Anyone who is on Instagram, YouTube, Facebook or TikTok often comes across offers that sound tempting: from weight loss powder to lucrative investments. In our series, reporter Judith Henke takes a look at these products. What is behind it, how serious are you?
The start-up entertainment show "The Lion's Den" often makes the headlines. Most recently, because a deal worth millions for a wheelchair bike start-up unexpectedly fell through. But I keep coming across an article about the show at regular monthly intervals.
Mostly it is shown to me as an advertisement. The headline: "'Lion's Den'" system makes German citizens rich! The program must not be broadcast, the broadcaster is pissed.”
What cheek: So I can get rich quickly and the way to get there is deliberately denied me? At least that's what the article says, which at first glance looks like it came from the BILD newspaper. But the layout of the article looks strange because the font is different and the author's name is missing.
There is a simple reason for this: the BILD newspaper never published this article. But why does someone bother to fake a BILD article about "The Lion's Den"?
Niels Nauhauser from the consumer advice center in Baden-Württemberg knows the answer: "These fake articles are part of a scam through which unsuspecting investors lose a lot of money."
He was contacted every week by consumers who were victims of online investment fraud. The number of cases has increased in the past two years. Those affected are often lured with the promise of being able to make high profits through crypto trading.
So does Anna Müller, who does not want to see her real name revealed publicly. The 56-year-old said she was uncomfortable at being taken in by the scam - but wants to tell me her story in the hope that others will be spared a financial loss. She is also one of those affected who have contacted Nauhauser.
The "Lion's Den" article aroused her curiosity. The article was presented as a kind of "consumer tip" in which German politics was criticized. The tenor: You intentionally prevent citizens from making good profits with shares or Bitcoin.
Examples were given of people who had made a large fortune in a few weeks with a small sum of 250 euros. "I thought to myself: 250 euros is not a big amount, so I can give it a try," says Müller.
There was a link under the article that she clicked. Then a field opened in which she should enter her contact details. "Less than thirty minutes later I got a call."
Nauhauser explains that the 250 euros are a very typical amount with which investors are to be lured. A bait so to speak – and Anna Müller bit. The caller asked her to transfer 250 euros to a Commerzbank account. "Because it was a SEPA transfer to a well-known bank, everything seemed quite official," she says.
It later turned out that the account existed, but belonged to a charitable foundation - which most likely does not even know that its donors think they are just taking the first step towards wealth.
In addition, says Müller, the caller asked her to open an account with Paysafe – a British provider of electronic payment methods that work on the prepaid system.
She was also helped to open an account on the Binance crypto exchange. "It all happened very quickly, it didn't even take three hours," says Müller. She didn't have time to think and question.
Only then did she google what Paysafe and Binance are. But both are completely normal providers. "It can't all be that illegal, I thought to myself," says Müller.
When asked, a Binance spokesperson stressed that the company was very sorry to hear about this incident. Binance would work with investigators in such cases and would have responded to more than 27,000 law enforcement requests over the past 12 months, on average within three days.
After Müller registered on Binance, a man soon contacted her via WhatsApp and introduced himself as Toni Hodak. His promise: He wanted to generate bitcoin trades for her that would quickly bring her a big profit.
Toni Hodak asked her to download the Anydesk software. Then he could help her transfer money from Paysafe to Binance and buy Bitcoin there. "I shared my screen and then he walked me through the transactions."
But Anydesk is not just a tool that two PC users can use to share their screens, it is remote maintenance software. It can grant one user full access to the other user's system. In principle, he can operate it as if it were his own.
This is useful, for example, if an IT support employee wants to help me with a PC problem. However, Anydesk is also useful for criminals who want to access the data of a third-party system – and who may not explain to their unsuspecting victims exactly what it means to grant other users access via Anydesk.
Anydesk is aware of this issue. According to a spokeswoman, the company is trying to “raise awareness that there are scammers on the Internet and how to protect and defend yourself”.
She points me to the Anydesk website, which summarizes some security advice, including that people should change all account passwords afterwards and have their device checked by an IT professional.
In addition to Binance, Müller should also log in to two other providers: "Chartpeak Trade", where the current credit balance was displayed, and "Webtrader Chrtpktrd."
In the future, she will be able to observe how the trades that Toni Hodak is doing for her are going. "In fact, I could quickly see how my balance was growing there." It was only much later that she realized that the winnings and the balance that were shown to her were only simulations and not real.
But at that time, Anna Müller did not know that. "My 250 euros quickly became 1000 euros," she says. Actually a good time to get out. But Toni Hodak encouraged her to invest more.
