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Book Summary: Crypto Wars – Faked Deaths, Missing Billions and Industry Disruption

Crypto Wars: Faked Deaths, Missing Billions, and Industry Disruption (2021) lifts the lid on some of the cryptosphere’s most audacious scams and notorious scandals. From the missing cryptoqueen, Dr. Ruja Ignatova, to the tech whiz kid who – according to his creditors, at least – faked his own death, Crypto Wars shares this secretive industry’s most compelling stories

Who is it for?

  • Crypto enthusiasts after the inside dirt on some of the market’s biggest scams
  • Interested investors who want a rundown of the red flags in the crypto world
  • Anyone who’s ever wondered if they could make a cool million – or billion – in crypto

What’s in it for me? Get the inside scoop on the enigmatic world of cryptocurrency.

Whether you know your Dogecoin from your Etherium, or you think Mt. Gox is somewhere near Mt. Fuji, chances are you’re at least a little bit curious about the mysterious online world of cryptocurrency. Maybe you’ve heard about people who bought into Bitcoin on a whim and, seemingly overnight, added a string of zeros to their bank balance. Maybe you’ve invested in crypto yourself, or you’re considering it. Or maybe you’re a skeptic who prefers dollars, sterling, yen, and rupees to Litecoin, Ripple, and Coinye.

Whether you’re a crypto convert or cynic, we can all agree that the murky world of crypto is full of fascinating tales and engrossing stories. In these summaries, we’ll delve into four stories from Erica Stanford’s best seller, Crypto Wars. They feature some illuminating, behind-the-scenes tales that offer an insider’s account of the wild, unregulated early days of cryptocurrency.

Imagine this: it’s 2017 and, all of a sudden, cryptocurrency – a virtual currency that can’t be counterfeited or manipulated because every transaction is secured by tamper-proof computer code – has got everyone talking. Not just coders and tech bros. Everyone. From your next door neighbor to your old math teacher, everyone seems to know someone who threw a few thousand into Bitcoin early on and who is now quit-your-job-and-retire-in-the-Caribbean rich. And plenty of people are wondering how they can get in on the game.

Let’s say you’re interested, too. After all, you’re not against turning a few thousand into a few million with just one canny investment. One day, you come across a new cryptocurrency that looks poised to become the next Bitcoin. It’s called PlexCoin, and it’s about to hit the market in what’s known as an ICO, or Initial Coin Offering. Here’s the pitch: the ultrasecure PlexCoin is going to revolutionize global economics. Users will be issued with PlexCards which, unlike any other credit card created to date, will fully adapt to different geographic locations – letting you spend in dollars, pounds, rupees, or pesos without ever incurring exchange fees. Unlike other cryptocurrencies, which in 2017 were only accepted by a miniscule selection of vendors, PlexCoin can be used just like real money to pay off any bill. And, if you’re one of the lucky investors that gets in on the ground floor, you can purchase tokens for half-price in an exclusive presale. That shakes out to just 13 cents a token. If all those presale tokens sell, according to PlexCoin, the price will jump to $1.76 a token.

So, are you in?

Learn to spot some of the biggest red flags in the cryptosphere.

If you said “no,” then you just saved yourself a lot of (hypothetical) money. PlexCoin’s pitch was full of red flags. Those outlandish claims about PlexCard holders never having to worry about exchange rates and investors being able to use PlexCoin to pay their utility bills? They sounded too good to be true because they were. And there was nothing clairvoyant about PlexCoin’s “insights” into the rising future price of PlexCoin tokens – it’s simply impossible to accurately predict what value a currency, crypto or otherwise, will hold in the coming weeks or months.

If you’d done some more digging, you’d have found more red flags. For one thing, it’s standard practice for crypto companies to release a report ahead of their ICO, outlining how they’ll allocate the funds the ICO is projected to raise. PlexCoin did that . . . about 90 minutes before their presale started. That didn’t leave eager investors much time to do their research before buying in. And if you’d looked at their website, you might have noticed there was no team photo. In fact, there was no information about who was behind PlexCoin at all. According to PlexCoin, this was for undisclosed security reasons. They could have at least mimicked the equally scammy crypto startup Benebit and copy-pasted a photo from an elite British boy’s school to use on their staff page.

PlexCoin’s ICO raised $15 million. But their tokens never really rose in value, and their investors never saw the promised ROI. PlexCoin’s founders never expected they would. They siphoned off as much of that $15 million as they could before they were arrested for fraud, fined $100,000, and given a two-month jail term. Most investors never saw their money again.

