The first time Rajibuddin Mandal, a family doctor in Birmingham, England, tried his hand at trading currencies online, he lost 2,000 British pounds. From that experience, he concluded that the foreign-exchange market was too big, too complex and too hazardous for amateur investors like himself. He decided he needed help from the professionals.
One site he found on the Internet in early 2013 seemed to be speaking directly to him. Called secureinvestment.com, the website acknowledged that currency trading was risky.
“Ninety percent of traders in forex end up losing money,” it said. Secure Investment said it offered something safer: It made trading decisions for investors and guaranteed their principal. That meant, Mandal thought, that even if he didn’t make money, the worst that could happen would be that he would break even, Bloomberg Markets will report in its December issue.
Secure Investment said that it traded in excess of $4.8 billion daily for more than 100,000 investors in 140 countries. The company said it posted all of its trades every day, showing which ones were winners and which were losers. The site said investors had averaged net gains of 1 percent each trading day during the past five years.
Mandal viewed video testimonials by satisfied customers, including one who said he had watched his investment grow for years, preparing him for a stress-free retirement.
‘NOTHING I SAW’
Over three months, Mandal, 41, says he carefully followed Secure Investment’s trading results on its website.
“There was nothing that I saw that led me to believe there could be any kind of problem,” he says.
The site said that those average gains of 1 percent daily couldn’t be compounded into an annual return. Even without compounding, those kinds of daily returns would amount to an annual gain of about 250 percent -- or more than 25 times the average annual return of the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index, with dividends reinvested, for the past 50 years. Secure Investment didn’t provide that kind of context.
In May and June last year, Mandal and his wife, Wasima, 37, also a physician, invested $30,000 each with Secure, which required customers to use U.S. dollars. The Mandals swapped pounds for $60,000, using a bank. Following instructions from Secure, they then wired the money to banks in Australia and Cyprus to open their accounts.
Logging into the company’s website regularly, they watched as Secure traded the dollar versus the euro. Secure’s website showed that their accounts had soared in value to a total of $245,000 -- a fourfold increase -- in just 10 months.
Mandal says he decided to withdraw some money in March. In an e-mailed response, Secure said he’d have to wait. It cited issues with the U.S. Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, which is a Treasury Department rule that applies to U.S. citizens using foreign accounts -- a law that was irrelevant to Mandal, who’s a U.K. citizen. The March 5 e-mail said Mandal would get the money in a few days.
“Thank you for your patience,” it said.
Mandal says he wasn’t yet suspicious. He got another e-mail from Secure on April 30.
“Our Technical Department is currently working on system updates,” it said. “Our company sincerely apologizes for any temporary glitches that may occur.”
The next day, the website went offline. It never returned. Neither did the Mandals’ investment. As far as he knows, their entire $60,000 has disappeared forever.
“Every day, I saw they were making me profits,” Mandal says. “And then it’s suddenly gone. It gave me psychological pain and stress. I feel very embarrassed.”
If their money is lost for good, then the Mandals may have plenty of company. Investors around the world may have lost more than $1 billion, based on data posted on Secure’s website and viewed by Bloomberg Markets two months before the site shut down.
Secure never revealed its true location and provided its clients with only some bank and related-company names, along with its call center’s toll-free phone numbers in Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, the U.K. and the U.S.
Secure Investment lured customers by creating its own good reputation and by publishing a seemingly successful trading record on its elaborate website. It was all a lie. The company’s claims to have offices and a large staff were also false. At least some of its so-called customer testimonials were actually delivered by actors.
The deception worked -- for a while. In March, Secure’s website was more popular than Forex.com, run by Gain Captial Holding Inc., the second-largest U.S.-based, over-the-counter forex trading firm, according to Alexa.com, a unit of Amazon.com Inc. that tracks page views of millions of websites.
The most common search sending traffic to Secure was the phrase “secure investment.” The average visitor to Secure’s site stayed for almost seven minutes and viewed seven pages, according to Alexa.
Secure crafted a tangled financial web to harvest and hide investor money by setting up companies with different names incorporated in Belize, the British Virgin Islands and the U.K. Secure asked clients in e-mails to wire money to bank accounts held by those firms.
By using related companies, Secure obscured the paper trail of investor funds that would end up with the firm.
The only public evidence that authorities have looked into Secure Investment comes from Panama. In July 2013, the website of Panama’s securities regulator, SMV, warned that the company wasn’t licensed or authorized to trade currencies.
The regulator also said Secure Investment listed a false Panama City address as its headquarters.
The office addresses that Secure’s website listed in Hong Kong, London and Sydney were also phony. All of those were at sites run by international office leasing company Regus Plc. London-based spokesman Andrew Brown researched his company’s records and found that Secure never used any of those locations.
Secure’s website included 54 video testimonials, supposedly from investors; a six-minute infomercial; and three animated cartoons.
One testimonial is from a bearded man wearing a jacket and tie. After introducing himself as Michael, he praises Secure in an 80-second video. He says he’s pleased with his return on investment.
“Every year, I’ve watched my ROI grow,” he says. “I’m getting closer and closer to my retirement goals. They take all the stress out of it.”
Michael is actually Al Eddy from Chattanooga, Tennessee. Eddy, 42, who has recorded video endorsements for a fee, says he was hired by an intermediary for Secure and paid $20 to perform as Michael. He says he’s never invested with Secure, nor traded forex nor even purchased a share of stock. Nothing he said in his endorsement is true, Eddy says, adding that he no longer does testimonials.
