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‘If you follow us you will make money’: how bitcoin is marketed to the masses

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‘If you follow us you will make money’: how bitcoin is marketed to the masses

Initial coin offerings

‘If you follow us you will make money’: how bitcoin is marketed to the masses

Sunny Ahonsi is no stranger to get rich quick schemes. The 57-year-old boasts on LinkedIn about his involvement with companies that have been criticised by regulators across Europe and called a Ponzi scheme by the Belgian financial authority.

Now he has found a new dream to sell: bitcoin. Last Thursday, Mr Ahonsi (pictured below) was touting the promise of cryptocurrencies to a small audience of mostly middle-aged Londoners at the Aldgate branch of WeWork, the $20bn office space startup.

“Ninety-five per cent of people you’re going to talk to about cryptocurrency, they say to you it’s a bubble. Correct?” he said as the 30 or so men and women packed into a small, hot room on the fourth floor nodded in agreement. In fact, he declared, “the bubble will never burst.”

Seven years ago, bitcoin was a weird little digital currency project to which only a small number of cryptography enthusiasts and libertarians paid any attention. Today, it is a mainstream sensation that trades at over $7,000 — up 600 per cent this year — and has helped drive a boom in financing for young, unproven startups that is reminiscent of the dotcom bubble in the 1990s.

The rapid increase in value of Bitcoin and another cryptocurrency, Ethereum, as well as a frenzy of fundraising through “initial coin offerings”, has attracted everyone from thoughtful technologists to chancers hoping to make a quick buck and ordinary people who feel like they might miss out on the fortune of a lifetime.

It was this feeling that Mr Ahonsi and his associates targeted last week. One man, who identified himself as Dev Patel, told the crowd: “You want a bigger house, better car, nice clothes, private school for your kids, exotic holidays, etc. […] It’s that cryptocurrency that’s going to get you the financial freedom.”

He was more explicit later. “If you follow us and you go through what we’re going to say, you will make money and you will get your financial freedom that you’re looking for,” Mr Patel said.

Mr Ahonsi and Mr Patel were speaking at an event run by Pro FX Options, a firm based at the WeWork in Aldgate that trains ordinary people to trade binary options, a controversial form of fixed-odds gambling.

The free seminar on cryptocurrencies lasted around two hours. At the end the attendees were encouraged to sign up for a £420 one-day course where they would be taught how to trade and helped to sign up with Coinbase, which pays Pro FX Options a referral fee.

Anil Kumar (pictured below), the portly middle-aged man from Pro FX Options who led the seminar, said the usual price was £997 plus tax, but he was willing to discount it “because Sunny is such a hard taskmaster and he said, ‘I’m not bringing these people unless you can do some sort of deal'”.

Pro FX Options launched in 2016 and says it can turn people with “zero trading knowledge” into skilled traders. It claims its software can detect short-term trading trends and help ordinary people make consistent profits from binary options, where a bet is placed on whether a stock or currency pair will be higher or lower at a predetermined time in the future. “What we’ve done is really made it simple, simple for anybody from any walk of life to take advantage of it,” Mr Kumar said in a seminar streamed on Facebook in June 2016.

The company is run by Mr Kumar, his son Arran and Oxana Mateciuc, who is the sole shareholder. Mr Kumar says he has over 20 years of experience in trading, but declined to say which firms he has worked with due to non-disclosure agreements.

Arran Kumar told us his father worked for family offices, private firms and at a “Russian oil firm […] in Zurich, and obviously it’s there for a reason”.

“If you have to believe in the past places he’s worked then you haven’t clearly bought into us, you clearly don’t know what our ethos is,” Arran said. He added that Mr Ahonsi was not associated with Pro FX Trading, but was paid a commission for “bringing people in”.

Mr Ahonsi calls himself an “investor at Atlantic Global Asset Management” and “silver director [at] Questra World” on LinkedIn.

Several regulators have issued warnings about Atlantic Global Asset Management and Questra World, including those in Austria, Belgium, Liechtenstein, Poland, Britain and Spain. The Belgian Financial Services and Markets Authority said “the system these companies offer clearly resembles that of a pyramid scheme or, at the very least, a Ponzi fraud”.

Mr Ahonsi also says on LinkedIn that he was an Origin Unite ambassador from 2012 to 2014. Origin Unite appears to have been a multi-level marketing scheme ostensibly intended to fight malnutrition in the developing world. “Ambassadors” for the scheme would recruit donors and receive a commission on each donation. A Facebook page for Origin Unite said ambassadors could earn over $70,000 a year.

There are two YouTube accounts with the name Sunny Ahonsi. One features four-year-old videos of an Origin Unite event. The other features two videos posted last year about Karatbars, which is another multi-level marketing scheme in which people are encouraged to buy grams of gold and profit by persuading others to join. Both the Canadian and Dutch financial authorities have warned investors about Karatbars.

In the 1990s and 2000s, Sunny ran the LVMT Business School in London, also known as the London Vocational Management Training Business School. When it collapsed into administration in 2008, its administrators noted “a lack of accounting records” and said “a lack in provision of meaningful and up-to-date financial information regarding either the current financial position or current trading performance of the business” made a sale difficult.

In response to our questions, Mr Ahonsi said, “I do not know what you are trying to prove”. Mr Kumar said in an email, “We are not aware of any issues with regulators or get rich schemes that [Mr Ahonsi] may have been involved with in the past.” He added, “Pro FX Options does not offer a get rich scheme but provides sound Trader Education in different asset classes including Futures, FX, Options and Crypto Currencies.”

A spokesperson for WeWork said it was looking into the event. “We take any malfeasance in our spaces very seriously,” the spokesperson said.

When Mr Ahonsi took the floor last week, he played Try a Little Kindness and encouraged the crowd to dance along with him. He told them that banks traded trillions of dollars every day and that now they would get a piece of it.

“You can have a share of that pot, you can become that investment banker, an investment consultant. Somebody asks, what do you do? Don’t say, I’m a manager in Pret a Manger or I’m a manager in McDonalds or in KPMG. Say, I’m an investment consultant. Oh, what do you consult in? Cryptocurrency,” he said.

By the end of the evening, the audience seemed convinced and ready to put down the £100 deposit for the upcoming Pro FX Options course. One man we spoke to said he had already invested £250 in bitcoin some weeks earlier and was planning to double down. “The thing is that five years from now I don’t want to be thinking I wish I had done that,” he said.

As the crowd dispersed, bitcoin was trading at around $5,900. It now trades at over $7,000.

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