“I still drive my Ferrari and some of you can’t afford to eat.” That is the last message the founder of a cryptocurrency wrote to Kenyans in a Telegram group after defrauding them of Sh1 billion.
In the days leading to the collapse of Bitstream Circle, a ponzi scheme designed by Kenyan and Chinese fraudsters, its investors – mostly Kenyans – started noticing delays whenever they wanted to withdraw their money.
The company, which had promised a daily profit return of five to 10 per cent of invested amount, appeared on the internet on December 7, 2021.
It gained more than 10,000 followers on its Telegram page in a short time. To be added to the “Bt Elite Team” group, one had to make a $20 (Sh2,340) deposit.
Investors were assigned a mentor who would show them how to convert their shillings into cryptocoins, trade, earn profit and withdraw their money.
To thousands of Kenyans, it seemed an easy way to make quick money.
Everything went well until March 13 when users began noticing delays in withdrawals.
When asked, the firm said it was upgrading its systems. The upgrade would last five hours. Then the worst happened on March 14.
“You are a bunch of brainless races, see you on our next plan,” an administrator of the page posted to the 10,914 investors.
“Bye, haha. I am living a luxurious life with your dollars. If you have invited friends, wait to be killed by your recommenders. Idiots. There will be a time to meet.”
Bitstream Circle suddenly disappeared from the internet. Its website and mobile applications were no longer accessible and so was its Telegram page. A forensic analysis by Crypsense Digital Group showed it had scammed people $10,048,350 (Sh1.18 billion) in just 97 days.
But why would people quickly fall for such fraud? Why has cryptocurrency trade become attractive for criminals across the world? Why is Kenya is a global hotspot?
Also known as crypto, cryptocurrency is a digital form of money that exists on the internet. It has taken the world by storm since a mysterious internet character called Satoshi Nakamoto introduced bitcoin in 2008.
So mysterious is the identity of Nakamoto that 14 years since he started sending emails to random people about his invention of a virtual currency that would operate outside government financial regulatory authorities, no one has ever known him.
Unlike other currencies identified as legal tender and which can be used to purchase goods and services, no central authority manages and maintains the value of a crypto.
Supply and demand of cryptcoins are through a complex process known as block chain technology, which according to Forbes is essentially an open and distributed ledger that records transactions in code.
“It’s a little like a chequebook that is distributed across countless computers. Transactions are recorded in “blocks” that are then linked together on a “chain” of previous cryptocurrency transactions,” the magazine says.
It is the volume of these transactions by the millions of users that create supply and demand of cryptocurrency.
The allure of having a decentralised form of cash and the belief that digital currency is the future have made it so popular that people are investing in cryptos as they would in other assets.
It is a growing global phenomenon that eager Kenyans are willing to risk and make hustle-free money.
It is in this environment that Bitstream Circle was formed. According to its YouTube Page, which is the only digital footprint the company left, it was registered in the UK.
“Bitstream Circle Ltd is an active company incorporated on November 25, 2021 with the registered office in South Croydon, Greater London. There is one active director and one active secretary according to the latest confirmation statement submitted on November 25, 2021,” it says.
A search by the Nation in the UK company registry shows it was registered on November 25 last year through company number 13764417.
Its role is “administration of financial markets”.
According to the registry, Bitstream Circle has one director; Qian Yang, a Chinese born on November 1986 who has 10,000 shares valued at £10,000 (Sh1.45 million).
Listed as company’s secretary is J&C Business (UK) Ltd. This company, which shares the same residential address with Bitstream, is listed as a secretary in several others, including Chogori Industech Ltd, Julycasa Ltd, DC Golden Ltd and CH Group Industry Company Ltd all registered in the UK and share the address with Bitstream Circle
After registering Bitstream Circle, the next step for Qian Yang was to start a website and a mobile phone application.
Two websites – www.btgroup.win and www.bitstreamcircle.co.ke – went up on December 7, the same day the company’s YouTube page “Bitstream Circle” was started.
The reason for the two websites, according to investigations, was to give the company a global outlook and to make its domain easily searchable on Google.
A mobile google app by the same name that eventually became more commonly known as ‘BT’ was created for investors though they could also trade on the two websites.
