How transnational investment firm swindled Nigerians

Date:

The era of investment platforms defrauding people of their hard-earned money seems to be a never-ending debacle. After weeks of poring through tons of data, documents and deploying Open Source Intelligence tools, DAMILOLA OLUFEMI  uncovers how a forex company allegedly faked an international reputation to defraud thousands of Nigerians and others globally

Abiola Abimbola, a Nigerian residing in Scotland, United Kingdom, had high hopes that his money would be safe and yield high interest when he signed up with Intelligence Prime Capital, an investment company on December 24, 2021.

The company, which claimed to be registered in Canada with licences as proof, prided itself as a trusted forex broker of international repute and a viable investment platform.

IPC’s selling point was a genius robot known as AIA BOT noted to make trading on the platform seamless.

However, an offer that readily appeared too irresistible for any shrewd investor was the guarantee of a 20 per cent weekly Return On Investment.

With the ROI acclaimed to be genuine and profits remitted without delay as at when due, Abimbola wasted no time in investing in the scheme after it was introduced to him by a trusted friend in his church.

Upon completing his registration on the IPC site, he gleefully funded his wallet with $100, which was approximately N41,200, going by the Central Bank of Nigeria’s exchange rate of N412.49 at the time.

The IT consultant claimed that the initial deposit appeared to be a lure to get him entangled and kick-started a journey that culminated in the loss of his life savings.

“I was basically shocked and upset. I wasn’t expecting it. The money I could have used for other projects or investments just went like that. The major shock in it for me was being scammed,” he lamented while speaking with our correspondent from his base in the UK.

How  IPC works

Launched in July 2021, IPC, also known as IP Capital, PUNCH Investigations gathered, had three major ways through which investors earned on the platform.

The first was to subscribe to an Artificial Intelligence Act BOT, which is a trading robot that does the trading (buy and sell) on behalf of an investor, while the investor receives the profits.

The other way is for a registered investor to refer a new user and have the individual subscribe to the platform.

Once this is done, the referrer gets a certain percentage of profit and bonus earned by the new user, which is referred to as sponsorship bonus.

The last is through occasional topping of investors’ accounts with bonuses by operators of the scheme.

Although the IPC claimed to be a forex trading investment platform, it actually carried out its transactions in crypto-currency, a digital currency, which, based on reports, is unregulated and can be volatile in value.

Of note is the fact that all deposits and withdrawals done on the IPC website are in tether, also referred to as USDT, which has a value meant to mirror the equivalence of the US dollar.

According to Investopedia, an online investment publication, tether is a crypto-currency stablecoin pegged to the US dollar and is owned by iFinex, a Hong Kong-registered company.

Liability clause

According to a copy of the IPC terms and conditions obtained by PUNCH Investigations from Abimbola, investors get 20 per cent ROI of any amount invested as profit and the minimum that can be invested is 100 USDT.

However, a review of the terms and conditions by PUNCH Investigations showed that IPC included a clause that wholly put any liability arising from the trade on investors.

It stated, “The customer agrees to accept all risks that are associated with trading on margin, and the IPC Limited is not to be held liable or responsible for any losses from such trading.

“Trading is inherently risky and customers undertake to assume the risk associated with the trading of any financial products on the platform.

“The IPC Limited will not take any responsibility for any representation or warranties made by the BOT to customers, including but not limited to the trading methods, risks, strategies and experience.”

Investment gone awry

One of the victims

A distraught Abimbola told PUNCH Investigations that after he signed the document and registered on the IPC website, the login details for a Meta Trader (MT4), which was a real mobile trading application, were sent to him.

Following the IPC’s instructions to the latter, he selected IPC Live as a broker on the mobile app.

He claimed that after activating his MT4 account, he made a payment of $100 into an IPC account to activate the investment.

As a first-time user, Abimbola said he bought the USDT on Binance, a crypto-currency trading and exchange platform, after which he transferred 100 USDT, an equivalent of $100, to a virtual wallet address owned by IPC.

It was gathered that while investors could only monitor trade made by the BOT on their mobile application, all deposits and withdrawals are done on the IPC website.

Short-lived joy

Abimbola was elated when the capital he invested in December 2021, yielded profit in January 2022, exactly one month after.

