Global cryptocurrency scams: Call centers, fake brokers and thousands of victims
An international investigation has identified some of the criminal networks behind more than 470 fraudulent investment websites
A Bitcoin ad in Hong Kong in February.Anthony Kwan (Getty Images)
Using high-pressure 24-hour call centers based in the Balkans, an international cryptocurrency network has scammed more than 200,000 victims in Europe, most of them in Germany, Italy and Spain. The global rip-off has now been exposed by a coordinated investigation involving police from seven countries. Spanish police intercepted three million emails that enabled investigators to identify and connect more than 470 websites supported by call centers, technology platforms and businesses. From their analysis of all the emails ending with the top-level domain for Spain (.es), police estimate that there may be at least 17,000 potential victims in that country alone. This number doesn’t include people with emails ending in .com who may have been swindled by a global network that is constantly shapeshifting and reinventing itself. According to police sources, the criminals have raked in $2.5 billion (€2.4 billion) from hundreds of thousands of victims around the world.
- Eurojust (European Union Agency for Criminal Justice Cooperation) is coordinating the unprecedented investigation with seven European nations that recently conducted simultaneous raids on call centers in Albania, Georgia, North Macedonia, Bulgaria and Ukraine.
“These organizations first sprang up in Israel and Eastern Europe. Little by little, they started connecting with each other and grew bigger,” said Mauro Jordan, an attorney who represents about 20 people in the legal case that triggered the investigation in Catalonia (northeastern Spain). His clients include an 80-year-old woman who lost more than $837,000 (€800,000) investing in cryptocurrencies stored in digital wallets that she was never able to access. “These very large and closely linked organizations are constantly putting up and taking down websites, and opening and closing companies,” said Jordan.More information
EverFX is one of the international brands under scrutiny. It operated in Spain as ICC Intercertus Capital (registered with the Cyprus Securities and Exchange Commission), and sponsored the Seville (southern Spain) soccer team for three seasons. When EL PAÍS asked ICC Intercertus (now called Harindale Ltd. and owned by the Oryx Group) about the EverFX investigation, the company disavowed any knowledge of the inquiry. The UK’s Financial Conduct Authority banned Intercertus ICC and EverFX in 2021 from providing regulated financial services to residents of the UK.
For the last four years, Spanish regional and national police have been unraveling the tangle of websites, domains, platforms and names behind the fraudulent investment opportunities in currency markets, cryptocurrencies, commodities and other financial products. Catalan law enforcement authorities have publicly posted a searchable list of 470 allegedly fraudulent websites, including several EverFX and Intercertus domains.
A spokesperson from Spain’s National Securities Market Commission said that the regulator will analyze all the police data on the allegedly fraudulent websites before taking action. Regarding companies licensed by other EU nations, the Commission only has authority to notify the licensing country. Police sources say it’s unfortunate that Cyprus has allowed itself to be used by groups seeking a veneer of legitimacy to perpetrate fraud throughout Europe.
Spanish authorities participated in the Albanian raid, the main source of marketing calls to victims on the Iberian peninsula. An arrest warrant has been issued for Amant J., a call-center owner with high-level connections to the Albanian government who is also an advisor to its Ministry of Defense. In Georgia, German authorities arrested Mikhail B., a large political campaign contributor who owned call centers and websites that mostly targeted Georgian citizens. Despite being at war, Ukrainian police dismantled call centers that employed more than 800 people.
The coordinated raid didn’t target all the individual salespeople, the brokers who call people night and day to push their scams. “Each country’s legislation is very complicated,” said police sources. The criminal networks are purposely located in the Balkan nations because it’s more difficult for the police to take action there. “If they had been located in Spain, we would have been able to arrest them quite easily,” said the Spanish authorities, who said that the individuals making these sales calls are fully aware of the scams. “Some of them can make €20,000 to €30,000 a month,” said sources in the call center industry. As an example, Spanish police displayed a photo posted to an EverFX social media account of an employee holding an “Ali Baba and the 37 Thieves” award certificate.
“I often wonder how this could have happened to me,” said Carlos (not his real name). The 61-year-old businessman based in Madrid first learned about one of the fraudulent investment platforms on Facebook, and soon got hooked. Like everyone else, he started small and only invested $260 (€250), but then the daily calls from persuasive salespeople coaxed him into investing $63,000 (€60,000). When he tried to get his money out, it was impossible. Police say the money is never actually invested, and the data and graphs clients see on the websites are fake. “It’s all lost,” said a resigned Carlos, who also mentions the moral and psychological harm of the hoax. Four years later, Carlos still gets sales calls from scammers. “My data is out there,” he said. According to industry sources, personal information is regularly bought and sold by all the criminal organizations.
Josep (not his real name) also keeps getting sales calls. “I just got a WhatsApp message today from someone who says they’re helping people recover the money they lost,” he said. This is another scam, often engineered by the same criminals who represent themselves as lawyers and charge a fee for recovering “blocked” investments. “I trusted in it myself and it went badly,” said a civil servant from Tarragona (northeastern Spain) with some experience in stock trading. In 2018, he signed up on one of the websites, lured by the attractive return on investment it promised. A broker soon became Josep’s daily phone friend and convinced him to put in more and more money.
As his investment grew, Josep asked for a face-to-face meeting with the brokers in their offices. “They told me they only did that with high-level clients who invested more than a million.” He gave up on getting his €100,000 back after sending a relative to check on the London address of the company he was dealing with. “It was a clothing store.”
“You feel bad for being so trusting,” said Josep, who also faults the National Securities Market Commission for not being more helpful when he called to ask about other victims of the same scam. “They wouldn’t tell me anything because they couldn’t disclose other people’s information,” he said. There is a lack of public awareness about these scams, says attorney Mauro Jordan, even though they are widespread and have seriously hurt thousands of people, many of them retirees. “The suffering they have caused isn’t well-known. Some individual circumstances are quite dramatic,” said Jordan, who wants to see more involvement from Spanish regulators. Meanwhile, the international investigation remains active.
Jacobo García | Madrid
Álvaro Sánchez | Madrid