Dennis Ameh whose name has been changed for privacy found himself at a critical juncture in May 2023. A middle-aged, married man with three children, he had lost his job as a sales representative in an FMCG company back in October 2022.
Despite multiple attempts to secure another job, he faced a steady decline in his financial prospects. His modest savings and severance package dwindled, failing to keep pace with Nigeria’s escalating inflation rates.
Just when desperation began to set in, a friend introduced him to PHE-BELLA, an online Ponzi scheme that had purportedly been in operation since 2021.
The scheme tantalizingly promised daily returns of 5% on investments, with a minimum buy-in starting from NGN 2,500 and lasting for 32 days.
Moreover, recruiting others to join the scheme could earn you percentage earnings from your ‘downlines’. If one could grow their downlines to 50 people, PHE-BELLA promised a stable job and funds to establish a local office.
Embracing this newfound hope, Dennis aggressively grew his downlines to over 50 people by July, even recruiting individuals from beyond Lagos.
He earned a monthly salary of NGN 63,000 and received branded t-shirts for his team, which included family and friends.
The Grim Awakening
Dennis was convinced that PHE-BELLA was different from the multitude of fraudulent schemes that had plagued Nigerians.
Fueled by his initial success, he reinvested his earnings into the scheme, especially when PHE-BELLA introduced a high-yield, short-term “welfare and anniversary package.”
Together with his team, Dennis invested over NGN 3 million, expecting to triple their capital but their optimism was shattered when the platform went silent.
Withdrawals were halted, and Nnamdi Lukas, who purported to be his manager, became unresponsive.
Dennis was not alone in his plight.
Many Nigerians, driven by unemployment and desperation, had been seduced by the illusory promises of PHE-BELLA, which now appeared to have changed its identity and continued its nefarious activities.
His anguish was not merely financial.
“I was trying to help,” Dennis lamented. “Some of my recruits were hoping to pay their children’s school fees; others were struggling to make rent.
Now I’ve worsened their situation. I’ve been sick since this happened. PHE-BELLA seemed so reliable initially that I felt safe recruiting more people into it.”
Other victims shared similar stories. Abolaji and Razaq Olu became involved after being shown altered images suggesting that the Federal Government endorsed the scheme.
“This looks like a conspiracy; some people are facilitating this operation,” said Abolaji. Razaq Olu added, “I was duped by the edited images and a meaningless agreement form.”
The Genesis and Operations of Deception
This Ponzi syndicate has masterminded multiple online platforms, simulating trades in cryptocurrency, mining natural resources, and renewable energy products.
They entice investors with alluring daily returns and weekly salaried jobs, only to abscond with cash deposits that often run into hundreds of millions of Naira.
These operations can last anywhere from two weeks to four months, gathering sufficient funds from victims before abruptly shutting down.
However, these scammers never truly disappear; instead, they reemerge under different guises, perpetuating what appears to be a never-ending cycle of deception.
The exact origins of this syndicate remain elusive, but what Nairametrics has uncovered is unsettling.
Before shutting down one fraudulent scheme, they often have multiple other schemes registered and ready for launch. In other words, their criminal enterprise is in perpetual operation.
This syndicate will either concoct a brand-new business entity for its activities or clone an already-established international company specializing in cryptocurrency or commodities.
For example, PHE-BELLA made audacious claims of being in a partnership with the Federal Government through the Ministry of Mines and Steel Development.
The syndicate even showcased a counterfeit certificate of partnership across its Telegram and WhatsApp groups.
PHE-BELLA seduced potential investors by offering equipment rentals deployed at purported mining sites, including a fictitious gold mine in Kaduna state.
They promised daily profits over periods ranging from 32 to 64 days.
Surprisingly, despite Nigerians’ prior brushes with Ponzi schemes, many fell victim to this elaborate scam. Some were lured in by compelling testimonials from friends and family already involved with PHE-BELLA and receiving weekly payments.
Driven by desperation and unemployment, these individuals risked their limited savings. As they saw their initial investments yield returns, they grew more entrenched in the scheme and persuaded others to join.
In a bid to attract new investors, the syndicate went as far as establishing physical offices and distributing branded promotional materials.