He successfully made a couple of withdrawals but left the profit and reinvested it.

The IT consultant disclosed that between January and March, he increased his capital at intervals because the investment appeared genuine.

But unknown to Abimbola, the bountiful harvest he enjoyed in January and February would be the last.

“On March 24, 2022, exactly three months after registration, I tried to move money from my trading account to my IPC wallet. The money left my trading account but did not appear in my IPC wallet,” he said.

Abimbola revealed that he lost a cumulative total of $67,379.

Apparent red flags

Like many fraudulent schemes that had crashed in the past, PUNCH Investigations observed a chain of suspicious developments which were apparent red flags that signalled that the IPC scheme was about to hit the rocks, but investors did not notice.

It all started on February 27, when IPC announced that its website and genius trading BOT had been hacked.

An email sent by IPC management to all its investors, a copy of which PUNCH Investigations obtained, stated, “We have noticed that hacking incidents have been increasing in numbers and have also received multiple feedbacks from users that their funds were withdrawn by scammers who managed to hack their passwords and gain direct access to their accounts.”

Investors were told that they would be moved to a new BOT called Master C BOT, noting that the AIA genius BOT, initially used, was also hacked.

Curiously, on March 24, 2022, less than a month after the alleged security breach, the IPC management fired its marketing director and customer support team.

An email sent to notify investors about the development read in part, “The Marketing Director of IP Capital, Eddie, and the marketing team under him (inclusive of all consultants and customer service staff such as Jayden, Michelle, Patrick, Ken, Nate, Sharon, and Marcus) are hereby dismissed with immediate notice.

“After investigation, we have determined that the team has breached their contractual agreement through the dissemination of malicious rumours that has damaged the reputation of the company.

“Their statements have been definitely proven to be false, and we are reserving the rights to commence legal proceedings to preserve the integrity and reputation of IP Capital.”

Although in the mail, investors were told to refer to IPC’s live chat support system for any technical issue, feedback or complaints, the system they (investors) discovered had become inaccessible.

PUNCH Investigations learnt that IPC management, in a move allegedly meant to evade questions as investors could not make withdrawals or access their weekly profits, disabled the system.

However, it was gathered that on April 2, investors received a mail notifying them that the live chat support was under maintenance and would not be accessible.

 IP Cloud

While complaints of unsuccessful withdrawals persisted and investors were left disillusioned, IPC management announced its migration to IP Cloud, another investment scheme with a new website. It also notified investors that they would be moved to IP Cloud.

One of the victims

According to emails sent to investors between April 12 and May 2, of which copies were made available to PUNCH Investigations, the operators explained that, unlike IPC that trades with USDT, IP Cloud uses a crypto-currency called IP Token.

They explained that investors could access IP Cloud using their IPC login details, but could only withdraw a fraction of their initial capital or profits if they invest another fund in IP Cloud.

Shedding light on how IP Cloud works, an investor who claimed to have lost a huge amount of money and did not want his name mentioned due to safety concerns, said investors were expected to deposit almost the same amount invested in IPC.

He said, “An investor that has 10,000 USDT with IPC, upon adding another 10,000 USDT to IP Cloud, will only be entitled to 2,000 USDT.”

Tracking millions

With the use of Semrush, an Open Source Intelligence tool, an analysis of the traffic data on IPC website by PUNCH Investigations, even as it had shut down, showed that a chunk of visits were made by people from Nigeria, India, Dominican Republic, United States of America and Nigeria.

A breakdown of the data showed that 29 per cent of the visitors were from India, 23 from US, 20 from Nigeria and nine from the Dominican Republic.

The remaining 19 per cent were from countries that the tool could not locate because they hid their location when logging into the website.

Even though the analysis showed that a total of 153,000 unique visitors accessed the website, PUNCH Investigations could not pinpoint the number of those that actually invested.

Uncovering an alleged global heist

However, PUNCH Investigations was able to make a mind-boggling discovery in a spreadsheet obtained from one of the investors.

The document, which had details and the amount of money lost by individuals, gave a glimpse into what appeared to be more of an alleged global heist involving investors from 45 countries.