To give the company more credibility, a number of Kenyans were recruited as mentors and customer care agents. They were mostly domiciled at www.bitstreamcircle.co.ke.
A recruitment agent the Nation traced by accessing the company’s deleted website through Archive, used a pseudo name “Rebel Mond”.
When we contacted the mobile number listed alongside the name “Rebel Mond”, the call went to an Emmanuel Kiprotich who said he had also been hired online by a person he had never met called “Riaz” who in turn introduced him to a woman he only knows as Hellen. He has never met Hellen.
“I joined Bitstream Circle through a post I saw on Facebook,” he said.
“I was awarded $6 on my first task and the next $5. Since I had knowledge on how to use Binance, they made me an assistant.”
Binance is a brockerage app that enables investors to convert legal tender into crypto and vice versa.
Apart from Bitcoin, whose value in the market as per yesterday was about $29,000 (Sh3.3 million) a coin, several others are in existence. They include Etherium which is Sh210,000 a coin, Tether (Sh117), USD Coin (Sh117), Binance (Sh35,685), XRP (Sh46), Cardano (Sh55), Solana (Sh5,031), Dogecoin (Sh91.26) and Polkadot (Sh1,140).
Bitstream Circle required its investors to use Tether to trade. They were then assigned mentors who used pseudonyms.
The mentors would send signals to investors on when to trade and how to earn a profit.
There were at least five trading sessions in a 24-hour cycle. For every session, investors could gain 1-2 per cent of their deposit, which added up to five per cent at the end of the day.
In simple terms, if you invested the minimum Sh2,340 and took part in all the trading sessions per day, it would increase to Sh2,457. The more you invested the more you made.
Once you cashed in, you had the option of leaving your wins in Tether format or withdrawing them to Binance where you could convert them to shillings and transfer them to your phone by M-Pesa.
But there was a catch. An investor could only make one withdrawal a day, which took half an hour before reaching the Binance account.
Despite this, people kept signing up sometimes at the rate of 500 per day.
Kiprotich and two other recruits, whom we identified as David Kariuki and Lawrence Gift, were part of a wide network whose job was to organise training seminars across the country and telling people, mostly youth about the new way to make millions of shillings without a sweat.
It appears some of these recruiters did not even know who their boss was and were just happy and willing to make money.
“Imagine how hard I worked teaching members the way you wanted. Did you even think about me? I told you I am a graduate. Don’t ruin my life,” Kiprotich texted Hellen when things began going south.
“If you don’t trust me, I have nothing to say,” was Hellen’s response.
In one of their workshops whose undated video the Nation has been able to extract, the recruiters are seen at a high end hotel explaining the business to potential investors who appear to be listening attentively.
“Lets say, for example, I have 20 USDT, you have 300 USDT and him 400 USDT; you text the mentor and he sends you a plan table. It means from phase one to phase seven each one of you has a different amount to bet,” the recruiter says.
“In case you place the wrong bet, can you cancel?” a woman asks.
To which the recruiter responds: “There is no cancellation. Once you place the order it is gone.”
Apart from workshops, the recruiters – especially Kariuki and Gift – made videos on YouTube every two weeks teaching viewers how to sign up to Bitstream, deposit and withdraw money, trade and so on.
Everything went well until March 13 when users noticed delays whenever they wanted to withdraw money.
“In order to bring better trading experience and investment security to members, the withdrawal system is undergoing comprehensive maintenance,” the company responded to complaints on Telegram.
Those in a hurry to access their funds were told: “You need to recharge 10 per cent of the funds in your account and send your ID to complete authentication. After completing the authentication, it only takes a few minutes to withdraw funds.”
Unknown to them, there was no money for withdrawal and the company was shutting down.
Desperate, some deposited 10 per cent more of their already deposited money hoping it would enable them to withdraw all their investments.
What they did not know was that they were being conned more.
Bitstream vanished into thin air on March 14 but one of its owners had a parting shot to those complaining about their lost funds.
“I still drive my Ferrari every day and some of you can’t afford to eat.”
Tomorrow: How Kenyans lost Sh14 billion in cryptocurrency fraud last year and why Kenyans do not want to listen to government advice to avoid trading in crypto. Why the country has become an international hotspot for digital currency fraud. The red flags to look out for before you lose your investments.