There are some useful answers here, but I don't think any of them are quite sufficient. Yes, there are some risks involved in CFD trading, but I will try and give you information so you can make your own decision.
Firstly, Cyprus is part of the EU, which gives it a level of credibility. I'm not saying it's the safest or most well regulated market in the world, but that in itself would not particularly scare me away. The far more important issue here is the risk of using CFDs and of eToro themselves.
A Contract for Difference is really just a specialization of an Equity Swap. It is in no way like owning a real stock. When you purchase shares of a company you own a real Asset and are usually entitled to dividends and voting rights. With a CFD, what you own is one side of a Swap contract. You have a legal agreement between yourself and eToro to "swap" the return earned on the underlying stock for whatever fees eToro decide to charge. As already mentioned, CFDs are not available to US citizens.
Equity swaps have many benefits in financial markets. They can allow access to restricted markets by entering into swaps with banks that have the necessary licenses to trade in places like China. Many "synthetic" ETFs use them in Europe as a way to minimize tracking error as the return is guaranteed by the swap counterparty (for a charge).
They also come with one signficant risk: counterparty credit risk. When trading with eToro, for as long as your position is open, you are at risk of eToro going bankrupt. If eToro failed, you do not actually own any stocks, you only own swap contracts which are going to be worthless if eToro ceased to exist.
CFDs also have an ongoing cost to maintain the open position. This makes them less suitable for buy and hold strategies as those ongoing costs will eat into your returns. It's also not clear whether you would receive any dividends paid by the stock, which make up a significant proportion of returns for buy and hold investors. eToro's website is fairly non-committal:
eToro intends to offer a financial compensation representing the dividends which will be allocated on stocks, to the extent such dividends shall be available to eToro.
All of these points expose what CFDs are really for - speculating on the stock market, or as I like to call it: gambling. If you want to invest in stocks for the long term, CFDs are a bad idea - they have high ongoing costs and the counterparty risk becomes significant. Wait until you have enough money and then buy the real thing. Alternatively, consider mutual funds which will allow you to purchase partial shares and will ensure your investment is better diversified across a large number of stocks. If however, you want to gamble and only keep your position open for a short time, these issues may not be of concern to you.
There's nothing wrong with gambling, it can be fun, many people gamble in casinos or on football matches - but bear in mind that's what CFDs are for. CFDs were in fact originally created for the UK market as a way to avoid paying capital gains tax when making short term speculative trades. However, if you are going to gamble, make sure you're not putting any more than 1% of your net worth at risk (0.1% may be a better target).
There are a few other ways to take a position on stocks using less money than the share price:
- Fractional Shares may be available, depending on your broker. Although, these are more commonly awarded as part of dividends paid in stock
- Derivatives, CFDs (swaps) are one example, but exposure can also be gained using Options and Futures (which have their own risks to consider)
- Leverage, either using a derivative or by borrowing money from your broker. Highly dangerous to the inexperienced investor as it's possible to lose (a lot) more than your initial investment.
Fortunately, eToro do not allow leveraged purchase of stocks so you're reasonably safe on this point. They claim this is because of their 'responsible trading policy', although I find that somewhat questionable coming from a broker that offers 400:1 leverage on FX pairs.
One final word on eToro's "social trading" feature. A few years ago I was in a casino playing Blackjack. I know nothing about Blackjack, but through sheer luck of the draw I managed to treble my money in a very small amount of time. Seeing this, a person behind me started "following" me by putting his chips down on my seat. Needless to say, I lost everything, but amazingly the person behind me got quite annoyed and started criticizing my strategy. The idea of following other people's trades just because they've been lucky in the past sounds entirely foolish to me. Remember the warning on every mutual fund:
Past performance does not guarantee future returns