The night Jérôme Huard found out he’d lost several thousand dollars he’d entrusted to a company claiming to be an online investment firm, he was so depressed he locked himself in his room, turned off the lights and tried to sleep.
“I can tell you, it was a hard night,” said Huard, who had received the money as an inheritance last year.
The Autorité des marchés financier (AMF), Quebec’s securities regulator, later told him he was the victim of scammers who are defrauding investors not just in Canada, but worldwide.
For Huard, it all began last February when he got a call on his cell phone from a company called HQ Broker.
He thought it was related to a recent investment he’d made at his bank, so he wasn’t suspicious.
The representative offered different investment opportunities that would make good returns in stocks or foreign currencies.
He shrugged off unfavourable client reviews online when he saw the company quickly responded to them.
Intrigued by HQ Broker’s web-trading platform, Huard, 24, agreed to try it.
After doing some small trades himself and making a bit of money, Huard was hooked and decided to invest even larger sums.
Huard allowed HQ Broker to make the trades for him.
He was asked to send money to Hong Kong, Cyprus and Egypt, to people Huard had never heard of.
He said he asked for an explanation, but “they just told me that’s the way they operate.”
Customer service dries up
Once he’d sent HQ Broker several thousand dollars, Huard said the online company’s frequent updates on how his investments were faring dried up.
It took weeks of prodding to get his broker to release some of his earnings, putting Huard, who had just finished school, in a precarious position.
“My rent was late. My electricity was late,” said Huard.
Then the purported broker became unreachable.
When he finally resurfaced a month later, he told Huard his investments were wiped out, and his account was actually in the red.
He then got a call likely timed to capitalize on Huard’s desperation to recoup his money. A man claiming he was an insurer tried to persuade Huard to pay another few thousand dollars to get his money back and even make a profit.
“They are really good manipulators,” said Huard, who admits he almost fell for that scam, too. “They try to rush and put so much pressure on you, you can’t think rationally.”
Ultimately, he decided to call the AMF instead. The regulator confirmed it was all a scam.
“It was a fraud, from A to Z,” said Huard.
Multi-million dollar scams
Complaints about HQ Broker first appeared on the AMF’s radar in October 2017.
Although the company claims to be based in Hong Kong, AMF investigator Annie Leblanc said the Securities and Futures Commission of Hong Kong has no knowledge of it.
The location is likely a front to give the fraudsters more credibility, she said.
HQ Broker is not licensed to sell securities in Quebec, which means it is soliciting clients illegally.
“Investors have no protection and no way of knowing who is behind the company or where their money is going,” said Leblanc.
Following the complaints, the AMF tried to contact the company, but it didn’t respond.
After further investigation, the AMF placed HQ Broker on its warning list of websites and companies that solicit investors illegally.
Other security regulators in Canada have done the same.
Beware of legit-looking websites
Since 2015, Canadians have lost more than $14 million to these type of scams, including $3 million to Quebecers, the AMF says.
On average, Leblanc says victims lost about $20,000 each, but some saw losses in the hundreds of thousands.
“It’s really serious and it hurts,” said Leblanc.
The websites for HQ Broker and other fraudulent investment firms are slick and sophisticated, she said, making it difficult for even experienced investors to tell the difference between a legitimate online brokerage and a scam.
These fake investment firms are typically multilingual and operate out of call centres.
Their aggressive sales tactics and social media ads reel people in, Leblanc said.
She said the web platforms companies like HQ Broker use are rigged, so investors seem to make money at first.
As a victim’s investment apparently grows, so does their confidence, inciting people to invest even larger sums until they lose everything, said Leblanc.
Difficult to catch
The AMF’s jurisdiction is restricted to Quebec, so there is not much the regulator can do to help someone who’s been defrauded, said Leblanc.
She said the FBI and Interpol are working to track the fraudsters down, but it’s tricky.
Authorities suspect some of these sham companies are operating from small islands in the Pacific Ocean.
“These places are really hard to reach for regulators and for enforcement,” said Leblanc. “They tend to move a lot. They can basically pick up all their things and move in one day.”
She said the AMF has had some success persuading platforms such as Google, Facebook and Twitter to limit the publicity these fraudulent companies get. However, once victims catch onto the scam and word gets out, Leblanc says the scammers quickly reinvent themselves using new names.
The AMF hopes more public awareness will help.
If a business is not licensed in Quebec, Leblanc says investors should steer clear.
Some scammers, however, impersonate individuals who are actually registered with the AMF.
Leblanc says the AMF lists all registered brokers along with their phone numbers on its website. She encourages investors to call those numbers to make sure they are actually dealing with the person in question.
CBC’s own calls to HQ Broker went unanswered.
The AMF’s warning about HQ Broker came too late for Huard.
He’s wiser about who he invests with now, but the loss still stings.
“There’s a lot of things I could have done with that money,” said Huard.
“It was a safety net that I don’t have access to anymore.”