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How scam networks use fake celebrity ads to lure online investors

graphic of web of websites
A web of flimsy promises: various online investment platforms could all be traced back to Cyprus, SRF found. SRF

Investor beware: some online platforms claiming to offer quick profits are in reality out to swindle clients. An investigation by Swiss public television, SRF, followed the trail of a network of scammers to Cyprus.

Enter “InvesaCapital” into the search bar on the online review platform Trustpilot and a host of negative reviews will pop up. Users from Japan, India, Chile, Columbia and Switzerland all complain about being scammed.

One such unhappy customer is Swiss motorbike mechanic Stefan Boss. “When you visit the platform, it all looks so real,” Boss tells SRF Investigativ. He paid CHF21,000 ($23,235) into InvesaCapital – and never saw his money again. It was only later that he realised he had fallen for a scam.

two men talk in a motorbike workshop
“I worked hard for this money and sometimes I wonder how I could have been so stupid. But these telephone operators are so credible and determined. It all seemed real,” Stefan Boss (left) says. SRF

SRF Investigativ’s research has now uncovered an entire network of similar platforms – all with links to Cyprus – which put pressure on customers to invest increasingly larger sums.

The trap begins with fake celebrity ads. In the case of motorbike mechanic Boss, he came across InvesaCapital after clicking on a fake ad featuring Swiss comedian and TV host Stefan Büsser. Other ads show Roger Federer apparently sitting in jail, or Swiss model Christa Rigozzi with a black eye.

The celebrities have nothing to do with the scam. Their images are improperly used and any apparent interviews with them are also false. But such ads, featuring famous Swiss names who allegedly endorse lucrative investment opportunities, have been circulating widely on social mediaExternal link for some months.

fake online ads, one featuring musician nemo
Since winning the Eurovision Song Contest for Switzerland, Nemo’s image (left) has been exploited in fake ads. The ads often suggest that the person in the picture suffered repercussions for disclosing easy money-making secrets. Facebook (edited by SRF)

On the Trustpilot website, many users accuse InvesaCapital of fraud and scams. Similar allegations have been levelled against OBRInvest, ForexTB, Inefex and InvestMarkets – all of which also claim to be investment platforms. Investous and 24Option, which are no longer online, are also the target of criticism.

diagram showing websites involved in a scam network
The network of (still active) investment platforms unveiled by SRF Investigativ. SRF

SRF Investigativ interviewed three former employees of these platforms, who confirmed that they were instructed to manipulate customers over the phone and coerce them into investing more money. “If they are stupid enough to invest their money here, they deserve to be ripped off. That was the motto of our boss,” said one of the employees, describing the workplace atmosphere.

The celebrity ads are linked to articles by Swiss media outlets, which are also fake, but which appear confusingly similar to real stories. Via these fake news stories, readers can sign up to an alleged investment platform which promises an easy way to make big profits. Directly after registering, new users usually receive a phone call from the platform, urging them to pay in CHF250.

Many report making significant profits at first, but which they are unable to withdraw. Investments often end up resulting in a total loss. Victims are often unaware that their money is not invested on the stock market but in highly speculative financial products. There is no real chance of making a profit – as promised in the fake ads – nor of retrieving the money invested. Via frequent phone calls and manipulative techniques, the platform’s “brokers” put pressure on customers to make more and more payments.

In the German-speaking part of Switzerland alone, public prosecutors have confirmed dozens of criminal charges linked to these apparent investment platforms within the Cyprus network. Reported losses range from tens of thousands of Swiss francs to over CHF100,000 in some cases. However, proceedings are often suspended as the suspected offenders are based abroad and cannot be identified by authorities.

The Cyprus network is not alone in using such techniques. Hundreds of similar platforms operate online: according to the Swiss police network for combatting cybercrime and paedophilia, users in Switzerland were ripped-off to the tune of CHF142.6 million in 2023. And this is probably only a fraction of the total – prosecutors believe many cases go unreported as victims are too embarrassed to admit they fell into the scam and to contact the police.

