/ 18 January 2024

Modern cowboys in crypto con


When one talks of the “Wild West” it involves more than the geography. It includes the history, folklore and culture of an era between 1865 and 1900. 

White settlers from the east of the US streamed across the Mississippi, African-Americans came from the Deep South and Chinese railroad workers added to the diversity, according to the Library of Congress.

The loss of the bison and growth of white settlement drastically affected the lives of the Native Americans living in the West. By the 1880s, most of them had been violently confined to reservations.

It was an era notorious for its lawlessness — an understanding of every man for himself. Here in the 21st century, the legacy of the Wild West lives on, except the mythical outlaw cowboys of yore have been replaced by freewheeling crypto scammers.

This contemporary Wild West is a world of cryptocurrencies where there are few to no regulations, and creating your blockchain, and thus your currency, is as easy as knowing coding or someone who can do the coding for you. 

Cryptocurrency is an intangible, technology-based asset that can be converted to tangible money through withdrawal. To invest in crypto, you need a wallet. For example, you cannot buy or invest in Bitcoin (one of the most popular and first forms of crypto) without a Bitcoin wallet. Your wallet also holds your security key that will link your crypto to you. 

In 2017, the crypto boom kicked off, with many excited by the prospect of making large sums of money quickly. Enter three young men, Sam “Sorbee” Sharma, Robert Farkas and Raymond Trapani, the founders of Centra Tech and the focus of Netflix’s first documentary of the year, BitConned.

In this true-crime documentary, they exploit the cryptocurrency market to scam billions from investors and bankroll lavish lifestyles.

BitConned follows the enticing story of how the three inexperienced cowboys convinced investors to invest billions in a false crypto blockchain — it also claimed to create debit cards that would allow users to pay with popular cryptocurrencies, anywhere Visa or Mastercard was accepted. 

How did they manage to do this? No background checks were done, until a New York Times reporter did a story about how heavyweight champion boxer Floyd Mayweather and famous rapper and music producer DJ Khaled endorsed their debit cards. 

The documentary walks viewers through how Sharma, Farkas and Trapani connected and how they came up with this scam that shook the world of crypto. 

The main brains behind the scam and Centra were Trapani and Sharma. Trapani claims that, from a young age, he was drawn to crime. Of the three founders, the documentary focuses on Trapani and paints him to be the ultimate con artist.

When the three decided to start Centra Tech, none of them knew anything about the cryptocurrency industry but found it easy enough to hire developers to create the coding for their token in 2017. 

They had their initial coin offering (ICO) where they presented Centra tokens to investors. After the 2017 Bitcoin boom, many people had grown enthusiastic about crypto and what it could offer them. Centra fed into this excitement.

At the time of Centra’s ICO, Farkas, Sharma and Trapani were 26 years old, so to add credibility to their venture, they created a CEO. 

Yes, created. How they did this is astonishing: they found a picture of an elderly man, created a LinkedIn profile with the image, put his image on their website, and named him “Michael Edwards”. 

Once The New York Times’ Nathaniel Popper was digging into Centra Tech, the trickster trio decided to “kill off” their CEO in a car accident. The image used to create “Edwards” was that of a Canadian physiology professor who had no affiliation with Centra Tech. 

They then created another CEO, using Trapani’s grandfather’s image. At the time, he was battling cancer and would die in the middle of the crackdown on Centra Tech.

Following the New York Times article, the three found themselves in a world of trouble. In early 2018 the FBI obtained enough evidence to arrest them and shut down Centra Tech. 

The men had multiple charges laid against them. They included wire fraud, conspiracy to fraud. 

Trapani himself was potentially facing 100 years in prison. However, because Trapani is a master con man, he was able to avoid prison time by co-operating and helping prosecutors lock up Farkas and Sharma. Farkas served a year in jail and Sharma is serving eight years.

The story of Centra Tech, unfortunately, is not the last or only story of such blatant scamming in the crypto industry. It is so easy to create your cryptocurrency, which means that there have been, and are still, people who create fraudulent currencies to get money fast. 

The thing that makes Centra Tech special is that Trapani pretty much got off free because he snitched on his buddies and saved himself with no regard for his business partners and supposed friends. 

This is a classic Wild West story. Ray Trapani, Sam Sharma and Robert Farkas are our outlaws, robbers, and antagonists — their victims are the many investors who invested $3.6 billion into a business plan which would have been so well utilised if it were real. It was the perfect scam.