PlexCoin wasn’t an isolated case. Between 2016 and 2018, you couldn’t throw a Bitcoin without hitting a dodgy crypto startup. While legitimate currencies like Bitcoin and Etherium have proven to be solid investments – sometimes stratospherically so – the market for crypto was initially barely regulated, poorly policed, and dangerously easy to exploit. The code behind Bitcoin was open source, meaning anyone could access it to create their own company with its own currency. And ICOs offered these companies an unchecked opportunity to raise vast amounts of money by conjuring tokens out of thin air, and then selling them without offering equity or having to meet any legal requirements. For fraudulent crypto companies this was, quite literally, money for nothing.

Nevertheless, investors couldn’t get enough. At the peak of the early crypto bubble, the market cap for cryptocurrencies reached a $1.8 trillion valuation. The volatile nature of this emerging market meant that some investors saw real returns, becoming millionaires – and more – overnight.

But all bubbles eventually burst. Now, law enforcement estimates that over 98 percent of crypto ICOs are, at best, failed projects. At worst, they’re outright scams. At least some companies were upfront about this. ScamCoin promised investors a 0 percent return on 100 percent of their investments – and, unlike many ICOs, it delivered on its promise. PonziCoin, despite its unpromising name, still raised $250,000 at its ICO. And plenty of other crypto companies with names like “Rich,” “Gold,” or “Real” seemed to promise authenticity and wealth.

Unfortunately, most investors would have done just as well if they’d invested in ScamCoin.

The oldest scam in the book.

In 2009, when Bitcoin was launched, one token was worth less than a cent. By 2014, one Bitcoin token was valued at roughly $800. No wonder investors were looking to get a foot in the door of the next big cryptocurrency. And in September 2014, OneCoin burst onto the scene. Its charismatic founder, Dr. Ruja Ignatova, all but guaranteed early investors the same staggeringly high returns Bitcoin was now delivering.

Dr. Ruja hyped OneCoin as a truly innovative online currency, secured with cutting-edge blockchain technology. But while the product she was spruiking was ultramodern, she was, in reality, running one of the oldest scams in the book.

While eager investors were buying up OneCoin’s ICO, Dr. Ruja was partnering with a notorious businessman whose involvement with OneCoin should have set alarm bells ringing. This was Igor Alberts, a Dutch businessman who had earned hundreds of millions spearheading multilevel marketing schemes, or MLMs. In an MLM, marketers earn not just by selling products but by recruiting other sellers and taking a cut of all the profits those sellers, known as the downline, generate.

Together, Dr. Ruja and Alberts implemented a similar structure at OneCoin. Investors were incentivized to bring in more investors, with the promise of a very generous 25 percent cut of any profits from their downline, to be paid part in OneCoin and part in Euros – cold, hard cash. Some investors grew very rich very quickly thanks to these incentives. But their profits were all coming from their downline, and not from the intrinsic value of OneCoin itself.

So, what was the intrinsic value of OneCoin? Well, here’s where it gets really tricky. On the surface, OneCoin appeared to be gaining value. Investors could look at their wallets and see just how much their tokens were worth on any given day. But cryptocurrency is effectively worthless unless it can be exchanged for other forms of crypto or for cash. There are numerous online platforms that facilitate these exchanges. OneCoin was never listed on any of them. According to Dr. Ruja, it was building its own exchange. But this exchange never materialized.

Why didn’t the fact that OneCoin couldn’t be exchanged for any other form of currency raise concern? Well, lots of investors trusted the value they saw in their wallets – and with good reason. Cryptocurrency is ultrasecure, thanks to the blockchain databases where it’s stored. Every transaction is written into the database in independent code that can’t be overwritten; this means not even the inventor of the code can alter a token’s value.

Classic scam meets cutting-edge crypto Ponzi scheme.

There’s just one problem here. Although Dr. Ruja told her investors otherwise, OneCoin never actually used blockchain. Instead, every single OneCoin token was stored in a different database, one that Dr. Ruja could not only access but manipulate without detection. The values investors saw in their wallets? Totally fabricated.

So, OneCoin was never a legitimate currency. And it wasn’t even a shifty MLM. It was something worse: a Ponzi scheme. A Ponzi scheme uses an MLM structure. The difference is that, though the Ponzi scheme purports to sell something, there’s actually no product. Profits are only generated through the downline; investors remain unaware that the returns they’re seeing are actually generated by other investors rather than profit from the sales of a product.

Authorities, regulators, and banks around the world began warning investors that OneCoin was most likely a Ponzi scheme. Existing customers got spooked and tried to offload their tokens. New investors proved harder to attract, and the downline began to dry up. It seemed inevitable that OneCoin would soon collapse and Dr. Ruja would be brought to account.

But Dr. Ruja had other ideas. And she certainly had no intention of paying back the millions she had fleeced from trusting investors. In 2017, she boarded a Ryanair flight from Sofia, Bulgaria, to Athens, Greece. She was – allegedly – met at the airport by some Russian connections. She hasn’t been seen since.

