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Money for Nothing: Age-Old Investment Scam Returns in Cryptocurrency Ponzi Scheme

Earlier this month, a superseding indictment was unsealed in the Southern District of New York, charging Pablo Rodriguez, Gutemberg Dos Santos, Scott Hughes, Cecilia Milan, and Jackie Aguilar for their roles in a Ponzi-scheme.  Putting a modern-spin on the age-old investment scam, the defendants allegedly defrauded individuals through investments in AirBit Club, a purported cryptocurrency mining and trading company.

The defendants created a scheme in which victim-investors were induced to invest in AirBit Club based on the promise of guaranteed profits in exchange for cash investments in club “memberships.” As early as 2015, AirBit Club, through its founders and promoters marketed AirBit Club as a cryptocurrency multilevel marketing club. The promoters falsely promised victim-investors that AirBit Club earned returns on cryptocurrency mining and trading and the victims would earn passive, guaranteed daily returns on any membership purchased.  As part of its efforts to lure new investors, AirBit Club put on lavish events all over the world, including in the United States, Latin America, Asia, and Eastern Europe.

After marking an investment, the AirBit Club’s promoters provided victim-investors with access to a fake, online AirBit Club portal to view the purported returns on memberships. While victim-investors saw “profits” accumulate on their Online Portal, those returns were false and based on phantom underling investments. No Bitcoin mining or trading on behalf the victim-investors ever took place. 

In an effort to conceal the AirBit Club Scheme, the defendants requested that victim-investors purchase memberships in cash, using third-party cryptocurrency brokers, and by laundering the scheme’s proceeds through several domestic and foreign bank accounts, including an attorney trust account.  One of the defendants used the funds of victim-investors to cover personal expenses of the defendants including expenses related to luxury cars, jewelry, and homes.  The defendants also used victims’ funds to promote the AirBit Club Scheme.  In total, the defendants laundered at least $20 million in proceeds of the scheme through these various methods.  When victim-investors attempted to withdraw money from their AirBit Club Portal they were met with excuses, delays, and hidden fees amounting to more than 50% of the requested withdrawal, if they were able to make any withdrawal at all. 

Three of the defendants were charged with one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, one count of conspiracy to commit bank fraud, and one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering.   The fourth defendant was charged with one count of conspiracy to commit bank fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering, and Aguilar was charged with one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud.

This case serves as another example of the commitment of the U.S. Department of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security, and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission to take action against fraudsters that violate the securities laws and commit fraud in the digital currency space.

© Polsinelli PC, Polsinelli LLP in CaliforniaNational Law Review, Volume X, Number 247

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About this Author

Richard Levin Polsinelli Fintech Attorney
Shareholder

Richard Levin is the Chair of Polsinelli’s Chambers rated FinTech and Regulation Practice.  He brings his experience as a senior legal and compliance officer on Wall Street and in London to bear in advising clients on corporate, securities and regulatory issues. A problem-solver by nature, his practice focuses on helping financial services and technology (FinTech) clients identify and address regulatory issues as they build their businesses.

The FinTech sector is...

303.583.8261
Jason A. Nagi, Polsinelli, Distressed note purchases lawyer, Real estate matters attorney
Shareholder

Jason Nagi helps clients find the most efficient route to their desired result and clients have relied on him to get them what they need – in and out of the courtroom – for more than a decade.

He has significant experience representing parties involved in the following matters:

  • Foreclosing lenders realizing on their collateral

  • Distressed note purchases

  • Real estate

  • Related bankruptcy and out-of-court workouts

  • Guarantee enforcement and disposition of collateral

  • Lender liability, fraud, and breach of contract claims

  • Claims under articles 3 and 4 of the Uniform Commercial Code

212.644.2092
Paul Roshka, Polsinelli, financial securities lawyer
Shareholder

Known for his thorough preparation and persistence, Paul Roshka has a national practice representing companies, their directors, officers, and employees during investigations and enforcement/disciplinary proceedings involving potential violations of the federal and state securities laws, and other financial regulatory statutes and rules. He has handled matters initiated by almost every SEC Regional Office and FINRA District Office, and their Home Offices in Washington, D.C.

He is also a recognized bet-the-company litigator. Paul has defended securities/financial...

602.650.2098
Andrew T. Fox Phoenix Polsinelli Government Investigations Labor and Employment Commercial Litigation Litigation and Dispute Resolution
Associate

As a member of Polsinelli’s Government Investigations practice, Andrew assists clients in all aspects of white collar criminal defense and internal corporate investigations. Working to understand each client’s unique situation, he helps guide clients through government inquiries and provides counsel that aligns to their business strategies. Andrew has experience drafting briefs, memoranda and responding to discovery requests.

Prior to joining Polsinelli, Andrew served as a law clerk to The Honorable Judge Douglas L. Rayes on the United States District Court for the District of...

602-650-2014