Why Won't the Iraqi Dinar Scam Die?

02/11/2011 5:00 am EST

Focus: FOREX

Starry-eyed investors take to the Web, but the scammers have beaten them there—and neither is eager to give up the dream of getting rich off the Iraqi dinar.

John Jagerson is on a lonely quest to debunk the Iraqi dinar scam, but it's not easy these days.

The investment analyst first posted comprehensive stories on his site in 2009— which have since replayed at MoneyShow.com and elsewhere—that clearly explain why the Iraqi currency is not likely to dramatically increase in value once the country stabilizes.

In fact, he points out, recent history suggests the dinar could lose value against the dollar. Look at Venezuela, Turkey, and Mexico, whose currencies weakened when the economy strengthened, or the Kuwaiti dinar, which did not strengthen in the early ‘90’s as sellers now suggest, and later even plummeted.

Jagerson is a bona fide expert, and he’s done his homework. His argument seems incontrovertible, if only for the reason that any opportunity that promises a high return at low risk should be suspect anyway.

Which is why the reaction he gets from readers is so mystifying. Even at savvy investing sites, the tone of the feedback largely amounts to one of indignation: Angry comments and flaming e-mails from people who have already bought dinars, or who have read enough on the Internet to know that they want to.

“I still can’t explain why I get so many negative e-mails from investors,” Jagerson says. “I think it’s that people don’t like having their dream challenged.”

Jagerson is hardly alone in his frustration. Financial experts and consumer watchdogs say the job of debunking financial myths has become astoundingly difficult in the Web 2.0 era, where search is king, algorithm trumps fact, and a vocal minority can tweet, blog, and comment to millions from the Internet rooftop.

The result: By the time an investor finally does stumble upon a credible source, his dreams have had an awfully long time to marinate in a bad idea.

“We’re having to disabuse them of these notions,” says Richard Jaramillo, an examiner with the Utah Division of Securities, who’s been fighting the Iraqi dinar myth for years. “It’s much tougher for them to understand the risks if you can’t even get them to believe what you’re saying.”

Good Info Is Hard to Find

Ryan Thorpe is not naive. The 26-year-old Iraqi war veteran is studying to become a mechanical engineer and works as a quality-control specialist in the Houston oil industry. When a fellow soldier gave him $300 in Iraqi dinar several years ago, he remained skeptical.

He didn’t believe, as some of his colleagues did, that his little stack of paper could suddenly be worth tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars after some magic Iraqi currency revaluation.

Back home and curious, he decided to do his own “objective” research, and that’s when things got confusing. Thorpe, like many people, doesn’t have a personal financial advisor. But he’s young, smart, and comfortable online. Here’s what he found:

  • A simple search of “iraqi” and “dinar” returns dozens of different “informational” sites on buying and selling the dinar. However, three-quarters of the top results—those on the first four pages—are actually links to private companies that sell the dinar.

  • The sites provide links to news stories that back the prognosis: The Iraqi economy is destined for growth. It’s “The sleeper investment of the decade,” headlines BetOnIraq.com, “because liberty breeds prosperity.”

  • Self-described experts pass on “inside information” speculating on when the dinar will revalue. “They really stir up a buying frenzy,” says Thorpe.

  • Sites seem to offer consumer protection—with advice on how to avoid counterfeit bills, and information on various investment options. They point out that they are certified with the US Treasury Department and are a member of the Better Business Bureau.

  • The sites presume only high profits. One of the high rankers, dinartrade.com, displays payout options on an $833 investment today of between $10,000 and $1 million. “Picture Iraq as a company selling stock. Each dinar you purchase represents a share in Iraq ’s bright future,” the site reads. “Iraq 's economy can only improve. The dinar will appreciate in value as the oil-driven economy booms.”

  • Aside from a recent brief in USA Today and Jagerson’s article, none of the first 40 page links even raises the notion that the dinar investment may rest on a flawed premise.