He also took advantage of her guilty conscience. "He told me he would only get a five percent commission on the profits he makes for his customers." With the profit she believed to have made at the time, that would have been a small expense allowance.
Hesitantly, Müller agreed to invest more. "I only want to invest 600 euros so that we have 1000 dollars," she wrote to him on WhatsApp.
But he replied that she had to invest at least $1000 so that he could also trade Ethereum cryptocurrency for her. He would try to get additional money for her from Treasury, a loan.
Müller gave in – and initially did not regret the decision. The money basically multiplied while she slept. She decided to inject money a second time, this time 3000 euros. On the Webtrader platform, she watched her balance grow to nearly $36,000. "I still can't believe it," she wrote to Toni Hodak happily via WhatsApp.
But when Müller finally wanted to withdraw the credit, the rude awakening came: "I should transfer another 5,000 euros to redeem the loan," she says. "That's when I became suspicious: I have almost 36,000 euros in credit - why should I now transfer additional money to pay off the loan?"
A legitimate question – which Toni Hodak wasn't really able to answer. "When he noticed that I was becoming skeptical, he suddenly started calling every hour."
The friendly man who, just a few days earlier, was having casual small talk about fishing with her on WhatsApp, now became someone who almost threatened her. “He said I now have to pay back the loans,” says Müller. "Suddenly the mask fell."
The fact that Anna Müller initially had an almost friendly exchange with Toni Hodak is typical of such scams, as consumer advocate Nauhauser knows. "Perpetrators often develop a personal connection with their victims, which is almost like love scamming," he says. Because without this level of trust, it is often not possible to get several thousand euros from another person.
It is also typical that those affected should pay another sum for some reason shortly before their supposed profit is paid out - as here to pay off the loan. "If the victim then refuses to invest money again, the contact breaks off - or the perpetrator starts making threats," says Nauhauser.
He gives an example from another case. There, the person concerned was threatened that the money could only be paid into his account with a note on suspicion of money laundering and terrorist financing.
Finally, Anna Müller realized that she was facing a possible fraud. She spoke first to her husband, then to her daughter. Her husband, a business IT specialist, helped her find out what really happened to her money.
From Binance, the perpetrator transferred the Bitcoin to his own wallet – a kind of digital purse. From there, the Bitcoin was passed on to two other wallets.
They didn't stay long on these wallets either: "The amounts were transferred more and more, in ever smaller sums to more and more wallets." Presumably to cover tracks.
Müller turned to the consumer advice center – and to the police. The 250 euros that she had transferred to the Commerzbank account has now been returned to her. But it is difficult to catch the perpetrators. "I wrote off the money internally." But afterwards she was annoyed that she fell for the scam.
It is often the case that those affected blame themselves, says Nauhauser. "But the truth is, our society has failed to educate consumers about financial issues."
Anyone who does not invest privately may not know that promises of high returns are a warning signal for dubious offers - or at least are associated with a great risk.
Suspicious providers would like to advertise with phrases such as "safe way to invest" or "25 percent per week". In addition, the imprint would often be missing on the websites.
After all: At Chartpeak Trade - the provider on whose website Müller was fooled into thinking that he had a high balance - a company is actually specified. It is Marketguild LTD, with an address in the Marshall Islands. I confront this company with the experiences of Anna Müller, but receive no answer.
Company headquarters in shadow financial centers such as the Marshall Islands - that is a very typical warning signal, as Oliver Hoffmann explains. He is deputy department head for white-collar crime at the Baden-Württemberg State Criminal Police Office.
The fraud case, as experienced by Anna Müller, contains the classic features: the fake newspaper article, the promise to get rich with crypto trading, contact by phone and WhatsApp, the trick with the remote maintenance software, the wrong broker platforms and the perpetrator's attempt to get more money from the victims shortly before the payment.
In Baden-Württemberg alone there were more than 300 such cases of fraud last year. "The damage was 23.9 million euros," says the investigator. This year there are already more cases than in all of last year. "We know of victims who were cheated out of several million euros."
The perpetrators would often act from abroad. "There are usually several groups, each specializing in different areas of this fraud model, such as contacting the victims or money laundering," explains Hoffmann. Often the same group is behind several fraudulent broker sites.
It doesn't matter whether it's lucrative investments, dental splints or coaching offers: anyone who uses social media is overwhelmed with product recommendations. What's behind it? How serous are they? You can find out in our podcast "Die Netz-Checkerin". Subscribe to Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Deezer, Amazon Music or directly via RSS feed.