We summarise our work to tackle consumer harm in the investment market, between 1 April 2020 and 31 March 2021.
Our 2021/22 Business Plan set out our consumer priorities for the year ahead. One of these priorities is to enable consumers to make effective investment decisions. In early 2022, we will publish our consumer strategy to set out our ambition for this market. Ahead of that, we are publishing more detail on our Consumer Investment Strategy to explain the work we will be doing to ensure consumers can invest with confidence, make informed decisions about the risks involved and be aware of the regulatory protections provided.
This report – the second in a regular series – is published alongside our Strategy and offers greater transparency about our activities to protect consumers from investment harm. It focuses on the period between 1 April 2020 and 31 March 2021
1. Scope of the data
The data covers the period from 1 April 2020 to 31 March 2021, unless indicated otherwise. Where there is a comparison or reference to the previous period, this relates to the 12-month period from 1 April 2019 to 31 March 2020, unless indicated otherwise.
We often talk about fraud or scams interchangeably. Both involve bad actors preying on consumers to try and take their money illegitimately. In this update, we refer to this range of practices as ‘scams’. An investment scam is typically where a customer is tricked into making a payment to an investment that doesn’t exist or at a significantly inflated price.
Higher risk investments
Higher risk investments may be suitable for consumers who understand the risks and can absorb any potential losses. Overall, though, most retail investors’ needs can and should be met by straightforward, mass-market investments.
For our purposes here, higher risk investments include:
- mini-bonds (also known as high interest returning bonds) and other non-readily realisable securities
- unregulated collective investment schemes (UCIS)
- some structured products, derivatives and Contracts for Difference (CFDs)
- Venture Capital Trusts (VCTs)
- exchange tokens or cryptocurrencies (eg Bitcoin)
- investment-based crowdfunding
- peer-to-peer lending
We supervise most regulated firms as members of a portfolio of firms that share a similar business model. This update covers firms in the following portfolios, unless stated otherwise:
- Financial Advisers and Investment Intermediaries
- SIPP operators
- Investment Platforms
- Wealth Management & Stockbrokers
- Investment-based Crowdfunding Platforms
- Peer-to-peer lending
This update is broken out into 3 sections focused on our actions to help ensure:
- Consumers are protected from acute harm by our work to stop and disrupt firms and individuals causing such harm.
- Consumers are supported and guided to investments that meet their needs.
- When things go wrong, as they sometimes will, firms can put this right by dealing fairly with consumer complaints and paying redress.
2. Stop and disrupt
The data in sections 2.1 and 2.2 has been updated following review. Issues were identified with the parameters applied to the authorisation application data and supervision case data. We have also updated how we describe some of the data to ensure clarity and consistency with similar published data.
2.1. Preventing firms and individuals entering the perimeter
We seek to prevent harm by ensuring that all regulated firms and individuals meet our minimum standards. We will refuse to authorise a firm if it does not satisfy us that it meets, and will continue to meet, these standards.
Addressing risk of harm at the authorisation stage prevents firms that do not meet our minimum standards from entering the regulatory perimeter. It can also be a more cost-effective approach, because it is generally more efficient to prevent bad actors entering the perimeter than using supervision and enforcement tools once they are authorised.
While we support firms to help them make the changes necessary for authorisation, this is not an open-ended process. We must decide whether a firm should be authorised within statutory deadlines. Our experience shows us that some firms are not ready to meet our minimum standards for authorisation. In these circumstances, we will recommend the refusal of a firm’s or individual’s application or a firm will withdraw rather than face a refusal case. Withdrawals could be a result of a firm-led decision (eg they change their mind); or FCA-led (eg a firm decides not to continue with the application following our engagement and scrutiny of the application that sets out our areas of concern). Submissions of extremely poor quality are rejected on the basis they do not amount to an 'application' – this happens prior to scrutiny.
Between 1 April 2020 and 31 March 2021, 5,544, firms and individuals applied for authorisation in the consumer investments market. In the same period, 261 firm and individual applications were withdrawn, refused or rejected. This represents almost 1 in 20 applications. However, withdrawals are higher for new firms entering the market - we received 245 applications from new firms seeking authorisation, out of which 43 applications were withdrawn and 5 were rejected. Approximately 60% of these withdrawals were FCA led.
