The original Wolf of Wall Street, Jordan Belfort, was a rogue trader convicted of fraudulently selling worthless penny stocks to naive investors. His biopic, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as the ostentatious, money-obsessed huckster, was a box-office hit in 2013. Although it may have been intended as a cautionary tale, to thousands of young millennials from humble backgrounds, Belfort’s story became a blueprint for how to escape an unremarkable life on low pay.
Within months of the Wolf of Wall Street’s UK premiere in January 2014, a stocky 21-year-old named Elijah Oyefeso from a south London housing estate, began broadcasting on social media how much money he was making as a stock-market whizzkid. His thousands of young followers were desperate to do the same. As Oyefeso’s online fame grew, he caught the attention of TV producers. In January 2016, Oyefeso was featured in the Channel 4 show Rich Kids Go Shopping, in which he bought expensive jumpers to give to homeless people and showed viewers how easy it was to make stock trades online.
Even before Oyefeso’s appearance on mainstream TV, his story had already gone viral. British tabloids, including the Daily Mail, the Evening Standard and the Mirror, as well as a host of online magazines targeted at young men, all ran pieces about his success. The Mail headline described him as a university dropout who supposedly used his student loan to start trading financial products online and “now claims he earns £30,000 on a BAD month – by working just ONE HOUR a day”.
It’s an image of self-made wealth and ridiculous luxury, and one that Oyefeso has intensively cultivated online. The videos on his almost comedic YouTube channel, which have hundreds of thousands of views, feature him buying £250,000 cars and boarding private jets as nonchalantly as others his age might hail an Uber. His Instagram, which regularly shows him posing next to a blue and silver Rolls-Royce, describes him as the founder of DCT, his trading firm. DCT stands for “Dreams Come True”.
“I’m never going to work for someone,” Oyefeso says in one of his videos, in a somewhat cartoonish, nasal voice, while he drives his Rolls dressed in a bathrobe. “Look what I’ve built: a foundation. A brand.”
For many young people from areas such as the poorer part of Camberwell in south London where Oyefeso grew up, or those who have come across him on social media, Oyefeso’s portrayal as a self-made millionaire has given him the heroic status of a footballer or rapper.
I’m just a normal guy and most people who come from where I’m from, they see if I can do it, they can do it,” Oyefeso told me. He has described DCT Trading as a future Goldman Sachs or JP Morgan – except, unlike those mammoth financial institutions, which tend to recruit from a narrow pool of elite graduates from prestigious universities, Oyefeso appeared to be opening a closed door to young people who might otherwise be excluded from the trading floor.
Oyefeso has sent out thousands of invitations with the message “join my team”. The problem is, his company does not have a trading floor. It does not have an office. Dreams Come True isn’t registered at Companies House. It does not exist as anything more than a website and some social media accounts. (Oyefeso claims the parent company, Gabs Fossard Ltd, is registered, although it was dissolved without posting any income.)
Although there has been intense activity on Oyefeso’s public social media pages since September, for some of this time the south Londoner was in jail, after ploughing his car into a friend to whom he owed money, a claim he disputes. In the course of his trial last autumn for dangerous driving and possession of a weapon, the judge remarked: “[you] portrayed yourself as a very successful trader within the financial market. Clearly this is not the case.” His own lawyer told the court that Oyefeso “makes a number of claims about his wealth but I have seen no evidence of this … clearly if he had this money he could have written a cheque to the victim.” He was released last month after, he claims, a successful appeal.
Oyefeso is one of the most high-profile figures of an internet subculture that reveres Jordan Belfort and has taken his Wolf of Wall Street persona to social media. Posing as ultra-wealthy kids and posting internet memes taken from the movie, its followers aggressively sign up young people to what looks like an international pyramid scheme that has helped to generate billions of pounds for large companies selling highly risky financial trading products.
They are the wolves of Instagram.
The financial sector has a genius for creating new products that brush against the law. A former UBS trader told me that the sector had taken advantage of the grey area between what they know they can’t do and what they believe they can get away with. In 2008, as the economy reeled under the weight of trillions of dollars of bad debt in financial products called collateralised debt obligations, another risky and obscure proposition was being designed for the public: the binary option.
The concept is simple: you sign up with a minimum deposit of £250 from a debit or credit card, click a button that says you are over 18, then bet on whether the price of a stock, currency or other financial security will go up or down and by how much. The binary option is part of a family of similar financial products such as spread betting and contracts for difference. If you have ever heard a rookie investor declare that they trade currency, these are probably what they are talking about.
