Beware the Binary Options Scam | Blockchain Intelligence Reveals Network of Vietnamese Operators

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Beware the Binary Options Scam | Blockchain Intelligence Reveals Network of Vietnamese Operators

TRM is tracking a network of Vietnamese binary options platforms which appear to be operating as a scam. The 30+ platforms – which only accept crypto deposits – are marketed as investment platforms and promise big profits. Yet on-chain analysis shows an absence of any trading activity, suggesting that they are instead scamming participants. 

TRM’s analysis also indicates that the operators of these platforms are finding ways to skirt measures taken by Vietnamese authorities to curtail their activity. While authorities blocked the websites of some of the platforms in question, other domains – posing as separate entities, but seemingly controlled by the same wallet-holder – remain active. 

Binary options are widely linked to scams and fraud around the world, and their operators have faced a number of recent law enforcement actions. TRM Blockchain Intelligence tools uniquely allow compliance teams, law enforcement agencies and regulatory bodies to trace the funds flowing to platforms leveraging crypto assets and monitor their trading activity, in order to shine a light on illicit operations and take action. 

Binary Options: A High-Risk Product with Investor Appeal 

Binary options are financial instruments where investors bet on the price of a financial asset going above or below a specified amount within a set timeframe. If they bet correctly, they can receive significant profits via an “all-or-nothing” payout.

Given the high stakes involved, these products are widely considered high-risk for retail investors. Yet binary options can seem more attractive to investors than other financial instruments. For one thing, they appear to grant participants a greater degree of control – unlike other black box investment products, investors themselves participate in trading decisions. Additionally, with a single “yes/no” proposition, they seem more approachable and appear to promise a greater chance of success (even if retail investors overwhelmingly tend to incur losses while trading binary options).

The ability to make deposits in cryptocurrency is enhancing this appeal. With easy cross-border money transfers and little-to-no KYC or AML controls, crypto has made online binary options platforms more accessible than ever before. As a result, more investors are in danger of being drawn into high-risk, unregulated and potentially fraudulent schemes.

Binary options have long been associated with frauds and scams across the world, with criminals seeking to exploit investor intrigue. For this reason, they are banned in many jurisdictions, including the UK and Australia. Binary options are legal but heavily regulated in the U.S., with trading permitted only on authorized exchanges. However, a significant – and growing – portion of the binary options market operates through non-compliant online trading platforms, according to an investor alert issued by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC). The alert observes a rise in fraud complaints linked to binary options trading platforms in recent years.

Fraudulent binary options schemes share a number of characteristics. For example, they often manipulate trading prices, misrepresent the odds of winning and – like pyramid schemes – incentivize aggressive recruitment through commissions. Other common behaviors include locking investors out of their accounts and stealing their funds.

There have been a number of recent enforcement actions against binary options scammers around the world, including in the UK and U.S. In April 2023, a U.S. federal court set the total penalties against the operators of a USD 10 million binary options scheme at USD 7 million. 

On-Chain Analysis Supports Previous Reports of Fraud

There are various suggestions of foul play linked to the Vietnamese binary options platforms in the public domain. For instance, they are aggressively promoted on social media channels, with promoters boasting of their high earnings and increased spending power. In addition, at least one investor has publicly reported being locked out of their account and unable to access or withdraw their funds.

On-chain analysis provides a clearer picture still. With no exposure to other exchanges or trading platforms, blockchain intelligence shows – in a tell-tale sign of fraud – that these entities are not engaging in any genuine trading activity. Instead, on-chain financial flows indicate that deposits are merely funding withdrawals, with money simply being shuffled around from old investors to new ones.

TRM Blockchain Intelligence Shows Scam Networks Skirting Government Restrictions

Vietnamese authorities have already sounded the alarm around potential binary options fraud and taken action. In 2021, the country’s Department of Cybersecurity and High-Tech Crime Prevention and Control issued a warning, cautioning consumers about the proliferation of these types of online platforms, their pyramid scheme-like characteristics and misleading advertisements. Around the same time, Vietnamese authorities blocked the websites of some of the platforms in question, reportedly due to their illegal activities.

Yet TRM’s research shows that the operators of these platforms are finding a workaround to continue targeting victims in Vietnam. TRM has identified dozens more platforms with the same blockchain footprint, which on-chain analysis suggests are related. This indicates that, when law enforcement shuts down one domain, scammers may continue their operations through the launch of new brands. 

On-chain structure used by the binary options platforms

Using Blockchain Intelligence to Detect and Disrupt Fraud

This case shows that off-chain information alone is not always enough to tackle complex crypto-related fraud schemes. Blockchain intelligence has a vital role to play in detecting and disrupting fraud, as well as preventing illicit funds from being cashed out via off-ramps.

  • Law enforcement can leverage blockchain intelligence to link multiple schemes together to build larger, more comprehensive cases.
  • Compliance teams at crypto businesses and financial institutions can use blockchain intelligence for transaction monitoring and wallet screening to proactively identify  proceeds from wallets involved in binary options schemes.

TRM’s Threat Intelligence team continues to scan the horizon for new ways in which crypto is used to facilitate illicit activity and to deliver this intelligence to its customers through its software, training and services.

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