What happened to Dr. Ruja? There are all kinds of theories out there. The Russians who met her at the airport were actually gangsters who spirited her away to a safe hiding place. Or the Russians who met her at the airport were hitmen who killed her. Or she used some of the vast wealth at her disposal to have heavy-duty plastic surgery, buy fake identity documents, and start a new life – incognito.

Of all these wild possibilities, there’s one that’s particularly implausible: the possibility that OneCoin’s investors will ever see their money again.

Crypto storage isn’t always as secure as you’d think.

Dr. Ruja’s mysterious disappearance isn’t exactly unique among dodgy crypto founders. The “exit scam,” where a founder suddenly disappears. taking their investors’ money with them, has quickly become a classic maneuver in cryptocurrency circles. But while most exit scams leave investors wondering whether a scam-artist founder is still alive, one alleged exit scam has left investors questioning whether a founder is really dead.

On the crypto scene, Gerald Cotten had a reputation as a wunderkind. He founded the Canada-based crypto exchange, QuadrigaCX, at the precocious age of 25. Even more impressive, in a notoriously unregulated online space QuadrigaCX had a reputation for being quick, safe, and totally above board. QuadrigaCX wasn’t a big player to start with. But knowledgeable investors rated the exchange as both a reliable platform for trading cryptocurrencies or converting crypto to cash and as a secure, temporary storage place for crypto assets.

Then, Cotten was dealt a lucky hand. Six weeks after QuadrigaCX was launched, a series of cyberattacks targeted other, larger exchanges like Cavirtex, Vault of Satoshi, and Mt. Gox – seriously damaging their security credentials. Not long after that, Bitcoin’s value started to soar. And that was very good news for Cotten. Like other exchanges, QuadrigaCX made money by taking a small percentage of every trade done on the platform. Suddenly, tokens that had been trading for a few hundred dollars were trading for tens of thousands. And every time, QuadrigaCX got a healthy cut.

Cotten enjoyed his newfound wealth, purchasing multiple homes, yachts, private jets, and even an island. Cotten financed his impressively expensive lifestyle with QuadrigaCX’s profits . . . and by dipping into the coins others had stored on his exchange. It turns out, QuadrigaCX’s reputation as one of the safest exchanges around was unfounded. Unlike other crypto exchanges, Quadriga didn’t grant investors access to individual wallets. There was, in fact, only one wallet. And only one person, it transpired, could access the estimated $250 million worth of tokens stored there. Gerald Cotten had access to every single token stored on QuadrigaCX. He also had a habit of using those tokens to trade under false names, spinning still more profits that went straight into his own pockets.

In 2018, Cotten married his girlfriend Jennifer Robertson. The pair were enjoying a typically lavish honeymoon in India when Cotten unexpectedly died of complications from Crohn’s Disease. It was a tragic end to a happy holiday. It was a financial tragedy, too, for all the investors storing crypto in QuadrigaCX. Because when Cotten died, he took all the private keys needed to access the tokens that were stored on his exchange with him.

Small crypto concerns can be manipulated to bring big returns – for some.

Many in the crypto community, among them Cotten’s creditors, believe he faked his death. They’ve even called for an exhumation of his remains. They note the shady circumstances around his death, right down to the misspelling of his name on his death certificate. Cotten drafted a will a mere four days before he died. After his death, rather than sending his body to the embalmer’s as was their usual practice, the hospital sent Cotten’s corpse back to his hotel. The hotel then sent the corpse to the embalmer – but the embalmer didn’t accept the body, stating that there was no cause of death supplied alongside Cotten’s corpse.

Eventually, a medical college did the deed. Cotten’s widow accompanied the body back to Canada, where Cotten was given a closed-casket funeral, but she didn’t announce his death for another month. In the meantime, QuadrigaCX was still accepting new customers.

One of Cotten’s contractors remembered that Cotten kept a safe bolted to his attic rafters. This contained many, if not all, of the private keys needed to access the crypto stored on QuadrigaCX. Hearing of Cotten’s death, the contractor went to the house. Reportedly, all they found in the attic were four holes in the rafters where the safe had once been bolted. The keys, like Cotten himself, had disappeared.

The crypto market has had more than its fair share of big scams. Funnily enough, some of the biggest scams revolve around some of the smallest, least successful currencies. Remember in the heady days of the mid 2010s, when a silly number of ICOs flooded the market? The end result was a silly number of currencies that had little function or value. We’re talking about very small fish in a very big pond. Some of these currencies were so insignificant that the major crypto exchanges wouldn’t even list them. But smaller exchanges operating on the wild fringes of the market were often less discriminating. Some would list any currency that came calling – which is how some of the market’s smallest currencies came to be manipulated to deliver big returns.

