A Scammer’s Handbook to Cryptocurrency: Bitconned
According to Ray Trapani, his lifelong aspiration was to become a criminal, as he reveals in the opening of the new Netflix documentary. Bitconned which delves into the Centra Tech fraud. His hobbies consist of indulging in illegal substances, dressing impeccably, gambling, and owning luxurious vehicles. He credits his grandfather, who he claims was involved in organized crime, as his source of inspiration. However, his grandmother, who appears stylish in cheetah print and a stunning belt, refutes this statement, while his mother recalls seeing large sums of money in suitcases. He hails from Florida.
The Centra Tech scandal may be a distant memory for many in Cryptoland, where time moves quickly. However, the events were recounted in the cryptocurrency documentary on Netflix. Bitconned is still relevant, despite its misleading title. This film delves into the world of initial coin offerings during the cryptocurrency boom of the late 2010s, a time that may not be familiar to newer crypto enthusiasts. Narrated by a former scammer, it provides a detailed account of a fraudulent operation. For those interested in investing in cryptocurrency, it serves as a cautionary tale, as scams in this field have only become more sophisticated over time.
The protagonist, Trapani, began his initial venture as a teenager by selling OxyContin using fake prescriptions alongside his associate, Andrew Aguirre. Trapani recounts the exhilaration of committing the crime, stating, “There’s always a rush when you successfully hit your first target.” However, this did not go on for long. Trapani was pulled over and the police discovered a bottle of OxyContin with a different name on it. In a panic, Trapani betrayed his accomplices. As a result, Aguirre faced consequences while Trapani escaped punishment. This event serves as a foreshadowing of the Ponzi scheme that would later unfold.
From the beginning of the documentary Bitconned, it is evident that Ray Trapani’s primary focus is on money, with himself as a close second. On camera, he exudes undeniable charm, a common trait among narcissists. He enjoys himself, as demonstrated by director Bryan Storkel’s decision to break up the typical talking-head interviews by showing Trapani engaged in activities such as driving a luxurious car or getting measured for a suit. This creative approach not only adds visual interest to the interviews but also aligns with Trapani’s self-perception.
The task was simply too effortless to accomplish.
Trapani had a successful luxury car rental business called Miami Exotics, where he convinced his family to invest and even cosign loans. Despite the profits, he and his partners spent it recklessly on things like nightlife, Bahamas vacations, shopping, gambling, and even a $2,000 dog. To make matters worse, someone, possibly his business partner Sam “Sorbee” Sharma, was writing “cash” checks and taking money from the company. Trapani found out and spent the remaining funds on a wild baccarat event. In a desperate attempt to end his life, he overdosed on pills but survived. After that, he turned to cryptocurrency, setting the stage for a crypto scam.
According to Trapani, he was deceived and exploited by Sharma. However, Sharma hatched a clever plan to create a fake debit card that would allow individuals to use cryptocurrency directly and keep the profits for themselves. Trapani was not well-versed in cryptocurrency at the time, but with the rise of initial coin offerings in 2017, there was a frenzy surrounding the cryptocurrency bubble. Instead of starting their crypto venture, why not just steal someone else’s idea?
According to Trapani, the task was effortlessly accomplished. He and Sharma fabricated LinkedIn profiles, falsely claiming to have attended Harvard. They stumbled upon TenX, a business offering a crypto-enabled debit card for real-world transactions. Utilizing the services of freelancers from Upwork, they essentially plagiarized the entire concept by replicating their website and substituting all mentions of TenX with Centra, including a doctored image of a Centra card featuring a Visa logo. In addition, they invented a CEO by searching for images of an “old white guy” on Google, a story that would be perfect for a crypto scam documentary or a Netflix crypto show.
It was clear that the card was nonexistent and the deception was easily exposed, revealing a case of cryptocurrency fraud. However, according to Bitconned, numerous targets were not concerned with this fact. For example, early investor Jacob Rensel proudly boasts about his successful investments in Bitcoin and Ethereum. Despite this, every target claims to be intelligent, and Rensel is most likely driven by greed. This explains why he initially got involved in cryptocurrency.
The reason behind the trust in celebrity endorsements remains ambiguous to me, although Oprah can attest that it exists.
One individual who played a significant role in giving the scam some legitimacy was influencer Clif High. On his YouTube channel, which could have been featured in cryptocurrency movies on Netflix, High suggests that men expose their genitals to the sun (Fine!). High promoted Centra to his followers, but it turns out he had misunderstood what the company was about. He relied on data mining to summarize articles and his technology mistakenly confused Centra Tech, the scam, with an actual bank, Centra Credit Union. If it had been an actual bank issuing a crypto debit card, it would have been a major development. The exposure from High’s promotion gave Centra Tech the funds to secure endorsements from DJ Khaled and Floyd Mayweather. While the crypto movie Netflix genre explores such bizarre events, it is unclear why people trust celebrity endorsements, but as Oprah can attest, they do.
The game may have eventually involved even those who criticize the crypto ponzi scheme. In the documentary, there is a noteworthy scene where the scammers express frustration toward those who spread FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt). It was intriguing to witness one of the Centra Tech scammers, Robert Farkas, rant about the ‘trolls’ in the chat who were boldly speaking the truth. Farkas takes pride in converting them into believers, which Trapani claims was achieved by paying them off.
As is typical with scams, the fraudulent scheme eventually unraveled. Nathaniel Popper, a journalist for a crypto trading platform, The New York Times, played a crucial role in exposing it – and as evidenced here, even a little bit of scrutiny was enough to dismantle Centra’s deceitful narrative. Anyone with knowledge of individuals who have received privileged educations would have been skeptical upon hearing Sharma speak. (One of the main objectives is to learn how to confidently communicate in the language of authority; Sharma, Farkas, and Trapani lacked this skill.) The fact that the CEO was absent should have raised red flags. And when Rensel became suspicious, a glance at Trapani’s Instagram account confirmed that he had been deceived.
