Thousands of investors are feared to have lost their money after a pyramid scheme run by a convicted Russian fraudster crashed, somewhat predictably, in Zimbabwe.
MMM Global has swept across Africa, with branches promising returns on investment of 30 per cent a month in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Nigeria and some east African states.
It is masterminded by the former Russian politician Sergey Mavrodi, who went on the run when the original MMM – standing for Mavrodi Mondial Moneybox – collapsed in the late 1990s, losing investors an estimated $100m.
On its website, MMM Global advertises itself as a scheme whereby new members “assist” older members by paying a fee to join. Older members are allowed to withdraw money after a certain period of time, and receive bonuses for encouraging others to sign up.
Mavrodi himself is reported to have gone into hiding after a separate entity designed to reward investors with the cryptocurrency bitcoin – dubbed the “Republic of Bitcoin” – folded in April this year.
And since then, a criminal investigation has been launched into MMM Global’s branch in South Africa, after a probe by the National Consumer Commission “found something” to suggest the scheme was acting illegally.
With Zimbabwe’s traditional financial institutions in jeopardy and the country gripped by an economic crisis, thousands turned to MMM Global as an investment that was avowedly independent of government control.
That’s despite a warning from the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe that the scheme was fraudulent. RBZ warned members of the public that existing investors were “paid money not from genuine market investment of their funds, but from contributions made by new investors, until a point when the scheme can no longer attract new investors”.
Sure enough, users reported being unable to withdraw any funds earlier this month.
One told The Herald newspaper:
“When we started putting our funds in the scheme one could get assistance within seven days but things later changed to 14 days and when we were shut out the waiting period was 21 days.
“What it simply means is that the number of people in need of help has outnumbered the number of people joining. Right now we have nowhere to get our money which we invested.”
Despite the cautionary tales of Zimbabwe and South Africa – and indeed the original MMM scheme – a branch is now proving increasingly popular in Nigeria.
The Central Bank of Nigeria has issued a warning to all the consumers, asking them to refrain from depositing money into any institution or scheme that is not insured by the Nigeria Deposit Insurance Corporation. Many financial institutions across the African continent have started to shutdown accounts that may be connected to MMM Global or any related investment schemes.
According to reports, Sergey Mavrodi is hiding following the closure of the Republic of Bitcoin scheme. MMM owes millions of dollars to investors across the globe.
One of the Zimbabwean investors was quoted by a newspaper saying,
“When we started putting our funds in the scheme one could get assistance within seven days but things later changed to 14 days and when we were shut out the waiting period was 21 days… What it simply means is that the number of people in need of help has outnumbered the number of people joining. Right now we have nowhere to get our money which we invested.”
In the last decade, Sergey Mavrodi was found guilty by a Russian court for defrauding over 10,000 investors of over $4.3 million. He was sentenced to 4 and half years in a penal colony. Since then he has launched multiple geographic schemes, including the ones in South Africa, Zimbabwe and now Nigeria.