These products became popular alongside a proliferation of online trading software and mobile betting platforms. The craze was largely driven by two countries – Israel and Cyprus – in the late 2000s. Their regulatory frameworks meant that firms could access European markets without the heavy hand of European regulators, and new binary options companies spread like chain letters. After the financial crash, in Israel alone an estimated 100 firms popped up in the space of a few years.
Over the past 18 months, these financial products have taken great leaps into public life with expensive marketing campaigns. Plus500, which is to online trading what McDonald’s is to fast food, is the main sponsor of European football giant Atlético Madrid, and 24Option have sponsored the renowned MMA fighter Conor McGregor and Italian football team Juventus.
Some companies, such as Plus500 and 24Option, are legitimate, but others are borderline fraudulent. The Financial Conduct Authority revealed in 2016 that 82% of all trades using some of these products are lost, and the average trader loses £2,200 a year. Unlike the mortgaged-backed securities that tanked the market in 2008, these products are not primarily offered or owned by the world’s big banks – they target novices looking for quick money.
Binary options are considered so volatile that they have been banned outright in the US. However, in the UK, which has some of the most liberal financial regulations in the world, they were until January of this year classified as high-risk gambling products and regulated by the Gambling Commission. Since then, they have been under the auspices of the FCA, which published a list of unauthorised firms and guidelines for aspiring traders.
The mystery is how such complex products became an internet youth craze. And this is where the wolves of Instagram swagger in. Oyefeso described himself as a social media “influencer”, which means he and others like him can use Instagram and Twitter to sell the trading platforms a supply of teenagers and young adults with limited knowledge of the money markets and a hunger for success.
This is how it works. Oyefeso posts images of luxury goods he claims to have bought with his winnings. He gives the pictures hashtags such as #richkidsofinstagram and mass-follows young people online. One teenager told me he and his friends were drawn in by the sight of a young black man who grew up on a council estate similar to theirs, driving a Rolls-Royce. As soon as anyone follows Oyefeso back, he slides into their DMs with a message: “I’m offering a great opportunity to earn £100-400+ per week from trading, no experience required, all done from home and only requires 15-30 min per day.” If you’re young, poor and want to defy the odds against you, the next question is: where do I sign up?
What wolves like Oyefeso fail to declare is that each of the trading platforms you sign up to (with a minimum deposit of £250) pays him around £40-80 – and that recruitment, rather than betting on these predatory financial products, is the way he makes his risk-free money (Oyefeso maintains he’s making money from trading). Young people join the platforms, make a few trades and can lose anything between £250 and several thousand pounds, then realise they can make it back by repeating the trick: becoming a paid marketing affiliate masquerading as a successful trader. It looks like a vintage pyramid scheme, rebooted for the social media era using a model of e-marketing that has boomed over the last 20 years.
In 2016, one of the wolves shared with me the presentation he was pitched by the leading software provider of binary options, SpotOption. The PowerPoint presentation revealed a system that is rigged against the consumer: the average user would lose 80% of everything he or she put in to “trade”. Later that year, the core of this presentation was published by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, and SpotOption was banned in its home country, Israel. SpotOption says that since the changes in Israeli law, it has ceased all activities related to binary options, and terminated agreements with clients found to be acting unethically.
Last year, the FCA launched a crackdown on investment scams and police raided 20 premises suspected of operating binary options fraud, but so far, the social media influencers who appear to be working as middle men for foreign firms have escaped their attention. Social media has become a wild west for marketers aware that regulators can’t keep up with their online activity. Complaints about the aggressive nature of social media influencers’ stealth marketing have been growing. Between 2010 and 2016, the number of social media users grew to more than a billion, while the number of complaints to the UK Advertising Standards Authority about social media marketing posts breaching guidelines rose by a staggering 1,567%.
It is almost impossible to count the number of marketing affiliates masquerading as successful traders on Instagram, but we can count the number of promotional posts they’ve made using hashtags such as #binaryoptions (222,206), #traderlifestyle (64,151), and #richkidsofinstagram (529,574). Those numbers rise by the minute and the thousands of accounts generating them appear and disappear constantly.