We give greater scrutiny and resources to firms and business models that pose the greatest risk of harm to consumers. This includes preventing individuals responsible for unsuitable advice from avoiding the consequences of their actions by moving to or setting up new firms – a practice known as phoenixing.
In some instances, individuals have set up and sought authorisation for a new firm before their existing firm starts to receive complaints about poor past advice – a practice known as lifeboating. In the past year, we have prevented 9 advice firms and 2 individuals from gaining authorisation where phoenixing was suspected.
In all those cases, the firms and individuals withdrew their application when we raised our concerns with them rather than be taken through the refusal process. In 2 other cases where we suspected phoenixing, we put conditions on the approval of the firms to ensure the individuals could not use the new firm to avoid liabilities.
Our phoenixing measures extend to financial advice firms seeking to cancel their authorisation. We have improved our insights into how companies and individuals are related, helping us to quickly identify where bad actors may be involved and spot suspicious activity such as ‘phoenixing’.
We did this by developing a new network analytics tool that links data from a variety of sources, including external datasets, and plots inter-relationships as a visual network map. This will enhance our capacity to stop potentially harmful firms from entering at the gateway and provide insight for Enforcement investigations.
2.2. Regulatory oversight of the market
We supervise firms and individuals controlling firms by monitoring the way they conduct business. We use judgement to supervise against a framework of principles and rules that represent minimum standards of conduct.
On 31 March 2021, we supervised 6,568 firms within the 6 portfolios this update focuses on. These firms acted as principals for 8,510 unique registered appointed representatives.
Our data strategy outlines how we are harnessing the power of data and advanced analytics to transform how we regulate. One of its key components is the enhanced use of data and technology to identify, predict and prioritise risks across populations of firms, sectors or products. A range of initiatives have been implemented, or are being developed, to enable us to spot harm sooner. These include:
- Dashboards which combine relevant data sets on a given firm, sector or issue. This makes it easier to spot new trends or areas for investigation.
- Automated, rules-based alerts which prompt regulatory action when one or more ‘red flags’ are triggered at an individual firm or sector level.
- Tools which use advanced analytics to increase our understanding of the potential harm at a firm or sector level.
Data for cases involving potential scams has been extracted by identifying cases relating to Consumer Investments where the supervisor dealing with the case has included the term scam in their description of the case. These cases have then been reviewed to exclude those which do not relate to a potential investment scam (e.g. other types of scams).
1025 supervisory cases were opened involving potential scams or higher risk investments between 1 April 2020 and 31 March 2021.
During this period, 1019 cases were closed. Of these 64% were closed in supervision following review, 18% were closed where the case has been combined with another case covering the same issues and 18% were closed following regulatory action.
Regulatory action includes firm visits or communications, mandating action to senior management or making use of our Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 (FSMA) powers (including variations of permissions and undertaking enforcement action).
When a consumer falls victim to a pension scam or money from their pension ends up in investments that are not appropriate for them, their losses can be devastating. Our specialist supervision team focuses on cases where we suspect potential pensions harms. This includes scams involving pension liberation and pension transfers or where we suspect unsuitable advice has led to a consumer ending up in investments that are clearly not suitable for them.
Among the 1,025 cases, 169 were opened by this specialist team in April 2020 – March 2021, a 22% increase on the number of cases opened in the same period in 2019-20 (139). These cases have already resulted in 15 firms varying their permissions so they can no longer undertake the activities that caused consumers harm, with a further 4 cases being referred to Enforcement.
Cases resulting from whistleblowing intelligence are excluded from these numbers.
We have limited powers over many issuers of high‑risk investments because they are often not carrying out a regulated activity when they issue an investment product. In particular, this means that we cannot generally impose requirements on the issuers of high‑risk investments themselves as these issuers are often not authorised persons.
However, we can make rules on how they market their investments. These apply when an authorised firm approves or communicates the financial promotions related to those investments. For high‑risk investments, a good quality financial promotion is not enough to protect consumers. To mitigate this risk, our rules apply varying levels of marketing restrictions for high-risk investments. For example, in December 2020 we temporarily banned the mass marketing of speculative illiquid securities and have since made that ban permanent.
