Is This Company a Forex-Trading Pyramid Scheme?
Critics and regulators have sometimes equated multilevel marketing companies to pyramid investment schemes. Does iMarketsLive deserve that label?
The first thing Christopher Terry wants you to know is that he’s a working-class guy from the Bronx.
Baby-faced Terry, with his slicked-back hair and slight paunch, wants you to know that he’s a top-notch trader in “everything under the sun,” from equities to options to foreign exchange.
“If you’re a forex trader, act like it,” he says, extending his arm in a classic New York City boroughs gesture.
That said, it was Terry’s earlier effort in Amway, the world’s largest multilevel marketing (MLM) company, that gave him the idea for his current venture: iMarketsLive, an MLM — or what he calls “networking marketing” — company that purports to teach participants how to trade forex, a market so risky that even the world’s greatest money managers often utterly fail at it.
“I didn’t make any money in Amway. I made zero. But it created a mindset of wealth,” says Terry, 53, who says his girlfriend got him into Amway in 1990.
After neither Amway nor the girlfriend worked out, he says, he moved on to day trading in the mid-’90s. Terry also says he was one of the original SOES bandits — a group of individual investors who exploited Nasdaq’s Small Order Execution System for day trading, which helped launch electronic communication networks (ECNs) — before he moved on to forex after stock markets crashed following the terror attacks of September 11, 2001.
“I thought, ‘How can I mix and match something?’ Why not create a network marketing model and marry the two?” Terry explains all of this in an hour-long 2015 YouTube interview with Troy Dooly, an adviser to iMarketsLive’s board of directors and executives.
Terry did not return a request for additional comment.
“It’s fresh, it’s something new,” Dooly says to Terry as the two chat in the latter’s Las Vegas condo. Multiple computer screens flash before them, including one from iMarketsLive screaming “Design your own lifestyle” and another with squiggly lines that appears to be a trading chart.
iMarketsLive is definitely different. The MLM world is full of people hawking everything from anti-aging potions and scented candles to diet shakes and leggings in a business structure that is often alleged to be a pyramid scheme. That’s because, according to critics, the only way to make money in most of these businesses is not to sell their pricey products to the public but to convince others to join in and do the same thing — in other words, by recruitment.
Critics say that appears to be what iMarketsLive does too.
Dig further into iMarketsLive’s past, and you’ll soon find some uncomfortable facts.
The company has been banned from offering financial services and products in Belgium and has been the subject of warnings by France and Spain, according to a release from the Financial Services and Markets Authority, Belgium’s financial regulator, which says, “The system proposed by International Markets Live exhibits features characteristic of a pyramid scheme.”
In the U.S., the forex-trading MLM company also has come in for its share of complaints to the Federal Trade Commission, according to consumer advocacy nonprofit Truth in Advertising, which recently posted several of them on its website. “[I] wanted to learn to trade but all guys on top wanted was marketing. [I] realised its an pyramid scheme . . . alot of people contacted me on instagram and said same thing,” reads one complaint. Adds another: “I decided to unsubscribed and block them from my bank which apparently had the company in the list of scams.”
Terry claims the company is far from being a pyramid scheme. “I don’t have a pyramiding structure. It’s like a matrix. We’re all working together synergistically,” he says in the YouTube video — a popular promotional tool of the MLM movement.
In 2017, 18.6 million people in the U.S. were involved in direct selling with MLM companies, according to the industry’s lobbying group, the Direct Selling Association, which says retail sales in the U.S. were $34.9 billion that year. Both numbers have fallen since 2016.
Since then, however, a raft of much smaller MLM companies have proliferated. iMarketsLive, which Terry calls a “virtual company,” is one of them. Although it lists New York City as its headquarters, iMarketsLive is actually run out of Terry’s Las Vegas pad, with tech support from people in Russia, China, and Pakistan, he says.
It may have been only a matter of time before the worlds of high finance and MLM connected like this. After all, for years hedge funds, private equity firms, and moguls like Carl Icahn and Warren Buffett have been taking stakes in the bigger MLM companies, like Herbalife and Pampered Chef, a Berkshire Hathaway company whose products are pots and pans.
Dooly even compares Terry to Buffett. “I kind of see the same mindset here,” he suggests.
So why not flip it around and let MLM participants try their hand at investing or trading? And if you’re the type of dreamer drawn to MLM companies, why not dream big? The $5 trillion forex market is certainly dream-worthy.
It appears only two other MLM companies are focusing on this market. One of them, Wealth Generators, sued iMarketsLive in 2017 in a Utah federal court, alleging it had stolen confidential information and intellectual property. Wealth Generators also alleged that its rival bribed its leaders to join iMarketsLive.
Another potential rival — Copy Profit Success Global, which plans to offer its own trading tools — was sued by iMarketsLive in June in a Nevada federal court.
Newcomers to iMarketsLive are told Terry has made $85 million, according to consumer complaints filed with the FTC. His pitch in the YouTube interview is that any other working-class guy can make it too — probably on his lunch hour, from his iPhone.
