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Inside the weird new world of social ‘forex’ trading—where you sign up friends, and some report risky red flags for investors

September 20, 2020, 9:00 PM UTC

Complicated dance moves, soothing videos, funny couple challenges…a hive of foreign exchange day traders? Of all the subcultures on Twitter, TikTok, and Instagram, this is one of the most improbable—and riskiest—to emerge. But it’s a real and growing trend.

Slinging “forex” (short for foreign exchange trading) used to be reserved for specialty desks on Wall Street, where experienced traders made nail-biting bets that currencies would move in one direction or another. Over the past several years Robinhood and other online stock trading platforms have broadened the market for equities traders. But in this corner of the investment world, two high-risk concepts are being fused together: foreign exchange trading and multilevel marketing. All you need is a phone and any app that tracks the market—which is exactly the problem, say critics.

Khari Bush is a chairman 50—which, in the social media forex world means he makes $50,000 a month. Bush, 23, started trading with TradeHouse Investment Group two years ago as a college student looking for extra cash. Now he oversees his own team within a group called Money Magnets with over 2,500 members.

The top edge of the bill has been manipulated to mimic the U.S. dollar index over the past month.
Photo-Illustration by Fortune; Original photo: Anna Kim—Getty Images

TradeHouse and other investment groups partner with online learning platform IM Mastery Academy, using it to teach members how to trade through online classes and webinars. There are two sides to the business: trading currency and then the “network marketing” side where you get paid to bring in new accounts.

“There’s a monthly subscription. In order for you to get that subscription waived, you enroll two people,” Bush explains, adding that the fee is a little over $400. “So you have the money that you make from trading, and you got the money that you make from growing the team and having an impact.” According to IM Mastery Academy’s compensation plan, there are certain “ranks” members are awarded: A platinum 150 can make around $40 a week from his team members. A chairman 500? $125,000 a week.

Ben Lies, president of financial planning fiduciary Delphi Advisers, says it’s not a question of whether trading currency can be profitable but if it’s viable for the average investor: “People don’t even pretend to be able to forecast it in most cases. It’s really not something that a lot of people should be involved in for the most part. Professional traders and people who have a lot of familiarity, sure. But for retail investors, it’s not a great place to cut your teeth.”

And where Bush saw an opportunity to make residual income, Averyanna James saw something else. “They call it ‘teaching somebody about the opportunity’ or ‘joining our team.’ They just feel like they’re helping another person become financially independent,” she says. 

James was in her senior year at Arizona State University when she first encountered forex trading, and it seemed like the investment opportunity she was looking for. She had access to fancy software tools like the “harmonic scanner,” which detects patterns in currency fluctuations, cryptocurrency, and more to help traders make informed decisions, she says. And her investment group had weekly meetings to go over the market and answer questions—or at least try to. 

“There were times where I would have questions, and I would go to the investment group, and I would ask, ‘Can you explain to me what this is?’ And most of the time they wouldn’t know. And so that’s when my concerns kind of started to form,” James says. 

When she asked traders for proof of their success in the market, they were often unwilling to share. “You wouldn’t go to your boss and ask them what their bank statements are,” she says they told her. The pressure to sign up new recruits from among her contacts also troubled her.

“If someone’s not interested in joining, you don’t have to say, ‘Oh, you’re gonna be broke for the rest of your life,’” James says. “I don’t think that’s how you should treat people if you’re really here to help and educate them.” While it’s possible to be successful trading currency, when people realize how difficult it is to learn, she says, they turn to signing people up instead so that they can receive the residual income.

Instagram recruiters

On Instagram and Twitter, the new breed of forex traders share opportunities for mentorships, success stories, and local meetups across the U.S. The more people you can persuade to sign up, James explains, the more money you start to get back. 

Randy “Rudy” Rudolph started Market Bullies, another team under TradeHouse Investment Group that uses IM Mastery Academy’s online platform to teach trading strategies. Not every group emphasizes passing along trading knowledge, which is why, Rudolph says, forex gets a bad reputation. 

