Tuesday, July 30, 2013

SEC targets Bitcoin -Denominated Ponzi Scheme

The Securities and Exchange Commission announced late last week that it has filed an action involving what it claims is a Bitcoin investment scam. The case involves the alleged fraudulent offers and sales of securities in a Bitcoin-denominated alleged Ponzi scheme founded and operated by a 30-year old Trendon T. Shavers from Texas.

The complaint alleges Shavers was the founder and operator of BTCST (formerly known as First Pirate Savings & Trust) an unincorporated entity with physical “brick and mortar” operating presence or location.  On or about November 3, 2011, Shavers, under the Internet name pirateat40, posted a general solicitation for BTCST, entitled “Looking for Lenders,” on the Bitcoin Forum[1] an online forum dedicated to BTC where, among other things, numerous BTC-denominated investment opportunities were posted. Shavers continued to post what the SEC alleges was martially false or misleading statements as to the purported investment opportunity.

According to the SEC’s complaint filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas, Shavers sold BTCST investments over the Internet to investors in such states as Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania.  Shavers posted general solicitations on a website dedicated to Bitcoin discussions, and he misled investors with such false assurances about his investment opportunity as “It’s growing, it’s growing!” and “I have yet to come close to taking a loss on any deal,” and “risk is almost 0.”  Contrary to the representations made to investors, BTCST was not in the business of buying and selling Bitcoin at all.
 According to the SEC, from at least September 2011 to September 2012, Shavers, operating under the Internet name “pirateat40,” offered and sold BTCST investments over the Internet, raising more than 700,000 BTC in principal investments from BTCST investors, or more than $4.5 million based on the daily average price of BTC when the BTCST investors purchased their BTCST investments. 

The SEC claims that Shavers falsely promised investors up to 7% interest weekly based on BTCST’s purported BTC market arbitrage activity, including selling BTC to individuals who wished to buy BTC “off the radar,” quickly, or in large quantities. But as the SEC argues, in reality, the BTCST offering was a sham and a Ponzi scheme whereby Shavers used new BTCST investors’ BTC to pay the promised returns on outstanding BTCST investments and misappropriated BTCST investors’ BTC for his personal use.

During the relevant period, Shavers obtained at least 700,467 BTC in principal investments from BTCST investors, or $4,592,806 when converted to U.S. dollars based on the daily average price of BTC when the BTCST investors purchased their BTCST investments.
Shavers returned at least 507,148 BTC to BTCST investors as withdrawals or purported interest payments. He also transferred at least 150,649 BTC to his personal account at an online BTC currency exchange which, among other things, he then sold or used to day-trade (converting BTC to U.S. dollars and vice versa). As a result of this activity, Shavers suffered a net loss from his day-trading, but realized net proceeds of $164,758 from his net sales of 86,202 BTC.

The SEC further claims that Shavers transferred $147,102 from his personal account at the online BTC currency exchange to accounts he controlled at an online payment processor and his personal checking account, which he then used for, among other things, his personal expenses, including rent, car-related expenses, utilities, retail purchases, casinos, and meals.

The SEC’s complaint charges Shavers and BTCST with offering and selling investments in violation of the anti-fraud and registration provisions of the securities laws, specifically Sections 5(a), 5(c) and 17(a) of the Securities Act of 1933, Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and Exchange Act Rule 10b-5.  The SEC is seeking a court order to freeze the assets of Shavers and BTCST in addition to other relief, including permanent injunctions, disgorgement of ill-gotten gains with prejudgment interest, and financial penalties.

What are Bitcoins?
In 1998, Wei Dai, a so-called “Cypherpunk” proposed the concept of an anonymous digital currency.  A cypherpunk is an activist advocating widespread use of strong cryptography as a route to social and political change. Originally communicating through the Cypherpunks electronic mailing list, informal groups aimed to achieve privacy and security through proactive use of cryptography. Cypherpunks have been engaged in an active movement since the late 1980s.  Dai described "untraceable pseudonymous entities utilizing a medium of exchange and the creation a currency where government involvement "is not temporarily destroyed but permanently forbidden and permanently unnecessary."[2]

With this in mind, in 2009, Satoshi Nakamoto[3] developed bitcoin, the world's first decentralized digital currency, a peer-to-peer Electronic Cash System.  Bitcoin is an online digital currency that relies on peer-to-peer technology for transaction management and distribution.

 Bitcoins are computer files.  They may be stored on a personal computer or entrusted to an online service. Since the coins are simple files stored on a computer, spending them is as easy as sending an e-mail over the Internet.  In order to spend and accept bitcoins, all transactions must be logged on a public ledger.  This public ledger is a decentralized network operated and maintained by thousands of home computers - similar to a peer-to-peer music-sharing network - rather than a central server.  Once the transaction has been cleared by another bitcoin user on the network, the transaction is complete, and the bitcoins have transferred from one user to another.

Bitcoin transactions are supposedly: (1) secure; (2) efficient; and (3) free of third party presence - whether that third party is a government, bank, payment network, or clearinghouse. Security is accomplished through "cryptographic proof," which allows parties to the transaction to deal directly with one another without a third party authorizing the transaction. n32
Bitcoin relies on the use of public-key encryption to secure the parties' privacy n34 and a widely-published "peer-to-peer distributed timestamp server" to verify that the digital coins have not been double spent.
As of this writing, more than eleven million bitcoins have been created and circulated.

[3] Satoshi Nakamoto is a pseudonym for the person or group of people who designed the original Bitcoin protocol in 2008 and launched the network in 2009. Except in connection with Bitcoin, the individual or individuals behind this pseudonym remains publicly unknown. Nakamoto was responsible for creating the majority of the Bitcoin software and was active in making modifications and posting technical information on the BitcoinTalk Forum.  

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