BusinessDay

The return of MMM: All that glitters not gold

Apparently, Ponzi scheme looks new in Nigeria, but it is not. Nigerians have seen variants of Ponzi schemes that differed only in degrees of persuasions and deceit. Money doubling and the Wonder Banks of the early 90s are a few examples that targeted and actually ravished the over-ambitious, greedy and weak-minded Nigerians.

Ponzi schemes are named after Charles Ponzi, who duped investors in the 1920s with a postage stamp speculation scheme.  Mavrodi Mundial Moneybox (MMM) which was launched in 2011 by Mavrodi, an ex-convict, is the latest and more widespread in operation.

The controversial scheme enjoyed warm acceptance and large following in Nigeria until it crashed in December 2016, living in its trail misery, frustration, broken hearts, strained relationships, family dislocations and, in extreme cases, death as some people, whose losses were too dire to bear, committed suicide.

Given the socio-economic milieu in which Nigerians live, it is not difficult to understand why there were huge acceptance and large following for MMM as a fraudulent scheme. Besides poverty which is said to have its headquarters in Nigeria, the country represents a society with warped value system.

Nigeria glorifies wealth with little or no consideration for virtues and values of hard-work. Expectedly, the country harbours citizens with strong desire for get-rich-quick. And with the desire to get-rich-quick comes unbridled greed, soaring and inordinate ambition, all of which provide fertile ground for the flowering of schemes such as MMM.

Against the normal run of business in which returns on investment are directly proportional to risk, Ponzi scheme offers fantastic and abnormal returns without any risk at all. Unfortunately, the greedy and weak-minded enter into it with only their hearts and not with their heads, ignoring the Biblical injunction which says, “The road is wide and the way (means) is easy, that leads to destruction; but the road is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life.”

Operators of Ponzi schemes like Mavrodi are generally smart Alecs who seem to understand the human mind better than those that own them. Their strategy is almost foolproof.  Though subscribers to the scheme are told that their money is invested to generate high returns with little or no risk, what actually happens is that the scheme pays existing investors with funds collected from new investors.

The operators plan the scheme in such a way that the investors do not see the need to cash out because constantly the operators are working on their greed by increasing their returns. This is why, with little or no legitimate earnings, the scheme gets a constant flow of new money with which it survives.

But, like any thing in life, there is always a beginning and an end. In the case of these fraudulent schemes, when it becomes hard to recruit new investors, or when large numbers of existing investors cash out, the schemes tend to collapse.

Perhaps, this was why MMM crashed in many countries including Nigeria in December 2016. When this happened, the hope and dreams of an estimated three million Nigerians were dashed.

Though there was an extremely few people who took a walk away from the scheme after some moderate returns, a large chunk of the investors had their fingers burnt. Many took bank loans to invest in the scheme. For such people, it is a life in perpetual bondage of debt servicing and repayment.

Some families sold property such as cars, houses, jewelries, etc in order to reap bountifully, but had their money trapped, leaving them in misery and woes. There are cases of marriages that collapsed as a result of these hasty, ill-advised and uninformed actions.

There were also cases of intending couples who invested the money meant for their marriage in MMM, hoping to raise more money from the scheme and stage a society wedding. Some of those planned marriages either ended in the middle of nowhere or had their planned dates cancelled or deferred.

Many other unprintable incidents happened following the collapse of the MMM scheme and it is hard to believe that in spite of it all, Nigerians have embraced the scheme once again in its second coming with all the deceptive appeal it is making to more greedy and gullible minds in the country.

The scheme, which staged a come-back on January 22, 2019, is now labeled MMM Cooperation. This time, the scheme is promising up to 50 percent return on any amount invested in it, which is about 20 percent more than what the previous version offered. But like the previous version, the ‘new’ MMM requires participants to register, invest a particular amount in the form of ‘providing help’ and ‘getting help’ with their investments and interest back after 30 days.

With the negative impact the collapse of MMM had on the Nigerian citizens, it is surprising that some people are still embracing the scheme. Over and above that, it is thought-provoking that government allows the scheme which is not registered to continue to operate and defraud unsuspecting citizens.

Some Nigerians still vulnerable to the deceits

If you go by the popular saying in Pidgin English that ‘Warri no dey carry last’, which literarily means that an average person in Warri, Delta State, is very sharp and hardly falls for deceits, you then wonder what happened at the heyday of Mavrodi Mundial Moneybox, nicknamed (MMM), where over three million Nigerians, including those from Warri, fell for the deceitful ponzi scheme.

Instead of MMM for short, Mavrodi Mundial Moneybox should have been rightly tagged 419because of the high level deceit, which many unsuspecting Nigerians fell for, though they were warned by the Central Bank, and the anti-graft commission.