“Mentorship is everything in this opportunity. If your mentor is on it running trainings, then you’re gonna have a good experience,” he says. “If you have people that just are greedy, trying to get residual income, then it’s going to be bad…When people see forex on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, they see posts about people hitting ranks, and trips they’re taking, and it overshadows the educational piece that we’re really trying to reinforce.”

Rudolph recommends starting with a demo or practice account, and first trading with fake money before opening a real account. A popular app for retail foreign exchange traders is MetaTrader 4 or MT4. From IM Mastery Academy new investors can learn how to analyze market trends for themselves. 

Established forex traders try not to post on social media about their lifestyle so as to temper expectations, Rudolph says. If they post images of expensive watches or boats, IM Mastery will ask them to take it down or blur the images to avoid attention from the Federal Trade Commission. In 2018, iMarketsLive was one of eight firms charged with violating registration requirements that safeguard consumers from fraud.

When attempting to reach IM Mastery Academy (which previously operated under the name iMarketsLive) for comment, Fortune received a message that its email account is no longer monitored and that the company does not offer phone support. When Fortune attempted to contact IM Mastery through social media, an automatic reply suggested contacting customer support. Each time Fortune emailed customer support, the response advised logging into the website to contact support that way.

New York–based IM Mastery Academy has also attracted international scrutiny. In Belgium, a government agency issued a warning about the company in January 2018.

“The firm offers its members advantages and compensation that increase the more new members they recruit,” it read. “International Markets Live is not, however, authorized to offer financial services and products in Belgium. Moreover, the system proposed by International Markets Live exhibits features characteristic of a pyramid scheme.”

The U.K. followed with a similar notice later that year, warning that traders who give money to an unregulated firm are not protected by law when things go wrong. In the U.S., the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) has seen cases where forex traders claim to manage their clients’ money and, in reality, had no trading experience themselves. In 2019, the CFTC filed a civil lawsuit against a business called FuturesFX and its founder Simon Jousef. Jousef was charged with “fraudulently soliciting people, in the U.S. and abroad, to subscribe to a trading system that included a supposedly ‘live’ foreign exchange (forex) and commodity futures online trading room, educational videos, and online support (trading system).”

For those making a legitimate attempt to learn currency trading, it can be difficult to swing—especially if it’s not your full-time job. Antonise Hightower is an educator in Chicago, and trading in the Tokyo market would require her to work between 7 p.m. and 4 a.m. EST. 

“While I was at work, I would try and look at the charts. But even just five minutes could pass and I’ve already lost some money because the chart went down,” says Hightower, who cautiously put $15 in her account to limit the amount of money lost on a bad trade.

After her first month passed with small profits and some losses as she tried to find what worked for her schedule, it was time to pay her monthly membership to her trading group. 

“They wanted me to post on Instagram saying, you know, ‘You gotta get out there.’ But I’m not that person to suggest something that I don’t feel completely good about,” says Hightower, who is putting her interest in trading on the back burner for now.  

One key red flag is leverage. Forex markets allow high leverage—50 to 1 for some currencies; someone with only $1,000 to trade can trade $50,000 worth of currency. The opposite, losing everything you have, and more, is also true.

“The reality is that when you use leverage, you can also lose a lot of money quickly,” says Lies. “Anybody who says they bought a car—whether it’s true or not––over a couple of months in forex trading took risks that could have bankrupted them.”

To trade currency safely, Lies suggests finding a registered broker and understanding how he or she gets paid; the way that brokers profit says a lot about what their incentive structure is. Lies, who is a registered investment adviser, says it would be hard to justify currency trading to his clients because of the volatility in the markets.

“I would have to prove that it has its place in a long-term, retirement-based portfolio,” he says. “Currency trading by nature is speculation and not long-term investing.”

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