The companies making the real money from these financial gambling products are supposed to be kept in check by the ASA, the Gambling Commission and the FCA – but this pack of regulators appears to be outfoxed by the wolves. The National Fraud Authority estimated that £59m had been defrauded from UK residents in 2017 from binary options alone.
These binary options are almost no-win gambling products masquerading as complex financial instruments,” Labour’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, one of a number of politicians who have issued warnings about such products, told me. “It’s outrageous they are being targeted at the most vulnerable gamblers and young people.”
Many of the most exploitative companies’ digital storefronts drift anonymously in the middle of the internet, virtually undiscoverable to people who don’t know they are there and aren’t looking for them. This is where the influencers and their social media accounts come in. In Oyefeso’s words: “I just saw a big hole and I filled it up, which any successful entrepreneur would do.”
My first meeting with Oyefeso was on a summer’s afternoon in 2016. He and some of his friends were parked up on a private housing estate in Canary Wharf, having arrived in a convoy of supercars, including Oyefeso’s Rolls and a rented Audi R8. The neighbourhood was meant to serve as a backdrop to the world of opulence they were displaying on their Instagram feeds. It was not long before a resident came out to tell us we were trespassing. “This is a private estate, we don’t want to associate this estate with those kinds of people,” he said.
Instagram – even more than Facebook or Twitter – is where people sell a version of their lives that they want people to believe. None more so than these young, self-proclaimed millionaires. They are part of the larger phenomenon of #richkidsofinstagram, a hashtag first used in 2012 to profile the genuine heirs of multimillion-pound estates – including a son of one of the West Ham football club owners – but then spread to people like Oyefeso, who were faking it. A search of the posts tagged #richkidsofinstagram reveals young men and women from across the world sharing pictures and videos of their extravagant lifestyles: suitcases filled with stacks of £10, £20 and £50 notes; toddlers wearing customised Gucci denim jackets; expensive cars and private jets, all set to the latest hip-hop anthems.
For Oyefeso and many of his friends, the lifestyle is largely a costume drama. In his most recent video on YouTube Oyefeso appeared to hire a private jet – one that was parked up – to announce his return after he left prison. Oyefeso recounted how much money he could make in 15 minutes. Yet in reality, the only company I could find registered to Oyefeso’s address – IWANTTOTRADE Ltd, was dissolved in 2016 without posting a penny of income. Despite his glamorous trappings, Oyefeso, the son of Nigerian migrants, is, on paper at least, still residing at their council flat in south London.
In reality, #richkidsofinstagram is mostly a feed of adverts selling everything from clothes to gambling products, featuring endless marketing affiliates trying to recruit young people who are under more and more pressure from friends and influencers on social media to buy their way to success. The @richkidslondon account, followed by more than 730,000 people, says it profiles the most impressive rich kids, but what it does not say is that it charges them £60 for a post or £350 for 10.
According to a close friend, Oyefeso got his start in this world in 2014, when he began working at One Two Trade (OTT), a bucket shop operated out of a backstreet office in Wapping, east London, where unwitting investors could register bets online. OTT, which is not a regulated financial institution in the UK, but registered in Panama and Malta, would take a cut of every trade, and then try to hustle investors out of the rest of their money using excessive commissions and other exploitative terms. Former staff describe it as overrun with young people who had lost money on the platform, trying to make it back by signing up their friends with trading accounts.
For young people with ambition but no access, who were attracted to the risk, ingenuity and wealth of investment banks and hedge funds but would not qualify for a job at a traditional Canary Wharf company, working at OTT felt like a genuine career in the City – despite being unpaid. Oyefeso began styling himself as a guru offering “signals”, or trading tips, while working as a marketing affiliate. According to one of his mentees, he was a frontrunner in a burgeoning scene of young black outsiders, most of whom knew each other, spinning stories about how they infiltrated the old white man’s world of finance.
On Oyefeso’s website there is a section where he recommends a range of financial betting platforms. He also showed me a WhatsApp group he charged thousands of young people a £69.99 monthly fee to join, which would instruct them on what to bet on next. Unbeknown to his “clients”, they were the product he was selling.
The flashy Instagram may have won him a following, but the biggest gift to Oyefeso was his TV appearance. “After Rich Kids Go Shopping, he was so exposed,” one of his close friends said. “Before, it was just a small black community that was going to him, people that wanted to make quick money would go to him, but when he got put on the TV he had clients in Scotland.”