From its inception in Nigeria, the deceit was obvious. First, the MMM scheme launched its website in Nigeria in November 2015, when the recession began to bite harder in the country. So, the scheme took advantage of the vulnerability of Nigerians in the face of the economic hardship to grow its subscribers.

Moreover, a promise of 30 percent return on the initial capital within 30 days was suspicious and unrealistic in the normal financial system. Yet, the scheme went further to promise other perks such as bonuses from referrals. But the deceit sets in when most people made profit from their initial investments, and are now lure to invest more.

About 90 percent of the people who invested more lost both their capital and profit as the scheme was suspended on account of the death of one of the founders in March 2018 and eventual shutdown in April same year.

As Odeyemi Apampa, a psychologist with the University of Lagos, observes, the MMM scheme would not have had up to one million subscribers if it had been introduced before the recession.

“There are other get-rich-quick schemes such as Ultimate Cycler, Crowd Rising Paradise, and Helping Hands, but they did not have as much subscribers as MMM. Imagine the magic of getting over three million subscribers between November 2015 and the last quarter of 2016, it was all because of the hardship in the land,” Apampa says.

A testimony of the popularity and number of victims deceived were tracked by Alexa.com, web traffic data and analytics, which showed that the MMM website was rated the 12th most visited website in Nigeria and 3,330 globally.

Worried on how MMM caught on like wildfire in Nigeria, Taiwo Kola-Ogunlade, Communications and public affairs manager for Anglophone West Africa, Google, said in 2017 that MMM was a major trending topic in Nigeria’s cyberspace.

But while the shutdown in 2018 was sudden, it was also deceitful because it froze and trapped millions of investments and leaving the Nigerian investors in bad shape, poorer and some even died due to the inability to paying back loan they invest in the scheme.

Of course, the deceit did not stop at the shutdown. A day after freezing the accounts of its subscribers in Nigeria, the MMM scheme launched its website in Kenya, promising 40 percent return on investment in 30 days, 10 percent higher than what it gave its Nigerian subscribers.  Many thought that the scheme should not have opened anywhere in Africa until it paid back all the money it owed its Nigerian investors. So, the Kenya launch confirmed the fraud.

But Kenyans were wiser, they did not fall like Nigerians, credit to their stable economy and the cyber crime laws.

The Nigerian case, the operators of the scheme (in their usual style) struck at a time when the investors put in their all, and expecting a huge harvest. It was a huge betrayal.

But as much as that was a huge betrayal and deceit, the notorious MMM scheme, which dashed the hope of over three million Nigerians in 2018, is back, and some Nigerians are falling for it, yet again.

Hypocritically, the new version now known as MMM Cooperation, promises as much as 50 percent return on any amount invested in it; representing 20 percent more than what the extinct version offered.

Just like the previous version, participants are to register, invest a particular amount in the form of “providing help” and “get help” with their investment and interest back after 30 days.

At the shutdown last year, a message on MMM Nigeria website had read, “After much deliberation, we have made the conclusion that continuing the system operation, without our leader and ideological inspirer, is impossible and makes no sense”.

The deceit again is that the present operators who saw no the sense operating the scheme without their leader last year, on January 2019, countered their views, saying in the website that  they are re-launching globally “to make Mavrodi’s legacy worthwhile.”

The website even claimed to have recorded six million participants from across the world all in a space of four months from January 22, 2019.

The return is not a surprise to Emmanuel Ajeh, an economist and public analyst. He explains that in spite of burning their fingers in the first coming of the MMM scheme, many will still subscribe to the ponzi scheme because the economic situation in the country now, is not different from the era of recession.  “Many people who were poor during recession are even poorer now. So, there is still poverty in the land and nothing significant has happened since then to better people’s lives. Many will still fall for the new MMM and more to come to take a chance to better their lives”, he says.

The deceit, according to Ajeh, is obvious, but many are overlooking the loss and focusing on those who gained while the scheme lasted. “It is like staking a bet at any of the betting platforms. What spurs people are friends and people who have won big money and are enjoying. Those who lose hardly come to mind. So, the people falling for the scheme will promise to exit before it crashes again, but they cannot as the hope of getting more money keeps luring them back”, Ajeh says.

Princewill Amanowei, a lawyer, is asking the Nigerian lawmakers to enact laws against ponzi schemes or the CBN to ban it from entering into Nigeria again.

“The warnings by the regulatory agencies, especially the EFCC do not make sense when a simple law can ban the scheme from operating in Nigeria and save the citizens the headache of later regret. Again, government should fulfill the election campaign promises such as job creation and youth empowerment to curb unemployment, lift families from poverty and reduce crime in the society”, the lawyer says.

While you read this article, more people are subscribing and will keep subscribing until the government and regulatory authorities do something to save them from the imminent deceit lying in wait as obtainable in all ponzi schemes.

