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Learn from Case of Investment Fraud

In recent days, the local media are busy talking about a case of alleged investment fraud by PT Golden Traders Indonesia Syariah (GTIS), with an estimation of customer’s losses of about Rp600 billion or US$ 60 million, and of course it is still not a small amount of loss. But this case is the umpteenth time that happened in this country, with an always-the-same-story: An investment fraud that promises huge profits in a short time. Actually this case is not directly related to our investment in the stock, of course, but I think that this is still important to be discussed to provide information to people who may still lay about the investment itself. Okay here we go!

GTIS was once an ordinary gold trading company by the name of PT Golden Traders Indonesia (GTI). In 2011, the company added the word ’Syariah’ (Indonesian term for Sharia) behind its name, so it became PT Golden Traders Indonesia Syariah (GTIS). In the same year, the company, or at least based on their claim, obtained a certificate of ‘has fulfilled the Islamic principles’ from the Indonesian Ulema Council (Majelis Ulama Indonesia/MUI).

Armed with the claim that their business is ’halal and islamic’, GTIS then sell investment products through a variety of media, primarily through referral system that every customer will be asked to look for another customer (like the system of Multilevel Marketing, aka MLM). In a short period of only 2 years, the company is growing very rapidly and successfully established thirteen offices in several major cities in Indonesia, especially Jakarta. In their promotion, GTIS has a very interesting tagline: ‘Enjoy the certainty of gain of 2% per month, just in Golden Traders Indonesia’.

And this is my comment: A certainty in gain? Are you out of mind? Since when an investment is able to ensure the profit without exposing the risks at all?

Back to GTIS. GTIS offers an investment product in the form of gold, whether physical or just a certificate, with the offer of gain of 2 - 4.5% per month, payable in cash. So if you spend US$ 10,000 to buy the investment product, for example, then you will receive a monthly interest, or a bonus, or whatever it's called, worth US$ 200 – 450, transferred directly into your bank account. Your ‘investment’ is secured by a letter of buy back guarantee, where the GTIS will buy your gold back at a price equal to the purchase price. So after a year, you will earn an interest of at least US$ 200 x 12 months = US$ 2,400, then you can sell your gold to GTIS to get your US$ 10,000 back. So now you have earned a profit of 24% in just one year, without any risk of losses! Because your gold are guaranteed to be bought back by the GTIS at the same price of your purchase price. So what are you waiting for?

However there are some interesting things about this kind of ‘investment product’:

First. Customers must buy gold from GTIS at a price that is higher than the retail market price, with the difference of about 20 - 30%. This means that if the retail market price of gold is US$ 50 per gram, for example, then the customer must pay US$ 60 – 65 for every gram of gold they earn. There is no explanation from the management of GTIS about this thing, but they (through their agents) are simply say that even though the price is higher, but customers do not need to worry, because later the company will buy the gold back at the same price, even if the market price had fallen. The agent is usually added that gold prices will continue to rise, so that the customer can not lose (so once again, the risk is zero!).

Second. There is no exact explanation of where GTIS obtain funds to pay interest to its customers. Some say that GTIS buy gold at low prices from Untung Bersama Sejahtera (UBS, another gold trading company) and sell it at high prices in Singapore. The profit from the price difference is then used to pay the interest to customers. But there is no further details about this kind of ‘business operation’, and also no confirmation on behalf of UBS.

Third. Customers can only purchase the gold through agents. This agent is usually a GTIS customer as well, where he or she obtained a commission for every new customer that he was referring. So if you become a customer of GTIS, then at the same time you become an agent too, where you can gain additional benefit in the form of referral commission. But if you do not get customers, then it does not matter.

And fourth, the customers, or ‘investors’, will be promised a higher monthly interest rate which up to 4.5% per month, if they received the gold in a form of certificate only! So the customer is not actually hold the gold.

Well, of the four points above, you conclusion? Yep, you’re right: GTIS is running a Ponzi scheme. Ponzi scheme is a fraud investment system in which the investment company will pay interest to investors which taken from the investor’s own money, or from the subsequent investors’ money. It was a fraud, because the funds that are raised from investors is not used to finance a certain business to make a profit. In fact, there is no business at all. Usually this investment offers a tremendous profit in a short time with a very low risk, or even zero risk. Also, the customer or the investor will actually receive regular interest payments for some time, so he then feels that there is no problem at all, then add his investment, or even inviting his friends or family to join. But after he had deposited all the funds he had, and also has brought many new investors, the problem will arises, where the interest is no longer paid, and the funds are irrevocable. Usually the investors do not know what to do, as they invested through their family or friends, or even only acquaintances, and not directly to the responsible person of the investment company.

