In recent months, the authorities here have issued warnings to investors on a practice known as binary option trading. It is a minefield for those hoping to make a quick buck, particularly when the trading is done via unregulated platforms.
The spate of warnings comes in the wake of a sharp rise in the number of complaints from investors who have suffered financial losses from such investments.
The Singapore Police Force said it has received more than 40 reports from investors, including finance executives and retirees, who have made complaints over losses in trading binary options. Together, they have lost more than US$1.7 million (S$2.4 million) to unregulated binary option trading platforms.
One victim was US$693,044 out of pocket. Most of the investors are Chinese Singaporean men aged between 31 and 50.
The police issued a warning last December advising investors to check the lists compiled by the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to find out which investment service providers are regulated.
Last month, the MAS cautioned investors about the risks in trading binary options with unregulated platforms. It considers such options risky and speculative, and sometimes fraudulent.
On Friday, the police reminded the public to be alert to the risks of transacting with foreign operators without any physical presence here. "Do not transact with any parties, share personal particulars or send them any money if you are unsure. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," said a police spokesman.
Here is a checklist for investors.
1 Before making any investment decisions, investors should think carefully about the claims being made about the products offered. If the claims of making large profits easily sound too good to be true, they probably are. Investments which promise high returns usually come with high risks, so think carefully and do your checks. When in doubt, seek professional advice before engaging in any investment. Always assess whether the investment being offered is suitable for you, in the light of your investment objectives and personal circumstances.
2 In the case of binary option trading, even when it is offered by legitimate sellers, it is a high-risk investment where you can easily lose all that you have invested.
3 It is prudent to check if the entities offering the products are regulated by the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS). Dealing with unregulated entities means you may have very little recourse if things go wrong. To find out which entities are regulated in Singapore, check the list of capital markets services licence holders under MAS at https://masnetsvc.mas.gov.sg/FID.html . Also, check the list of licensed commodity brokers under International Enterprise Singapore at http:// www.iesingapore.gov.sg/E-Services/Commodity-Trading-Act/CTA-List-of-Lice.... Investors can also check MAS' Investor Alert List, which is a non-exhaustive list of unregulated entities that may have been wrongly perceived to be licensed or authorised by MAS. Some of the names offering binary option trading on the list are: Binary Corporate, BinaryBrokerz, Binarygoal, Edgedale Finance and OptionStarsGlobal. Some names, such as Integra Option, no longer appear to have an operating website.
4 Investors can refer to the consumer alerts on the MoneySense website for tips to avoid falling prey to fraudulent schemes promising high returns with low investment risks, and warnings on the pitfalls of dealing with unregulated entities.
5 Even if you are dealing with an entity regulated here, some binary options offered by that regulated entity may not be regulated. This means that you may have minimal recourse if things go wrong. When in doubt, you should check with the regulated entity before investing in any binary option it offers.
6 Be wary of third-party reviews, endorsements or success stories of binary option providers. These reviews and endorsements may have been paid for by the binary option providers. They may also attempt to gain your trust by warning you against a particular binary option provider while directing you to another binary option provider connected to them.
7 Be cautious of high-pressure sales tactics used by representatives of binary option providers. These tactics include promises of quality financial advice or easy profits. For example, the website might guarantee you an "exciting, rewarding and transparent experience".
8 Be careful when sending money to overseas bank accounts via fund transfers, debit/credit card payments and any other modes of payment. Always ensure that the recipient is reliable before making any transfers or payments.Likewise, do not give your personal particulars such as your name, identification number, passport details, and bank account or credit/debit card details to others without first verifying if they are legitimate.
9 Investors who suspect that fraud is involved in entities or platforms offering binary options or other products promising unrealistically high returns can submit information online to the police at www.police.gov.sg/iwitness. They may also lodge a police report via the Electronic Police Centre at www.police.gov.sg/e-services or at any Neighbourhood Police Centre/Post.