How does this happen? Well, unless you have Jeff Bezos money, there’s no way you can manipulate the value of Bitcoin with a single buy or sell – it’s simply too valuable. But with small, niche currencies, it’s a different story. With a small currency, roughly $10,000 would be enough to place a buy or sell order large enough to drastically impact the currency’s value. If you were to place a large sell order, for example, you could spook the market. Investors would offload their coin, which you could then scoop up for a song. Once the currency’s value corrected itself, you’d have made a tidy profit. On the other hand, you could make a large buy. Doing this would artificially drive up the currency’s value, and you could sell your tokens off for more than they’re really worth. This kind of trade is known as a “pump and dump.”

Soon, pump and dump groups organized through the messaging service Telegram were orchestrating these trades, wildly inflating a currency’s value for a day or two – and then pocketing the profits. YouTubers in the cryptosphere got in on the action, too. Their signature move? Release a seemingly informational clip about a “promising” niche currency – a currency they’ve already bought into – thus luring inexperienced investors to pump up the price. While still spruiking the currency in their online videos, the crypto YouTuber quietly sells off their own holdings.

With even a small amount of influence, a small, volatile market can be easily manipulated. What happens when someone with a huge amount of influence gets to work in that same market?

Bubbles can be built and burst with a single tweet.

You might not know John McAfee, but – thanks to his ubiquitous computer pop-ups – you’re almost certainly familiar with the antivirus software he created. In 1994, McAfee the person sold his shares in McAfee Antivirus, banked $100 million, and went to Belize. There, if stories are to be believed, he attempted to invent female viagra, created natural antibiotics from plants, got addicted to bath salts, and – this last story is verifiably true – became embroiled in a murder and made it onto the Belizean police’s wanted list. In 2012, McAfee fled Belize for Guatemala and, to avoid extradition back to Belize, ultimately returned to the US, where he quickly became interested in cryptocurrency.

In 2017, McAfee infamously tweeted that Bitcoin would be worth $500,000 a coin in 2020 – and if it wasn’t he’d eat a specific part of his anatomy on live television. (Yes, that specific part.) Meanwhile, over the course of the year, Bitcoin went from $2,000 a token to nearly $20,000 a token. Was this partly due to McAfee’s confidence? One man, named Peter Galanko, thought it might be.

Galanko had invested in a niche currency called Verge. When Verge was tipped as the next hot investment, Galanko’s holdings quadrupled in value. He saw how buzz could drive up profit and began promoting Verge to his own 60,000 Twitter followers. But he wasn’t satisfied. He wanted a bigger reach. So, he contacted McAfee, who obliged Galanko’s request by tweeting that Verge was an investment that “couldn’t lose.” Verge’s market capitalization soared to a valuation of $2 billion, representing a 1,800 percent increase of its prior valuation.

Galanko was pleased. McAfee was not. He wanted payment in kind and demanded $1 million in crypto from Galanko, which Galanko refused to pay. So McAfee tweeted again, this time saying Verge wasn’t worth anything near $2 billion. Verge’s bubble burst shortly afterwards. So much for Galanko’s scheme. McAfee, however, continued to use his social media accounts to influence crypto markets, right up until he was arrested and charged with “fraudulently touting ICOs.”

These days, as crypto becomes more legitimate and trading becomes increasingly regulated, the market has become harder to manipulate. But many early adopters still remember the days when Bitcoin investors turned into overnight millionaires, when the price of a token could climb from a dollar or two into the tens and hundreds of thousands, and when one man with a Twitter account was enough to send the valuation of obscure currencies soaring.

The key message in these summaries is that:

Bitcoin revolutionized the way we think about money and made a lot of people very wealthy in the process. But investors seeking to recreate Bitcoin’s early success should proceed with caution. As the stories behind outfits like OneCoin and QuadrigaCX show, not every crypto startup is legitimate.

And here’s some more actionable advice: Don’t discount cryptocurrency altogether.

Sure, there are lots of crypto scams out there – but plenty of outfits are actually trying to harness this revolutionary technology to change things for the better. Check out Plastic Bank, a crypto enterprise that’s tackling the problem of plastic pollution in our oceans. Plastic Bank rewards people in some of the world’s poorest communities for collecting plastic waste. Collectors receive digital money for every kilogram of plastic they “bank.”

About the author

Erica Stanford is a lecturer and sought-after cryptocurrency expert. She founded the Crypto Curry Club, the UK’s top cryptocurrency networking community, and edits the widely read affiliated newsletter, the Crypto Currier.

Erica Stanford is a crypto and future of money expert. The founder and CEO of the UK’s most recommended crypto networking and events organization, Crypto Curry Club, she publishes the weekly Crypto Currier industry newsletter as well as Blockchain Industry Review. The advisor to several crypto start-ups, she is an in-demand speaker and commentator on the potential and use cases of digital currencies. She is the guest associate lecturer in cryptocurrency at Warwick Business School and has featured in The Express, Finance News, Coin Rivet and on the BBC. She is based in London, England.


