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India's bitcoin boom is fueling a surge in cryptocurrency crime

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If a dithering government, a vacationing court, and an unfriendly central bank weren’t bad enough, India’s embattled cryptocurrency ecosystem is now staring at another problem—a spate of crimes.

The most prominent scam involving digital currencies in the country began unraveling in 2017 after investors complained against Amit Bhardwaj, founder of cryptocurrency firm GainBitcoin. The company had allegedly duped 8,000 investors of Rs2,000 crore ($300 million), and now British businessman Raj Kundra and other Bollywood celebrities, too, have been dragged into the mess.

In the early days, as cryptocurrencies caught on in India, frauds were limited to phishing and hacking. Then, came multi-level marketing schemes. Now virtual money is even being demanded as ransom.

Phishing and hacking: It is one of the oldest tricks in the book. An email is sent from a seemingly genuine address, asking users to click on a link and/or fill in details. These links usually contain malware that affects the systems and clones the investors’ data, robbing them of their funds. In other cases, a hacker may hold the important files on your system as ransom, until they are paid in cryptocurrencies.

Earlier this year, a New Delhi-based investor approached the authorities after she lost bitcoin worth Rs6.5 lakh to hacking. She lost another Rs35 lakh to crooks who promised to help retrieve the earlier amount.

Fake apps and social media accounts: Fake apps have been flooding the app stores. In other cases, counterfeit websites and Twitter handles are used to dupe gullible investors. For instance, users of Zebpay, a cryptocurrency exchange in India, received messages asking them to deposit a certain amount of money as part of a survey in exchange for bitcoins. These messages were sent out from a Twitter handle that looked very similar to Zebpay’s actual account.

Ponzi schemes: The golden rule of investing is that if something looks too good to be true, it probably is. In the case of GainBitcoin, Bharadwaj had promised investors a 10% monthly return on cryptocurrency investments for 18 months under multi-level marketing (MLM) schemes such as the Bitcoin Growth Fund. The MLM schemes are tiered marketing plans in which investors are rewarded for bringing more people into the fold. The old investors are paid off with the help of money ploughed in by the new customers, till the scheme falls flat.

In another case, investors in OneCoin, another company that launched a digital coin-led investment scheme, realised that the firm didn’t even have a registered office address or a bank account. Nearly 400 people were taken in by the promise of high returns.

Blockchain consultant Pramod Emjay warns that any investment offer that promises to make you rich quickly should raise a red flag. “The types of scams that are being followed are not new at all. These are just old scams in new garbs. Therefore, the investor needs to follow the same rule of being very cautious.”

Exchanges under attack: In April, Coinsecure, a New Delhi-based cryptocurrency exchange, was robbed of 438 bitcoins worth Rs20 crore. The firm named an employee in a first information report filed later that month, while promising to refund money to its investors in due time. It’s the first time that an exchange came under attack in India. But, globally such cases are well known.

Other crimes: The skyrocketing prices of cryptocurrencies have drawn investors and swindlers alike. Now, tech-savvy kidnappers in India have also been asking for bitcoin as ransom. In April, nine police officers in Gujarat were held for extorting 200 units of a digital currency from a businessman.

Who is to blame?

India’s digital currency ecosystem is currently unregulated. Therefore, investors don’t have a grievance redressal authority to approach during distress.

However, cryptocurrency firms—already cornered by the central bankargue that the entire ecosystem can’t be blamed. “Wherever there is money, there will be scams and there is nothing surprising about that,” said the head of a virtual currency exchange, requesting anonymity. “But that doesn’t mean that you can blame the whole system because investors are being stupid and jumping into these random money-making schemes or clicking on strange links to make a quick buck.”

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