The warnings against binary option trading are not confined to Singapore. The authorities in the United States, Canada and other jurisdictions have warned of the risks involved in such trading, reflecting a growing worldwide problem.
A report by Thomson Reuters Regulatory Intelligence stated that in 2011, the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Internet Crime Complaint Centre (IC3) received only four complaints with reported losses of more than US$20,000 from binary option fraud victims.
Last year, IC3 received "hundreds of complaints with millions of dollars in reported losses".
Late last year, the US Securities and Exchange Commission issued an alert to warn investors that fraudsters may conduct investment schemes through purported online binary option trading platforms.
Here are eight things you should know about binary option trading.
WHAT ARE BINARY OPTIONS?
A binary option is a type of option contract that references an underlying instrument, where the payout will depend entirely on the outcome of a "yes" or "no" (binary) proposition.
The underlying instrument can vary and may include asset classes such as shares, currencies, commodities and even the movement of interest rates.
With a binary option, you are trying to predict whether the price of the underlying asset will be above or below a specified price at a specified point in time. That could range from a few minutes to a few months in the future.
Mr Nizam Ismail, head of regulatory practice at RHTLaw Taylor Wessing, considers binary options high-risk products.
He said: "You are predicting, for example, whether the stock price of a company will be above or below $1.50 at 2.30pm on a particular day... These are complex products and there are inherent risks.
"Some unregulated platforms for binary options also have sensational headlines such as '500 per cent returns per trade', without properly disclosing the risks."
WHAT CAN GO WRONG IN BINARY OPTION TRADING?
It is difficult to make the correct prediction, especially when the time frame before the expiry of the binary option is short.
It is very likely that you will not have time to change your prediction or resell your option once you make your investment.
This makes it extremely easy to lose your entire investment.
In addition, unlike other types of options, holding a binary option does not give you the right to buy or sell the underlying asset. You receive a fixed payout if your prediction is correct but lose your entire investment if you are wrong.
When the binary option expires, the option holder will receive either a predetermined amount of cash or nothing at all.
Given the all-or-nothing payout structure, binary options are often called "all-or-nothing options" or "fixed-return options".
The way they work seems more like online wagering than a traditional option trading strategy.
As such, the risk of losing your entire investment in binary option trading is high, because correctly predicting short-term price movements is difficult.
HOW ARE INVESTORS LURED TO TRADE IN BINARY OPTIONS?
Binary option trading is attractive because it sounds simple and the option providers or platforms often promise high, quick and safe returns. Typically, a representative of a binary option website will ask a customer to deposit money into an account where the customer can purchase binary option contracts.
Take the example of a binary option trading contract involving US dollars versus Canadian dollars (USD/CAD).
You may be asked to pay a minimum investment of US$1 for a binary option contract that promises a 70 per cent return (that is, a payout of US$1.70) if you predict correctly that the price of USD/CAD will be trading higher or lower than a specified strike price in five minutes' time, said the police.
If your prediction is correct, you make 70 cents on every dollar you put in. If you are wrong, you lose your investment.
This sounds like a highly attractive proposition because it is easy to understand.
"The starting investment amount can be low, the time frame for knowing if you have won or lost is short, and the potential payoff is usually high. All you need to do is open an account with the online trading platform and you can start investing," warned the police.
WHAT IS A BINARY OPTION?
A binary option is a type of option contract that references an underlying instrument such as shares and currencies, where the payout will depend entirely on the outcome of a "yes or no" (binary) proposition.
With a binary option, you are trying to predict whether the price of the underlying asset will be above or below a specified price at a specified point in time, ranging from a few minutes to a few months in the future. For example, you could be predicting whether a firm's stock price will be above or below $3 at 1.05 pm on a particular day.
When the binary option expires, you will receive a predetermined cash payout if you have predicted correctly. If not, you lose your entire investment.
The starting investment amount is usually low, the time frame for knowing if you have won or lost is short, and the potential payoff is usually high.