Fintech, Business, Money, Industries, Privacy, Online Safety, Non-fiction, Money Management, Finance, Computer, Information Technology, Security, Viruses, Malware, Cryptocurrency, Economic, Banking, Crypto

Table of Contents

Chapter – 00: Introduction

Chapter – 01: The Wild West – Joke and scam projects that still raised millions

  • Copycat, worthless digital tokens
  • The miracle technology
  • The big bubble
  • A new method of fundraising
  • Creative hiring
  • The different types of scam offerings
  • Opportunities for opportunists
  • Sex, dating, families, sand, wine and prayers
  • How to promote a scam
  • Bounty hunters
  • Marketing: The bad, the worse and the ugly
  • Sorry, but tough luck
  • ICOs: The big ecosystem mess
  • Dead coins
  • Instant legit bitcoin doubler
  • There is some hope!

Chapter – 02: Crypto exit scams

  • The $50 million prank
  • Run off with the money
  • Aubergines and other vegetables
  • Maybe the most obvious exit scam of them all
  • Thank you and sorry
  • The art of hiding behind technical faults
  • The reinvention of the global financial system
  • The ability to predict the future and other red flags
  • Shopping with investors’ money
  • Playing off people’s hope

Chapter – 03: OneCoin – The missing cryptoqueen

  • In the beginning
  • The end
  • The (missing) cryptoqueen
  • In the middle: Sell, sell, sell and get rich, rich, rich
  • Don’t trust Google
  • No way to get out
  • Big, waving red flags
  • Impossible, implausible economics
  • What dreams may come
  • A pyramid of money
  • The sweet smell of money
  • Faith in money
  • Fifty levels of grey
  • An education: Plagiarized PDFs and some more miracle economics
  • The richest man on Earth
  • Hyperinflation
  • The missing cryptocurrency
  • Plastic surgery to make it all ok
  • Where did the money go?
  • Love spies
  • The fake cryptoqueen
  • And she’s gone. Take the money and run
  • The scam goes on

Chapter – 04: Bitconnect – The double Ponzi and the elusive, unbeatable trading bot

  • Fluff and buzzwords, another new cryptocurrency
  • 95,751.58 times richer than Jeff Bezos
  • Reality check
  • Literally no use or value
  • The great pyramid
  • Advertising the scam
  • Supercars, disco balls, awful music and bad singing. What could go wrong?
  • Some more warning signs
  • The sound of warning bells
  • A big red bloodbath
  • The double Ponzi: Two scams for the price of one
  • Bitconnect 3. Because two scams aren’t enough
  • The last twist in the tale: The abducted abductors

Chapter – 05: Sorry we have run – The $17 billion exit scam

  • The formation of a scam
  • It must be good because it’s a buzzword
  • Dogs in trading
  • High promises
  • Juicy numbers and creative marketing
  • Hidden, cryptic messages
  • Where’s the money?
  • Take 2: The billion-dollar copy of the scam

Chapter – 06: The faked death, missing millions and requests to exhume a body

  • A smiling man
  • Everyone loves pizza
  • Surrounded by hacks
  • #luxurytravel
  • Did he actually die?
  • A major custody problem
  • Law enforcement steps in – or tries to
  • The investors step in
  • Suspicions mount. Where is Gerry?
  • The secret criminal founder
  • Scam practice time
  • Professional money laundering
  • How did Canada’s largest crypto exchange go so wrong beneath the scrutiny of Canada’s law enforcement?
  • The money was already gone
  • Where did the money go?
  • Gambling with others’ money
  • We need to exhume the body!
  • An old-fashioned fraud wrapped in modern technology

Chapter – 07: Mt. Gox – Hacks, leaking billions and an unauthorized trading bot

  • And it was gone
  • Cards or coins
  • Hack after hack after hack
  • Mistakes, bugs and losing bitcoin
  • The law steps in
  • And the money stopped
  • Leaking bitcoin
  • Where is our money?
  • The world’s biggest puzzle
  • Bye bye Mt. Gox money: Criminal mastermind money laundering
  • A bot named Willy. And Markus the bot too
  • Arrests, money laundering, lawsuits, some more ongoing lawsuits and misspent funds
  • Last twist in the unfinished tale

Chapter – 08: Crypto mining – Creating nothing out of thin air

  • Easy money – watch the profits roll in
  • The $722 million money-printing machine
  • The dream life
  • The anarchists’ resort
  • Printing money: The goose that lays the golden egg
  • Vague numbers, clueless leaders and fake testimonials
  • The numbers game
  • The magical missing mining machines
  • Little more than water
  • The ‘too big to fail’ scam that failed

Chapter – 09: Market manipulation – Crypto pump and dump schemes

  • Needles and haystacks
  • The art of social scamming
  • Pump and dump groups
  • Bringing celebrities into the mix
  • John McAfee
  • Learning how to manipulate markets
  • The next big investment
  • The $2 billion tweet
  • Lots of tweets
  • Over and out

Chapter – 10: Crypto for the people

  • Venezuela: A chicken and egg problem
  • Free fall to crypto
  • In the beginning
  • A financial revolution
  • The road to mainstream adoption
  • Facebook
  • Plastic and oceans: A happy story


Uncover the scandals and scams that have rocked the cryptocurrency world and learn how it also could bring positive change for banking and the global economy.

