Investors, scared of China's markets, were lured by $10.8b Ponzi scheme

Investors, scared of China's markets, were lured by $10.8b Ponzi scheme

When Ezubao was named "online credit financial brand of the year" by China's National Business Daily in 2015, Jiang was comforted.

The 60-year-old investor, who asked that CNBC not use her full name, had been reluctant at first to put money into the fast-growing, Anhui-based peer-to-peer (P2P) lender.

"I had doubts at the beginning," Jiang said. "[But] many of my friends and their families had invested in Ezubao. I saw the company's advertisements and awards on China's state media and other channels, so I thought it was real."

Instead, Ezubao was allegedly running the largest online fraud yet seen in China.

Jiang, who invested 150,000 RMB ($22,800) in Ezubao in mid-2015, just a year after the company launched, is one of more than 900,000 private investors apparently scammed by the company.

Chinese authorities have arrested 21 suspects linked to Ezubao and its parent company, Yucheng International Holdings Group, on charges of illegally collecting funds, having allegedly conned more than 50 billion RMB (S$10.8 billion) from investors, according to the state news agency Xinhua

Luxury and lies

P2P sites, which bring lenders and borrowers together, play a big part of China's US$2.6 billion (S$3.72 billion)-and-expanding wealth management industry.

According to Xinhua, Ezubao attracted investors with promises of annual interest payments of 9-14.6 per cent in return for funding leasing projects, but instead used the money paid in by new investors to pay off earlier ones, in what Xinhua described as a classic Ponzi scheme.

Yong Lei, once the director of Ezubao's risk control department and now detained, was quoted by Xinhua as saying that "95 per cent of Ezubao's investment projects were fake."

China police arrest 21 over $10.8b online financial scam

The company's executives also spent large sums on personal luxuries and high-risk junk securities, Xinhua reported.

Ding Ning, 34, president of Yucheng and the founder of Ezubao, reportedly used investors' money to buy lavish gifts for Zhang Min, the company's president, including a residential property in Singapore worth 130 million RMB, and a pink diamond ring worth 12 million RMB.

In addition, Xinhua said Ding paid huge salaries to the company's employees - the company paid 800 million RMB to employees in November 2015 alone - and insisted all secretarial staff wear designer outfits and expensive jewelry to burnish the company's image of profitability.

But tightening cash flow and unusual transactions by Ezubao triggered an investigation by Chinese authorities in December, Xinhua reported. The investigation included the use of two excavators to recover more than 80 bags full of paper accounts that had been buried six meters underground by the Ezubao's executives.

Calls for supervision

Now, Ezubao's burned investors are pessimistic about recovering their money.

"In China, it's extremely difficult to claim money back under such scenarios," Jiang said. "The prosecution process is not transparent and procedures are very confusing."

Like many critics on Chinese social media, Jiang said she was deeply disappointed with the lack of official supervision companies like Ezubao recieved, as well as the government's failure to compensate fraud victims.

As large as Ezubao's case, it represents just a tiny part of China's shadow banking industry. Thanks to strong demand from small and medium-sized companies for loans, as well as a hardy risk appetite among private investors looking for better returns than are available in a nascent fund management sector, online P2P platforms have boomed over the past two years.

The P2P market grew by 288 per cent on-year be worth 982.3 billion RMB in 2015, according Xinhua, which cited data published by Wangdaizhijia.com, a Chinese financial services web portal.

And so common are collapses in the sector that almost 900 platforms were reported to be "problematic" in 2015, a threefold increase on 2014, according to the Xinhua report.

One Chinese P2P investor, who asked to remain anonymous, told CNBC, "There were as many as seven micro-lending companies in my neighborhood, selling financial products with extremely high returns of 30 to 40 per cent."

"You would seriously question the credibility of these businesses, but there was no supervision from the government," the 53-year-old investor said.

He lost almost all his savings - 3 million RMB ($450,000) - after investing into a P2P company named Sichuan Fortune Union, which now faces similar fraud charges as Ezubao.

"There are very few wealth management channels in China and our stock market is extremely risky," said the investor. "For ordinary Chinese people who don't have fully financial knowledge but want to invest, such products are very attractive."

In December the China Banking Regulatory Commission (CBRC) laid out draft controls on online P2P companies, including a requirement to register with local financial regulators and disclose information on borrowers and other risks.

And Xinhua reported last month that Chinese authorities were working with bank regulators to set up a warning system for financial risks.

But this is little comfort for investor Jiang.

"Maybe after a few years, if I'm lucky, I can get part of my investment back," she said.

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