We were all warned. But some either never heard, or chose to ignore the advice from the Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU) not to put money into the “Blessing Circles” that have been sprouting up all over social media in recent weeks.
More than 1,200 people who were lured into paying a non-refundable $700 into a scheme that promised more than $18,000 in “blessings” found out the hard way this week that if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.
All indications are that this unfortunate group of people are just the tip of the iceberg. Many more victims of this latest incarnation of a pyramid may be counting their losses.
Pyramid scams surface in this country every few years and this latest version got some traction on social media where there are many desperate and gullible people easily taken in by get-rich-quick tricks.
These unregulated investment schemes grow quickly by claiming unusually high monthly returns through a system of referrals. They usually surface in economic hard times.
Although some versions of this scam have been portrayed as sou sous, they are completely different from that traditional savings plan which has been popular throughout the Caribbean for decades.
While this latest scam has lured scores of ordinary people, they are not the only ones who can fall victim to financial fraud.
Just over a decade ago, almost the entire English-speaking Caribbean was reeling from the news of the US$8 billion Ponzi scheme run by disgraced Antigua-based financier R Allen Stanford.
The empire Stanford built in the region came crashing down when the US-based Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) accused him of running a “massive, ongoing fraud.” It turned out that certificates of deposit issued by Stanford International Bank in Antigua and sold to investors by Stanford’s US-based brokerage arm were not worth the paper they were printed on. The entire operation was a fraud that financed Stanford’s lavish lifestyle, which enabled him to fund the first major T20 cricket tournament in the region.
There was also the epic implosion of the CL Finance empire in 2009, which came close to wrecking several regional economies.
While those two experiences were on a completely different level to pyramid schemes, they also had the effect of robbing a lot of ordinary citizens of their savings.
The ease with which hundreds of people fall victim to these fraudulent activities underscores the importance of financial literacy. The Central Bank and other institutions have in the past taken on the task of training and raising awareness among the population about putting their earnings to good use. There is need for many more of those educational sessions on a larger scale.
It is also time for the Financial Intelligence Unit to step up its actions to detect and initiate swift action whenever these financial scams come to light. Tougher laws also need to be introduced to deal with perpetrators of these scams.