Crypto is big news. You may be an existing user yourself or have friends that laud its promise of getting rich fast. Arm yourself with the knowledge to come out on top in the crypto wars.

If thousands of people can lose billions of dollars in OneCoin, masterminded by the now infamous Missing Cryptoqueen made famous by the BBC’s podcast series and called ‘one of the biggest scams in history’ by The Times, what makes you think your money is safe? OneCoin isn’t alone. Crypto Wars reveals some of the most shocking scams affected millions of innocent people all around the world with everything from religious leaders to celebrities involved. In this book, you get exclusive access to the back story of the most extreme Ponzi schemes, the most bizarre hoaxes and brutal exit strategies from some of the biggest charlatans of crypto.

Crypto expert and educator, Erica Stanford, will show you how market-wide manipulation schemes, unregulated processes and a new collection of technologies that are often misunderstood, have been exploited to create the wild west of crypto, run by some less than reputable characters. From OneCoin to PonziCoin to Trumpcoin and everything in between, Crypto Wars uncovers the scandals, unpicks the system behind them and allows you to better understand a new technology that has the potential to revolutionize banking and our world for the better.

  • Unveils the biggest scams and frauds that have shocked the world of cryptocurrency, from the disappearing Crypto Queen with OneCoin, to Bitconnect, the initial coin offering crash and Quadriga where the founder seems to have faked his own death to escape prosecution
  • Contains exclusive interviews and commentaries from many of the key people who have been actively investigating the biggest crypto-scams, from the Metropolitan police, to insolvency practitioners, researchers, BBC journalists and tech geeks
  • Goes beyond the sensationalist and concludes on the real potential for change and good that cryptocurrencies bring; from challenging the greedy practices of the banking and remittance industries, to reaching over 2.5 billion unbanked users, allowing for greater transparency and ethical behaviours

Read an Excerpt

Excerpt from Crypto Wars - Faked Deaths, Missing Billions and Industry Disruption


The duck test

In normal circumstances, as the age-old adage goes, if something looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it’s generally considered to be a duck. Or at least an animal with duck-like characteristics. Cryptocurrency, an ecosystem of digital currencies that, at its peak, bubbled up in an $800 billion valuation, has been a bit of a Wild West. Regulation in crypto hasn’t caught up with the pace of technology and innovation and, at least in recent years, was largely lacking or absent. This led to an underworld in full public view where mafia, organized crime, spies, hackers, opportunists and scammers all entwined. A world of scams, hacks and thefts, kidnappings, extortions and missing people ensued where multi-billion-dollar Ponzi schemes were commonplace and a project was as likely to run away with money they had just raised as not.

In crypto, where the presence of scams has been unfortunately rather higher than in most other industries, the duck test gives rather different results. In crypto, as Litecoin founder and crypto influencer Charlie Lee prominently tweeted, if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it’s a Ponzi.1 And in crypto, the scams haven’t stopped.

Stories told in a private group

I’d hosted Jamie Bartlett, researcher, investigator and host of the BBC’s viral ‘Missing cryptoqueen’ podcast series at our Crypto Curry Club members’ Christmas lunch in December 2019. This was at the heart of the popularity of the series, where the world was tuned in to hear each latest episode of their search for the great Ruja Ignatova, the disappeared founder of the $15 billion Ponzi scam OneCoin. Ruja had been missing, hunted by the FBI, for two years.

Ruja had heard – it seems via a story of unrequited love affairs, espionage and organized crime – that she was on the FBI’s wanted list, and hadn’t been seen since, but, with an assumed half a billion dollars to her name at least, and a liking for plastic surgery, she could be hiding anywhere. The story was the present-day, real-time whodunit ‘where-is-she’ mystery and the atmosphere in the room as he spoke was palpable. Jamie shared it all, talking and answering questions under Chatham House rules. What was said in that room wasn’t going to be repeated elsewhere and so we spoke freely. For hours, Jamie shared what he knew and told story after story of their darkest findings.

After that event, other stories of crimes, scams and frauds started to come out. More of our members – all experts in crypto in various ways – knew things they hadn’t publicly revealed about some of the other big crypto scams. Some of these scams had been and gone, but most were still live, still actively scamming billions of dollars out of ordinary people and promoting on the same search engines and social media platforms that you and I use every day.