The many faces of Ponzi scheme

In March 2017, the Nigeria Deposit Insurance Commission (NDIC) said Nigerians lost N18 billion to the MMM in 2016, which had over 3 million participants before it suspended payment to investors.

Before MMM was eventually suspended for about a month in December 2016, the scheme was so popular that the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), also had to caution Nigerians.

“We have heard about the activities of MMM. But I want to warn you against it because they are wonder banks that are not regulated. Desist from their activities because they are fraudulent,” said Kadija Kassim, head of the consumer protection department of the CBN.

After the first one month, it re-opened in 2017, adding crypto currency twist to the investment package, but it had already lost momentum in Nigeria.

BDSUNDAY understands that MMM eventual collapsed in 2017 with millions of funds belonging to many Nigerians trapped in it. At that time, it was reported that the Ponzi scheme associated its collapse to the death of its founder, late Sergei Mavrodi, and this caused serious frustration for many Nigerian investors.

Ponzi scheme is a form of fraud that lures investors and pays profits to earlier investors with funds from more recent investors. It promises high rate of return with little risk to investors.

The name ‘Ponzi’ was derived from its inventor, Charles Ponzi, who made an elaborate scam in the 1920’s. It is a pyramid scheme that operates like multi-level marketing.

Most recently, Nigerians have fallen victims to one or multiple of such schemes. Though different types of wonder banks have come and gone but the volume at which Ponzi schemes enter Nigerian market has increased.

This was attributable to the rising economic hardship in Nigeria, which has been taking tolls on families since Nigerian economy slipped into recession in 2016 after recording 2.06 percent contraction in growth.

At that time, Nigeria, one of the world’s largest exporters of crude oil, suffered cash crunch in 2016, after the international prices of crude oil fell from highs of about $112 per barrel in 2014, to below $50 in 2016.

With crude oil sale accounting for 70 percent of government revenue, the value of Nigerian currency, the naira, was highly affected, resulting to devaluation of the currency, which also resulted in naira exchanging for as high as N500/$ from N200/$ but this later dropped to N306/$ after the economy exited recession in 2017.

This had serious negative impact on both businesses and the economy in general to the extent that many companies had to lay off staff and cut salaries to manage raising cost of production.

Given the situation, family responsibilities, which cut across feeding, house rent, school fees and others, continued to pile up on the shoulders of both the man and woman of the house amid the shrinking income. This was in the face salary cut, high inflation rates, low consumer speeding and low purchasing power as well as other macroeconomic indices that impacted on standard of living in our society today.

With scarcity of resources and need to surmount this pilling economic pressure on people’s minds, individuals in both self and paid employment started seeking for multiple streams of income while maintaining their paid jobs.

BDSUNDAY understands that about 20.9 million Nigerians are currently unemployed while 18.2 million are underemployed. This brings the total of unemployed and underemployed Nigerians to 39.1 million out of a total labour force of 90.4 million.

As a result, many people started seeking for an alternative means of surviving in the midst of economic hardship. This led to the return of MMM Cooperation, which promised as much as 50 percent return on investment, which is 20 percent more than the defunct MMM.

Just like the old version, investors in MMM Cooperation are to register, invest a particular amount in the form of “providing and getting help” and their investment and interest would be returned after 30 days.

Ironically, after many Nigerians lost their monies to MMM, many are today falling for the baits offered by these so called Ponzi schemes. Report has it that MMM Cooperation re-launched in 22nd of January 2019 and today, is in over 170 countries of the world with 6 million investors within a space of four months.

They come in different dresses

Apart from MMM, there are other Ponzi schemes that Nigerians at some point had either participated in or are still participating in, even against government disapprovals. They include:

Loom

Despite the agony experienced from MMM, Nigerians are embracing another pyramid scheme called ‘LOOM’ and they are making gains and investing massively.

Loom is similar to MMM Ponzi scheme and is making wave among many Nigerians on social media as many Nigerians are already taking chances with the new scheme.

Reports have it that Nigerians market Loom on the internet, especially WhatsApp in search of more participants in the scheme which was first reported as a scam in the UK.

Here, investors would be asked to join a WhatsApp group chat by a friend or relative after which the person would be asked to invest N1,000, N2,000 or N13,000 with a promise to get eight times return on investment, once the person is able get new entrants.

For instance, when one person invests N1,000, the person will get N8,000; N2,000, will get N16,000 while N13,000 will get N104,000.

After investing in Loom, which has four layers including Purple, Blue, Orange and Red, the person would be asked to invite at least one person to join the group.

It was also said that each time eight persons joined loom; the person in the centre (Red) will get the target amount and leave the group. Then, it will split into two groups such that the top half and the bottom half become the new looms and everyone moves into the next level (Purple Level – Blue Level – to Orange Level) and the cycle begins again.