“I’m an actor; actors lie for a living,” says Chuck Hall, another paid performer who did a testimonial for Secure. In his endorsement, Hall, 64, of Fernandina Beach, Florida, didn’t give any name. He told viewers he easily withdrew money from Secure.
“Had no problem at all doing that,” he says in the video. “I’m thinking now about investing in forex again. I think they’re pretty dependable.” Hall now says Secure’s intermediary paid him $4 and gave him a script. “I don’t even know what forex is,” he says.
THE RULESA two-minute animation distributed by Secure depicts a chance meeting between two friends stuck in traffic on a highway. Pale-faced Ben, driving a beat-up brown subcompact with a dirty windshield, pulls up beside his tanned friend Nick.
Nick, driving a shiny new green convertible, says he’s just returned from a Caribbean vacation and recently moved to a house by a lake. The men have the following exchange:
“How can you afford all this?” Ben asks in a nerdy voice.
“I invest online in forex,” Nick replies in a deep baritone. He sports a pompadour and an unbuttoned red Hawaiian shirt.
“So you’re a forex trader like that guy Paul at the gym?” Ben asks. “I heard he lost a lot of money.”
“No, I am not a forex expert,” Nick says. “If you’re not a forex professional, chances are you could lose your money. My money is managed by professionals from Secure Investment.”
Ben asks whether it’s very risky.
“There is no risk to the initial investment,” Nick says. “In the past five years, they have had only a few days with negative results. I’m earning about 1 percent of profit daily.” He adds that he can withdraw his money at any time.
Ben has heard enough. He asks Nick how he can get started.
Mandal, the U.K. doctor who, along with his wife, invested $60,000, followed Secure’s postings and studied its advertisements. The details of daily trading results, the pitches in the videos and the testimonials won him over.
“I think they did it very cleverly,” he says.
Mandal runs a family practice under contract with Britain’s National Health Service. He, his wife, another physician and two residents tend to 5,000 patients.
Now that Mandal realizes he was duped by Secure, he says the company should be held accountable.
‘PUT INTO JAIL’
“I want these people to be stopped so in the future, nobody will dare do this again,” he says. “It is very important to do something against them. I think they should definitely be put into jail.”
Because Secure had no real headquarters and existed on the Internet only, an investigation would be challenging.
“Law enforcement will have to focus on the bank accounts, wire transfers and financial transactions that -- with international cooperation and some luck -- might be used to get behind the anonymous shell companies hiding the perpetrators and stolen funds,” says Senator Levin, a Democrat from Michigan.
David Kane, a Houston oil industry technical support manager, says he found his way to Secure because he had stopped trusting bankers and brokers after the 2008 financial crisis. Kane, a single father raising three teenage boys, invested $2,500 in Secure in July 2013. His account grew to more than $4,000 by February 2014, according to his online statements.
In an interview on March 10, seven weeks before secureinvestment.com vanished, Kane, 52, said he was comfortable with his investment.
“I e-mailed a number of times with questions and concerns, and they’ve been very responsive in answering them,” he said.
He was hoping his gains would fund his sons’ college tuition.
“I would like to think that this is the trading vehicle for the next millennium,” Kane said. “People have been ripped off for so long by brokers, 401(k) managers and mutual fund managers.”
Kane made a successful withdrawal in February.
“I wanted 500 bucks as a test to be sure I could get it back,” Kane said in March. Secure wired him his cash through a money-transfer company, Mayzus Financial Services Ltd., from Czech Savings Bank in Prague. “I almost kicked myself in the ass for pulling that out, because that’s $500 more that could have been earning me 1.21 percent per day,” Kane said.
By May 13, two weeks after the website shut down and two months after his first interview with Bloomberg Markets, Kane had a different view.
“We suspected it was too good to be true,” he said. “I’m glad I pulled out $500. What is most bothersome is the loss of the dream.”
Jaron Mark, a medical resident at a hospital in Tampa, Florida, says he spent nine months seeking a safe investment before he chose Secure. During that time, he monitored Secure’s website routinely, watched the daily trading reports showing consistent success and decided to invest with the company.
In April, he wired $10,000 to a bank in Latvia so that Secure could trade forex for him. Two weeks later, the Secure website was gone. At first, Mark, 31, says he wasn’t too concerned.
“They’d go down for maintenance temporarily,” he says. “Then they’d come back up, like clockwork. This time around, they didn’t.” He says he lost the majority of his savings. “I don’t make a lot of money,” he says. “It took me a long time to earn it. I’m hurt and upset. I don’t have much hope. I feel like a fool.”
The man identified by Secure as its chief executive officer used the name Michael Sterling. A Secure infomercial on the Web featuring Sterling begins with an exterior shot of the New York Stock Exchange. It shows gray-bearded Sterling describing his excitement about Secure.
“It’s really a very special feeling when you are doing something new, something unusual, which differs a lot from what others are doing,” he says.
Sterling then addresses Secure employees at their modern office building, as meetings in glass-walled conference rooms are shown. Interspersed through the infomercial are 30 more scenes of Manhattan, including Wall Street, Times Square and the Waldorf Astoria hotel. Secure’s customer-service center never responded to repeated requests for an interview with Sterling.
Early on May 1, just hours after Secure’s website was gone, Bloomberg Markets was able to reach a customer-support representative. Francisco Ramirez was still staffing the site’s chat function. He was asked what happened.
“At the moment, there is technical maintenance going on with our website,” he said. “It will be back at any point of time. We are sorry for the inconvenience. After some time, it should work fine.”
No one at Secure Investment has responded to calls or e-mails since that day.