I started to talk to these people to find out more. Many – through their years of working in and investigating the crypto space – had uncovered and found out more about some of these dark scams than anyone should ever be exposed to. Several had received death threats; more had been subject to repeated online intimidation for what they knew or for their investigations. These people weren’t going to talk publicly any more – the risk wasn’t worth it to them. But they shared little snippets of what was really going on behind the scenes and away from the glossy, slick marketing of the biggest scams in crypto, enough to guide me to look into some of these scams further, and to get me admitted to some of the chat rooms and groups that are still actively scamming people around the world – and each other – to see what was really going on.

The making of an $800 billion bubble

After Bitcoin, thousands more cryptocurrencies were created out of thin air. It was too easy to do so. Anyone could create a whole new cryptocurrency for very little effort or money. Project after project launched in a new crypto fundraising method known as an initial coin offering (ICO), giving themselves names ranging from Jesus Coin to Sexcoin to PotCoin to TrumpCoin to Catcoin and literally everything in between.

The hype and the hope attached to the potential of quick riches fuelled a bubble that reached over $800 billion and comprised thousands of different crypto projects. Most ICOs had zero realworld worth or use-case.

Just as with the dotcom bubble and every other bubble in history, gains were wild and volatile and huge, and for the most part made absolutely no sense. People saw how much money early investors in Bitcoin and the first cryptocurrencies had made and wanted their share of this. It was a crazy time of money being wildly flung around, hacks, scams, wild claims and promises that would never stand a hope of being met. Law enforcement would in time go on to deem over 98 per cent of crypto ICO projects to be scams or failed projects, or projects that lost their investors’ money.2 After a while, most of these projects started to blur into one, lost in the hype that was the crypto and ICO bubble in the years leading up to 2018.

Show me the money

Not all of these projects will be forgotten. Some stood out. These seemed to be the most exciting. They would put on the wildest parties, fly people around the world to go to lavish events and pay for their investors to cruise on luxury private yachts. These projects appeared out of thin air and yet they raised the most money – often billions of dollars each – and had the most followers.

The people behind these projects weren’t necessarily intelligent, good-looking, beautiful, eloquent or charming, and they didn’t always possess an overwhelming quality that would explain why people would gravitate to them. Some of the projects – actually, a common trait for many scams – had no people at all on show running them; they were fully anonymous. And yet people flung themselves at them, giving them everything they had. People wanted to be a part of them.

The scams in this book affected millions of people’s lives all around the world. Millions of people fell for them and billions more dollars were lost to them. There are countless horror stories of people losing their houses, their life savings, their parents’ and families’ and loved ones’ life savings, of the elderly having to go back to work because they lost all to these scams, of suicides and lives destroyed. On the other side, there are the diamonds, the cars, yachts, villas and the glitzy multi-millionaire lifestyles of those running and promoting these scams.

Who will they get next?

These scams are still going on today. Some are the same ones mentioned in this book, others are almost-exact replicas, in some cases founded by the same people. There are scam groups active today on every browser and social media platform. What is really going on in the underworld of the largest crypto scams would be almost impossible to believe, if it weren’t for the fact that it’s true.

Crypto scams don’t just affect crypto investors. They continue to rake in billions of dollars from ordinary people all around the world. You are not immune to being scammed. Scams don’t always – at least not at first glance – scream ‘scam’. Some do. Some are poorly done and full of errors, and are clearly scams to almost anyone. Others have good marketing and slick websites, and employ the best, most persuasive salespeople that money can buy. As this book will show, they can be scarily easy to fall for.

In this book we’re going on a roller-coaster ride of some of the biggest scams not only in crypto but in modern history, scams that have shaken whole communities and countries. We’ll dive deep into the anatomy of a scam, how they form, how they get some people big, and how other people know to step away at just the right time before the whole thing collapsed like a deck of cards.

By reading to the end, you’ll get your own answers to:

  • Why do some scams get so large when others fail?
  • How do you know when something is good, or is too good to be true? Where does that distinction lie?
  • Why do some people fall for these scams?
  • What is it about certain scams that make people trust them with everything they have, when there are all sorts of other things they could do with their money?
  • How did people not see that these were scams right until they collapsed? And why do some people keep investing in and supporting these scams even after they have collapsed and are being charged by law enforcement? How do the tentacles of these scams get so deep?
  • Why and how do others, a small subset of people, know instinctively, within seconds of hearing about or seeing a project, that it’s a scam?
  • And how can people learn to be in this subgroup of those who don’t fall victim to scams, those who can see through them clearly within an instant?

A lot of shades of grey

I want to make clear that this book isn’t just about scams, and not everything in crypto is as black and white as ‘scam’ or ‘not a scam’. The traditional financial industry – in some cases – seems to have gone out of its way to make it difficult for what might be legitimate crypto companies to get banking or operate as they would like. More than one crypto company has been a victim of traditional banking or other factors out of their control. Crypto also changes so fast that some people who signed up to work in little start-ups were soon out of their depth as Bitcoin flung up (and down) in price and demand for crypto spiralled. Some chapters in this book represent clear scams, projects that were fraudulent, or overt Ponzi schemes from the start.

