Thousands of people, among them civil servants and vendors, have lost thousands of dollars to fraudulent online pyramid scheme MMM Global Zimbabwe after it collapsed recently. The social financial network, which relied on an accelerating number of new members to pay off the old, abruptly terminated its services last week leaving participants stranded.
This comes as Econet’s mobile financial service platform, EcoCash yesterday distanced itself from the pyramid scheme. Participants claimed they were using EcoCash for their transactions.
Zimbabweans have in the past months been joining the online investment scheme in droves in a bid “to get rich quickly”. The Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe warned people that the scheme was fraudulent and there was no legal recourse in the event they lost their money.
The central bank said MMM, which advertises its operations through a website and recruiting agents, was not a registered or regulated entity. EcoCash yesterday said: "We have noted that some of these pyramid schemes are allegedly advertising in a manner that suggests that the Ecocash facility is a medium for prospective members to deposit their money. This is not correct.
"We advise our valued customers and all stakeholders that Ecocash is a licensed mobile payment platform that enables customers to make financial transactions such as sending money, buying prepaid airtime as well as paying for goods and services within the confines of the law of Zimbabwe. EcoCash promotes safe and legal transactions but will not be held liable for any losses arising from the use of EcoCash to engage in illegal activities such as Ponzi schemes."
The scheme advertises itself as a mutual aid fund under which recruited members contribute money to assist others and are promised investment returns of 30 percent per month. Some of the people left counting their losses told The Herald that they received emails that the scheme had been suspended until September 15.
"All along things were moving in the right direction and we now have nowhere to claim our investments," said Mr Tinashe Muza of Harare.
"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."
MMM stands for Mavrodi Mondial Moneybox and takes its name from its founder, Sergei Panteleevich Mavrodi of Russia. He founded MMM in 1989 and the scheme was declared bankrupt three years later leading to the disappearance of Mavrodi until his arrest in 2003.
Another victim, Mrs Rosemary Mawonde said: "We never thought the scheme would end this way as we believed that by using EcoCash to do the transactions, things were in order. I am surprised that EcoCash is also distancing itself from the scheme and it is clear that I will never recover the $300 that I invested."
While some people who were skeptical about the scheme started with small amounts, it is believed some poured in thousands of dollars anticipating higher returns. The RBZ said the schemes were fraudulent as 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,”
"The participants are made aware that they make their money by recruiting new members who in turn must recruit more members," warned the Central Bank.