Firms do not have to comply with our financial promotion rules if the communication falls with an exemption in the Financial Promotion Order (2005). Some commonly used exemptions are for High Net Worth and sophisticated investors. We believe the exemptions are a significant vulnerability in the financial promotions regime. While any changes to these exemptions are a matter for government, we must be mindful of them when considering changes to our rules. We have seen evidence that the strengthening of our rules results in increased use of the exemptions.
Since we introduced the Temporary Product Intervention on the marketing of speculative illiquid securities to retail investors at the beginning of 2020 (subsequently made permanent in December), firms have increasingly used these exemptions. Before the TPI was introduced, approximately 20% of the websites we reviewed had been approved by an authorised person. However, between January and August 2020 this only applied to 3% of the websites we reviewed. Between August 2020 and March 2021 this figure has dropped to 0%.
Online platforms, such as search engines and social media platforms, are playing an increasingly significant role in disseminating promotions of financial products and services. This includes adverts which expose consumers to significant risk of harm such as promotions for high-risk investments which are unsuitable for most investors and adverts which make false or misleading claims. These financial promotions are an important focus of our supervisory activities.
We continue to work with online platforms to see that they are complying with applicable requirements and rapidly deliver on their public commitment to prevent harm from online advertising through taking a more proactive role in stopping scams and vetting the content they host. We also proactively monitor these platforms ourselves to identify illegal or misleading promotions and issue alerts on our website and through Scamsmart where appropriate.
We note that since the end of the Brexit implementation period earlier this year, an exemption to the financial promotion restriction available to online platforms has fallen away. As a result of this change, we are looking at the operations of the major online platforms to determine whether they are now subject to the restriction and, if so, whether they are compliant. Where they are not, we will take action to ensure consumers are protected.
2.3. Acting against firms and individuals who cause consumers harm
We decide whether to take enforcement action based on whether we believe there has been serious misconduct. We consider factors such as the severity of the harm arising from the suspected misconduct, whether the suspected misconduct has wider implications, the extent to which it may have involved lack of fitness and the public interest in investigating the matter.
Enforcement action includes publishing consumer alerts, taking down websites, taking civil court action to stop activity and freeze assets, insolvency proceedings and, for the most serious cases, criminal prosecution.
In many of our cases, harm has already been caused, but our intervention can prevent it from getting worse. The outcomes of investigations also have a preventative effect through credible deterrence.
The extent to which our remit and powers are engaged will vary depending on the circumstances. The protagonists in most scams are outside our regulatory jurisdiction and, in many cases, another law enforcement agency is better placed and resourced to tackle fraud. So we work closely with other agencies to maximise our impact. We routinely share information and intelligence with our partners in the National Economic Crime Centre (NECC), the multi-agency body that coordinates the response to economic crime.
Working in partnership with these organisations we focus our work on the areas where our powers and remit mean we can have the most impact, including:
- keeping fraudsters out of financial services at the gateway
- stopping the firms we regulate from facilitating fraud
- detecting and pursuing fraudsters who are FCA-supervised
- detecting and pursuing improperly unauthorised / unapproved fraudsters
- informing and empowering the public to protect themselves
We take enforcement action against firms and individuals that are not authorised or exempt under FSMA but who carry on regulated activities in breach of the legislation and/or who disregard restrictions on financial promotions. Many firms and individuals acting in breach of FSMA and carrying on unauthorised activity are likely to be scam firms and involved in some element of investment fraud.
Such activity may include targeting UK consumers via unauthorised financial promotions and offering investments in unauthorised collective investment schemes, unauthorised deposit taking schemes, unauthorised investment advice and management, pension liberation fraud and/or pension scams.
Between 1 April 2020 and 31 March 2021, we received over 30,000 reports of potential unauthorised activity. These reports are made up of referrals from our Consumer Helpline, other agencies such as the police and other regulators, both domestically and abroad. In 2019 we received 19,500 reports, so we have seen a sharp increase in reports in 2020.
Table 1: Unauthorised business activities summary April 2021 – March 2021
|Types of activities
|Volume (report, case or value)
Reports of unauthorised activity
30,122 (up 54%)
Enquiry cases opened between 1 April 2020 and 31 March 2021
Enquiry cases closed between 1 April 2020 and 31 March 2021
Enquiries closed by way of engagement with unauthorised firms between April 2020 and March 2021
Consumer alerts published
Total live investigations at 31 March 2021
Investigations opened 1 April 2020 – 31 March 2021
Individuals/firms under investigation at 31 March 2021
*We subsequently identified an error in this figure when preparing the 21/22 data review and corrected it in that report. As part of making other corrections to this publication we have now amended this figure.
