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How did United African Stokvel con so many people?

by | Aug 29, 2023

How did United African Stokvel con so many people?There has been a great deal of media coverage regarding the investigation into United African Stokvel (UAS) by the Financial Sector Conduct Authority (FSCA).

Thousands of investors claim to have lost money, with losses estimated to be around R100 million.

Many of those who invested say they believed UAS was legitimate because they had heard about it through the media, and the founder of UAS had even been featured at a tax conference.

So to what extent was UAS legitimised by the media and even organisations such as the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants (SAICA)?

I first came across United African Stokvel in 2021 when readers contacted me asking if it was legit. One look at the offering set alarm bells ringing. It was unclear how they made their money and the returns offered were well above what would be considered normal investment returns.

They were promising to triple your money in six months by investing in “telecoms and property”. One financial adviser told me that when he contacted them for further information about their investments, they avoided answering the question.

A reader sent me a link to an interview with Darren Langbein, the mastermind behind UAS, who was a speaker at SAICA’s annual TaxCon in 2021.

Langbein spoke at the webinar as an “expert” on stokvels and the business opportunities around digitising stokvels. Speaking at this conference gave him a great amount of legitimacy and he posted the interview with an SABC journalist on the UAS Facebook page. SAICA had inadvertently given him the credibility he needed.

A SAICA spokesperson said that although Langbein appeared as a speaker at their 2021 TaxCon, he had various media interviews (radio, tv and print) prior to the event. SAICA confirmed that as soon as the allegations against Mr. Langbein came to light, they removed his video and content from all of their platforms.

There were media articles in publications like Stokvel Talk and Disrupt-Africa about how amazing Langbein and UAS were. Ironically in the Stokvel Talk interview, Langbein is quoted as saying that he was “entirely unaware of the amount of scamming that happened in the industry” and that he did not realise that his business success depended on gaining the trust of the stokvel community.

Did the media endorse United African Stokvel?

When people read or hear about companies or investments in the media, they believe they have some legitimacy. They are seen as being “endorsed” by the media house.

From the outset it is important to understand that companies often purchase coverage – they pay for the interview. A good, ethical media outlet would ensure that it is marked as an advertorial, but that is not always done. And even if it is marked as an advertorial, readers don’t always understand the implications.

But then there are genuine articles about new businesses or investment platforms. Journalists have a difficult path to walk. Journalists want to report on new and upcoming investment ideas to provide these new entrants with some coverage in an industry dominated by large established players.

A good example would be investing in cattle – I have provided coverage on this website of this interesting investment category, but these investments do not fall under the current financial regulations which take time to adapt to new forms of investment.

Until recently crypto exchanges such as Luno were not regulated. Yet people are investing through those platforms.

A journalist should be doing their research and the investment case needs to make sense, but as an investor you also need to do your own homework before you invest. You cannot believe something to be legitimate because you heard about it through the media.

The other challenge journalists face is defamation. As much as you might have a bad feeling about an investment like UAS, publicly calling them out without any evidence lands you very quickly at the Press Ombud. The founders of pyramid investments are quick to take legal action because their entire investment model relies on new investors, so negative media can bring down the whole business.

The best you can do is explain that the numbers do not add up. You cannot use words like “scam” or “pyramid scheme” until it is proven.

UAS is not the first and certainly will not be the last investment scam to gain popularity and receive positive media exposure.

My advice to potential investors is to always do your own homework and use some common sense. If it looks too good to be true, then it very likely is – even if you are reading about it in the media. And just because there are no negative articles or reviews does not mean it is above board. It is only once the scheme fails that investors step forward to complain.

Recourse for UAS victims

The Financial Sector Conduct Authority (FSCA) investigation into United African Stokvel and the founders is currently ongoing, and the FSCA has asked investors to contact them in order to assist in its investigation of any contraventions of financial sector law.

Investors may contact the investigators through the FSCA website or by calling 0800 20 37 22.

It is important to note that while the FSCA can issue administrative penalties, it does not have the power to compensate investors, as the UAS was unregulated.

Investors are advised to open a case against UAS with the police and look to a possible class action suit against the owners of UAS.

This article first appeared in City Press.

4 Comments

  1. I also thought that it was a legit stockvel when l saw in the magazine in 2021
    Anyway l had some doubts to register a friend of mine persuaded me to join.We join with R500.00. for 12 months.We wanted to see weather is it leagid or not.
    When the 12 months came it was difficult to get the money but we persuade them to send our money .At last they send the Money we got only R600 which was the interest .

    I diced to to stop.January 2023 they persuade me to join again. I join because they told me that now everything is OK.l then join in January 2023 with the same amount R500 for 12 months.
    Towards the end of december l tried to call them ,the cellphone was not working.
    I then Google the name of the stokvel .l got it l nearly died when l read the article. I join it because l wanted to have money for the children for books and school fees .
    I wonder
    I want to know that how are we going to get our money because it’s difficult to get them.

    Reply
    • I am so sorry to hear that you have been a victim. The FSCA is investigating so it best you contact them Investors may contact the investigators through the FSCA website or by calling 0800 20 37 22.
      Unfortunately it is unlikely there will be much money to be paid out.

      Reply
      • I am asking you Maya Fisher to assist me to get my R6000.00 if ever it can be possible.
        Four years ago you assisted my mom to get her money which was in the hands of a lawyer for 2 years after she sold her house when she was relocating to Barberton.
        It was so difficult to get her money but after you take up the issue my mother got her money after you intervin.
        Yes it’s a small amount but to me it’s not because l am not working l am widow and l had to buy necessities for school when schools reopen.n

        Reply
        • If it is a legitimate financial services provider and I have connections there I can assist, but unfortunately I have no way of getting money back from crooks. Only the police can do that. Sorry…

          Reply

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Maya Fisher-French author of Money Questions Answered

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