Thousands were duped by a pyramid scheme, writes Stephen Rogers
THE Royal Canadian Mounted Police have dug deep into the Banners Broker to find just how it managed to get so many people to buy into what they thought was a genuine advertising investment website, making them one more small layer in a huge pyramid scheme.
After a detailed investigation of the website and its operators, constable Katie Judd built up a detailed picture of how the scheme worked, how so many people stayed with it for so long and the lengths to which its operators went to hide the mounting profits.
Ms Judd looked at it from the position of someone joining the scheme for the first time.
“A visitor to the Banners Broker website would be told of an operation that would allow the viewer to advertise their product or services online, themselves become an online publisher in partnership with Banners Broker, or — in a “unique operation” – both buy and sell advertising space in a way that would allow the profits from selling the space to third parties offset (and then some) the cost of buying advertising from Banners Broker for the investor’s own product or service,” she said in a recent court affidavit.
She found that, unlike other online advertising ventures, the Banners Broker investor did not just rent a fixed space on a website and then earn revenue from the audited internet traffic the hosting website generated.
“Instead, before a banner could start to earn money for an investor, Banners Broker insisted the investor had to take steps to “qualify” the banner,” she said.
“This required a minimum number of ‘traffic hits’ to be earned depending on the panel category the banner belonged to. Those ‘traffic hits’ could be earned by the investor making referrals to Banners Broker or by directly purchasing the “traffic hits”, which was in essence paying for the banner to start generating revenue.”
Novice investors were tempted in by the fact that, initial packages did not have to be qualified and so, for every $10 in advertising that person bought, they would soon find they had earned $20 as a “publisher”. However, they would have to automatically have to re-invest at least half the money. However, after a couple of rounds of that they would have to start “qualifying”.
“Needless to say, with such a seemingly profitable scheme, many early investors saw the advantage of fully reinvesting their money, adding new money, upgrading to a more expensive panel of banners and referring other investors to the program,” said Ms Judd. “Once hooked, Banners Broker’s earning structure would encourage investors to pay more in real money to the company and recruit more investors or customers who, in turn, could be lured onto the same treadmill.”
She found that throughout the scheme, operators Chris Smith and Rajiv Dixit and their associated corporations had investors pay their investment money to merchant account providers, legitimate corporations that processed credit card payments.
“Those funds were then diverted by the suspects and their associated corporations to various offshore and other bank accounts. controlled by them,” Ms Judd said. “Except for limited window dressing to promote their fraudulent scheme, there was no bona fide advertising publishing operation and the investors were being misled as to the source and nature of their profits.”
Despite claims to the contrary from Banners Broker, investors did not acquire an interest in any real world advertising revenue. Ms Judd said what was supposed to be “money available to withdrawal” for the investor could not be easily accessed. She quoted one programmer as saying Smith would insist on doing the payouts himself and would not let the programmer automate the process. Individuals complained to police that, when they attempted to make withdrawals of funds which were supposed to be available to withdraw, their requests were “delayed or ignored”.
According to Ms Judd, the Toronto Strategic Partnership has received over 50 online complaints about Banners Broker from agencies, including the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre, The Competition Bureau and Ontario Securities Commission. The complainants were from around the world, including Canada, the US and Britain. There was even a “Banners Broker Ponzi Scam” Facebook group set up with more than 11,000 members.
In August last year, Banners Broker pulled out of Ireland, leaving thousands of people battling to recoup their money from an address in Belize in Central America. It terminated its contract with its Irish agent and put tight restrictions on who could withdraw money from its accounts and how often they could do it.
In February liquidators were appointed following a hearing in the Isle of Man where the court heard the company had $6m (€4.4m) in assets.
Within hours of the verdict, Chris Smith said the liquidation was a “pesky situation” that would further delay promised payouts, but that the $6m, which the court had frozen, was “more of a rainy day trust” which it had not needed.
A few months ago, the court-appointed liquidators set up a website designed to give those owed money the opportunity to lodge a proof of claim — www.bannersbrokerliquidation.com.
One of the questions in the website’s “frequently asked questions” section is “What is the timing of any distribution to creditors?”
The answer will be of little comfort to those who have lost so much.
“Given the multi-jurisdictional nature of the case, the joint liquidators will not be in a position to make a distribution (if at all) in the short term.”
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