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Tragedy, then a crackdown: Regulators fight options scam

Fred Turbide seen with his wife, Maria Chaves-Turbide. Mr. Turbide died of suicide, shooting himself after losing almost $330,000 to a binary-option scam.

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Edmonton business owner Fred Turbide sent his last messages on the afternoon of Dec. 21, 2016, begging a broker at a binary-options trading company to repay his huge investment losses from a fraud scheme.

In his final communication with online trading platform 23Traders, the 61-year-old father of four wrote that he had been financially destroyed, fearing he had lost his house and his retirement savings, according to a transcript of the messages provided by his family. He said he had even invested the money he needed to make his business payroll the next day.

In messages throughout the day on Dec. 21 with a broker identified as Julian Wellington, Mr. Turbide repeatedly said he had never experienced such stress, warning, "I cannot breathe any more properly."

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"Now I've lost my house, my retirement money and my business, damn you," he said in his final message. "It is now 3:52 p.m. my time and you have yet to reply or call. I am going to take a shower then go to my garage to finish myself off. I am giving you 1 hour to call me with positive result to put back the money I lost into my account. Don't trick me this time."

Later that day, Mr. Turbide's family found his body in the garage of his Edmonton home. He had died by suicide, shooting himself after losing almost $330,000 to a binary-option scam.

Regulators from provincial securities commissions across Canada have now formed a task force to try to crack down on binary options after receiving more than 800 reports and inquiries from investors in 2016 alone, saying the schemes have become Canada's most widespread securities fraud targeting individual investors.

Investors are told binary options are bets on how an underlying financial asset will perform, but in fact there is no trading activity and the schemes are outright frauds.

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No binary options sites are registered to trade in Canada and regulators have issued public warnings to investors.

Jason Roy, a senior investigator at the Manitoba Securities Commission who is heading the binary-options task force, said investors are lured by ads on social-media sites such as Facebook. Investors are given local phone numbers and are led to believe they are dealing with sophisticated companies with Canadian-based operations, but in fact the operations are offshore and no companies are registered in Canada to conduct binary-options trades, Mr. Roy said.

"The firms contacting Canadians and dealing with Canadians are essentially all boiler rooms," Mr. Roy said.

Mr. Turbide's son, Tomas Ferreira, said the family has learned Julian Wellington was a pseudonym and they do not know the real name of the offshore fraudster preying on their father. The 23Traders website appears to have been recently shut down.

"What really disgusts me is to have full knowledge of someone in that situation, who is threatening to take their life, and you don't do anything about it, not so much as making an anonymous phone call," Mr. Ferreira said in an interview. "That just speaks to the character of these people."

Mr. Ferreira is telling his father's story to help regulators warn others about the risks of binary-option investing.

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Because the trading is occurring offshore, the task force is focusing its work on public education and halting the flow of funds overseas. Among its initiatives, the group has met with the major credit card companies to devise strategies to halt transactions with the fraudulent sites.

Task force members are also talking with social-media sites such as Facebook and Twitter to ask them to eliminate the ads, and will meet next week with representatives from Google and Apple to urge them to remove hundreds of binary-options trading apps from their app stores.

Mr. Roy said he has personally experienced the sophisticated techniques. He received a cold call at his home one evening pitching him on investing in binary options and he decided to play along using an alias. The company provided a Canadian address and phone number, but Mr. Roy later discovered the phone number was routed through multiple locations until ending up in Israel, while the fake address was the same building housing the Ontario Securities Commission in Toronto.

Initially, Mr. Roy was given $100 of free money in his online account, and was told his first two trades were winners. The company then asked for his credit card number, and offered him a bonus depending how much he was willing to invest.

"It was very sophisticated, and they were determined to get my credit card," he said.

Many of the binary options frauds are originating from Israel, where regulators and politicians have promised new laws banning binary-options trading. The Jersusalem-based Times of Israel website has recently done lengthy investigative reports on the frauds, reporting hundreds of websites are based in Israel, including 23Traders.com that targeted Mr. Turbide.

Mr. Roy said it is not easy for Canadian regulators to go to Israel to seek justice, however. He said investigators cannot identify the perpetrators behind the frauds.

Mr. Ferreira said his family was contacted by a lawyer in Israel who is trying to win restitution for victims. He would also like Israeli police to investigate and lay fraud charges. His father was an unsophisticated investor and was hoping to earn more for his pending retirement, Mr. Ferreira said, and was looking forward to a trip to Portugal this year.

"It would be nice to at least have a face put behind these people," he said.

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About the Author
Real Estate Reporter

Janet McFarland is the real estate reporter for The Globe and Mail’s Report on Business, with a focus on residential real estate trends. She joined Report on Business in 1995, and has specialized in reporting on corporate governance, executive compensation, pension policy, business law, securities regulation and enforcement of white-collar crime. More

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