KUALA LUMPUR – Every so often, we read about some Malaysians falling for this or that investment scam. And you wonder, “Are people that gullible?”

Apparently so, and these victims cut across all races and education levels.

Before we dive in, please note that a company that features multi-level marketing is not necessarily a dodgy one.

It could be one of 85 legitimate direct-selling companies currently registered with the Direct Selling Association of Malaysia (DSAM).

Scams and illegal get-rich-quick schemes, however, include pyramid schemes and Ponzi schemes, with both involving the payment of “investors” from money pumped in by new recruits. In fact, the latter often involves non-existent investments!

In March, police busted the VenusFX forex investment scam that was believed to have conned 23,259 people of RM2,000 to RM40,000 each, resulting in RM80 million lost.

Penang-based forex trading scheme JJPTR promised 20 per cent monthly returns but was reported to have lost RM1.7 billion contributed by its members.

Many other schemes — Richway Global Venture, Change Your Life (CYL), BTC I-System, GD Income Builder, Bai Le Men — also have trouble paying the promised returns or have fallen apart.

You mean it’s getting more popular?

Datuk Seri Michael Chong, who has headed the MCA’s Public Services and Complaints Department for 30 years, said investment scams such as money games only started popping up on his radar about eight years ago.

The number of complaints from “victims” of such scams increased over the last two years despite his multiple press conferences in the past eight years, Chong said.

“I have been warning people to be very careful because money game will end up losing money. But the problem is they don’t listen to what I say,” he told Malay Mail Online.

“Even though they know it’s a scam, they don’t want to believe it’s a scam because the return is so good,” he added.

Datuk Tan Chong Guan, vice-president of DSAM and chair of its newly-launched Ethics Council Malaysia aimed at tackling illegal investment schemes, similarly observed that such schemes have increased in recent years.

“Yes, definitely, because the schemes have gotten more complicated, and people are in poorer economic times. When they are looking for opportunities to ensure their money will grow, they’ll find these schemes too good to be true but yet they want to give it a try,” he told Malay Mail Online.

“Some of the companies use senior ex-government official as directors, so this gives a false sense of security and safety,” he said.

No, seriously why choose to be tricked?

Chong said he has received a few hundred complaints over the years, with these “victims” admitting to him that they “deserve to be punished because they are greedy.”

Tan, whose Ethics Council Malaysia will have quarterly meetings to sift through complaints on investment scams with the police before deciding on the action to be taken, said they will have to ensure complaints are genuine as some only complain after making losses on what they knew was a scam.

“People who invest in it are either people who are gamblers, who go in with their eyes open and the second type are people who are cheated into going into these schemes because of high returns.

“There is no official numbers because these schemes often operate in a clandestine way, they don’t come out in public, only when people get cheated, then only they come, even the ones who come out, they are shy to talk about it,” he said.

As for those who have already been cheated but continue to join such schemes or stay on when fresh “investment” plans are offered, Tan said these would typically be those who know what’s going on but hope to recoup their losses.

“They could be convinced the company could still carry on, but when the whole thing collapses, their naivety can be very expensive,” he said.

Licensed financial advisers that Malay Mail Online spoke to pinpoint greed and the desire for quick monthly gains as well as failure to seek out information on investments or to check if the purported investment schemes are genuine as reasons for why these scams are still around.

And how serious is this swindling?

In an April 29 news report, Bukit Aman Commercial Crime Investigation Department said the number of cases of investment scams in Malaysia have grown to an “alarming” RM379.1 million lost nationwide from 1,883 scams from 2015 until April 2017.

The police data showed 408 recorded cases with RM70.1 million in losses in 2015, 1,151 cases reflecting RM210.3 million in losses in 2016 and 324 cases with a total of RM98.7 million losses in the first four months of this year alone.

Chong said some of the “victims” thought they were clever and borrowed from “Ah Long” or loan sharks at high interest rates to invest in these money games, believing that their “good investment” would generate the high monthly return to cover the loan and still allow them to profit.

“And these are the people who end up without homes,” he said, noting that the loan sharks would in the end sell off the houses of these “investors” when the scheme collapses.

While the Credit Counselling and Debt Management Agency’s (AKPK) statistics do not reflect how many Malaysians seek their help to manage their debts due to investment scams, its data showed that debt remained a serious problem with 175,336 Malaysians having applied to join its Debt Management Programme (DMP) from its inception in 2007 until this February 28.

The reason these Malaysians ended up in the DMP programme during this period is largely due to poor financial planning at 48.2 per cent, while other factors reflected economic pressures such as business slowdown or failure at 15.2 per cent, high living costs (13.7 per cent), high medical expenses (10.5 per cent), loss of job by breadwinner (9.6 per cent) and others at 2.8 per cent.

In the end, no one is spared

Not only does the person making the unwise “investment” lose out, their financial losses would also end up affecting their community and society.

Chong said those who claim to have been victims of investment scams would have recruited their friends and family members, and would often be viewed as the scammer and in some cases, have to go into hiding while the actual scheme operator makes off with the money.

He said those who are cheated by the scams are mostly middle-aged and above as they have the funds to “invest”, and added that victims include professors and retirees.

Tan said such investment scams create a “social problem” when retired people suddenly lose all their retirement savings and have nothing to live on for the remaining 20 to 30 years of their life.

– Malay Mail