INVESTMENT FRAUD

Bitcoin scams: Indian investors eager for quick profits are being duped by conmen

They lure people into investing in non-existent virtual currencies by promising huge returns after a lock-in period.

The rising value of bitcoin is attracting thousands of investors in India. Every day, around 2,500 people are estimated to be buying into the digital currency created by people around the world running computers using software that solves complex mathematical problems. But this surge in demand has an ugly side: scamsters who are capitalising on this bullish trend to dupe people.

At the beginning of 2017, a bitcoin was valued at around $1,000 but by early December it was trading at $16,000. Investment pundits have attributed this surge to a range of factors – from the Brexit referendum in Britain to Donald Trump taking over as president of the United States to bitcoin being legalised in Japan in April 2017. On January 12 this year, after a few weeks of fluctuations, the price settled at around $14,000. That same day, news came that Reliance Jio Infocomm was planning to launch a new cryptocurrency called JioCoin.

Most countries do not recognise bitcoin as currency. The Indian government is waiting for the report of an expert committee set up to examine the subject before taking a decisive position on cryptocurrencies – digital assets such as bitcoin that use encryption techniques to secure transactions, control the creation of additional units, and to verify the transfer of assets.

But this has not stopped people in India from being duped by conmen running ponzi schemes who lead victims to believe that they are investing in virtual currencies. A ponzi scheme is a fraudulent investment operation in which returns for older investors are paid from money received from new investors, instead of profits from a legitimate business activity. In April 2017, the Mumbai police unearthed a Rs 75-crore ponzi scheme involving an alleged cryptocurrency called OneCoin. A similar operation involving something called ATC coin was busted in October.

At least eight such scams have been reported to the Delhi police since October. In December, the police busted a multi-crore ponzi scheme whose operators duped people by offering investment in a cryptocurrency called Kashh coin.

How it works

Describing how one of these eight cases worked, Alok Kumar, joint commissioner in the Delhi police’s Crime Branch, said that the coins were initially launched at a rate of Rs 3.50 per coin and the victim was promised that he would earn huge profits after a lock-in period.

“The accused organised lavish seminars in different places, including Mumbai, Chandigarh, Raipur and Nagpur, for business promotion,” Kumar said. “At these seminars, they would lure people into investing in this coin claiming that its rate will cross the cost of bitcoin one day. They used to invite eminent personalities to these seminars to attract more and more people.”

In videos of one such seminar organised by Kashh Coin in 2017, the Bhojpuri actor Ravi Kishan, who joined the Bharatiya Janata Party early last year, can be seen entertaining the audience. But when he was asked about this, the actor said he had only performed at the event and had not endorsed Kashh Coin.

“When the Kashh coin scam was being investigated, many others schemes came on our radar,” said Bhisham Singh, deputy commissioner in the Crime Branch. “Some of them are Laxmi coin, LCC coin, abbreviation for LiteCoin Classic, and Bullcoin. They are no cryptocurrencies at all. They are suspected to be multi-level marketing schemes organised to dupe people like Kashh coin.”

A multi-level marketing scheme makes money by engaging a non-salaried workforce – as distributors, participants, consultants – to sell products and services in exchange for a commission from the sales made directly by them or a fraction of the commission earned by workers below them in the chain. Most ponzi scams in India, including the Saradha scam that was exposed in 2013, followed the multi-level marketing strategy.

Complex operation

According to Kislay Chaudhary, a cyber security consultant to several government agencies, ponzi schemes involving cryptocurrencies started in India after Initial Coin Offerings became a trend in mid-2016. Initial Coin Offerings allow newly-launched businesses to raise money online without having to follow the regulations that accompany Initial Public Offerings. “A bitcoin is nothing but an open source programme which can be edited and replicated into newer forms and used for the purpose of scams that can be initiated on the pretext of ICOs,” Chaudhury said.

Put simply, instead of shares in a company, the investors in these schemes are offered units of a cryptocurrency.

Pramod Emjay, a portfolio manager in crypto-commodities, explained that a bitcoin is essentially a reward for engaging a computer system to solve complex algorithms at periodic intervals, which signs the operator into an open ledger called the blockchain. “As far as Initial Coin Offerings are concerned, it can be presumed that the idea can be used as a pretext to dupe people,” Emjay said. “But there is no necessity on the part of the persons running such scams to use the ICO strategy because their primary targets are people who have knowledge about the surge in bitcoin price through news articles, who want to go for lucrative investments but do not have much idea about how cryptocurrencies function.”

There are several videos online explaining new cryptocurrencies, including some on that are now on the radar of the police. Their operators talk about the great ratings of their coins, suggesting that investing in them would be lucrative.

Trends related to the prices of cryptocurrencies are visible in websites known as cryptocurrency exchanges. Chaudhary said it can be tough to establish the reliability of a cryptocurrency exchange. Indeed, several cryptocurrency exchanges have been busted for scams in the past few years.

“It needs technical expertise,” said Emjay. “Even if a crypto exchange does not show anything related to the concerned virtual currency, it won’t be too much of rocket science for scamsters to refer to random graphs and charts and deceive their target audience. People should be extremely careful getting into such deals.”

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.