We review and assess every report of unauthorised activity. Of the 30,000 reports sent to us about potential unauthorised business activity, a large proportion related to either matters we were already aware of or unregulated activities and/or concerns about authorised firms. Matters we were already aware of include either live cases or investigations, or entities that we have already taken action against (eg by issuing an alert or looking into it as an enquiry). Reports on authorised firms are passed to our Supervision teams to investigate.
The remaining reports were logged for intelligence purposes or opened as enquiries to look into further. Enquiries are cases which do not use formal powers, and which are part of our triaging process. They include disruption activity such as issuing consumer warnings and taking steps to remove websites, as well as engaging with unauthorised firms to resolve a breach, such as restructure or repayment of monies.
We have increased the number of alerts issued about unauthorised firms and individuals. From April 2019 to March 2020, we issued 742 alerts against unauthorised firms or individuals. Many of these involved breaches of the financial promotion restriction online. From April 2020 to March 2021 we issued 1,317 alerts, around a third of these were about ‘clone’ firms where fraudsters pretend to be authorised firms. Save in exceptional cases, we also take steps to try to suspend any linked websites and/or social media.
The most serious cases will then become investigations using our formal powers. We had 50 live investigations at 31 March 2021 involving unauthorised business, most of which also involve scams. For our investigations which involve scams, we aim to take robust criminal action, especially when we have evidence that UK individuals are involved in perpetrating the crime.
We have a number of ongoing criminal investigations that we expect to bring charges on in 2021. These range from (i) the sale and management of worthless investments by multiple boiler room operations linked to transnational criminal organisations; (ii) the promotion of dubious online trading platforms via social media; (iii) the provision of advice and management of investments into online trading platforms (iv) the operation of unauthorised collective investment schemes and boiler rooms; and (v) the promotion of investments to consumers for investment into high-risk products.
We have achieved many public outcomes from our investigations against unauthorised firms and individuals. Our enforcement work led to approximately £21.7 million being awarded under restitution orders for unauthorised investment business and nearly £7m being frozen on behalf of investors pending court judgments. Table 2 summarises these for 2020/21:
Table 2: Actions and public outcomes for investigations from April 2020 to March 2021 for unauthorised firms and individuals
Firm or individual
April 2020 – March 2021
Mr Robin Forster, Fortem Global Limited and Mr Richard Tasker
Began civil proceedings. Director has agreed undertakings with the court relating to £1.6m
Avacade & Others
Restitution orders for £10m against firms and directors
Mr Lee Skinner, Ms Karen Ferreira, Mr Clive Mongelard, Mr Tyrone Miller, Gemini Asset Management and Venor Associates
Restitution orders for £3.62m against directors and promoters
Charged 1 individual, with perverting the course of justice. Trial listed for October 2021
24HR Trading Academy Ltd, Mohammed Fuaath Haja Maideen Maricar
Commenced civil proceedings, freezing and restraining order for circa £600,000
London Property Investments UK Ltd, NPI Holdings Limited, Daniel Stevens (the sole director and shareholder of both companies) and his father Anthony Kafetzis
Civil restraint order and freezing order for around £300k plus 17 properties worth approx. £3.9m
Charged with s9 Fraud Act (carrying on a business with the intention to defraud creditors) and two counts of s19 (advising and accepting deposits). Trial likely to be late 2021 at earliest.
One charged with Money Laundering (s327 POCA). Trial likely to be early 2022.
£425k returned to 110 investors.
Bright Management Solution Limited, Soccer League International Limited, Soccer League UK Limited, and senior individuals at these firms
Summary judgment in January 2021 against five of seven defendants with interim restitution order of £676k
Mr Lee Skinner, Ms Karen Ferreira, Mr Clive Mongelard, Mr Tyrone Miller, Gemini Asset Management and Venor Associates
Restitution orders for £3.62m against directors and promoters in June 2020
Three defendants (Skinner, Mongelard and Miller) made bankrupt between February and April 2021
Scams and higher risk investments where regulated firms and individuals are involved
We have 30 live investigations or proceedings relating to the conduct of regulated firms and individuals where consumers have invested in potential scams or higher risk investments (note, this figure has also changed following review). These are ‘parent’ investigations which often involve multiple subjects (firms and individuals), and so the total number of firms and individuals under investigation is significantly higher. In most of these cases, we have liaised with law enforcement and/or other agencies such as HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) and the Insolvency Service.
