Financial Troubles Hide in Soaring Markets

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Texas Securities Commissioner Travis Iles says we’re living in a perfect storm – for financial fraud.

Bitcoin Isolated at home to avoid COVID, people are spending more time online, and he suspects that some have become more susceptible to fraud because they think a big win would take the edge off of the financial uncertainties of the pandemic. And social media only feeds the frenzy, giving scam artists a natural audience for selling their “investments” – and for recruiting others on social media to help them.

“People look for follows and likes and they’re dialed in on a lot of social media platforms that three to four years ago were very foreign,” Iles said in a recent interview. “It’s actually influencing people’s decisions about where” to invest their money.

In March 2020, just as the pandemic took hold, he began tracking how many administrative and enforcement actions his office had taken. Over the next 18 months, his office launched some 450 investigations, resulting in more than 60 actions against suspicious companies selling investments to Texans.

“We’ve never been more prolific in terms of output,” he added.

The craziness of these times can be seen in a recent cease-and-desist order issued by the Texas Securities Division against a company promising wild returns of 30 percent in 60 days or 50 percent in 90 days to investors in a nebulous operation: cryptocurrency cloud mining.

Cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin are complicated enough – but mining cryptocurrency? As one law firm explains, it’s a treasure hunt that “involves validating cryptocurrency transactions on a blockchain network and adding them to a distributed ledger.” This is done by “solv[ing] complex mathematical equations in the form of cryptographic hashes.”

This is a good opportunity to paraphrase Peter Lynch, the very successful former stock picker at Fidelity Investments: if you don’t understand it, don’t buy it.

Commissioner Iles points out that social media – LinkedIn, Craigslist, Facebook – is integral to the cryptocurrency firm’s strategy. Texas’ cease-and-desist order said the firm pays a commission to people who recruit other investors on social media and boasts that “the majority of our clients are affiliates from other clients.” (Our emails to the firm for a response to Texas’ action, via its website, were not answered, nor were the Texas State Securities Board’s efforts to contact the firm.)

One thing I learned during many years as a financial reporter is that when a market is soaring – stocks, house prices, and now Bitcoin – problems are bubbling under the surface. If it looks too good to be true, it almost certainly is.

Squared Away writer Kim Blanton invites you to follow us on Twitter @SquaredAwayBC. To stay current on our blog, please join our free email list. You’ll receive just one email each week – with links to the two new posts for that week – when you sign up here. This blog is supported by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.

1 comment
Edward Hoffer MD

Bitcoin, indeed. The 21st Century equivalent of the tulip craze. A giant Ponzi scheme depending on the greater fool theory. I suggest you go to YouTube and search for Bill Maher’s segment on cryptocurrency. Caveat Emptor!

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