The lure of online trading. Photo by Ilir Tsouko

More and more people trade online. COVID lockdowns helped trigger the boom. So did the rock-bottom interest rates of recent years; with banks paying so little on savings, people turned to other ways to make their money grow.

But not everyone wins in the online investing game. The people featured in this cross-border investigation lost everything.

The project deals with a phenomenon called “cyber trading”, a term used by investigators and not well known by the public. Cyber trading refers to large-scale financial crime in which fraudsters set up unlicensed online trading platforms that look legitimate but are fake.

They set up advertising banners on Facebook or email platforms such as GMX Mail, promising above-average profits and encouraging investors to register on the trading platforms.

The cyber trading networks also contract “agents”, operating from call centres. The agents’ job is to lure people into the scam and convince victims to transfer more and more money — always with the promise that their funds will be invested in high-yielding trades.

In fact, the money never gets invested. It is distributed via a complex money-laundering network set up across Europe. The platforms are often registered in tax havens. One platform, which used a call centre based in the Albanian capital of Tirana, was registered on the Caribbean Island of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.

Cyber trading is a global industry. However, the journalists who took part in this investigation suspected that the call centres are found primarily in countries in Eastern and Southeast Europe. They looked closely at two Balkan countries that had long been the focus of investigations by national authorities: Kosovo and Albania.

It turned out that several cyber trading networks had set up call centres in those countries. They employed hundreds of people, many in their 20s: students looking for side jobs. 

Kosovo has one of the youngest populations in Europe. The small country has a large number of unemployed people who are happy to take on this relatively simple and profitable job over the phone. Many speak German — a legacy of the war in Kosovo a quarter of a century ago when many people fled to Germany.

Inside a typical call centre, there are two departments, the investigation revealed. Those working in “Conversions” promote the trading platform and convince investors to activate accounts for €250. “Retentions” is staffed by top brokers who work with customers already enrolled in the scheme.

The sums they generate reach millions. One call centre investigated by the team in Kosovo stole €20 million from investors in just five years.

A member of the Central Office for Cybercrime Bavaria at the Bamberg Public Prosecutor’s Office in Germany examines material confiscated from a call centre. Photo by Ilir Tsouko

Many of the low-level call agents were unaware that what they were doing was illegal. But those who worked in the Retention department clearly knew what was happening. 

The team scrutinised the files of more than 20 victims in Austria, Switzerland and Germany. The smallest sum stolen was €8,000. The largest was €1.2 million.

All victims lost money on platforms with names such as Globalix, BrokerZ, FXC Markets or Alpha Financial Group. The team managed to identify the call centres linked to the platforms. They found the offices they operated from and spoke with former workers who provided unique insights into the operating model. 

One question they couldn’t answer and probably never will: How much money gets lost through cyber trading every year?

The Bavarian Central Office for the Prosecution of Cybercrime at the Bamberg General Prosecutor’s Office in southern Germany estimates that losses in Germany alone reach billions of euros. 

But the exact figure remains unknown. Investigators assume that a high number of cases go unreported — since many investors don’t realise they have been victims of a scam. They consider their losses a result of the high risks associated with trading. Others feel ashamed because they put their trust in an unknown voice on the phone, rather than in their bank.

See the stories below, including a five-part podcast series produced with Deutschlandfunk and ORF Radio Ö1.

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web: KontraBit