One of the aspects that makes Bitconned enjoyable is its pacing in narrating the story. It is noteworthy how trust and intermediaries played a significant role in the events. Clif High put his faith in his automated processes without verifying them. His followers put their trust in Clif High without verifying his claims. Investors relied on the Visa logo and LinkedIn resumes without verifying their accuracy.
The charisma of Trapani seems to have caught the attention of the director, without him even realizing it.
However, the narrative is not presented from the perspective of the journalist. It is recounted by Trapani, who collaborated with the authorities to catch his partners in the cryptocurrency pyramid scheme. Some scenes in the film are captured before Trapani’s sentencing hearing, and the film crew accompanies him as he sacrifices the opportunity to witness the arrival of his first child to attend court, where he learns that he will not be imprisoned.
According to Storkel, there is a need to share a cynical narrative about the present state of affairs, which could be likened to a sundance scam. This includes incorporating Leonard Cohen’s song ‘Everybody Knows.’ However, Storkel seems oblivious to the fact that he has also been captivated by Trapani’s charm.
In the documentary, Trapani candidly confesses to being a liar, a trait that became all too familiar during the crypto bubble. He also acknowledges his lack of trustworthiness. Yet, he possesses a captivating charm that convinces the audience they are privy to the true story, despite his deceptive nature. This flattery is enticing, making one feel they are the sole confidant of a deceitful person. This unique ability may have been key in persuading Storkel.
Both Storkel and Trapani possess a talent for storytelling. In Bitconned, the pace is maintained by the use of dramatic reenactments. The viewer would only discover that even the dog in some scenes with Centra Tech investor Rensel is an actor (portrayed by Honor Bowlin) if they stayed for the credits. While I have no objection to reenactments, they do have the potential to sway the audience by presenting someone’s account of events as truth. However, this could be inaccurate due to various mundane reasons such as memory lapses. With Trapani at the helm, the director may be essentially retelling a falsehood through visual means.
Trapani’s narrative positions him as the sole beneficiary, a crafty individual who evaded the fallout of the crypto scam. He is depicted as a cunning figure adept at manipulating the system, embodying the quintessential American anti-hero. Recall the imagery of Trapani behind the wheel of a speedy car, donning a tailored suit, as if to underscore his craftiness.
If someone ever tells you, ‘I am not at ease with responding to that inquiry,’ or ‘These are exceedingly difficult questions for me to address,’ it’s a telltale sign of a fraudulent investment scheme lurking beneath the surface.
According to Farkas and others impacted by Trapani, his involvement was minimal, overshadowed by drug use and wasteful spending, akin to a minor mafia member. His betrayal of his group to protect himself paints him not as cunning, but as a slippery character who lucked out. Storkel’s portrayal of Trapani might have been deliberately soft to serve his narrative, sidestepping the harsher reality of crypto fraud.
Meanwhile, Sharma, currently incarcerated and unable to defend himself on camera, faces multiple allegations. These include using a Miami Exotics credit card for a Bahamas trip, falsifying signatures, and using Centra Tech funds for personal debts, all hallmarks of a crypto scam. It’s only post-credits that we hear his denial, inadvertently bolstering Trapani’s side of the story.
From my perspective, Storkel’s documentary seems more focused on entertainment than truth, aligning with Trapani’s intentions. This approach leaves some details, like the involvement of a Korean company called Bitsset in the crypto bubble, promoting a non-existent card, unresolved. The documentary glosses over why a legitimate company would partake in such deception.
The elusive Bitsset piqued my curiosity, prompting a deep dive that led nowhere, except in Sharma’s criminal case. My colleague Sarah Jeong’s search across the Korean web turned up everything from MLB to Jacqueline Bisset, but scant details on Bitsset itself, hinting at the possibility of a fake crypto exchange. The scant online comments and mentions on websites like ddengle.com and steemit.com. This left me wondering about the nature of Bitsset. Further investigation could have potentially uncovered how a legitimate company was deceived into aiding a scam, or it could have revealed the involvement of another group of scammers. Either of these findings would have shed light on the larger cryptocurrency landscape.
It is advisable to investigate whenever a crypto advocate labels something as “FUD.”
Storkel is not completely deceived. He has Popper explain to the audience how journalists can detect signs of cryptocurrency fraud: ‘Whenever someone says ‘I am not comfortable answering that question,’ or ‘These are very difficult questions for me to answer,’ you can sense that something is amiss.’ Therefore, when Trapani refuses to disclose information about his Centra Tech funds or the source of his home purchase, the audience is aware that there is something suspicious, potentially related to cryptocurrency fraud, happening. However, Storkel does not feel obligated to delve into the details.
It seems acceptable, I suppose. Documentaries often blur the boundaries between genuine journalism and amusement. Storkel does not sacrifice any entertainment value by following Trapani’s narrative. Additionally, while its title may not be great, Bitconned is certainly enjoyable.
The concept of trust, where individuals are easily swayed by charismatic individuals without conducting proper research, is not exclusive to small investors such as Jacob Rensel. Having witnessed two major trials involving fraud, including those managed by big venture capitalists who handle other people’s finances, it is clear how similar the patterns of behavior are. Despite not delving deeply, the film sheds light on the mechanics of large-scale cryptocurrency scams. For example, whenever a cryptocurrency advocate dismisses something as ‘FUD,’ it is crucial to thoroughly investigate the matter.
According to Storkel’s findings, being aware of a fraudulent individual may not always prevent you from falling victim to their deceitful tactics. FTX took over Centra Tech, and it is predicted that the next fraudulent scheme during a potential crypto bubble will be even larger. This is common knowledge.