“I can’t see what’s not persuasive about it,” says Thorpe, who decided to start searching for dinar-investment stories within news sites instead, but came up dry.

“Finding real news and credible sources is almost impossible,” he says. “So first-time investors go out there and they see all this and think, ‘Well, of course it’s going to happen.’”

NEXT: The Internet Is Just One Giant Sales Pitch

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Thorpe finally decided to e-mail Jagerson, the investment advisor, directly.

“Your instincts are correct,” Jagerson replied. “The dinar scam is still a scam.”

It took some convincing, Jagerson says, but after explaining in detail how governments typically re-monetize their currency to protect their own interests, Thorpe agreed. The bills he had could be souvenirs, and he’d concentrate on his other interests.

“They just don’t have anyone to turn to to give them the facts,” Jagerson says. “So much contrary content is being produced by scammers.”

The Net: One Giant Sales Pitch

Whether it’s pitches for gold coins, penny stocks, or foreign currency, one myth pervades: That today’s Internet is a level playing field.

It’s not, say investment advisers. Marketing sites have become adept at search-engine optimization and are free to break the rules. That means they can shove their way into those first four pages of results. If Google or Bing catches their antics, they can simply reboot under another name.

“The dinar scams are much, much better at marketing than anybody,” says Jagerson, who’s worked with government agencies on unrelated investigations. “They’re definitely better than the government. The government doesn’t do Internet marketing.”

Nor is the content regulated. Neither the U.S. Treasury nor the BBB need to endorse a product in order to issue those seals the sites display.  And currency traders don’t fall under the purview of securities regulators. Even if they did, Internet sites can operate anonymously or relaunch under a different name. They’re pretty much impossible to shut down.

“The reason why it’s a scam is because these dealers, these “advisers,” are not giving you the facts,” says Jagerson. “In fact, they’re lying to you about it.”

Successful scams always play on people’s uncertainty, fear or greed. That’s why victims will always be plentiful. The lucky ones—like the dinar pitch—have another advantage: ignorance on the part of buyers. Really, how many people studied international currency markets in school?

Talk to someone who has, and they’ll tell you that an emerging economy is more likely to remonetize—to set new price levels—than to let the value of its own currency skyrocket, an oversight that would only cost its own government. Iraq has to pay back its debts, rebuild its infrastructure, and maintain its exports—all of which will require a stable dinar.

“When you think about company stocks, you naturally think a rising tide lifts all stocks,” says Jaramillo. “But with a currency that’s not necessarily true.”

“It’s counterintuitive. So not only are we in a position where we are trying to combat misinformation, but we’re trying to combat something that may be counterintuitive.”

The Iraqi dinar sites do an excellent job of supporting their hypothesis that the Iraqi economy is going to improve. But it’s a game of distraction, says Jagerson. Because even if the economy soars, “that doesn’t translate into inflating currency.”

Keith Woodwell, director of the Utah Division of Securities, wants social media on his side. His dilemma: How do you reach people before they’ve bought into the storyline and reposted it over their own networks? Much of the work of scammers, after all, is being undertaken by a volunteer army of enthusiasts who replay messages on message boards and social networking sites.

“Once you reach the point where you put your money where your mouth is and you’re going to invest in this, then you become a defender,” says Woodwell. “It’s human nature.”

Woodwell’s office is one of a handful of state agencies exploring how to use the power of Web 2.0 to educate private investors. The division posts an annual top ten list of investment scams (the dinar scheme usually makes an appearance), has redesigned its Web page, and pitches tales of fraud to media outlets.

“How many people want to sign up for a Twitter feed on how to avoid a securities fraud?” he says. “Our sales pitch is, How to protect yourself from fraud, and people think, ‘I’m smart. I know how to protect myself.’”

“To be quite candid, I kind of feel like we’re losing that battle, but I’m not sure how to combat it,” he says. “It’s hard for me to compete with someone who has a very slick presentation and is offering to make you rich.”

By Karen Aho for MoneyShow.com

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