Wednesday, January 2, 2008

High-Yield Investment Program (HYIP)

A High-Yield Investment Program (HYIP) is a type of scam. At one time, it was used to refer to an investment program which may have offered a high return on investment. The term "HYIP" was abused by the operators of scams to camouflage their scams as legitimate investments. Due to this overuse by the operators, HYIP has become synonymous with scam or Ponzi scheme. The usage of the term has evolved to refer to a kind of Ponzi scheme that recruits "investors" through the Internet.

Overview
HYIP operators generally set up a website offering an "investement program" with returns as high as 45% per month or 6% a day that discloses little or no detail about the underlying management, location, or other aspects of how money is to be invested because no money is invested. They often use vague explanations, asserting little more than that they do different types of trading on various stock markets or exchanges to generate the returns they purport. The SEC has said the following on the matter: "These fraudulent schemes involve the purported issuance, trading, or use of so-called 'prime' bank, 'prime' European bank or 'prime' world bank financial instruments, or other 'high yield investment programs.' ('HYIP's) The fraud artists... seek to mislead investors by suggesting that well regarded and financially sound institutions participate in these bogus programs.
Some investigators believe that the majority of HYIPs are Ponzi schemes, in which new participants provide the cash to pay a profit into existing investors' accounts. However, as there are no formal statistics available about the HYIP sector, much of the material in this article is based on anecdote and conjecture.
HYIPs are able to succeed in collecting large sums of money for the operators because the initial payoff to first and second round participants helps the scam to continue spreading by word of mouth as long as new participants are found and/or old participants leave their money in the scheme in hopes of gaining interest on their principal payment. Participants are usually presented some form of an appeal to emotion or faith that the HYIP will help them achieve quick financial freedom. HYIPs may also mirror Pyramid Schemes by offering current investors incentive commissions, for example 9% of current investment, to recruit new investors.
The introduction of e-currencies in the late 1990s made it possible for HYIPs to operate on the Internet and across international boundaries, and to accept large numbers of small payments. HYIPs usually accept payments by either e-currency, like e-gold, and INTGold (now defunct), or use specialist third party payment processors like AlertPay, SolidTrustPay, CEPTrust, TriStarMoneyChangers and StormPay.
The largest documented HYIP scam was OSGold, founded as an e-gold imitation in 2001 by David Reed. OSGold folded in 2002. According to a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in early 2005, the operators of OSGold may have made off with USD $250 million.
CNet reported that:
At the height of its popularity, the OSGold currency boasted more than 60,000 accounts created by people drawn to promises of "high yield" investments that would provide guaranteed monthly returns of 30 percent to 45 percent.
The second largest documented HYIP was PIPS (People in Profit System or Pure Investors). The investment scheme was started by Bryan Marsden in early 2004, according to the Wayback Machine record of pureinvestor.com, and spanned more than 20 countries. PIPS was investigated by Bank Negara Malaysia in 2005 which resulted in Marsden and his wife being charged in a Malaysian court with 97 counts of money laundering more than 77 million RM, equivalent to $20 million. Even after these charges were brought forth, many of Marsden's followers and investors continued to support him and believe they would see their money in the future. This type of rationalization and denial can often be seen on many HYIP forums.

HYIP games
As a result of online forums and monitoring sites which have made HYIP investors more aware of their nature, some HYIP operaters promote their programs as a "ponzi-structured game" where one should "not invest money one cannot afford to lose", and where there is "never a guarantee of earnings or refunds". They promise to pay out up to, for example, 95% of deposits, the rest going to hosting or other fees and the owner's profit.
In such "games", the first participants ("investors") may make a good profit and are encouraged to refer other people to the program because of referral commission, the fact that they have already made back their principal and are playing with profit, and that the more people who deposit money, the more money can be paid out to participants. In theory, strategies can be developed to maximize profit using these games (but, of course, since this is a zero-sum game, such strategies work by taking advantage of ignorance or errors by others). Some forum users may gain a reputation whereby others will trust their word that they have been able to withdraw their profits, encouraging others to invest in the hopes that more will invest after them and that they can therefore make a profit. As these games are by definition Ponzi schemes, it is inevitable that the vast majority of participants who are not at the top of the pyramid will lose their money.
These "games" might be considered as lotteries. However, the odds of winning cannot be determined, as one cannot know whether one is playing early enough to win money (that is, whether a sufficient number of new participants will follow). Thus, these activities are unlike a lottery or other forms of regulated gambling, where a participant has an equal chance of winning no matter when a ticket is bought, or where the odds of the game are known.
HYIP programs generally appeal to the same kind of person who is attracted to gambling. Like gambling, HYIP "games" are a way of separating the participant from his money, while offering a small chance of making a profit. This accounts for their rapid proliferation.

HYIP participants
As can be readily determined from perusing various HYIP monitor forums, a large number of HYIP participants continue to participate in new schemes after they have already lost money in schemes that folded. The fact that most of the programs are labelled "scams" on the HYIP monitor boards (see below) suggests that many of the participants are aware of the risk and know that most HYIP's are fraudulent but choose to put money in the programs anyway. This kind of irrational risk-taking behavior is typical of gambling addicts.