The victims, who had formed a common global front to recover their funds, were from Canada, US, Tanzania, Colombia, Ecuador, Costa Rica, United Kingdom, Somalia, Portugal, Uruguay, Ghana, Egypt, Trinidad and Tobago, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Kenya, India, Mozambique, Namibia, Sri Lanka and Turkey.

Others include Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Spain, Rwanda, Portugal, Qatar, Vietnam, Canada, Netherland, Japan, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Pakistan, Cameroon, France, South Africa, Gabon, Norway, Jamaica, Russia and Cote d’Ivoire.

Tales of sad losses

Another document obtained by PUNCH Investigations contained only the names and contact of over 1,562 Nigerians that allegedly lost a total of $3.46m to IPC.

Analysis of the data showed that 90 per cent (1408 individuals) invested between $100 and $5,000.

The remaining 10 per cent (154 individuals), put in between $5, 001 and $68, 000 each. The amount invested by each investor was not actually specified.

To verify the authenticity of the documents, the alleged victims were randomly selected and contacted through their mobile numbers.

Those contacted confirmed their losses and shared heart-rending tales of indebtedness and helplessness.

However, some only agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity.

The distraught victims said they variously got introduced to the scheme through referrals from trusted friends and family members, and from watching promotions anchored by notable public figures.

Life savings, children’s school fees gone

Unlike Abimbola who had the opportunity to make withdrawals before IPC crashed, Adebukola Jide, a Lagos-based sex educator, did not get a single chance.

The single mother of three hopped on the IP Capital train at the time it was about to crash.

The teary woman said she opened two accounts and invested N2m in March.

The money, she claimed, was partly her children’s school fees and life savings.

Adebukola said a few days after registering, she received emails informing her about IPC’s staff dismissal and hacking of its website.

She recounted, “Towards the end of March, I got an email from the company that it was having internal issues with staff and another on account hacking. They said that everybody would be moved from forex to a newly created crypto-currency account, IP Cloud. We had no choice. It was imposed on us.”

Adebukola said she was disappointed and immediately lost confidence in the platform.

The sex educator said all she wanted now is her money, adding, “I am penniless. The investment ruined my business.”

 Heavily indebted to a bank

Judith Onyekaonwu is presently at a loss on how to repay an overdue bank loan of N830, 000 that she took to upgrade her business, but ended up investing in the scheme.

She recollected registering with IPC in March 2022, after it was introduced to her by a bag vendor she met online.

Onyekaonwu claimed to have joined the platform with scant information about IPC.

“I have shut down my business. I now stay at home doing nothing. My life has become directionless,” she cried.

“I beg to feed”

The worst hit is Adebukola Adisa, a medical laboratory scientist based in Benin, Edo State.

The woman, who told our correspondent that she now begs to feed, revealed that she joined IPC in January 2022 and invested N200,000 (360 USDT).

She was only able to withdraw about N60,000 before the scheme crashed.

“At the end of March, the operators said they were doing a system upgrade that would last till April. I had mixed feelings about it,” she said.

Adisa, while expressing her regrets about investing in the scheme, said life had become quite difficult.

“I am ashamed of my decision. The $360 was actually meant for my business and now, it has crumbled,” she said gloomily.

Anglican priest hypertensive

A cleric in an Anglican Diocese in Osun State, who pleaded to remain anonymous to avoid a backlash from his church and family members, said he landed in the hospital after realising that he had lost N700, 000, invested in the scheme on January 7.

“I was diagnosed with high blood pressure, a condition that I never suffered from before. My fish pond business also folded up. I now rely on only my salary. I have not received any reply to all the emails I sent to them,” he lamented.

He told our correspondent that the data available on victims of the alleged investment scam was just a minute fraction of those actually affected.

“I must be sincere with you; the investment is not okay. We are about 10,000 in Nigeria that registered,” he added.

Stranded undergraduate

Godsave Uzuazomaro, a student of the Federal Polytechnic, Auchi, Edo State, told our correspondent that he was referred to IPC by his pastor in February 2022, and he ended up investing over 1000 USDT.

He was only able to withdraw 20 USDT before the website became inactive.

Uzuazomaro said, “IPC said it was maintaining its website in March. They withheld withdrawals and said all will be done once they are through. When the maintenance was taking too long, I knew my money was gone. My savings and money borrowed from a friend were all invested in the scheme. The loss affected my education.”

