Families in despair over IM Academy: ‘The crypto-sect has kidnapped our children’

Parents report that an online trading course is in fact a pyramid scheme that is ‘brainwashing’ young people and separating them from their friends and loved ones

An IM Academy event in Badalona, Spain on April 8.
An IM Academy event in Badalona, Spain on April 8.CRISTÓBAL CASTRO

“They have kidnapped our children,” says a woman who has seen her daughter transform into another person in the space of two months. “They have turned her inside out like a sock.” This mother and around 40 other families are united through RedUNE, an association that works to prevent recruitment by sects. They are on the warpath against the New York-based IM Academy, a group that’s been called a “crypto-sect” and a pyramid scheme and which is under investigation by Spain’s police for fraud.

IM Academy, which supposedly teaches how to invest in cryptocurrencies, held a large event in the northeastern Spanish city of Badalona on April 9, attracting more than 9,000 young people from all over Europe. They came away believing they have found the magic formula to get rich without working; their parents instead believe their children are being “brainwashed” and turned into sales people for the company.

The story always begins with the courses that IM Academy offers online. “We didn’t see anything wrong with her doing it,” recalls Raquel, 53, who now regrets having paid for her daughter’s course. She, like the rest of the mothers in this article, used an assumed name to preserve what’s left of her relationship with her daughter. In two months, the latter dropped her studies to focus on “personal development,” which essentially means “recruitment and consolidation within the sect,” says Raquel.

IM Academy courses cost €150 a month. But if each student recruits two people, the training is free. With three recruits, members start earning money and climbing the ranks of the organization, turning into Platinum 150 members; with 12 new recruits, you become Platinum 600 (you earn $600) and so on until you reach the top, that of chairman with 30,000 subscribers. It is a “pyramid scheme sales practice,” according to the complaint that several families filed with Spain’s National Police, leading to the arrest of eight people on March 23. This newspaper has unsuccessfully tried to reach IM Academy for comment.

“You’re going to get rich. Your parents won’t understand, nor will your friends. You are a visionary who is aligned with today’s times,” says Raquel, recalling the lines that her daughter repeated to her. “She became a different person.” The day her parents refused to continue paying for her courses, “she took her backpack and left,” laments her mother. “She has forgotten her family, her group of friends… I don’t even know where she lives. And now I’m her enemy because I don’t understand her and I don’t support her.”

Another common element is speed. Ángela’s 18-year-old son began to be interested and he was suddenly hooked “24 hours a day.” His attitude changed. Ángela has managed to maintain a good relationship with him, but she is desperate. “The psychologist tells me that I cannot criticize the group,” she explains about the assistance she has received from the RedUNE support group. “He gets up, goes to the computer and when he goes out it’s just to recruit new people.” Angela is “tired, exhausted and pissed off” to see how her son has ended up “in a monetary sect.” He, too, has dropped out of school.

All of them have also developed “dialectical skills” that surpass their mothers’ own. “They teach them what to say at every step,” says Encarna, 58, whose 20-year-old son has joined IM Academy. He has gone from being “a normal guy who got good grades” to dropping out of school. “He says that’s an outdated paradigm,” she explains. And he is dedicated to “opening people’s eyes” and to “digital empowerment.” “They are young, smiling and they give you lessons on how to live life,” says Encarna. “They don’t teach them trading, they teach them abduction,” she says, adding she is fed up with her son’s glibness and how he is “always on everyone’s case” to try to recruit them. She is reaching her limit. But she is afraid that if she challenges him, she will lose.

Marta’s 19-year-old son dropped out of IM Academy three months ago, but he bears a grudge against his mother for it. In the half a year that he was in the group, he did things like writing a diary with phrases like “I’m Platinum 500, I’m successful, I have my cars.” He, like the others, dropped his studies. He has never been the same again. “He has not been vaccinated [against coronavirus]. He thinks that everything is a setup, even the war in Ukraine,” regrets his mother. He follows “weird groups” and makes “survival” purchases like matches or flashlights. “He has become obsessive,” she summarizes, and has “disconnected from his family.” Marta even doubts that, despite working and not having time, he has not returned to IM Academy. The problem, the woman repeats, is not that they are losing money, it is the “brainwashing” and the fact that they are being turned “against their parents.”

Marc, who is in his twenties, has participated in IM Academy talks. But he couldn’t see the allure. “Around 95% of it is talk, like a movie with a happy ending, not trading,” he says. He, unlike his brother, who is hooked on the crypto-sect, will not join. “Why would I go there? For a fool to tell me that I have a poor man’s mentality? No, thanks.”

How the fraud allegedly works

The judicial investigation into the activities of IM Academy in Spain focuses on allegedly fraudulent investment operations with cryptocurrencies. The online training courses and their pyramid structure are just the structure that supports everything else. The key to the network is what is known in the jargon of the academy as “signals”: investment orders in certain products that the leadership sends to the intermediate cadres and these, in turn, relay to the victims. On March 23, after a year of investigation, the police arrested eight people for an alleged scam that may affect more than 2,000 young people, some of them underage. Albert F., Iván B., Cristian A. and José Francisco T. are some of the suspects being investigated by a Madrid court. The initial complaint, on behalf of the victims, accuses them of fraud, misleading advertising, psychological coercion, criminal organization, and crimes against public finances and against the Social Security system.

The whistleblowers were young people who have gone through this phase, but who, after losing hope and money, abandoned a group that they say has elements of a cult. The online training is “nonexistent or scarce,” explains the lawyer who filed the complaint, Carlos Bardavío. The teachers’ effort shifts from trading to the need for students to attract other clients, and getting them to invest. Through a “referral link,” the leadership launches its “signals,” which are investment orders on certain financial products. Whether the operation goes well or not, the leadership always wins through commissions. And the alleged victims become an “instrument of the scam” because they end up recommending the operation to others.

The “team leaders” (the Platinums) forward those links by specific applications and Telegram groups. And so they also get a piece of the cake. They earn money, but not by investing, but because others close the operations previously recommended by the leaders. To convince the students, the recruiters show income statements with many zeros. According to the complaint, these documents are partial (losses are hidden), false or simple demos.

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