Firms and individuals must always meet certain minimum standards to continue to be authorised by us. We act against firms and individuals that do not meet such criteria. For example, we will seek to ban individuals convicted of criminal offences involving fraud, dishonesty and selling investments scams.
We have finalised enforcement action against 2 firms and 4 individuals from April 2020 to March 2021. During that period, we fined, or decided to fine the subjects of our investigations more than £300k. These actions related to higher risk investments are summarised below.
Table 3: Actions and public outcomes for investigations from April 2020 to March 2021 for regulated firms and individuals
Firm or individual
April 2020 – March 2021
LJ Financial Planning Ltd
Prohibition from performing any regulated activity
Mr Howson and Mr Butterfield
Prohibition from performing any regulated activity
Prohibition from performing any regulated activity
Blue Gate Capital
Requirement for restitution
We can also intervene by imposing requirements on firms, either with their voluntary agreement (known as a VREQ) or on our own initiative (known as an OIREQ), to restrict their activities to contain harm. Typical requirements include stopping firms from promoting and selling certain products, from providing certain services or restricting use of their assets to meet redress liabilities.
Between 1 April 2020 and 30 March 2021, we persuaded 21 firms to provide VREQs and we imposed OIREQs on 9 firms.
3. Support and guide
The data in this section has been updated following review.
3.1. Stop scams through behaviour change campaigns
We know we cannot stop every scam from happening, but we want to do everything we can to shrink the audience that scammers can target and help support the Government’s priority to make the UK a more unattractive place to commit financial crime. One of the ways we do this is through our ScamSmart campaign, which aims to empower consumers with the knowledge and tools to help prevent them falling victim to scams. The campaign focuses on two core objectives – raising consumer awareness of the key warning signs associated with a scam and driving use of our Warning List tool.
Over 1 million people have visited our ScamSmart website since its launch in 2014, and more than 20,000 have seen our warnings about specific, unauthorised firms. Since the campaign started, our tracking research indicates at-risk consumers are now more likely to consider the risk of scams when investing, are more likely to be aware of the warning signs of a scam, and more likely to check with us before investing.
In the year from April 2020 to March 2021 almost 110,000 people visited our ScamSmart website, about 25,000 people visited our investment and scam checker page and there have been 24,000 searches for a firm on the warning list. Over 5,600 users went on to check the Financial Services Register. On-site feedback showed 79% of users found our website helpful, with some consumers indicating they had avoided a scam thanks to the website.
As well as capturing data on website usage, we are also able to track what investment and pension products consumers are checking on the ScamSmart Warning List tool, and how consumers heard about these products. This shows what investment and pension products are being promoted to consumers, and by what channels.
Figure 3 shows that cryptocurrency, FX and pension transfers are the top three investments and pensions products/services reported to ScamSmart over the past 12 months.
Figure 4 shows that ScamSmart users report online channels as the most common method of hearing about potential scams, with adverts on social media and recommendations from a friend the next two most common methods.
We also recently confirmed that we will start a new consumer campaign to address the harm caused from consumers investing in higher risk investments that may not be suitable for their needs. To shape our approach, we ran 3 waves of digital marketing campaigns warning consumers about the risks of higher return investments when they looked for investments online. The campaigns delivered 3.7m Google adverts (Pay Per Click impressions) and over 1.2m Twitter adverts (Twitter ad impressions), driving 150,000 people to our website.
3.2. Providing direct consumer support through our Consumer Helpline
We received 112,000 enquiries from consumers (an average of over 9,000 per month). We monitor the subject or product type that consumers enquire about, with 10.9% relating to investment products and 5.1% related to pensions or retirement products.
Overall enquiries to the FCA about potential scams have increased year on year between 2016 and 2019 but increased more sharply since mid-2020. Almost 30,000 of these enquiries were received between April 2020 and March 2021. This is 77% higher than scam related enquiries in the previous year.
