As in Ponzi schemes, the money collected from newer victims of the fraud is paid to earlier victims to provide a veneer of legitimacy. In pyramid schemes, however, the victims themselves are induced to recruit further victims through the payment of recruitment commissions.

More specifically, pyramid schemes—also referred to as franchise fraud or chain referral schemes—are marketing and investment frauds in which an individual is offered a distributorship or franchise to market a particular product. The real profit is earned, not by the sale of the product, but by the sale of new distributorships. Emphasis on selling franchises rather than the product eventually leads to a point where the supply of potential investors is exhausted and the pyramid collapses. At the heart of each pyramid scheme is typically a representation that new participants can recoup their original investments by inducing two or more prospects to make the same investment. Promoters fail to tell prospective participants that this is mathematically impossible for everyone to do, since some participants drop out, while others recoup their original investments and then drop out.

Tips for Avoiding Pyramid Schemes:

  • Be wary of “opportunities” to invest your money in franchises or investments that require you to bring in subsequent investors to increase your profit or recoup your initial investment.
  • Independently verify the legitimacy of any franchise or investment before you invest.

Market Manipulation or “Pump and Dump” Fraud

This scheme—commonly referred to as a “pump and dump”—creates artificial buying pressure for a targeted security, generally a low-trading volume issuer in the over-the-counter securities market largely controlled by the fraud perpetrators. This artificially increased trading volume has the effect of artificially increasing the price of the targeted security (i.e., the “pump”), which is rapidly sold off into the inflated market for the security by the fraud perpetrators (i.e., the “dump”); resulting in illicit gains to the perpetrators and losses to innocent third party investors. Typically, the increased trading volume is generated by inducing unwitting investors to purchase shares of the targeted security through false or deceptive sales practices and/or public information releases.

A modern variation on this scheme involves largely foreign-based computer criminals gaining unauthorized access to the online brokerage accounts of unsuspecting victims in the United States. These victim accounts are then utilized to engage in coordinated online purchases of the targeted security to affect the pump portion of a manipulation, while the fraud perpetrators sell their pre-existing holdings in the targeted security into the inflated market to complete the dump.

Tips for Avoiding Market Manipulation Fraud:

  • Don’t believe the hype.
  • Find out where the stock trades.
  • Independently verify claims.
  • Research the opportunity.
  • Beware of high-pressure pitches.
  • Always be skeptical.
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