The Wolf of Wall Street has a lot to answer for. Since the film hit screens back in 2013, telling the story of stockbroker and scammer Jordan Belfort’s rise and fall, online financial trading has become massive with young British men looking to make quick cash online. While penny stocks were Belfort’s game, it is the world’s biggest financial market – the foreign exchange – that has lured a new generation into the risky world of financial speculation.
The foreign exchange market (usually shortened to forex or FX) is responsible for trading the world's currencies. Its size dwarfs even the global stock market. Because it’s so easy to start trading on it, forex is touted as a way to make quick cash: anything from being a small side hustle once you learn the ropes, all the way to a foolproof way to make thousands per month from your phone. But the stark reality is that forex trading is very risky, no matter how you approach it. The vast majority of people who try it lose money.
Steve, a 31-year-old from Newcastle, started trading forex seven years ago. He was first attracted by the idea of becoming independent and the chance to ditch the nine-to-five. He taught himself off YouTube videos, spending hundreds of hours researching techniques and even believing he had discovered an “edge” in the market. Despite this, he has lost £4,000 on forex. “I had these plans to be financially independent through trading within five years really, that was the plan,” he says. “I kind of burned myself out and had somewhat of a mini-mental breakdown.”
But the rise of forex trading isn’t just about young hustlers cosplaying The Wolf of Wall Street – it’s also about how social media and financial technology have combined to create a trap. Hyper-aspirational Instagram culture promoted by influencers and celebrities promises that you can have anything you want as long as you work hard enough for it.
Forex platforms like Plus500, CMC Markets and IG offer a tantalising opportunity for would-be traders to put this to the test. Download an app and you can start trading from your phone in minutes. The catch? Around 80 per cent of these accounts lose money, according to this report by forex training site Babypips.com. I found out the hard way how easy it is to lose on forex earlier this year.
“If people want to spend money gambling that’s one thing,” says Matt-Zarb Cousin, director of the Clean Up Gambling campaign group. “But to pedal what is essentially a gambling product, on the basis that it’s some kind of investment or a way to make money, is hugely misleading and a toxic combination.”
Most retail forex trading is done via contracts for difference (CFDs) and spread betting, which let you speculate on rising and falling prices without actually owning what you are trading. This means betting on whether one currency will rise in value or fall in value against another. It sounds simple enough, but both CFDs and spread betting are complex financial instruments. Predicting moves in the forex market is high risk, even if you know what you are doing, and all platforms have to carry warnings stating that the majority of their customers lose money.
Still, the risk hasn’t stopped regular folk picking up forex with the intention of getting very rich very fast. This is particularly true of the UK: our 280,000 online traders outnumber any other European country. And this year, as more of us have been sat on our arses, furloughed or unemployed, trading volumes have gone through the roof. Brokers IG reported record revenue in the fourth quarter of 2020, while IronFX has reported a 300 per cent increase in new forex accounts this year.
As with other online get-rich-quick schemes, like sneaker raffles, dropshipping and multi-level marketing, forex has developed a murky side industry of people that profit from selling the dream via social media. Influencers and reality celebrities advertise services that offer tips on when to enter trades, known as signals. They also promote trading groups and education platforms that promise to teach you the secrets of success for a monthly fee. Many Instagram posts show off supercars, luxury brands and the Dubai skyline, creating the illusion that forex is an easy way to make money.
Charlie, a chartered accountant who has worked in finance in the City of London for the past 12 years, tracks this shady side of forex on his Instagram, @Forex_Fraudsters. He started it after seeing more-and-more influencers and D-listers posting pictures of complex-looking charts and professing forex trading as a way to lead a lavish lifestyle.
This became a running joke between him and his workmates – hardly anyone in the City takes online forex traders seriously – but they saw lots of young people were buying into it. “It’s always these 20-year-old guys, all dressed up in Balenciaga tops and sitting on the bonnet of new Ferraris,” he says. “We always knew it was some sort of scam.”
This year, a number of influencers – including Kieren Hamilton, who goes by the name Kez the Guru and Gurv Singh – have been called out by the UK’s financial watchdog, the Financial Conduct Authority, for offering unauthorised financial products or services. They sell forex as something that has propelled them from humble backgrounds to leading opulent lives.
This is true, in a twisted sort-of way. Influencers can often rake in big commissions for signing people up to FX brokers and by selling signals, but there’s little to no evidence they actually make money from trading themselves. As quickly as one account gets a warning by the FCA and shut down, another young grifter flaunting money, cars and forex charts appears.