For every consumer enquiry we receive we will capture the organisation name, product, issue and a description of the query in our case management system. Regular reports on this data help us to monitor themes and spot emerging issues.
When a consumer contacts us, where we can resolve the enquiry immediately, we do so. However, we often guide the consumer to contact the firm or other organisations as appropriate to progress their enquiry. In addition, we will often investigate enquiries further if we suspect misconduct, with 22% of enquiries received referred to our supervisory or enforcement teams for action.
Throughout this section the total number of enquiries about potential scams contains instances where one consumer has contacted us more than once about the same potential scam, for example, to provide further information. Due to the way our data is recorded, the data on the subsets of investment scams and specific types of scams do not include these subsequent enquiries.
As well as trying to help consumers who call us, we monitor the information we receive from them as this is a valuable source of intelligence. Along with other sources, we use it to inform our action against fraudulent and unauthorised activities, and collaboration with other anti-fraud agencies.
4.1. Analysis of consumer complaints and redress paid by firms
We collect data from firms to enable us to monitor the number of complaints they receive, how this changes over time and which products or services people have complained about the most. We use it to help assess how well firms are treating their customers, to guide our supervision of firms and markets, and to highlight potential concerns with products.
Firms must report all the complaints they receive. Those with over 500 complaints opened in a 6-month period must also report how many accounts or plans they have in force. In 2020, firms reported 126,812 investment complaints for 49.6m client accounts and 114,194 decumulation and pension complaints against 42.2m plans in force.
This equates to around 2.6 complaints per 1,000 products in investments and 2.7 complaints per 1,000 products for decumulation and pensions. These cover all complaints, not just those relating to higher risk investments or scams. The level of complaints received about pensions and investments products is comparatively low – in the same period firms reported 6.4 complaints per 1,000 banking and credit card products for example.
£66.7m of redress was paid for investments complaints and £55.8m for pensions complaints
While pensions and investments products tend to receive lower volumes of complaints, when consumers do complain firms tend to uphold those complaints at higher rates and pay out higher levels of redress – 44.7% of investment complaints in 2020 were upheld, and £66.7m of redress was paid (£1,172 per upheld complaint), while 61.8% of decumulation and pensions complaints were upheld and £55.8m redress was paid (£806 per upheld complaint).
Most complained about products
While the most complained about products in pensions and investments are those that tend to be held by more consumers (such as workplace and non-workplace pensions, and investment ISAs), when adjusting for the number of products in the market, high risk investment products tend to appear at the top of the list, with significantly higher numbers of complaints per 1,000 products. Sortable complaints data by product is published every six months, and includes complaints contextualised by products in the market for firms that report more than 500 complaints in that half-year.
5. Protecting consumers and improving the mass market
Stop and disrupt: protecting consumers from harm
We have made significant changes to protect consumers from harm from higher risk investments. In 2020/21 we:
- banned the mass marketing of Speculative Illiquid Securities, a type of mini-bond, to retail consumers
- banned the sale, marketing and distribution of both crypto-derivative and binary options to retail consumers
Support and guide: making the mass market work well
In addition to protecting consumers from harm we have made changes to improve the mainstream market. For example, in 2020:
- improved outcomes for consumers transferring from defined benefit (DB) pensions to defined contribution (DC) schemes by setting out new rules and guidance on pension transfer advice
- developed rules introducing investment pathways that came into force in February 2021 and aim to help non-advised consumers entering drawdown choose investments that matches their retirement objectives
- consulted on guidance for firms to ensure vulnerable consumers are treated fairly and also consulted on a Consumer Duty
- reviewed the impact of the Retail Distribution Review (RDR) and the Financial Advice Market Review (FAMR), to improve consumer outcomes from financial advice and guidance. We published the findings of this review in December
- published a Call for Input (CFI) on Consumer Investments looking at areas where the consumer investment market is not working well for customers and seeking views on potential improvements; we publish the response and our 3-year Strategy alongside this report
6. Next steps
- We have published our Consumer Investments Strategy alongside this report. It sets out our work for the next three years to protect consumers from investment harm.
- We will publish this update report on a half yearly basis to keep you updated and informed on our work to reduce the impact of consumer harm in the investment market and the insights we are gaining from it.