Ending of an event like this is the loss of entire fund which was invested, because the fund is stolen by the Director or any responsible person of the investment company in question. The most famous criminal of this kind of fraud is Bernard Madoff, the former chairman of the NASDAQ Stock Exchange, who is now in prison with a sentence of 150 years.

While in Indonesia, this Ponzi scheme is not a new case, but it has happened many times only with different packaging. You name it, Qurnia Subur Alam Raya (QSAR), Dressel Investment, Virgin Gold Mining Corporation (VGMC), Koperasi Langit Biru, Raihan, to GTIS. In the case of GTIS, the ’packaging’ is investment of gold. Interest paid to the customers comes from the difference in the paid price of gold that is higher than the market price. For customers that received the gold in a form of certificate only, the interest is of course larger, because it was taken from the customers’ money itself, as the gold is never exists.

Definition of Investment

On numerous occasions of my seminar/workshop, I always explained to the participants about the definition of investment. To put it simply, the investment can be grouped into two types:

First, the investment in fixed assets. Fixed asset is an asset whose price continues to increase to adjust to inflation, but the value of the asset has not really changed. For example you buy one acre of vacant land in the hope that the price will go up in some future time. In fact, the value of the land is not going to go up if it was not developed (set up ​​buildings, etc.). But if you bought the land in 1990 at a price of US$ 100,000, for example, then the its current price would not US$ 100,000, but may have been millions.

In a more narrow definition of investment, then the investment decision by purchasing a land can not be called as an investment, but rather an action to protect the asset from inflation. If the land is developed into a rented rooms, for example, and it make monthly or annual earnings, then that is an investment, because the asset now provides ’dividends’ in the form of earnings. But still, this is not a ‘full investment’, because it does not offer any increase in value of the asset (the number of rooms will not increase), unless you are routinely spend your earnings to build new rooms.

Second, investment in growing assets. If you buy a pair of sheep for breeding (of course, after you appoint a reliable breeder), then it can be called as an investment in growing assets, because the number of your sheep will increase over time. This is what I call a real investment, since it provides two kinds of profit: Dividends (every time you get the money from the sale of sheep), and the increase in value of assets (the number of your sheep will continue to grow). Also, the price of your sheep will continue to rise along with the inflation.

However, your investment in this sheep breeding business contains several risks that could lead to a decline in the value of your investment (read: loss). For example, the breeder that you hired was not proficient enough, an outbreak of the disease that causes disability or even death of the cattle, the rising of feed prices, or a decrease in the selling price of your sheep because of a tight competition with other farms. In essence, behind the potential profits that may be obtained in your sheep investment above, there is an element of risks that can not be ignored. And of course, the potential of profits and the risk of losses are like two sides of a coin that can never be separated in any investment activity, regardless of its form.

The risks that we’ve discussed above are also included in an investment in fixed assets. Only the difference, in investing in fixed assets, the risk is much lower, although it does not mean zero at all. When you buy a land, then the price will not go down unless it being hit by earthquakes or floods, or severe financial crisis, but on the other hand there is no other profits than the increase in price alone, and you will not obtain the increase in value or quantity of the land. I mean, when you buy one acre of land, then the land will remain one acre forever, and will not increase to two acres. And this is totally different from the investment in sheep breeding where your sheep could grow to tens or even hundreds from initially a pair only.

That's why experienced investors typically put their investment in the two kinds of assets, namely fixed assets and growing assets. The goal is to diversification, where the investor would reduce the risk of loss through fixed assets, but on the other side also pursuing a substantial profit through growing assets.

Investment vs.’Investment’

Based on the description above, an investment is an activity that meet the following elements:

  1. Potential profits in the form of dividends, interests, or earnings,
  2. The potential profits from the increase in asset values (or also called capital gains)​​,
  3. A real business to make the profits, and
  4. The risk of loss.

Well, back to the problem of GTIS above, do you think that it can be called as an investment? Obviously not. ’Investment product’ offered by GTIS is providing dividend/bonus/interest of at least 2% per month, but it is not clear from where GTIS will obtain the funds to pay the bonuses, as well as no obvious risk factors (the agent even assuring their victims that the interest will definitely paid, bullshit). If you read again the above, one of the elements of the investment is the potential of profit, not the certainty of profit. Even if you buy a legal bond that is offering fixed income in form of interest, you still bear the risk of not gaining any interest or even a loss, if the company was not able redeem the bond back.