They also engaged in community outreach, meticulously documenting their activities on WhatsApp and Telegram groups.
The group administrators conducted daily meetings, urging members to share screenshots that showcased their credited profits.
However, the scheme ultimately unravelled when it introduced new high-yield, short-term investment products, promising returns of up to 300% in just seven days.
Investigating the Scam
Nairametrics led a comprehensive investigation into various WhatsApp and Telegram platforms and examined several websites implicated in the Ponzi scheme.
Our findings revealed a concerning trend: the scammers often use the names of globally recognized brands to lend credibility to their schemes, claiming to offer job opportunities and financial growth for Nigeria’s unemployed population.
For instance, a platform named PHEBELLA distributed pictures of two individuals, Kelvin Bennett, and Torsten Dehner, claiming they were top-level executives associated with the company.
Our investigation determined that these individuals were employed at AGCO, an agriculture-based company, and had no affiliation with PHEBELLA whatsoever.
We also identified around 8 different aliases used by this syndicate between August 16 and September 2, targeting Nigeria’s high youth unemployment rate and poverty to promote their Ponzi schemes.
Analyzing the Websites
Nairametrics analyzed four websites connected with these scams and made shocking discoveries. Websites like Minibot. store promised unrealistic daily commissions and even claimed that investors could earn up to N90,000 daily.
Our findings indicated that this website had been cloned from an entertainment and games company called Tom Spander, with an app named Minibot. app.
We reached out to Tom Spander for comment but have not received a reply as of the time of this report.
In a similar vein, Anker-power.net showed a meagre 3% trust index, and a closer inspection revealed that it had been mimicking an established American company, Anker Solix.
Despite reaching out to Anker Solix, we have not received any feedback.
Our investigations further revealed that the fraudsters cloned two other sites teck-ng.com and m.riotinto-wealth.com mimicking Teck Resources Limited an established and leading Canadian mining company and Rio Tinto an Anglo-Australian multinational company and a leading global mining company.
Both companies responded to Nairametrics via their X (formerly Twitter) denying any such affiliations.
Many of the victims we spoke to were reluctant to share their experiences, believing that doing so wouldn’t help them recover their losses.
They all had one thing in common: they were introduced to the scheme by trusted family and friends who had themselves fallen for the scam.
These victims had invested with hopes of paying for immediate needs like house rent, school fees, or even planning to travel abroad.
Our investigation also found that the scammers deploy moles within WhatsApp and Telegram groups. These individuals pose as genuine investors but are part of the scamming network.
Their role is to lead victims into new Ponzi schemes, feigning losses to gain trust and advocating new opportunities for ‘quick recovery.’
Bank Accounts Involved
Our findings further indicate that these Ponzi schemes use auto-generating accounts from Kuda, Wema, Flutterwave, Paystack, and Opay to collect payments.
Astonishingly, payouts are made through multiple individual accounts instead of a centralized company account, making it even more challenging to trace the scam.
Why People Fall for It
Two reasons often cited by victims were dire economic circumstances and a false sense of security instilled by the scammer’s claim of the scheme’s longevity.
Most of these victims lack a fundamental understanding of due diligence and are lured by the high returns promised, acting impulsively without seeking professional advice.
Addressing the Menace
The proliferation of these schemes points to the need for prompt intervention from relevant authorities. Public awareness efforts, although important, are not sufficient.
The government must step up cyber intelligence efforts to proactively identify and neutralize these threats before more damage is done.
What You Should Know
Nairametrics has consistently reported on Ponzi schemes to educate the public. Over the past year (August 2022 to August 2023), we have produced numerous articles aimed at enlightening Nigerians on the activities of scammers and how to identify such schemes.
In this extensive investigation, we have not only uncovered the scammers’ tactics but also demonstrated the complexity of the operations.
These findings underline the need for collective action against this growing menace, calling upon everyone to stay vigilant and report suspicious activities.
By shedding light on this illicit underbelly, Nairametrics aims to arm its readers with the knowledge they need to protect themselves from becoming the next victims. Stay tuned for updates as we continue to follow this story.
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