At the spry young age of 15 and 16, I began trading stocks. I read Jim Cramer’s autobiography and was inspired by his love of markets. Memorizing the two, three, and four-letter tickers for major companies provided a unique joy; frankly, I’m not sure why. I loved watching CNBC and seeing the symbols dance up and down like a permanent Christmas tree of green and red.
Every now and then, a story would catch my eye. It was someone like me; passionate about the markets, but they were making boatloads of cash. They made me jealous, and I wondered how I could emulate their success.
That was until I realized most were fake, underreported, and often, downright lies. These were hardly the role models I should’ve been following. Today, I wanted to point out a few recent stories that highlighted frauds — willingly and with seriously piss-poor reporting.
The already-rich, “self-made” millionaire
Anton Ivanov was a serial entrepreneur and personal finance blogger for years. I had multiple conversations with him after starting Frugaling. To avoid anything slanderous, I’ll just say that I planned on never working with him. Something just didn’t make sense about his riches and efforts in the personal finance world.
Then, shortly before his 27th birthday a slew of stories were written about Ivanov. He even wrote an article for the occasion in one of my favorite personal finance sites, Budgets are Sexy. Yahoo Finance interviewed him to discover how he had succeeded to save, invest, and make wealth in record time.
Being a 27-year-old, self-made millionaire is a unique club that’s generally reserved for entrepreneurs and young tech whiz kids. The Internet has enabled a new generation — Millennials — to see millions and billions in record time with the sale of apps and sites.
Ivanov reported that he did it with old-fashioned hard work and dedication. Remarkable! His advice centered on a few steps: set clear and actionable goals, track net worth, save more income, avoid consumer debt, have an emergency fund, save for large expenses, and invest.
Yahoo Finance reported that Ivanov had successfully entered the workforce at a young age, started hustling at a young age, and then got into the real estate game. The article is filled with blasé quips like,
“He hopes to own at least 10 properties by the time he hits his 40s, but he’s in no rush.”
See, it’s not that his advice was fraudulent and questionable. The heart of the problem was that he wasn’t actually a “self-made” millionaire (as if anyone magically prints money themselves). Here’s what Yahoo Finance then wrote,
“Since the publication of this story on Nov. 4, new details have come to light which have made Anton Ivanov’s claims of becoming a self-made millionaire highly suspect. On Monday, Ivanov admitted to Yahoo Finance that 75-80% of his wealth consists of an inheritance that was left to him by his parents, who died several years ago.”
This kid made $72 million… From his parents
Ivanov isn’t the only fake “success story.” New York Magazine found a “whiz kid” that supposedly made millions trading stocks on his “lunch hour.” It was the ultimate viral article. With a catchy title that spoke to ridiculous riches — $72 million made from trading — and a young man looking to become a hedge fund manager.
Mo Islam was a 17-year-old kid who had already been profiled by Business Insider, as a “20 under 20.” He was going somewhere in life because of his vast wealth creation. Islam supposedly started buying penny stocks — over the counter and paper-based companies that don’t necessarily trade on the major exchanges. These stocks vary greatly and are dangerous for 99.99% of investors to even think about.
The penny stocks didn’t pan out, so Islam swiftly switched to oil and gold. That’s when New York Magazine says he struck bank account success. He quickly amassed about 8-figures of wealth.
If the story is unbelievable and astonishing, it might just be unreal and manufactured. Only a couple days later, every major media outlet was discrediting the kid and New York Magazine’s story. It was all made up, and while the “whiz kid” did have a large bank account, it is because very wealthy parents.
The media is rewarded for good, fake stories
Over and over again, false stories are reported in the media. They used to make me envious for their success. I thought, “Wow! If they can do it, why can’t I?” Well, there was an essential distinction between them and me — lots and lots of money to start. Both Ivanov and Islam started with wealth that was either inherited or given to them. The trading, saving, and investing that came afterwards didn’t essentially make them rich — it just added to their earnings.
These weren’t the mythical “self-made millionaire” and “whiz kids.” No, they were privileged with familial riches. Today I’m writing this story, not to further discredit these two people, but to highlight the severe media mismanagement and horrific reporting that was associated with both stories (and many others I don’t have time to cover).
With each story, the media outlet claimed that the individual told them that he had made boatloads of money. With each story, they reported that claim without properly vetting the source. And with each story, the media outlets made vast advertising dollars in spite of their errs. In fact, they made even more than they would’ve if they honestly vetted and reported the stories!
Ordinarily, these people are singular stories — one-hit wonders. They’re popular for a little while and then the media company moves to the next story. They make money from that one story, but here’s the genius: if they get it wrong, there’s at least two stories to come!
Here’s how you make more money as a news company by reporting fraudulent stories:
- Publish a poorly vetted story
- Make money from visitors to the “incredible” story
- Receive harsh critique and censure from observers of the story, which sends a surge to the original article
- Make more money from visitors to the “incredible,” fraudulent story
- Publish a story highlighting the “truth” regarding the “self-made millionaire”
- Make even more money from visitors to the “incredible truth” about the fraudulent story
All the while, media outlets work diligently to discredit the source, while excusing the journalist’s poor reporting. And meanwhile the mythical narrative of the “self-made millionaire” continues, stubbornly. The narrative doesn’t change, despite the blow to accuracy. Everybody wins when the narrative stays the same, right?
What do you think, can people actually be “self-made” millionaires? What’s the best way to make and build wealth? Is there actually one-size-fits-all advice that works for everyone?