The US Department of Justice (DoJ) has arrested three men in connection to a cryptocurrency Ponzi scheme that has allegedly defrauded investors out of $722 million.
The emergence of cryptocurrency including Bitcoin (BTC) and Ethereum (ETH), in just a few short years, has exploded into an active ecosystem involving alt-coins, Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs) in which tokens are offered in exchange for money to push crypto projects off the ground, and everyone and their dog exploring the underlying blockchain as a potential business transformation tool.
Enthusiasm surrounding the blockchain, which in itself is a valuable technology that does have business value, has been matched with consumers and investors seeking to cash in on virtual coins -- but not every scheme is legitimate.
On Tuesday, three men were charged in connection to BitClub Network, a cryptocurrency mining scheme that operated through April 2014 to December 2018.
The BitClub Network promised investors shares in mining pools, used to generate cryptocurrency, in return for funds made through wire, cash, checks, and cryptocurrency transfers. In addition, rewards were offered for the recruitment of new members, of which a membership fee of $99 was imposed.
However, DoJ prosecutors say the men arrested -- Matthew Brent Goettsche, 37, Jobadiah Sinclair Weeks, 38, and Joseph Frank Abel, 49 -- provided "false and misleading figures" that participants were told were "Bitcoin mining earnings" -- despite no dedicated mining pools for members existing.
Money obtained by users was not used to invest in mining equipment or resources. Instead, the trio allegedly spent the proceeds "lavishly" while quietly mocking the scheme's participants.
According to law enforcement, Goettsche told Weeks and Abel the BitClub Network was built "on the backs of idiots," and also referred to investors as "sheep."
The trio revealed in emails that daily earning numbers were tampered with beyond reasonable and believable rates -- such as a daily earnings increase of 60 percent -- and in September 2017, Goettsche suggested that the network "[d]rop mining earnings significantly starting now" so they could "retire RAF," or "rich as f*ck."
The DoJ says the Ponzi scheme earned operators $722 million.
Another complaint brought forward, this time by the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), is that the BitClub Network did not register shares sold off with the agency. SEC believes these shares should be considered securities.
Goettsche and Weeks are charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud, whereas all three also face allegations of conspiracy to offer and sell unregistered securities. Wire fraud can result in a prison term of up to 20 years and a maximum fine of $250,000. The SEC charges carry up to five years behind bars and a fine of up to $250,000.
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Two other suspects have not been apprehended and their identities have not been revealed.
"What they allegedly did amounts to little more than a modern, high-tech Ponzi scheme that defrauded victims of hundreds of millions of dollars," said US Attorney Carpenito. "Working with our law enforcement partners here and across the country, we will ensure that these scammers are held to account for their crimes."
Previous and related coverage
- Drugs stashed in kids toys lead to $1 million cryptocurrency seizure by police
- Law debated allowing confiscation of Bitcoin by the police
- Cryptocurrency expert arrested for giving talk to North Korea about avoiding sanctions
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