“They tell prospects that it’s a ground-floor opportunity because for the first time ever, you can make money off the product and not by recruiting,” according to the FTC complaint, which continues,
“it’s not true at all. . . . they are selling people the fake dream that the big bucks come from trading, not recruiting.” The FTC declined to comment for this article.
iMarketsLive isn’t a broker, however, so people who join have to hire their own forex broker to actually trade, which Terry says means that neither he nor the company has to get regulatory clearance from the National Futures Association. “I wanted our company to be clean,” Terry says. “Clean, clean, clean.”
Apparently, it wasn’t clean enough.
In a 2016 notice to users Institutional Investor has obtained, iMarketsLive said that FXCM, a broker it had been recommending, was locking customers’ accounts because they were using an unregulated expert adviser — which, in this case, was an iMarketsLive product called FX Signals Live.
That product allowed people to passively mirror Terry’s trades. “Your money can work for you 24 hours a day” whether you’re “sleeping, partying, working, or all three,” Terry says in the video. “Let’s just say [you don’t] want to learn. Just put your money to work. That’s it.”
After FXCM locked the accounts, iMarketsLive suggested people move them offshore to an unregulated broker. “If you are interested in moving to another broker to reduce your risk of your account being blocked by FXCM or any U.S.-regulated broker, then we can suggest the following brokers that accept U.S. clients,” it added, before listing them.
iMarketsLive says it has since discontinued FX Signals Live. However, it still has other means to entice prospects, like the IML Harmonic Scanner, which it says “automatically draws and labels different harmonic patterns in the forex market” and appears to be some type of chart-based technical analysis.
Terry says he will continue to “flood the market” with “high-quality product,” and taunts finance professionals. “I’m not saying I’m calling BS on the trading industry, but I am,” he said in the Dooly interview.
But Truth in Advertising asks, “How much better are the trading tools that iMarketsLive offers than the services that a broker provides? If the company’s products are inferior by comparison, you may have a tough time selling the products. And if the ‘opportunity’ side of the business is less about selling products than about recruitment, well, that’s one of the hallmarks of a pyramid scheme.”
Moreover, forex trading is often highly leveraged and, partly as a result, risky. It also has a low cost of entry, which is why Terry says he chose that market for his venture. “Forex gives the individuals who don’t have a lot of money a low barrier to enter,” says Terry. “You could start a forex account for 50 bucks, where on these other markets it’s a thousand, two thousand, five thousand. But forex allows people to come in at a very, very low price.”
But Truth in Advertising executive director Bonnie Patten points out, “The underlying product is an incredibly risky endeavor in which most unsophisticated consumers have a higher risk of losing greater amounts of money because of the leverage.”
iMarketsLive, a private company, does not disclose its revenues or number of participants, but Patten says TIA believes it had a surge in growth in recent years when it brought on Alex Morton, a man with a checkered past of his own.
“College doesn’t guarantee anything but students loans,” then-23-year-old Morton, who helped launched Vemma’s college drive, said in what became a widely circulated Las Vegas recruiting session in 2013 promoting what he called a “young-people’s revolution.” He cautioned these youths to avoid ending up like their parents, in dead-end jobs and deeply in debt.
Morton’s videos became what TIA calls a “star witness” against Vemma at the preliminary injunction hearing, as they showed him making “inappropriate income claims.” Vemma agreed to a $238 million settlement in December 2016.
By then Morton had joined iMarketsLive as executive vice president in sales, which Terry trumpeted in the YouTube video. “He is the most incredible individual out there,” Terry said. “He has come in with some phenomenal ideas. He’s raised the bar.” (Morton did not respond to a request for comment.)
According to TIA, which has tracked his behavior, Morton was simply back at what he does best. “Morton regularly posts videos promoting his lifestyle with the promise that hard work in network marketing will yield the same results for others,” TIA claimed. (He is also a plaintiff in a lawsuit brought by disgruntled distributors in Jeunesse Global, another MLM, which he briefly joined after leaving Vemma.
Indeed, Morton could be seen on his Facebook page — where he has 108,723 followers — extolling the high life that joining the MLM ranks confers. Weeks after the consumer group posted a string of his misleading income claims, all of them had been taken down.
That didn’t stop Morton. By July 23, he was back on Facebook with another message for his followers: “Many of you are letting your EGO block you from your own BLESSINGS. And when I say blessings, in this case I’m talking about you having a shot at actually becoming WEALTHY.”
These days Morton even has his own website, alexmortonmindset.com, where he talks in the third person about his Vemma experience — without naming the company or its battle with the FTC. “At the age of 24, he became the youngest $1 million earner in that company’s history. In mid-2015, he partnered with his second company and has now earned over $2.5 million by his 26th birthday,” the website states. A highly produced video, depicting Morton exiting a Rolls-Royce and stepping onto a private jet, encourages viewers to believe that the only thing stopping them from similar wealth is their own mindset.
The FTC would disagree. What Morton’s website and video do not mention is that while he reaped gains, the FTC alleged that most of Vemma’s participants lost money — the result, the regulator claimed, of an all-too-common structure of MLM firms that sees participants rewarded more handsomely for recruiting new distributors than for actually selling product.
Which at least one regulator, and multiple online reviewers, claim is a characteristic of iMarketsLive.