A company demystified

Even though IPC’s website was no longer functional, with the aid of Wayback Machine (an internet website that archives other web pages, making them accessible even when deleted), PUNCH Investigations uncovered several discrepancies in its documentation as a company.

IPC claimed to be registered in Canada with the MSB number -796303105RC0001.

It also stated that its office is located at 1, Yonge Street, Suite 1304 Toronto, Ontario.

Documents obtained from Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada, the department overseeing trades and investment, actually showed that Intelligence Prime Capital Ltd was registered with the aforementioned details on June 2, 2021.

It was registered under the name of a proxy director, Harry Offord.

However, when calls were put across to the Canadian mobile number listed for contact, the feedback was that it did not exist.

Also, in the documents filed by the company, it did not explicitly state the type of corporation it was, or the business it engaged in.

Surprisingly, as of April, 2022, when investors were still complaining about their inability to make withdrawals, IPC management filed for dissolution of the company.

According to the dissolution form filed by Offord, the company was dissolved by its shareholders, but not for bankruptcy.

Repeatedly flagged

Despite having a base in Ontario, the Canadian authorities had repeatedly warned members of the public against dealing with IPC prior to its controversial dissolution.

On February 24, 2022, Ontario Securities Commission, an independent government agency that regulates the capital markets, published an advisory on its website, stating that IPC was not registered to engage in the business of trading in securities.

Earlier, on January 31, the British Columbia Securities Commission, also in Canada, on its website, warned its citizens against having any dealings with IPC.

It stated, “IPC Ltd. claims to be based in Toronto, Ontario and it claims to offer trading services in forex, CFD and cryptocurrencies.

“We are aware that IPC Ltd. accepts British Columbia residents as clients. IPC Ltd. is not registered to trade in, or advise on, securities or derivatives in BC. We urge BC residents to exercise caution when dealing with firms that are not registered to trade or advise in BC.”

…Also Russia

PUNCH Investigations discovered that the apex bank in Russia, the Central Bank of Russia, listed IPC among companies with identified signs of illegal activities in the financial market.

According to the financial institution, the company has “signs of an illegal professional participant in the securities market.”

Forgery, impersonation unveiled

Aside from the Canadian registration it flaunted, IPC had some global licenses with which it allegedly hoodwinked unsuspecting victims.

Still, with Wayback Machine, PUNCH Investigations accessed an archived web page where IPC stated, “We are licensed as a regulated broker in the European Union, Japan, Australia, South Africa, United Arab Emirates and the British Virgin Islands.

“As such, we are subject to stringent compliance requirements regarding how we handle client funds, security, and financial reporting.”

However, checks showed that the company allegedly found its way into the database of the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, the country’s integrated corporate, markets, financial services and consumer credit regulator.

According to documents obtained from the ASIC website, a proprietary company named IPC was registered on December 17, 2021.

PUNCH Investigations learnt that IPC allegedly used credentials of an Australian company with a similar name, Intelligence Prime Capital Financial Advisory Pty Ltd, a representative of HLK Group, an investment company that had been in existence since 2012.

When PUNCH Investigations contacted HLK Group via email, its director, Jason Holdsworth, stated that the company had been aware of the fraudulent deeds of IPC since January.

He stated, “ASIC was aware of this in February this year and we have had a warning on our website.”

Holdsworth revealed that HLK Group never gave any authorisation to the Canadian company, and alleged that it stole the credentials of the ASIC.

“Note the company based in Canada was Intelligence Prime Capital, while the company we licensed was Intelligence Prime Capital Financial Advisory Pty Ltd, and their parent company’s website can be found here https://ipcadvisory.com/. It is a Singapore-based company,” he said.

Similarly, PUNCH Investigations came across a tweet in which a Twitter user asked the Australian authorities if ASIC had any connection with IPC.

Responding to the inquiry tweeted on April 28, 2021, the Australian agency refuted its association with the IPC website.

It stated, “We have received advice about scam websites falsely claiming association with Intelligence Prime Capital Financial Advisory Pty Ltd, an authorised representative of HLK Group Pty Limited. These sites are not licensed with ASIC and appear to be operating outside of Australia.”

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