American Immigrants Win Back Millions For Victims Of Massive Fraud In Israel
TEL AVIV (JTA) — They were part of the problem. Now they are spearheading a solution.
A Tel Aviv-based startup run by young American Jewish immigrants to Israel, or olim, has taken on the largely fraudulent binary options industry centered in this country that has been estimated to generate as much as $10 billion a year. Owned and staffed in part by former binary options employees, Wealth Recovery International has used its insider knowledge to its advantage.
“Because I worked in the industry, I understand how these companies operate,” Wealth Recovery’s co-founder Austin Smith, 33, who calls himself a one-time fraudster, said in an interview at the company’s office. “I feel a responsibility to go ahead and help people.”
In the absence of serious action against binary options fraud by Israel authorities, Wealth Recovery has helped a couple dozen alleged victims of the industry reclaim a total of more than $4 million. The company has grown rapidly since it was founded in early 2016, in some cases by helping victims of its own employees.
The binary options industry has emerged in Israel over the past decade. According to The Times of Israel, which has been investigating the industry for nearly a year, more than 100 Israel-based companies have defrauded hundreds of thousands of people worldwide of billions of dollars – and been blamed for at least one suicide.
Binary options websites have allowed clients to place short-term bets on whether a commodity will increase or decrease in value. In most cases, though, the companies behind the websites have been suspected of rigging the game to take all or nearly all of their clients’ money. Posing as investment houses based in financial capitals like London, they have used aggressive sales tactics to maximize deposits and various ploys to avoid withdrawals. Their identities have been obscured by complex corporate structures that span multiple international jurisdictions, including tax havens.
Thousands of olim from the United States and around the world have played a role in helping the binary options companies target foreigners in their native languages. Former employees of several of the companies said more than half their co-workers were olim, and most of them were Americans. Money has been a major draw, with the olim often earning several times what they could otherwise hope to in Tel Aviv, one of the most expensive cities in the world.
“David Roth,” a 24-year-old from Southern California, asked to go by the pseudonym he has used as a Wealth Recovery salesman to protect himself from retaliation by binary options companies. After making aliyah several years ago and serving as a combat soldier in the Israeli army, he worked briefly at a fast food restaurant in Tel Aviv, making about $1,000 a month before finding work in binary options. In a good month as a salesman, Roth brought in more than $30,000, mostly on commission.
“It’s a hard country, and I’m here alone. I was trying to build myself something to fall back on,” he said. “Working my ass off at a burger place for 4-5,000 shekels a month max wasn’t getting me anywhere. The problem is that working in binary made me a terrible person, and it eventually broke me.”
Former binary options employees have described the industry’s culture as depraved. Trained to lie and apply maximum pressure, salespeople have worked late into the night to hard-sell clients in foreign time zones. Managers have encouraged them to have no mercy, whether the target was a pensioner or a cancer patient.
At the central Tel Aviv office of Numaris Communication, a one-time provider of sales and other services for the BinaryBook brand, Smith and another former employee described a vulgar and hard-partying culture straight out of “The Wolf of Wall Street.” After winning a big deposit, salespeople played the video of a song adapted from an episode of the animated TV comedy “South Park.” Together the office would sing the chorus: “And, it’s gone,” referring to the client’s deposit.
BinaryBook, which has faced legal action in Britain, did not respond to multiple interview requests. Wealth Recovery and the St. Louis-based Hamm Law Firm have begun preparing a class action lawsuit against another service provider for the brand, Ukom, on behalf of 120 American clients.
In February, weeks after law enforcement officials from North American and Europe held an emergency meeting on binary options fraud in the Hague, the FBI said it was investigating the industry around the world. The United States in 2013 had outlawed the marketing of binary options to its citizens, except on a handful of regulated exchanges.
Last spring, Israel allowed binary options companies to operate in the country as long as they refrained from targeting its citizens. In August, Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky urged the government to shutter the “repugnant, immoral” industry. And in October, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office called for a worldwide ban on its “unscrupulous” practices.
Earlier this year, the Knesset’s State Control Committee held two hearings on the government’s failure to deal with binary options fraud. Despite arguments by binary options advocates that entirely shutting down the industry could hurt Israel’s economy and encourage terrorism, the hearings resulted in draft legislation that would do just that.
Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States and current deputy minister, called binary options a threat to the Jewish state’s international standing and urged olim to steer clear of the industry for their own sake and that of their adopted country. He said the Knesset should launch an investigation into the industry.
“The binary options scheme could be ruinous for Israel’s foreign relations,” he told JTA. “I would tell olim: Your moral standards and Israel’s interests should deter you from engaging in this type of activity. There’s enough work in other fields.”
Wealth Recovery has provided alternative employment for a small but growing number of American olim, most of them in their 20s and 30s. Smith and his two co-owners made aliyah, or immigrated to Israel, from the United States, as did most of the people who work for them. Nearly half the staff, including Smith and another co-founder, came from binary options companies. Others chose to work at Wealth Recovery rather than enter the industry.
Former binary options employees have been essential to Wealth Recovery’s success. Their fluency in English and familiarity with the scams have prepared them to pitch the company’s services. They have used some of the same marketing and sales tactics for Wealth Recovery as they did at their previous jobs, including going by pseudonyms. But they said the motive for that has changed from deceiving the client to hiding from the binary options industry, which has threatened those who cross it.
“I have nothing to hide from clients anymore. I’m helping them here,” Roth said. “But it’s really easy for people from binary to call us, and a lot of the managers of these companies are serious criminals. You don’t want to mess with them.”
Smith, whom clients have known as Mitch Williams, for the first time opened up about his company under his real name for this article as part of an effort to position himself as a public opponent of the binary options industry, which he said he hopes will offer him another kind of protection.
“I want to distinguish myself from all the fraud around me. I want people to know what they should look for in a legitimate recovery company,” he said. “Hopefully binary companies will think twice about coming after me once my name is in the newspaper.”
Smith has also begun investing more heavily in advertising and public outreach. He will speak at an anti-fraud conference in Miami later this month, and will sponsor minor league NASCAR driver Stephen Young during a series of races in August. Young gave Wealth Recovery a discounted rate because he was scammed by binary options companies in the past.
Former binary options employees, whom Smith said often require some “deprogramming” when he hires them, have also been an asset to Wealth Recovery when it comes to gathering information — the company’s stock in trade. Wealth Recovery has gathered intelligence by developing sources within the binary options industry and searching public records. Yet to have one of its cases tried in court, the company has relied on what Smith called a “shock and awe” approach to pressure more than $4 million in settlements.
“The key is to go after little people – the ones who are working the phones and actually taking the money,” he said, “They’ll freak out and pressure their bosses to settle, or they’ll turn against the company they work for.”
Israeli attorney Nimrod Assif, who has represented alleged victims of binary options fraud and advocated for immediate government action against the suspected perpetrators, said the recovery industry has fraudulent elements, though he could not comment on specific companies. Assif recommended victims come to experienced lawyers like him, who know how to build a court case using admissible and legally obtained information, but said that what is most important are results.
“This recovery industry is a bit problematic,” he said. “First, this is legal work and people need to be licensed lawyers in order to represent victims in this country. Second, I know for a fact that there are fraudsters also in this industry.
“I will say if you put aside ethical issues, the No. 1 priority is to get recovery for victims. So if companies are able to do that, it’s good.”
Last month, the U.S.-based Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, the securities industry’s own watchdog group, issued a warning about what it called binary options follow-up schemes and “recovery scams.”