An international multi-level marketing scheme operating in New Zealand uses social media influencers to entice people to enter a complex financial world they know nothing about
Imagine making money by recruiting friends and family into a scheme that charges hundreds of dollars to join and hundreds more in monthly fees.
Sound familiar? Maybe not if you don’t use Instagram or other social media outlets as your source of information, but that is how many new investors are being educated.
One US-based multi-level marketing scheme, IM Academy, promises to teach people how to master foreign exchange trading, a highly complicated, high-risk activity that even those in the know get wrong.
But most of those who join it actually make their money from recruiting others – they are rewarded for bringing in new members.
It is not illegal but financial watchdogs in several countries have put out warnings on it, and regulators here are on the alert.
Today The Detail looks at how IM Academy is tapping into Māori and Pasifika investors through social media influencers. There’s nothing our financial watchdogs can do about it until someone complains.
RNZ business journalist Nicholas Pointon explains how he came across IM Academy, and describes his lengthy interview with a US-based New Zealander that raised red flags.
“I was doing some tweets about shady foreign exchange schemes and it was planted in my mind by someone at work who said she had a friend from high school who was big into this thing called IM Academy,” Pointon says.
He took to the internet to find out more.
“What struck me was there wasn’t much reporting on what IM Academy is, but then I took to YouTube and I was surprised by the amount of guerrilla reporting that had been done by big YouTubers who decided to enter into this scheme.”
Promotion and recruitment is done mainly through social media, “with these trendy looking social media clubs that promote financial freedom”.
Pointon tracked down Kiwi Rhaiah Spooner-Knight, who went to the US on a basketball scholarship but now makes her money through IM Academy.
She told Pointon she earned about $US5,000 a month.
“When I asked her whether that money came from recruiting versus trading – this is the other red flag for me – most of that money came from recruitment, not from actually the skills she’d learnt from the product itself.”
Spooner-Knight said she mainly recruited single mothers, and in the Pasifika and Māori community “because a lot of them are trying to find another way, a lot of them have financial hardship….and when they see people like me who look like them … it’s trusted, and they feel like, if she can do it then I know I can do it also”.
Pointon tells The Detail’s Sharon Brettkelly that he checked the scheme with the Financial Markets Authority, the Commerce Commission and Consumer New Zealand.
He was told it is legal because it offers a discernible product, the forex training courses, and the recruitment side is optional.
Pointon says the FMA has looked into the new generation of investors using retail trading platforms.
“They found that most people who were getting into it were driven by the fact that rising house prices, low interest rates, they wanted to learn more about investing and they had this FOMO, this fear of missing out.
“People would catch whispers of what other people were doing or they’d see it on social media or you’d come across a social media page from someone who’s in IM Academy talking about how you can make all this money by investing.
“There’s only so much a financial regulator can do, they can provide people with all the resources and hope they make good decisions but at the end of the day it comes down to the individual.”