Claritta

Claritta is a member-to-member donation and referral platform. Here, when a member donates N1,500 to another Claritta member, within seven days, the person will be matched with four new members who will donate N1,500 each to the person making it N6,000.

Interested participants would have to register on claritta website to become a member and the person will automatically be matched with another existing claritta member.

“If you donate N1500 to a claritta member, you will be matched with another person after the receiver of your donation, confirms your payment. You will be activated instantly and also given your referral link in other for you to refer people through your referral link.

On the other hand, claritta will match you with four members in a week time that will then pay you 1,500 naira each making N6,000.

Twinkas

Twinkas is another Ponzi scheme that started in 2016 after the exit of MMM. It allows participants to donate to other participants that need help and in turn the donor will also get donations with a compensation plan ranging from 40 percent – 50 percent reward based on the system on-demand (OD).

The donations are paid directly to member account. At a point, subsequent investors started complaining of not getting donations even when they have donated. However, it was said that the Twinkas has rebranded and re-launched twice in Nigeria.

Ultimate Cyclers

Ultimate Cyclers was reported to have been owned by an American and it has changed names severally.

To participate, interested investors would be required to register with example N12,500 and after a stipulated number of days, the system would join the person with four other members, who would be asked to pay the person N12,500 each, bringing the return to N50,000.

Get help Worldwide

Get help Worldwide is a crowd funding scheme which promises investors 30 – 50 percent returns monthly. The 30 percent is for those who want payment in local currency while the 50 percent is payment with Bitcoin.

It has similar operational patterns with MMM except with the exclusion of guiders and inclusion of a limit to the amount you can invest.

SwissGolden

SwissGolden is a networking business which claims to deal with investment in gold. The company says it has over 481,164 users, four marketing programs and partners with 196 countries.

Here, participants are required to pay for the ordered bars within 24 hours and send a copy of their payments by e-mail or to attach to a message on our web site. If payment confirmation is not received within 24 hours, buyer’s order would be cancelled.

Recently, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), recovered over N200 million from SwissGolden Investment and arrested a Russian and two Nigerians in connection with the SwissGolden’s fraudulent act.

This took place after the Commission received petition from thousands of complainants, who alleged that they invested in SwissGolden Investment without receiving the profits or recovering their capital.

Dantata Success and Profitable Company

Dantata Success and Profitable Company, was incepted in 2008 and it was based in Kano. Managed by Basira Ibrahim Dantata, the company allows people to invest capital for a period of six months, and to receive 40 percent return on investment, which is paid monthly for six months.

For instance, someone who invested N300,000 will receive N120,000 monthly for a period of six months, meaning that the person will gain N720,000 in all. But if the person opt for one-off payment after six months, he or she will receive N900,000.

Also, if one invests capital for a period of one year, the person will be receiving 25 percent of the investment on monthly basis. For example, a person that invested N300,000, will receive N75,000 monthly for a period of 12 months.

This means that the person will receive N900,000 in total if one adds up both the capital and profit while one-off payment, at the end of one year, will receive N1,200,000.

Meanwhile, it was recently reported that the Security and Exchange Commission (SEC), has started verifying claims of 4,160 unpaid investors of the alleged illegal investment scheme organised by Dantata Success and Profitable Company.

Appeal to government/advice to investors

Federal and state securities laws require investment professionals and firms to be licensed or registered. It beats the imagination therefore, that most Ponzi schemes are operated by unlicensed individuals or unregistered firms.

This explains why the victims of the first coming of MMM were helpless because there was no law that protected their investment. Government should not be seen to be condoning a fraudulent scheme that has caused more harm than good in the country.

Government should do well and register the scheme. This is important because it provides investors with access to information about the company’s management, products, services, and finances. If all these were in place, perhaps, the number of victims would not have ballooned to three million.

On their part, subscribers to this scheme should always bear in mind that any business in which there is high returns with little or no risk is risky, deceptive and fraudulent because every investment carries some degree of risk, and investments yielding higher returns typically involve more risk. Therefore, the investors should be highly suspicious of any ‘guaranteed’ investment opportunity.

The investors should also be skeptical about an investment that regularly generates positive returns regardless of overall market conditions. This is because investments tend to go up and down over time.

Again, they should be suspicious when there is difficulty in receiving payments. Similarly, having difficulty in cashing out is enough ground to be suspicious. Typically, Ponzi scheme promoters sometimes try to prevent participants from cashing out by offering even higher returns for staying put.

These are tough paths to take but after what happened earlier with the same MMM and even with the slow and predicted death of the new Loom Ponzi, Nigerians with saner and discerning minds had thought that their compatriots had learned some lessons. But, alas, they are still falling for it.

 

CHUKA UROKO, OBINNA EMELIKE and AMAKA ANAGOR-EWUZIE