If unregulated operators can't access customers, they won't survive.
"If they can't market they won't be able to attract customers. If they can't transfer funds they won't be able to do business."
NRGbinary began winding down in the middle of last year. Its main trading site shifted from NRGbinary.com to NRGbinary.co, and was then superseded by TitanTrade.com, a domain registered to NRG Capital (Cyprus) Ltd, with Guy G. listed as its administrator.
In January 2015 NRGbinary.com had 3.2 million visitors versus 193,000 for TitanTrade. By March 2016, NRGbinary sites had fewer than 2,000 visitors while TitanTrade had jumped to nearly 2 million, according to data from Israeli analytics firm SimilarWeb.
The names may have changed, but the people attached to the companies and the methods underpinning their operations appeared to be the same. On LinkedIn, several people who previously worked at NRGbinary are now listed as working for TitanTrade.
Clients who lost money say some of the people they were dealing with at TitanTrade now work for MIG Financial Marketing (Migfin.com). Reuters called MIG, who confirmed Guy Galboiz was its chief executive but said he would not speak to the press.
TitanTrade's methods are similar to NRGbinary's, according to clients.
In August 2015, Irina Pienaar, 49, a Russian woman living in South Africa, says she opened an account online with TitanTrade. She told Reuters she was guaranteed a return of 30 percent and told she could withdraw her money whenever she wanted. The trading would be done by "highly qualified" specialists, company representatives told her.
Pienaar invested $10,000. Initially her account suggested she was up by $5,000. But when she tried to withdraw some of her profit, her broker stopped taking her calls. A few days later she was contacted by someone who said her broker had moved to the United States and he would now handle her account. She began to get suspicious and soon discovered that account was at zero.
After a four-month battle to prove she was the victim of a scam, she received a credit on her card for $9,857. She now tries to help other Russian-speaking victims from as far away as Bulgaria, Spain and Kazakhstan. They are looking for a lawyer to pursue their case in Israel.