“The signals are usually shit, and you lose your money quite quickly and they don’t really help you out at all,” says Ellen, a 24-year-old from Kent who has lost a few hundred quid trading forex and paying for signals provided by several different Instagram accounts.
“They say you’ll make thousands in your first week. Maybe I was a little bit naive, like that would even be possible,” she tells me. “But they put so many photos up of people making that money that you’re almost like, ‘how can I not?’”
Well-known reality stars are also using their platforms to cash in on the forex frenzy. Celebrities with tens of millions of combined followers are advertising forex products and services as a way to hustle to the life of luxury that they portray through their Instagram accounts. Recently, Geordie Shore’s Chloe Ferry (3.5m Instagram followers) and Aaron Chalmers (2.3m followers) ran ads for @LifeofDanB, an unregulated forex account. Model Joss Mooney (700,000 Instagram followers), Ex on the Beach star Chet Johnson (500,000 followers), Celebrity Big Brother contestant Chloe Khan (2m followers) and Geordie Shore’s Marnie Simpson (3.9m followers) have all also posted ads for similar unregulated FX accounts.
“Reality stars are using their own social clout and name recognition, their own personal brands, to sanitise these quite sinister products,” Matt says.
Some stars even claim to be learning to trade themselves and are selling subscriptions to the training platforms that they are using. The Only Way is Essex couple Yazmin Oukhellou (600,000 followers) and James Lock (900,000 followers) have recently started encouraging their followers to DM them “if you want to change your life and potentially become financially free”, inviting fans to online meetings via their @_leveluplifestyle_ page, where VICE found they are selling subscriptions to forex training platform, IM Mastery Academy.
“They say ‘we’re just mentors, we don’t sell signals, we’re just going down the education route’ because it’s much harder to police,” Charlie tells me. “But they can still sell a product, so they can still make money.”
IM Mastery Academy, which has also previously been known as International Markets Live or iMarkets Live, is on the FCA’s warning list as offering unregulated financial products or services. The FCA says that firms selling forex products that are not authorised by them are probably scams. IM resembles a multi-level marketing or pyramid-selling operation – clients pay a monthly fee to access forex training materials but are also encouraged to sign up others and take a commission from anyone they get on board. Multiple reviews on TrustPilot have accused the company of operating like a pyramid scheme.
After her run-in with several dodgy signal sellers, Ellen decided she wanted to learn to trade forex herself and she attended an online presentation from James and Yazmin about IM Mastery Academy. She says she found it reassuring that they are part of a larger company, as opposed to the 19-year-old kids selling FX tips off their own back.
During the meeting, she says she was offered the choice of two pricey packages – £100 and £300 per month to join – and while tempted, she compares the whole set up to Herbalife, a multi-level marketing company that sells nutritional supplements. “They literally showed me the pyramid,” she says. “It’s like a hierarchy or something. If you get people to join then you get X amount.”
As I was researching this piece, James – who has previously used Instagram to promote an unregulated forex trading scheme – and Yazmin found out that I was planning on writing about their new venture. They called me one night to “nip it in the bud” and make sure I wasn’t “twisting their words”.
They denied my suggestion that they did not know what they had got themselves into and said that they are simply learning forex on the same IM Mastery Academy platform that they are advertising to their fans. But how they can know whether IM’s training materials are any good or not if they are just beginning to learn forex themselves is another question. Yazmin told me they are aware that profit is not guaranteed, but none of their posts on Instagram mention this.
“They’re treating their followers with a lot of contempt if they know that the vast majority of people who invest money in these products lose,” Matt says. “It’s very similar to gambling, so they’re effectively peddling gambling on the basis that it’s a financial investment which I think is a very dangerous combination.” Neither James nor Yazmin responded to VICE’s subsequent request for comment.
Despite reservations, Ellen still wants to learn how to trade forex and is considering joining IM Mastery Academy through James and Yazmin. “I do like the idea of trading, it’s quite exciting but also nerve-wracking because you can lose a lot of money in a short amount of time. It’s just whether you want to take that risk.”
Steve, however, has called time on his forex misadventure. He thinks it’s inevitable that others will continue to get stuck in the same trap that he fell into as long as we chase the dreams we’re sold on social media. And he’s not quite out of that trap yet himself, either.
“The dream has never left me,” he says. “I’ve actually switched to trading options now. I’ve bought a massive university-style textbook, based on the recommendations, I’ve read that front-to-back, you know? I’ve taken my time.”