Watchdog issues stark warning over online investment fraud

The City watchdog has warned members of the public to be on high alert to online investment fraud after revealing that tens of thousands of pounds were lost every day to scams.

The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) pointed to fraudsters offering internet investments in binary options, contracts for difference, foreign exchange and cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin.

In addition, the FCA said that online had overtaken phone as the most common contact method for investment fraudsters for the first time.

It said that such deals were often promoted on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter alongside images of luxury items such as expensive watches and cars, to "entice people to invest in their scams".

Typically promising high returns, after someone has invested, scamsters then "distort prices" on their website, tie people in with extreme pay-out clauses and even close customer accounts, refusing to pay back their money.

The FCA also disclosed that last year investors lost £87,410 per day to binary options scams.

Binary options allow consumers to make bets on the expected value or price of a stock, commodity, currency or index.

While over 55s have been considered to be most at risk to fraud, the watchdog said that the new wave of online scams meant that those aged under 25 were more vulnerable.

People in that age bracket are six times more likely to trust an investment offer they received via social media, compared with over 55s.

They are enticed by "highly professional looking online investment platforms" that feature fake customer reviews, logos, and statements.

Mark Steward, director of enforcement at the FCA, said: "As people have become more sceptical of investment-related cold calls and consumer habits have changed, we have seen investment fraud moving online and to social media.

"While their websites and profiles appear to be professional, they are all too often run by fraudsters who fix prices and pay-outs, or in some instances don't really place trades at all, before disappearing with innocent investors' money."

The FCA's ScamSmart campaign encourages those considering investing to check its dedicated website, which features a Warning List allowing users to find out more about risks and view firms the FCA knows are operating without its authorisation.

Tom McPhail, head of policy at Hargreaves Lansdown, said: "If it looks too good to be true, it probably is and beware of promises of improbably high guaranteed returns.

"This warning also illustrates the challenge in introducing a telephone cold-calling ban; in principle this is a good idea but fraudsters are already evolving tactics to circumvent any ban on unsolicited phone calls."

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