Some are more nebulous, where maybe circumstances or intentions changed, and the legitimacy of the project or intent became more clouded as time went on. Others I don’t believe are scams at all – or at least weren’t intended to be – but were perhaps more a series of unfortunate events and some bad decisions – as well as some very bad decisions and some mistakes. I feel some crypto projects have as much been a victim of the lack of access to traditional banking options as being deliberate, intentioned wrongdoers themselves – and certainly there is a lack of understanding and clarity around some cases.

Some hope

The same types of scams with good marketing, big promises and high initial pay-outs exist in almost every industry on earth, not just crypto. If this book can save just one person from losing their money to a scam, crypto or non, then it has done a good thing.

On the positive side, cryptocurrency is a revolutionary technology with implications that are literally life-changing for billions of people. The power of crypto is incredible and will go on long beyond when its scams are a fragment of history. ‘Crypto for the people’, our last chapter, will give a tiny glimmer of light into the overwhelming potential that cryptocurrency brings to the economic liberation of billions of the poorest people around the world and the political freedom of many more.

It goes without saying that things change fast in crypto, and editing books takes a long time (and a lot of work!). What is written here is an up-to-date account to the best of our knowledge at the time of writing – it’s almost certain that when you read this book, some things will have changed. I hope you enjoy the book!


“Erica Stanford’s entertaining exploration of the world of scams, grifts, frauds and fantasies serves as a reminder that while on the one hand there is nothing new under the sun, on the other hand we have barely begun to understand the impact of cryptocurrency.” – David Birch, author of The Currency Cold War and international adviser and commentator on digital financial services

“In what other book could you read about the biggest Ponzi schemes in the world, espionage, an $800 billion bubble, fake death, cryptoqueens, gambling and porn – literally 50 shades of the dodgiest grey with regulators and the FBI in hot pursuit? Erica Stanford brilliantly analyses the future of crypto in a world where the real future including security-backed tokens and CBDC’s is only just beginning.” – Bob Wigley, Chair UK Finance, Co-Chair, Cross Market Operational Resilience Group, Bank of England, Board Member, DIT and UK Home Office, NED, adjunct professor and author of Born Digital

“The is a marvellous romp through the crazy world of cryptocurrency and its wackier elements. But as well as the fun, we get a glimpse into what might one day give the global financial system a run for its money.” – Mike Butcher MBE, Editor-at-Large, TechCrunch

“This book is essential reading, especially for anyone thinking of dipping even their little toe into cryptocurrency.” – Sara Vaughan, innovator and creator of global brands with purpose, positive change maker

“Crypto has proved the quickest get-rich scheme in all history. Unfortunately, the easiest people to rip off are those hoping to get rich quick, so scam after inevitable scam has preyed on the sector. Erica Stanford’s page turner tells their bitter, but compelling stories.” – Dominic Frisby, comedian, actor, MoneyWeek columnist and author of Daylight Robbery

“Erica Stanford takes readers through the complicated history of crypto hacks, scams and pump and dump schemes with such vivid detail and engaging narrative, you’ll find it hard to put the book down.” – Leslie Lamb, Head of Institutional Sales, Amber Group, and host of the Crypto Unstacked podcast

“As the market booms it’s timely that someone has done justice to the extraordinary story of crypto – this unputdownable book captures the fun and the ups and the downs. It’s a mesmeric read.” – Charlie Kerrigan, Partner and Global Head of Fintech, CMS

“An accessible guide to the confusing and fast-growing world of crypto scams. If you’re thinking of investing in cryptocurrency, read this first!” – Jamie Bartlett, host of BBC podcast The Missing Cryptoqueen, author of The People Vs Tech, The Dark Net, Radicals and The Missing Cryptoqueen, presenter and journalist

“Erica Stanford covers everything that is oh so wrong and oh so right about the transformational world of cryptocurrencies. Prepare to laugh, cringe or be spooked. This book combines technology, business, mystery, fantasy and popular culture in a fascinating and enlightening way. And the best part: it’s all true.” – Anthony Day, Blockchain Partner, IBM, and host of Blockchain Won’t Save the World podcast

“Crypto Wars is a fascinating and gripping account of human nature and its demons emerging from the frontiers of the crypto economy. It is mandatory reading for investors, regulators and builders of our financial future” – Lex Sokolin, fintech futurist and philosopher, Founder, The Fintech Blueprint, and Head Economist, ConsenSys

“Fascinating read on the boom days of crypto’s Initial Coin Offerings, analysing the hype that threatened to overshadow the technology. Erica Stanford captures the mood and energy of the time in this greatly entertaining and insightful work.” – Caroline Casey, Vice President, Innovation and Consumer Experience, Europe, Mastercard

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