Investor Alerts

Binary Options Follow-Up Schemes: Don’t Lose Money Twice

We've said it before: Binary options trading can be risky. What's more, some scammers are targeting binary options customers with follow-up frauds, such as recovery scams and IRS impersonation scams.

FINRA is issuing this alert to warn anyone involved in binary options trading—specifically through unregistered non-U.S. companies offering binary options trading platforms or services—to be on guard for potential follow-up frauds. 

What Are Binary Options?

A conventional option is an agreement that gives you the right to buy or sell a security for a fixed price during a set period of time, at which point the option expires. In contrast, a binary option is an "all-or-nothing" proposition that does not bestow any such rights. When a binary option expires, it makes either a pre-specified amount of money or nothing at all—and if the latter happens, you lose your entire investment.

Some binary options are listed on registered exchanges (regulated by the Securities and Exchange Commission) or traded on a designated contract market (overseen by the Commodity Future Trading Commission). However, as FINRA, the SEC and the CFTC have warned, an increasing number are sold through online platforms that do not comply with US regulations and can be fraudulent. 

Types of Potential Follow-Up Frauds

Investors with binary options accounts on suspect platforms may be targets for the following follow-up frauds.  

Advance Fee: FINRA is aware of instances in which a customer of a binary options platform hears from individuals who claim they can help the customer get back lost money—but an advance fee applies. The tactics can vary, but hallmarks of these schemes generally include:

  • Urgent correspondence and high-pressure calls that specifically refer to your binary options accounts.
  • Claims that the caller is with, or acting at the behest of, a U.S. government agency. 
  • Subsequent communications with official-looking documents presented as "proof" that money is available for investors to recover—albeit for a fee. 

The upshot is that you should be wary of any person or organization claiming to know about your binary options accounts and offering to help return money to you. 

IRS Impersonator: Another scam involves phone calls purportedly from an IRS representative. In its most basic form: 

  • The IRS imposter claims that you owe money in taxes because of your binary options trading, and may threaten to bring in police or other government agencies if you do not pay up immediately. 
  • The IRS imposter asks for your debit or credit card number, or may pressure you to pay with a prepaid debit card.

There can be twists to the standard IRS impersonator scam. In one instance, an investor who called FINRA described speaking with a man who identified himself as "a representative from the IRS" and told her she must pay a fee for an "indemnity letter." He claimed the indemnity letter was required because the financial institution she was dealing with in conjunction with her binary options account was not registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission. While it was true the financial institution was not registered with the SEC, the caller completely fabricated the need for such a letter. He further threatened that if the investor didn't pay for the indemnity letter, the IRS would levy a heavy fine.   

In all of these cases, the bottom line is that you are asked to send money. But if you do, you most likely will never see it again so it is important that you not offer your credit or debit card, or make other forms of payment, during the call.  If you are contacted by someone purporting to be from the IRS, or if the IRS is mentioned by the caller, you can call the IRS at 1-800-366-4484 to determine whether the call is legitimate.  As the IRS makes clear, it never calls taxpayers and demands that they wire or send money—instead the IRS sends a written notification of any tax due through the U.S. mail.

Investor Checklist

Follow-up scams tend to target investors who may be unwittingly involved in "shady" binary options businesses. Before getting involved in binary options trading—and before you send any money:

  • Check the CFTC's website to see if the binary options trading platform is a designated contract market. If it is not registered, do not do business with the organization or individuals associated with it.
  • Check the SEC's EDGAR system to see if the binary options trading platform has registered the offer and sale of the product with the SEC. 
  • Check the SEC's website regarding exchanges to determine if the binary options trading platform is registered as an exchange. 
  • Check FINRA BrokerCheck® and the National Futures Association's Background Affiliation Status Information Center (BASIC) to determine the registration status and background of any firm or financial professional that you are considering.

If you are involved with a binary options firm and are not sure it is legitimate—or think you are the target of a binary options fraud or follow-up scam—you can contact FINRA at (240) 386-HELP (4357). You can also share that complaint or tip with the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center at www.IC3.gov—or call the CFTC at 1-866-FON-CFTC or the SEC at 1-800-SEC-0330.

To receive the latest Investor Alerts and other important investor information sign up for Investor News.

Last Updated: 
March 16, 2017