Today's financial markets provide innumerable outlets for enterprising souls to make a buck, so long as they have diligence or know-how or at least some good connections. Lacking any those qualities, there are always Ponzi schemes.
There’s one big problem with Ponzi schemes, though: They’re mathematically impossible to maintain. The expectation of compounding returns means continually seeking new investments at an exponential clip. Eventually the schemer hits a wall. For a Ponzi scheme to really work, then, one would have to attract clients into investments that were bound to lose money, and willingly.
It was only a matter of time before the market filled that niche. The innovation: harnessing the cash-blowing potential of mindless day traders. As outlined in an SEC criminal complaint this week, that was key to the model pioneered by a duo of business associates — Naris Chamroonrat of Bangkok and Adam Plumer of Las Vegas — who made a million bucks thanks to workaday schlubs trading stocks on their lunch breaks.
The scheme began as a legit business, Nonko Trading, an electronic day trading platform established by Chamroonrat in 2013. Like many prop-trading sites, Nonko had a training module where customers could practice in real time, with real stock quotes, using play money.
Chamroonrat’s innovation was to place investors on the training mode, called TRZ, but tell them they were trading actual stocks. Real money from real people flowed in, but the action was all simulated. Once the inevitably discouraged traders called it quits and cut their losses, Nonko would pocket the difference between their initial investment and the final balance, the SEC alleged. The whole scheme functioned by promising inexperienced traders exactly what they wanted: direct exposure to the market.
The trick was finding mugs. In 2014, prosecutors said, Chamroonrat enlisted Plumer to entice investors onto the site, armed with the promise of an impossibly low minimum deposit of $2,500 and a potential margin of 20:1, well above the legal limit.
“To ensure the scheme's success,” the complaint says, Chamroonrat “targeted traders who appeared inexperienced or unsophisticated, or had a history of trading losses.” For Plumer, that allegedly meant cold-calling potential marks. Those who appeared hapless and innocent enough to be certain losers were deemed “TRZ-valid” and allowed to bumble into the fake market. If they somehow hit a winning streak, Nonko would transfer them onto the real trading side.
Successful traders were a perennial source of concern. “What happens when they do make money?” Plumer asked Chamroonrat in a Skype chat, the complaint says. The response: “bump them off trz, put them on a real account give them more leverage in exchange for a profit split."
In order to allay concerns over trading “anomalies,” the two deployed a tapestry of securities-market jargon. According to the SEC, these included hand-wavy overtures to “alternative routing,” “internaliz[ation] by a wholesale desk,” and, naturally, the fact of their being on a “dark pool.”
Even so, cracks in the system emerged, leading to a fractious split with the contractor that had been providing TRZ’s virtual back-end. Chamroonrat hired a contractor to create a proprietary system, which they gave the convincing name of Logix, and the whole thing carried on as before. That is, until the SEC spoiled the fun.
In the course of less than two years, Nonko attracted $1.6 million from 260 investors, the SEC said. Over that time, fictitious trading losses amounted to $1.4 million, which was essentially money in the bank for Nonko.
As frauds go, the case the SEC lays out seems airtight. Nonko repeatedly promised investors they were using live ammunition when in fact they were shooting blanks. Losses weren’t accruing to some savvy Wall Street firm but to a bank account in Belize.
But as Ponzi schemes go – or “Ponzi-like,” in the SEC’s words – this one deserves note. It bypassed the central obstacle that all Ponzis face – the finitude of willing rubes – while giving investors precisely what they came for: an exciting way to fritter away their hard-earned cash. It’s a tenet of mainstream financial literacy that day trading is on net a losing proposition, yet millions continue to do it. Why should E*Trade be the only one to benefit?
The case is Securities and Exchange Commission v. Chamroonrat, et al, U.S. District Court, District of New Jersey, 2:16-cv-09403-KM-JBC.