During its research, the SRF Investigativ team identified seven platforms with almost identical structures: Inefex, InvesaCapital, InvestMarkets, ForexTB, OBRInvest, Investous, and 24Option. The Cypriot commercial register reveals clear links between the firms behind for the platforms; two individuals repeatedly appear in various different roles across all of them.

screenshot of websites with menu bars etc
The navigation bars of the active platforms are almost identical; the websites also feature the same text blocks. SRF

All of the websites within the network display a warning about the high-risk nature of the financial investments involved. They also disclaim any advisory role in acquiring financial products. However, this starkly contrasts with the promises made in the fake celebrity ads, as well as with the experience of duped users who say they were pressured by phone to invest more. After registering under a fake name, SRF Investigativ was also pressured into buying more funds. However, once the undercover investigation was over, the platform refunded the initial investment along with the profits.

The SRF Investigativ team contacted all the platforms about the accusations of shady business practices and their affiliation to the Cyprus network. Despite several attempts to reach out to them, none of the platforms responded. Neither did the people listed in the Cypriot commercial register answer any questions.

New platforms

Whenever a platform is faced with negative reporting or a lawsuit, the network appears to set up new websites with near-identical business models to continue operations under different names. The case of 24Option – which is now offline – is a perfect example: last year, two of its former employees were convicted of commercial fraud in Germany.

24Option operated across Europe and gave the impression of being a reputable business. It was even an official partner of Italian football club Juventus FC.

After an investigation by German public service broadcaster ARD uncovered the reality of 24Option’s methods, police searches and arrests followed. Two employees of the website were given prison sentences by a court in Cologne. The ruling stated that the defendants had misled clients about the risk of financial loss and that business dealings were solely intended to exploit customers. SRF Investigativ has seen a copy of the ruling.

The public prosecutor’s office in Cologne has confirmed that it is still investigating dozens of suspects linked to 24Option. The presumption of innocence applies to all of the accused.

K.C. Firiakis Services Ltd. – management of the network?

According to the commercial register, the managing director of 24Option is a businessman based in Cyrpus. He is also central to the network of platforms identified by SRF Investigativ.

diagram showing network of websites involved in investment scams
The network of investment platforms, with the businessman with connections to it all on the bottom left. SRF

The businessman in question also owns the Cyprus-based K.C. Firiakis Services Ltd. Former employees of this company have posted detailed job descriptions on LinkedIn showing that the firm plays a crucial role in the scam network.

Based on these job descriptions, K.C. Firiakis is also involved in launching new scam platforms, establishing sales targets and coordinating companies and individuals involved in the network.

K.C. Firiakis Services Ltd. told SRF Investigativ that the claims amounted to an “unproven false allegation”. The company said it was not part of a network and was not familiar with all the platforms. It further stated that it had no insight into the internal processes of the platforms and did not tolerate fraud. K.C. Firiakis also insisted that it was an independent company and had no ties to 24Option. The fact that the two companies had employees in common proved nothing; Cyprus is a small country, the company said. The owner of K.C. Firakis Services did not respond to inquiries from SRF Investigativ.

As for where the money from the scam goes and who benefits most from it, this remains unclear.

man in a motorbike workshop
“Every time I check my bank balance, I regret what I did. It’s not that we can’t put food on the table, but I saved this money for our retirement,” says Stefan Boss. SRF

Swiss motorbike mechanic Boss has meanwhile written off his invested money. “Who should I take to court? InvesaCapital? Do they actually exist?”

He has a point. SRF Investigativ’s research shows that the investment scam extends well beyond individual platforms and involves an entire network. “This is the classic approach,” confirms one insider. “When one platform goes under, they simply close it down and set up a new one. This allows the money-making machine to continue operating, just under a different name.”

Christodoulos Mavroudis contributed to this story

Adapted from German by Billi Bierling/dos

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR