Prosecutors say the scam was one of as many as 20 similar crypto frauds run by a group of Serbian nationals that bilked investors out of as much as $70m.
It was a crypto scam straight out of a Steven Seagal movie, featuring the action film star himself, a private eye, a staged kidnapping and millions of dollars that vanished into thin air.
Prosecutors say the fraud left nearly 500 investors out more than $11m in cash and a mix of established cryptocurrencies that they had plunked into a purported crypto-mining operation — with the promise of up to 200% gains within 60-to-90 days.
But instead of reaping huge returns, the money was funnelled into accounts overseas controlled by Kristijan Krstic, an accused Serbian-Australian huckster living in the Philippines with a history of fraud allegations, federal prosecutors and investigators with the SEC say.
Last week, John DeMarr, a 55-year-old California private investigator who had served as the frontman for the scam pleaded guilty to helping run the fraud while pocketing nearly $2m which he used to buy a Porsche and a BMW, pay off over $1m in debts and finance a lavish renovation of his Seal Beach home.
He faces up to five years in prison when he is sentenced on 4 Jan 2022.
A broader scam
Days after the indictment against DeMarr was announced in February, federal prosecutors in Texas unsealed a broader criminal indictment against Krstic and 15 other defendants, many of them Serbian nationals, on wire fraud and money laundering charges. In that case, the group is accused of running as many as 20 similar cryptocurrency scams that bilked investors out of as much as $70m.
The SEC has said it believes Krstic is in custody in Serbia, but his exact whereabouts are unknown, so when it attempted to serve him with a separate civil suit, it had to take out an ad in a Serbian newspaper. Krstic couldn’t immediately be contacted for comment.
Investigators say DeMarr joined forces with Krstic in 2017 to launch Start Options, an online investment platform that provided cryptocurrency mining, trading, and digital asset trading services. Because Krstic had been accused of running Ponzi schemes in Australia and Canada in the past, he assumed the alias of Felix Logan for the scheme, serving as Start Options’ chief financial officer, the SEC said.
DeMarr’s attorney said his client was unaware of Krstic’s real identity until more than a year after the scheme was launched.
The outfit purported that it ran giant crypto-mining farms in China and could deliver between 25% and 200% returns within two months, depending on how much money was invested. Investors were provided with false statements showing their money was growing, despite the fact it hadn’t actually hadn’t been invested in anything, prosecutors said.
When two months had passed and investors began asking for their money, they were told it was being rolled over to the initial offering of a new cryptocurrency known as Bitcoiin2Gen (or B2G), with the promise that they would receive an additional coin free for every one they had invested. While investors were told they could pull out at any time, no one was given their money back, the SEC said.
Investigators say DeMarr then hired a former lawyer who had lost his license to craft press releases and technical white papers on the launch, most of which was copied from the white papers of other, successful cryptocurrency launches. DeMarr began promising investors the new currency would deliver 8,000 times return, the SEC said.
Enter Steven Seagal
This is when Steven Seagal, star of martial arts and action films like “Under Siege” and “Above the Law,” made his appearance, surfacing in promotional materials for B2G.
“Zen Master Steven Seagal Has Become the Brand Ambassador of Bitcoiin2Gen,” read one press release, in which it was claimed he was an investor in the new currency and that he “wholeheartedly” endorsed the offering. On social media, Seagal urged his then-nearly seven million followers on Facebook and 100,000 on Twitter to not “miss out” on the B2G opportunity.
What was left unsaid was that Seagal was being paid to be a spokesman, with the promise of $250,000 plus $750,000 in B2G coin for his time, the SEC said.
Seagal later agreed to pay more than $300,000 in fines for unlawfully touting a security by failing to disclose he had been paid for his endorsement. At the time of the agreement, Seagal said in a statement that he backed away from the arrangement when he began having doubts about the “bona fides of the company.” He said he was only paid part of the $250,000 fee.
Seagal’s manager said in an email that the action star “was conned like everyone else.,” and that it was “just bad luck and timing for Steven.”
In all, B2G raised $7.2m for its launch, according to the civil complaint filed by the SEC
In March 2018, when it was announced that Logan (Krstic) and Seagal were leaving the company, investors began clamouring for their money back. Soon after Krstic allegedly disappeared completely with about $7m in the accounts he had control over, investigators said.
Bombarded by complaints from investors, DeMarr falsely announced that the company had been acquired by Russian venture funds, prosecutors said. He then told investors to redeem their B2G coins to him and that he would travel to Montenegro to sell them to the new owners and that everyone would get their money back.
Soon after, the company issued a stunning announcement that DeMarr had been assaulted in Montenegro and had disappeared and that investors should stop trying to contact him, according to court documents. In reality, DeMarr was holed up in his house in Orange County, California.
Last February, DeMarr was indicted by a federal grand jury in the eastern district of New York on one count of conspiring to commit securities fraud and was taken into custody.
Investigators say that more than $4m from the B2G scam remains unaccounted for.
This article was published by Dow Jones Newswires