HYIP monitors
HYIP monitors, or HYIP listing/rating sites, are personal or commercial websites that list and/or promote HYIPs for referral commissions. The monitor charges each HYIP a listing fee which is usually then invested into that program, although there exist free listings and occasionally monitors which invest their own money. The monitor then labels the HYIP as "Paying" or "Not paying/Scam" depending on whether interest is received within the terms specified by the program. Monitors also allow other HYIP investors to rate and comment on the programs, based on factors such as promptness of payouts and responsiveness of the HYIP administrator. Programs with higher ratings achieve higher rankings on the monitor sites, which coupled with a "Paying" status may entice more investors who rely on the monitor.
In some cases, HYIPs may only pay monitor sites to keep their "Paying" status visible, but do not pay other investors. As HYIP monitors are not affiliated with the HYIPs themselves, they are unable to prevent investors from being scammed; they neither help to recover lost funds nor track down the scammers. Promoting or perpetuating Ponzi schemes is a criminal offense punishable by jail terms or fines in most countries. That the monitor sites place disclaimers saying that they "do not promote the programs advertised on their website" does not absolve them from criminal liability.
In order to generate a "paying" status early (so that future visitors will see it) and maintain it for the longest possible time, newly opened HYIPs list their site quickly as well as constantly pay monitors their interest on time. Added to the fact that many monitors invest the listing "fee", and that a commission is received on each deposit made by people who visit the HYIP via the monitor, they are the most likely to profit when a program runs out of funds.
HYIP owners can manipulate monitors and forums, by paying people to comment positively or by using a range of IP addresses or proxy servers in different locations so that "paying" votes appear to come from around the world. This allows the HYIP to rise up the rankings more quickly than others, giving participants a false sense of security. Additionally, even if they know it will scam in the future, some participants will also rate new HYIPs positively until the HYIP stops paying, because they want more people to invest after them in the hopes that the program will last longer. Future scammers can also build up a good reputation on forums for a large payoff once most forum members trust them.
The problem is seen as many monitors appear only to make certain programs more acceptable and trustworthy.

Mechanics
Though Ponzi and HYIP schemes have thrived and multiplied since at least the early 1900s, the combination of the Internet and Electronic Money has played an important role in the rapid growth of HYIP's in the first decade of the 21st century. Like many businesses with a narrow niche market, the Internet has enabled HYIP scammers to find a global market of people who demonstrate by their behavior that they "want to be scammed". Somewhat similar to the poor person who spends a large percentage of his income on lotto tickets in hopes of striking it rich, HYIP participants invest money in a "company" in a foreign country that offers returns that are "too good to be true", that publishes no verifying information, and has no way of being held accountable.
The use of digital payments systems has made it much easier for operators of such websites to accept payments from people worldwide. Electronic Money systems are generally accepted by HYIP operators because that is the only payment system to which they have access. Obviously, acceptance of credit cards and ACH would give them access to a far larger pool of prospective victims, but the difficulty of opening a merchant processing account while hiding their identity prevents them from doing so. Since digital money systems generally don't issue credit and don't earn interest on their client accounts, they often do not perform investigation of their merchant clients, as a bank typically does.
Once the HYIP operator has received the payment, it is difficult and costly to track them down across several national borders. This would be the case regardless of whether regular banks or electronic money was used.
While some HYIP operators exploited this weakness, several digital currency companies responded by taking measures to discourage their system from being used for HYIPs. Certain HYIP operators, such as David Reed, opened digital currency companies serving the HYIP niche. Examples of payment systems started by HYIP operators that eventually folded include Standard Reserve, OSGold, INTGold, EvoCash and most recently EMO Corp[8]. StormPay was started in the same way in 2002, but has remained in business even though the HYIP that is was created to serve was shut down by the State of Tennessee.
The preference of HYIP operators for e-gold may be because other digital currencies run by HYIP operators that catered to the HYIP niche (see above), have folded, as the operators have made off with the deposits. That is to say, HYIP operators don't trust each other, but they do trust e-gold, which has remained a stable and reliable payment system for over 12 years.

HYIPs have often been started under the guise of companies. Some have gone so far as to actually incorporate their company in countries with lax fraud laws. Due to these locations, operators may be effectively immune to normal laws that would protect a consumer in that consumer's country. The operators have been known to host their website with a webhost that offers "anonymous hosting". They will use this website to accept transactions from participants in the scheme. The HYIP scam may also create sites which employ spamdexing or other adversarial information retrieval techniques in order to attract potential victims by creating an impression that the company has done no wrong. HYIP Monitors are one such example.

Because the amount of money "lost" by a given HYIP participant is generally quite small, and that the nature of the scam is relatively obvious, government task forces on Internet crime do not generally give them high priority.

Rationalizations
Often HYIPs will claim that they make money through non-existent yet plausible means, playing to people's gullibility or ignorance on the subject. In the case of the prime bank scam, many people were led to believe that they were buying banknotes in a clandestine organization called prime bank. Other HYIP scams claim that they use special software or algorithms that have the ability to forecast markets in order to make money.

Social aspects
HYIPs generally appeal to emotions of investors who are looking for quick cash. Unfortunately, often those who play become part of the scam. They are encouraged to promote it in order to receive payment on their investment. In this aspect, it mirrors a Pyramid scheme in that users must recruit others in order to profit.

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