FMA: Even smart people get conned

In financial terms, he is a smart cookie - but he still got conned out of $66,000 in a share scam.

Alan (not his real name) is a chartered accountant of many years' experience; he is the financial controller of a healthy New Zealand company, he's in KiwiSaver and a company superannuation scheme and has successfully invested in New Zealand shares.

And he's a victim.

His $66,000 went west - or actually East, he thinks - because of a sophisticated fraud called a boiler room scam. That's where fake stockbrokers, usually based overseas, cold-call people with offers of shares promising high returns. The shares either do not exist or are worthless - but the sophisticated scammers pocket the investment and disappear.

It started when Alan fielded a 'market research' call from an Asian company who asked if he invested on his own behalf (rather than through stockbrokers). He said he did and, a week later, got a call from a Chinese trading company offering the carrot of pre-IPO Ali Baba shares (Ali Baba being the Chinese e-commerce giant whose public offering was the biggest the world had seen).

He initially declined but bit when the trading company contacted him again, this time offering Ali Baba shares from employees who purportedly wanted to convert their share packages into cash. The clincher came when Alan did some research - and found media stories backing up the pitch.

"It's a good example of the kind of sophistication these scammers have," says New Zealand Financial Markets Authority spokesman Paul Gregory. "There were genuinely Ali Baba employees looking to quit their shares. There is often a grain of truth in these things but the guys on the phone with Alan didn't own any shares."

Soon after he parted with his money, the company website - a slick, professional-looking face to the world - suddenly closed down; Alan realised he'd been had. The scam didn't end there. He was contacted by people claiming to be lawyers for Ali Baba and who said they could help get his money back if he paid them more money. He didn't.

"We are constantly finding that a driving force in this situation is people who feel they are not getting much out of their term deposit, for example, and want a better yield," says Gregory. "We always encourage people to ask themselves questions like: 'Why is this being offered to me by someone who doesn't know me from a bar of soap? Why haven't the big institutions snapped this up if it's so attractive?'"

"The scammers are really very clever at ticking enough of those psychological boxes to allay those questions."

Alan is not alone. Cyber security company Netsafe received reports of $6m lost by New Zealanders in various investment scams in 2015. However, that is just the scams reported to them - the actual figure will be much higher. The Australian Crime Commission has estimated 2600 Australians lost A$113m in similar scams as at end-2012.

Another New Zealand victim was a retiree who lost $200,000 through online binary options trading fraud; another who lost an entire inheritance of $150,000 through online forex trading fraud.

Even savvy people can be misled. Gregory says websites used by scammers are routinely well-presented and efficient, helping with the impression of a legitimate organisation. Britain's Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) research found many victims challenged the fraudsters, did their own research and even contacted the FCA and other professionals.

"However, victims described experiences where, despite this disrupt the fraud, the ambiguous information they received in fact further supported the fraud," said the FCA research.

"Alan did that too," says Gregory. "He researched things and found supporting material; he went onto the scamadviser website and saw there the company he was dealing with was given a high trust rating." The FMA says scamadviser claims to assess websites "but should not be relied on".

However, there are ways to protect yourself click here, says Gregory:

  • It's illegal to sell financial products through a cold call in New Zealand - so any unsolicited offer is likely to be a scam. "Over 50 per cent of complaints we field - more than 500 -are about businesses not regulated in New Zealand."
  • Investors should ask if the business they're dealing with is regulated in NZ and check the relevant lists on the FMA website before investing.

"Over 50 per cent of all complaints we received in recent months have been about products such as forex and binary options - about 420 in the last year," he says. "Forex trading has been at the top of our complaints list for 21 months in a row now, so this is a real area of concern for us."

The bulk of the problem is forex traders who set up offshore and give the appearance of being regulated when they aren't: "We always say to people: stay in the tent [invest through regulated companies] as we can't help you outside the tent."

Scams like those which snared Alan attract fewer complaints "but tend to involve larger sums of money".

People thinking about investing should check FMA's consumer section here.