I asked Oyefeso who started the traders of Instagram subculture. “Without being cocky, I think I did,” he said. Without Oyefeso to “show people that you can have this, that you can buy this house, that you can buy this car”, there might not have been the traders of Instagram business model. A rival who copied him agreed. “It started from Elijah,” she said. “He was putting it all on social media. When they are seeing a young black man buy a Bentley or a Rolls-Royce and who is constantly on TV and he’s getting a lot of publicity, they’re thinking, what is this guy doing? I want to be involved.”
Then came a binary options gold rush among one of the most unlikely of demographics – young people in Britain’s inner cities.
Oyefeso marketed for a range of legitimate companies, including 24Option and AvaTrade, registered in Cyprus and Ireland, respectively, which have an estimated combined annual revenue of nearly $90m. (Neither company responded to a request for comment.) Oyefeso also introduced his young audience to Banc de Binary, a company he describes as “fully good”, even after it ceased trading amid fraud allegations.
Banc de Binary was founded in 2009 in Israel. The man at the helm was a former Israeli paratrooper, Oren Shabat Laurent. At its peak, the company had a yearly revenue of $100m, making it a star among binary options companies. The firm sought respectability by sponsoring football teams such as Liverpool and Southampton, but both clubs dropped the company when it become embroiled in scandal.
Banc de Binary faced a string of multi-million dollar lawsuits from clients, and was pursued by the US Securities and Exchange Commission. It was fined $11m for major regulatory breaches such as using shell offices in the UK and the US to evade financial regulations. The company was kicked out of the US in 2013, and was denied access to European markets when it lost its licence in Israel soon after that. In January 2017, the company ceased trading when it was revealed to have used software rigged against its users. Its founder, Laurent, has since reinvented himself in the world of cryptocurrency, with a bigger online following than any of the influencers who peddled binary options for him. Laurent did not respond to requests for comment.
Part of what made Oyefeso and Banc de Binary’s practices so ruthless was the age of the people they were signing up. In the UK, you have to be 18 to gamble or speculate on financial transactions. But Oyefeso was openly targeting much younger teenagers. It appears that in doing so, he was violating advertising regulations on gambling products.
When I spoke to Oyefeso before he went to prison, he did not exhibit much regret. “I’m not going to lie to you, there are some people under 18 who trade and use their parent’s name,” Oyefeso told me. I asked him if he had worked with anyone under 18 directly. “Of course,” he said. Aren’t you breaching the rules? I asked. “If I am, why aren’t I behind bars?” he said.
It seems Oyefeso didn’t just see teenagers as a source of income. They were also a source of labour. I spoke to one 18-year-old who told me that when he was between 15 and 16, he received a message from Oyefeso telling him he could sign up to a trading platform using his mother’s details. Oyefeso then offered the boy and his school friends work running his social media accounts and messaging his followers with advertising scripts. The teenagers were paid a cut of the commission for every one they signed up.
Even those losing money on Banc de Binary and other platforms sometimes gained a sense of self-confidence and an identity they felt proud of. Young men soon started trading in their hoodies for three-piece, pinstripe suits even though they had no office to wear them to. The subculture even had an anthem. A one-time Instagram trader who goes by the handle 10KJunes released a rap track called Trading Life, which includes the line, “I be selling stocks and then I buy it back, I got the taxman thinking that I’m selling crack”.
Technology has made some jobs extinct and endangered entire sectors, but in a tough jobs market, affiliate work seems like the most accessible route to money. There is no interview or licence required. All that is needed, in most cases, is an email address and a bank account. The marketers earn on commission only, so they provide a growing class of cheap labour.
A decade ago, teenagers primarily used social media to keep up with their friends and interests. In 2018, many see curating their accounts as a career and there is a growing ecosystem making this a major challenge for advertising regulators. Adverts are supposed to be identifiable, but influencers blur the lines with account pages built as shop windows on their lives. This grey area allowed foreign firms reliant on UK-based influencers to operate with impunity. Experts suggest that the regulators could have gone after marketing affiliates as “facilitators of gambling” sales, but chose not to.