However, in reality, many online platforms offering binary option trading are fraudulent. Investors either lose all their money or cannot withdraw the balances in their accounts, as withdrawal requests are not honoured.
In reality, many online platforms offering binary option trading are fraudulent.
They masquerade as legitimate investment firms and entice vulnerable retail investors with attractive returns.
These unregulated platform providers may use fictitious names and tout fake credentials, qualifications and experience.
They often use marketing catchphrases, such as "trading with zero risk", "trading amounts of as little as $1", and "profit payout of 500 per cent per trade".
The Singapore police said the number of complaints here began escalating in May last year, and they believed the victims were lured into the risky trades by websites promising high returns and other rewards.
Encouraged by initial profits and promises made by the platform staff of more bonuses and attractive rewards, most of the investors found it difficult to stop at one small investment and pumped in more money.
In these cases, the investors either lost all their money or could not withdraw the balances in their accounts when withdrawal requests were not honoured.
Some firms also use the investors' personal data and financial information, which were provided when they opened binary option trading accounts, to perpetrate identity theft.
This shows up when investors realise they had unauthorised withdrawals made in their debit/credit cards.
CAN I LOSE MY PRINCIPAL SUM?
Contrary to promises of low investment risks with exceptionally high returns, binary options are speculative and risky investment instruments. There is a high chance of losing your entire investment amount, whether you deal with a regulated or unregulated entity. You are always exposed to investment risk, whether a product is regulated or not, said the MAS.
WHERE ARE BINARY OPTION TRADING PLATFORMS BASED?
Many of these unregulated binary option trading platforms are fraudulent and based outside Singapore.
The three most common places they claim to be operating from are Hong Kong, Britain and Cyprus, said the police.
Investors who choose to trade with these platforms are unlikely to recover any money lost. Victims who made police reports said they faced difficulties contacting the foreign operators when things went wrong.
If you deal with unregulated entities, you will not have access to avenues for dispute resolution, should a dispute arise later.
WHY SHOULD I AVOID NON-REGULATED FINANCIAL ACTIVITIES?
There are many pitfalls in investing in unregulated financial activities, such as unregulated binary option trading.
A customer may not know if the operator is running a legitimate business or a Ponzi scheme, said Mr Nizam. "You do not know if these persons are fit and proper persons.
"Even if the platform is said to be operating in Country A, the persons running the platform may not be resident in that country. Also, even if the platforms are not fraudulent, customers may be misled by misrepresentations or the absence of proper disclosures," he cautioned.
WHAT ARE THE ADVANTAGES OF DEALING WITH REGULATED FINANCIAL ENTITIES?
Dealing with a regulated entity gives you a higher level of consumer protection.
For instance, sellers of financial products regulated by the MAS have to make their scheme details and business plans known to the authorities and, in some cases, register prospectuses.
They also have to disclose material information for consumers to make well-informed decisions.
Mr Nizam advised that regulations ensure that only fit and proper persons are allowed to engage in binary option activities.
"Regulated financial institutions are subject to robust business conduct requirements, ensuring that they deal fairly with consumers and make proper disclosures of specific risks of investment products," he said.
He added that Singapore has stringent rules on product suitability, ensuring that products are sold only to customers who understand these products, and whose risk profiles fit the higher-risk investment.
In fact, customers here are required to be assessed on their customer knowledge before investing in more complex investment products, including binaries and other derivative products.
WHAT LEGAL RECOURSE IS THERE TO RECOVER MONEY FROM BINARY OPTION TRADING?
Seeking legal recourse for investors could be more difficult if the operators are located outside Singapore, said Mr Nizam.
"Even if you file a criminal complaint in a foreign country for fraud, there are legal hurdles to jump through - whether there is anyone you can make a criminal complaint against there. If you were to file a civil action, the operator may not have any persons or assets in the country," he added.
The police said on Friday that they are working closely with overseas law enforcement agencies.
This is because almost all of the binary option providers featured in investors' complaints are based overseas. The bank accounts used by these providers to receive money from the investors are also located offshore.
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