In case of GTIS, it cannot be said as an investment in a fixed asset only because the customer receives gold, as they are forced to buy the gold at a much higher price than the market price.

(By the way, related to purchase the asset at a higher price than it should be, then you also have to be careful in buying a land or property, if the goal is to invest. Lately, a lot of property developers are deliberately raise the price of their property products, to give an impression that the buyer would benefited from the rising price of the house/apartments. However the increase is often not reasonable as it was by design and not by real system of offer and demand, so that some buyers could purchase the property in question at a price that is too expensive, and eventually led to a loss).

Some tips to avoid the fraud

Anyway, the case of GTIS, including other cases of fraud investment, will always be there, as long as people are keen to earn huge profits in a short time. So, here are some tips to protect you against this kind of crime:

First, be careful with an offer of unreasonable huge profits. In Indonesia, a reasonable percentage of profits for investment in any field, is between 7 to 20% per year (we do not count the bank deposits here, because the interest of 4.5% per year is too small to cover the drop in value of Rupiah because of inflation). Including interest on the bonds is usually around 10 – 12% per annum. Okay, I do not cover the fact that some investors in stock are able to make a profit that is much higher than just 20% per annum. But if we use the rise of Jakarta Composite Index (JCI) in the long term, precisely since the peak of the financial crisis in 1998 when the index fell to as low as 276, then the average increase of JCI in the last fifteen years (from 1998 to 2013, until its current position of 4,825) is 19.6% per year.

So, if you are offered an investment with a return that is far greater than 20%, then be careful because of its’s possibly a fraud. Because as far as I learned, there is no investment instruments that offer the potential for higher gain than investing in stocks (but on the other hand, investing in stocks is also the most risky investments among others). The ‘investment’ in foreign exchange (forex), futures, etc., it’s not an investment, it is trading.

Two, be careful with the offer of investment which promised that the bonus/dividend/interest will be paid in a short time, in this case every month. Naturally, any kind of investments offer an annual income (for their investors), and that's why companies only pay dividends once a year to shareholders, or twice a year for a company that is completely established.

But yes, for some kind of investment there is little difference. If you place a saving in a bank, the interest you earn is paid every month. And if you buy a bond, you will also receive interest every three months. But how much is the interest for bank deposits or bonds? Only 2 and 12% per annum respectively! Meaning? The bank, or the bond issuer, may pay interest in a short time because the value of the interest itself was very small. Meanwhile, if the value is large, say 24% per annum as GTIS above, then it is not reasonable if the interest can be paid every month.

And third, be careful with offers of investment that provide no detailed explanation about the business where your money would be put on, including no explanation about the risk of loss. An offer of any investment that is only focused on the potential profits to be received by prospective investors, but there is no explanation about the type and the risk of business, even ensuring that your investment will definitely make profits, then it is definitely a fraud! You know, any kind of investments always bear the risks. So if your friend approached you then said ‘Bro, I have an investment opportunity, it’s profit guaranteed! Want to join?’, then  surely he is trying to deceive you, whether intentional or not (like the case of GTIS, he is probably not intend to deceive you, as he was also the victim).

Anything else? Nope, that's all. One more advice so that you could avoid this kind of fraud is, remember that something that is too good to be true, is typically not true at all. But I am sure you have heard the phrase.

Investing in Stocks

Then how about investing in stocks? Basically, investing in stocks is investing in growing assets: You buy shares in the hope that the value of your asset will rise in line with the increase in the value of the company, that is reflected in the increase of the stock price, plus profit in a form of part of the company generated net income (dividends). But of course, you cannot buy the shares at an overvalue price. The increase in the value of the company is usually derived from retained earnings that are used for business expansion, like make a new office, setting up new factories, hire more employees to increase production, etc. The increase in the value of the company (which is then reflected on the increase in its stock price) is called capital gains.

But make no mistake, there are also Ponzi schemes in the stock market, although with a little different mechanism if compared with the case of GTIS above, namely: Some people can make ​the price of certain stock soar, so that he made big gain in a short time, not from the increase in value of the company, but from other investors who buy the stock later (at a high price). So you could say that the gain derived by investors who had bought the stock from the beginning, was obtained from the losses suffered by investors who buy the stock later. This kind of ‘fraud’ is called stock bubble.

So how to avoid such fraud? Well, we’ve discussed this many times on this website, try your search.

Original article was written at March 7, 2013

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