x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Cold-call cowboys ride in

There's a new posse of cold-calling cowboys, all of them hoping to corral us into investing in their "next big thing". And they're in a race to round up as many high-net-worth people in popular expat locales such as Dubai, Abu Dhabi and parts of Asia, for that next big thing investment of theirs, writes Felicity Glover.

Illustration by Gary Clement for The National
Illustration by Gary Clement for The National

There's a new posse of cold-calling cowboys in town, all of them hoping to corral us into investing in their "next big thing".

Well, not all of them are in the UAE - some are calling from their boiler rooms in London.

But they all have the same thing in common: they are in a race to round up as many high-net-worth people in popular expat locales such as Dubai, Abu Dhabi and parts of Asia, for that next big thing investment of theirs.

I'm sure some of you have already hung up on a few of them - or at least I hope you have, rather than being lured by their lofty promises of 25 per cent to 30 per cent returns on this scheme.

You know the drill. Your mobile rings and you don't recognise the number. You answer and there's an over-friendly voice on the other end.

"Hi!" they say. "Is that Joe/Joanne Bloggs?"

"Yes," you reply, wondering if you should've said no instead. "Who's this?"

"It's Colin Cowboy! I'm from Acme Inc in London."

It is usually at this point your alarm bells start going off. At least mine do.

As much as I detest these calls and the cowboys who can't take no for an answer, there are times when I have a little fun and string them along. But that's only when I'm in a good mood. Most of the time, I just hang up.

Anyway, their latest next big thing turns out to be carbon credits, which companies buy in the form of certificates to offset their emissions.

These certificates, which were formalised by the Kyoto Protocol, give companies the right to poison our air with 1 tonne of carbon dioxide. Their cost fluctuates, so I can't tell you their price. But they can be traded and sold legitimately.

Which is where the carbon-credit cowboys come in.

I should say here there are many legitimate companies that trade in carbon credits for the mum-and-dad investors. But on the flip side, there's quite a few firms that don't.

It's become such a worrying trend in Britain that the Financial Services Authority (FSA), the industry regulator, has posted a strong warning on its website for consumers to beware of the carbon-credit cowboys.

"We continue to receive many reports from people who have been approached by firms promoting carbon credits in the UK," the FSA says.

"We are concerned that an increasing number of firms are using dubious, high-pressure sales tactics and targeting vulnerable consumers."

Now they've been called out in the United Kingdom, I suspect it is these very firms that have turned their attentions further afield in the hope expats may not have heard of them - or are unaware of the FSA's warning.

"Investors are usually called out of the blue by salespeople promoting carbon credits, but contact can also come by email, post, word of mouth or at a seminar or exhibition," it continues.

"You may be offered carbon-credit certificates, or an opportunity to invest directly in a 'green' scheme or project that generates carbon credits as a return on investment.

"The caller may claim carbon credits are 'the new big thing' in commodity trading, industries now have to offset their emissions, the government is focusing on green developments or that it is an ever-growing market."

For those of you who have already received calls from these companies, you have to admit it is eerily familiar - despite the distance between the UAE and London.

"You could lose money on your investment by not being able to sell, or at least get a competitive rate, when trading a small volume of carbon credits," the FSA adds.

Neil Grant, an independent financial adviser and the executive director of Prosperity Offshore Investment Consultants in Dubai, says the cowboys are targeting workers in the construction industry in the UAE.

"They are encouraging people to cash in their existing plans, take a loss and get it into carbon credits," Mr Grant says, adding some of his clients have been approached by carbon-credit sellers.

"They are promising profits of 25 per cent to 30 per cent in six months. The biggest thing for me is the aggressive approach and encouraging people to cash in existing equity that they have suffered a massive loss on.

"They are playing on fear and greed because people wonder how they are going to recover their losses after five years of harsh markets."

It's no wonder investors are tempted by the high returns, especially if their portfolios have been hit badly. But the answer to this, of course, is patience. Any ethical financial adviser will tell you that.

Mr Grant says carbon credits can be a worthy investment as part of a balanced portfolio, in which, say, you've got a 10 per cent to 15 per cent exposure. And the safest way to do it is through a managed fund, not through the cold-callers who are out to make a fast buck in the form of high commissions based on the volume of their sales.

As the saying goes, if it sounds too good to be true, then it is. And promises of returns of up to 30 per cent in six months are unheard of.

Even these days.


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