Meet the Ponzi Schemers

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2016 was a tough year for many Nigerians. The economic recession, the fall of the naira, and many other challenges made Nigerians look for alternative means of survival, and one of the most popular methods many Millennials devised was ‘online networking business’ also known as Ponzi Schemes. A lot has been said about these schemes, especially about how bad they are and how the people who join are dumb, but as a journalist, I understand that there are always several angles to every story. In order to get a firsthand experience, I got registered and spoke to about 20 young people across 6 states in Nigeria who took part in this ‘business’ to share their experience with me. Are they dumb? Are they greedy? Why do they continue even when they are warned? These are some questions I asked them, and these questions led to very shocking revelations.

The Ultimate Cycler, Green Spear, and Triple M
From my survey and interaction with these young people (whom I will fondly call ‘the schemers’), I discovered three main culprits always sprung up. Ultimate Cycler; owned by an overseas networking company that gave 400% interest on the compulsory N12, 500 capital invested. This was super appetizing and as many people closed down their other Ponzi accounts to join in, it crashed! First, it was the website that went down. Then Uplines started rejecting the calls of Downlines (people they wooed to register). The website eventually came back up and then went down again, and one story upon the other; bottom line is, many people lost their N12, 500 and couldn’t get it back.

Green Spear, another famous one, promised 100% interest in 24 hours for people who deposit (or invest) Five thousand naira. Making N10, 000 in 24 hours was something many schemers could not resist and as more people created multiple accounts, the number of givers no longer matched the number of receivers. The Administrators of the scheme dropped a message as their website ‘crashed’ telling the users who lost money to ‘Stay Green’. Actually, I think many eyes turned red instead.

The most famous of them all was MMM (Mavrodi Mundial Movement) which gave 30% interest in one month on any amount deposited. It went on for about one year and eventually closed down (went on break as the MMM guiders will say) in December 2016 and then reopened in January as promised but still hasn’t been able to settle everyone till today as I write this. Many schemers say it’s a slowly-dying-dog on life support and have already given up on getting back their money.

I Bought a New Phone
The other day in the news, there was this story of a woman who committed suicide because of the money she lost in MMM, and there are so many other bad stories we hear about these schemes that’s why I was shocked to get some very good testimonies from some schemers. Donald, 24, Student in Calabar told me, “I joined MMM with the pocket money my Parents sent to me. In 3 weeks I got it back with an extra 30% interest which I used to buy a new android phone”. As for Mary, 21, Delta State, it helped her to get educational materials when her parents were unable to send her money from home. “I used Ultimate Cycler money to buy handout oh…” she says.

“I put my Alawi inside the thing…” another Youth Corps member shares with a friend in pidgin English. “The thing dey work fast, and you no need to refer anybody. Just come register under me and you go make your money sharp sharp”. It sounded very weird to me because why would she want someone to register under her if there are no referrals needed. She kept singing how she made almost N500, 000 by just investing her NYSC allowance of N19, 800. I could not verify her testimony, but I could verify Emeka’s story. Emeka, 25, Port Harcourt was a jambite (he recently gained admission) at the time some of these schemes started and through investing in multiple schemes he paid for Jamb, paid for his aptitude test, and even his acceptance fee. He is now an undergrad. Hallelujah.

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You can no Longer GH
Those are only few of the ‘great testimonies’ I heard from the schemers. But there was also the other side of the story. This part made me laugh so hard sometimes I even started crying. Armani, 20, Student, Port Harcourt, said “I registered on Green Spear with the N5, 000 my dad gave me for handout. My friend kept convincing me to join and I reluctantly did. I felt getting extra five thousand wouldn’t be bad to flex with the boys in the coming weekend. Monday passed, Tuesday passed, and by Thursday evening I was still yet to be matched to someone who will pay me. Eventually the site closed as they told us to Stay Green. They crashed with my 5k. I might fail that course because I have not been able to raise the money till today, and I can’t tell my father”.

“I just sold a piece of land for 3.6 million naira”, Jerry, 36, Abuja, says. “I wasn’t very sure what to do with the money and there’s this friend who had been disturbing me to join MMM. This was November 2016. I stupidly invested the money hoping for about 3.9 or 4 million back in December to flex during the Christmas break with my family. They first went on break in December and somehow I survived hypertension till January. Okay, please just give me the 3.6 million naira back I don’t want any mavro again. I keep getting, ‘you have exceeded your GH Limit’ or ‘you can no longer GH’. I dey find that my friend wey register me but him don travel”.

And The Whatsapp Admin Left…
Richy and Didi, both 18 years old from Port Harcourt, gave a new twist to the story. They invented their own Ponzi scheme on Whatsapp. I was blown away by how they convinced grown men and women in their right minds to join some random Whatsapp group and invest their money despite what was going on with MMM at the time. “We used fake phone numbers, fake names, but the mistake I made was that I used my Dad’s bank account” Richy says. “In about 5 days more than N600, 000 had exchanged between members in our Whatsapp group. Soon greedy people started to create multiple accounts, but before then we had benefitted more than N30, 000 each. The people to PH (Provide help or invest into the scheme) did no longer tally with those to GH (Get Help or gain interest from their investment). We were left with one option. We looked for a zealous person in the group and made him an admin. One by one we left the group and broke our sim cards. They couldn’t trace us. But because we used Dad’s account they went to First Bank to find his details. We were scared when we heard this information but thankfully they allowed it die a natural death. People lost a lot of money but we escaped. Even MMM said use your spare cash, did we tell them we were serious?” Didi laughed as he narrated the story.

Understand the Trap
Didi and Richy’s escapades gave me a deeper understanding of how these Ponzi schemes crash. How greedy people create several accounts and how money can no longer go round. How there’s so much corruption in the ‘matching process’ and how we don’t know who pays who — that is, the Admins can match people to pay them over and over and get away with it.

Speaking with schemers, I also got to know that the ‘online money making thing’ is very addictive. “It’s the first thing I touch in the morning even before my Bible”, Joe, 24, Lagos, confessed. “You keep joining one after the other, and it gets worse when you lose money because then you become desperate to get it back. But that cycle never ends because you keep losing and joining and losing and joining and eventually you lose everything”, Wisdom, 22, Jos, said to me with regret.

Also, most of the Ponzi Schemes were marketed on catchphrases like, “it is Easy Money, just sit at home and watch your interest grow”, many people jumped on it. Who doesn’t want easy money during a recession? The people who jumped on it early made their money but many of them lost everything due to greed (they wanted to re-invest it and double their gains). In Ponzi Schemes, the patient dog dies because there’s no such thing as the fattest bone for it. The people who come in late never get anything, and you can hardly tell when it is ‘late’ or ‘early’ looking from outside. Only the Admins who do the matching understand when the life cycle of a Ponzi scheme is coming to a close.

However, I took out some positivity from this whole experience. I learned that Nigerians are very resolute. Millions of naira moving around the country during a recession was magical. Where did all that money come from? I think we are magicians, and it’s that magic that has kept us together despite all we have gone through as a nation.

Will there be another season of Ponzi Schemes in Nigeria? I doubt. People are ‘smarter’ these days. However, there’s a thin line between smart and dumb when it comes to business and Investing.; from interacting with these schemers I have learned that the line is called greed, and many of us still have it.

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Written by Ebenezar Wikina

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