Spotting a forex scam

The spot forex market trades $1.65 trillion a day, according to the Bank of International Settlements’ Triennial Survey. Combine that with currency options and futures contracts, and the amount traded on any given day is more than $5 trillion.

With this volume of money floating around an unregulated spot market that trades instantly, over the counter, with no accountability, forex scams offer the lure of earning fortunes in limited amounts of time. While many of the popular old scams have ceased, due to serious enforcement actions by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) and the 1982 formation of the self-regulatory National Futures Association (NFA), some old scams do still linger, and new ones keep popping up.

Back in the Day: The Point-Spread Scam

The old forex scam was based on computer manipulation of bid/ask spreads. The point spread between the bid and ask basically reflects the commission of a back-and-forth transaction processed through a broker. These spreads typically differ between currency pairs. The scam occurs when those point spreads differ widely among brokers. Brokers often do not offer the normal two- to three-point spread in the EUR/USD, for example, but spreads of seven pips or more. (A pip is the smallest price move that a given exchange rate makes based on market convention. Since most major currency pairs are priced to four decimal places, the smallest change is that of the last decimal point.) Factor four or more pips on every $1 million trade, and any potential gains resulting from a good investment are eaten away by commissions.

This scam has quieted down over the last 10 years, but be careful of any offshore retail brokers that are not regulated by the CFTC, NFA or their nation of origin. These tendencies still exist, and it’s quite easy for firms to pack up and disappear with the money when confronted with actions. Many saw a jail cell for these computer manipulations. But the majority of violators have historically been United States–based companies, not the offshore ones.

The Signal-Seller Scam

A popular modern-day scam is the signal seller. Signal sellers are retail firms, pooled asset managers, managed account companies or individual traders that offer a system – for a daily, weekly or monthly fee – that claims to identify favorable times to buy or sell a currency pair, based on professional recommendations that will make anyone wealthy. They tout their long experience and trading abilities, plus testimonials from people who vouch for how great a trader and friend the person is, and the vast wealth that this person has earned for them.

All the unsuspecting trader has to do is hand over X amount of dollars for the privilege of trade recommendations. Many of these scammers simply collect money from a certain number of traders and disappear. Some will recommend a good trade now and then, to allow the signal money to perpetuate. This new scam is slowly becoming a wider problem. Although there are signal sellers who are honest and perform trade functions as intended, it pays to be skeptical.

"Robot" Scamming in Today’s Market

A persistent scam, old and new, presents itself in some types of forex-developed trading systems. These scammers tout their system’s ability to generate automatic trades that, even while you sleep, earn vast wealth. Today, the new terminology is “robot,” because of the ability to work automatically. Either way, many of these systems have not been submitted for formal review and tested by an independent source.

Examination factors must include the testing of a trading system’s parameters and optimization codes. If the parameters and optimization codes are invalid, the system will generate random buy and sell signals. This will cause unsuspecting traders to do nothing more than gamble. Although tested systems exist on the market, potential forex traders should research any system they’re thinking of incorporating into their trading strategy.

Other Factors to Consider

Traditionally, many trading systems have been quite costly. Just a few short years ago, $5,000 was not much to pay for a system. This can be viewed as a scam in itself. No trader should pay more than a few hundred dollars for a proper system today. Be especially careful of system sellers who offer programs at exorbitant prices justified by a guarantee of phenomenal results. Look for one of the many legitimate sellers who is decent and whose systems have been properly tested to potentially earn substantial income.

Another persistent problem is the commingling of funds. Without a record of segregated accounts, individuals cannot track the exact performance of their investments. This makes it easier for retail firms to use an investor’s money  to pay exorbitant salaries; buy houses, cars and planes; or just disappear with the funds. Section 4D of the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000 addressed the issue of fund segregation; what occurs in other nations is a separate issue.

Warning Signs

Other scams and warning signs exist when brokers won’t allow the withdrawal of monies from investor accounts, or when problems exist within the trading station. Can you enter or exit a trade during an economic announcement that is not in line with expectations? If you can’t withdraw money, warning signs should flash. If the trading station doesn’t operate to your liquidity expectations, warning signs should again flash. An important factor to always consider when choosing a broker or a trading system to satisfy your personal goals is to be skeptical of promises or promotional material that guarantees a high level of performance.

Of the 193 cases filed with the NFA in 2008 for rules and law violations, 166 were settled within nine months, but only 23% of the plaintiffs received lost funds. Therefore, as with many Ponzi schemes, even when those who deliberately engage in forex scams are brought to justice, there’s no guarantee investors will be reimbursed.

The Bottom Line

Conduct due diligence on the forex broker you’re considering by going to the Background Affiliation Status Information Center (BASIC), created by the NFA. Many changes have driven out the crooks and the old scams and legitimized the system for the many good firms. However, always be wary of new forex scams; the temptation and allure of huge profits will always bring new and more sophisticated types to this market.