Plus500, which is valued at over £1bn, has an estimated 100,000 marketing affiliates working for it alone. The @dailyforexsignals account on Instagram appeared to be promoting the company with posts that the Campaign for Fairer Gambling claimed were in breach of the guidelines. However, Plus500 said the account had signed up just eight clients and the company had long cancelled @dailyforexsignals affiliation. It says it offers customers a test to indicate they understand the terms of trading, and has measures to ensure protection of its customers, including limiting the amount clients can lose. It says it requires all affiliates to comply with industry standards, but it is difficult to see how a company such as Plus500 keeps tabs on the thousands of unmanaged digital workers making it money. This in turn makes it hard to stop it profiting from vulnerable consumers – in particular, from young people hooked in by the promise of easy wealth.
In 2005, the Labour government liberalised gambling advertising and created the Gambling Commission to regulate commercial gambling and protect vulnerable people, including anyone under 25. Tom Watson, the current deputy Labour leader, admitted that the legislation didn’t take the digital era into account.
“The yield taken from losers in the industry has gone up from £8bn in 2008 to £13bn in 2016,” Watson said. “That’s a lot of money, and when you combine that with recent news that companies are targeting the most vulnerable people who are susceptible to becoming problem gamblers – I think we’ve got a problem and our current regulations and laws are not fit for purpose.”
Matt Zarb-Cousin, of the Campaign for Fairer Gambling, alleges that the wolves’ Instagram posts are breaching two ASA regulations, “the first of which is: you can’t market to young people, and the second is: gambling cannot be offered as a way of making money. So these adverts would never pass the regulators if they were conventional.”
The Gambling Commission has admitted that it had received a growing number of complaints when it was in the process of trying to regulate binary options, but the Campaign for Fairer Gambling says neither it nor the ASA had taken strong enough action on the advertising of such profits to vulnerable young adults. The Gambling Commission acknowledged it had never even “written to Instagram relating to advertisements or posts promoting gambling, that breach the UK advertising codes” during the time of the steepest rise in complaints.
Both regulators blame the 2005 legislation. The Gambling Commission said that although binary options were regulated, the rules only applied if the firm had “remote gambling equipment located in Great Britain, irrespective of whether there are offices in GB or not”. The law states that if equipment is not in Britain, any binary options that the firm offers will not be regulated. Last month, the European Securities and Market Authority decided to prohibit the sales of binary options and limit the marketing and distribution of related products to vulnerable retail consumers. However, the wolves of Instagram have already adapted their behaviour.
Everything is changing, so obviously I’ve got to change, too,” Oyefeso said to me last year, when the landscape began to shift.
One of Oyefeso’s business associates has leapt headfirst into the latest gold rush. “I recently got into bitcoin about three months ago,” he said. “Young people have just jumped to it and it’s like the (binary options) trading bubble all over again.”
The cryptocurrency craze is in many ways similar to the boom in binary options and digital gambling apps. There have now been over 1,560 different currencies launched. Most of them are worthless but a host of new platforms are trying to hawk them via dubious platforms that entice young people through marketing affiliates disguised as Instagram influencers.
One of Oyefeso’s early proteges was a north Londoner called Olivia James, 23. She described the original Wolf of Wall Street as “a king in my eyes”, and in February tweeted “I’m do everything Belfort done and more lifestyle wise”. Hoping to take advantage of the popularity of bitcoin, James has now incorporated a new company called TRADEtoGAIN, with 20-year-old Armon Rabiee and 24-year-old Luke Arliss. The trio share a common story with many of the other young people founding pop-up sites to teach young adults how they can crack cryptocurrencies, for exorbitant fees. Arliss struggled at school, James was repeatedly turned down for entry level jobs in the City and Rabiee said he lost thousands during the binary options wave as a teenager. Together, they plan to make money as gurus of crypto.
Arliss, who has a big Instagram following from his former company, which repaired bodywork on footballers’ cars, said that he gets “loads of messages” about crypto from young people “interested in the hype”. Rabiee piped in, claiming that with their special insight they “can charge people thousands”.
As Oyefeso’s fairytale has unravelled, the internet has turned against him. People shared reports of his arrest and sentence with mocking comments, and published blogs accusing him of running scams. Oyefeso responded with a caption on a recent video post: “People don’t want to see a young black guy from the ends make it out to be successful,” he wrote.
The problem, in Oyefeso’s case, has not been a lack of goodwill. There were many who shared his original rags to riches story, unaware that there was another version in which this apparently wealthy young trader was an invention, incentivised by companies happy to exploit the gap between the life millennials are persuaded they should be living, and the harsh economic reality they live in.
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Source The Guardian