The Billion Dollar Scam - BBC World ServiceApr 29, 2023
These party goers are
scammers. They work for an organized crime group known as Milton. They have had a good year. They have taken hundreds of millions of victims. And now, they are celebrating. Scammers earn so much that they can afford expensive endorsement deals to make their brands look respectable. The fact that I sponsored Leeds Football Club, I just took it as a suitable investment platform. They just want to take your money. There are tens of thousands of victims around the
world. Many of these people were just like the rest of us. They are not smarter, nor dumber.
There was never any opportunity for all those customers. It's all a lie. I'm going undercover to find out how they convinced people to invest. We team up with a man who's been on the inside. My life changed radically. I have to hide now and think about safety. We join Europol's raids on call centers that sell this
Let's just call him Mr. Red. It took us over a year to peel back the layers of shell companies hidden offshore, to identify for the first time the bigwig we believe is getting rich off poverty. Losing $30,000 to a bunch of scammers. I was absolutely devastated by it. Hello. Hello. This is Jen. Who is this? My name is Simona Wineglass, I'm an investigative reporter and I think I'm about to get scammed. I'm pretending to be a schoolteacher named Jen, and I've signed up on various trading platforms to see how this scam works. Sounds great. Software like this normally costs a fortune, but can I trust it?
And where? Where are you calling from? Oh, your calling. But you have such an interesting accent. Where are you from, where are you originally from? Well. I know all about call center scams. I've been researching them for years. Now, I'm posing as a teacher who wants to earn some extra money to help pay the bills. I'm pretending to be Canadian. As scammers don't call Americans like me. Because, here in Washington, D.C., a team of prosecutors successfully busted one such scam and sent the woman who ran it to prison for 22 years. How big was the problem at the time you started investigating?
Like, why did you take it? In just the handful of organizations we initially focused on, there were tens of thousands of victims around the
world, and there was one victim who reported losing $400,000. A lot of these people were just like, you know, any of us. They are not smarter or dumber professionals. Quite a few people who worked for the government and had long careers in government, who ended up getting ripped off by scams like this. Three years ago, I was part of an international investigation with the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter. For the first time, we reveal the existence of a criminal group called Milton.
Now, I want to expose an older man actually behind it. Back then, we found out that Milton's front line was the scam call centers, where hundreds of young people in Eastern Europe are recruited with promises of big money and a little bit of luxury. For each new victim They receive a bonus and a considerable percentage of the money< which they persuade them to invest. Then the investigation had an undercover mole employed at a Milton call center in kyiv, Ukraine. When the investigation came out, he went into witness protection. We tracked him down to see if he could help us go further and identify the masterminds behind the scams.
We have to protect Alex's identity.
So even though there was a huge exposure involving dozens of newspapers from around the world, the Milton group is still operating. Yes they are still working. And they began to earn a lot of money. As a student in Russia, Alex trained in cryptography. He is now using those skills to track the money. In his estimation, how much money has the Milton group made since it started? About 1 trillion. About 1 trillion
dollars. Since 2017. Are you saying that 100% of people lost money, which means they lost at least some of their money? Yes. Not a single penny went into an actual trade.
What happened to the money once people deposited into your account?
billion in the UK. Most people never show up. Oh here we go Hello, this is Jen. Oh, I'm so glad we're finally talking. With Alex's help, I'm now talking to the Milton scammers. Patrick works for one of his brands, Coinevo. Thank you. Thank you so much. I want to see what kind of promises they make to persuade me to invest.
How much money do you think I can make in a month doing this? These types of returns are impossible to promise. To show how this scam works, I deposit $500 in Bitcoin and agree to another moment to speak with Patrick. Milton's group has thousands of victims. Many lose far more than the BBC allows me to put in. I'm just going to transfer the money to you. Ok, one second. I'm on my way to meet Londoner Barry Burnett, who started trading £10 after signing up with a prominent Milton brand, EverFX. When he saw how well his portfolio seemed to be doing, he invested more.
He told us that he let his business advisor take control of his computer and trade for him. This should never happen. Then he started losing money. And that's when Milton's scammers asked him to invest even more. Put some more money. Double it. If you deposit £25,000, you can wipe out your losses and take profit. And I said, no, I'm not going to do that, absolutely not, I just want to cut my losses to a manageable amount and I want to get out. And I must have gotten at least half a dozen calls from half a dozen people in the space of about 2 hours.
My phone kept blowing up, basically begging me to put in more money. Barry says that he lost over £10,000. His experience fits a pattern. What if I told you that we have talked to people inside the company and they told us that it was all a scam? I'm horrified. I'm numb. I can't believe this, because I was never actually going to get that back, so I could almost think that the moment I put that ten grand into her account, that was it. It was just gone. You know, it's disgusting on every level. You know, it's just, it makes me sick to think about it, to be honest.
I can imagine the misery they have inflicted on other people's lives. So how did these companies do it? How do they get so many people to trust them? The brand Barry used, EverFX, was established through a high-end sponsorship deal with one of the biggest football clubs in Europe, Sevilla FC. It's game day. Two of the biggest clubs in Spain play their local derby. Over two years, the Milton group spent approximately €7 million with Sevilla FC to promote their EverFX brand, including brilliant promo videos like this one. Sevilla even use some of their most important players to unknowingly sell the Melton brand.
I didn't know much about trading, but EverFX told me everything I needed to know. Forex and soccer are hit and miss industries, but these guys have all the stuff to help new traders like me. So thank you, EverFX. EverFX: Major Global Sponsor of Sevilla Football Club Their sponsorship deal ended shortly after EverFX was banned by the UK Financial Conduct Authority. But not before having defrauded 17,000 investors in Spain alone. Many of the club's fans know people who have lost money to these scams. Hey, Mark, I'm fine. I am in Seville. On a side street, I went to talk to someone who also investigates these scams.
Mark Solomons works for an Australian investigative firm trying to recover money for victims. The thing about the Milton group is that they tend to hit people for a certain amount and then move on and like to work in bulk. I mean the EverFX logo, it's hard to imagine most fans haven't been exposed to it. It must be because it gives them access to a particular demographic that might be prone to gambling. The brand awareness these offers generate is essential for these scams to appear reputable. We found that 40% of UK Prime Ministers signed endorsement deals with suspected scam brands outside of the Milton group.
This includes Chelsea, Everton, Fulham, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester City, Southampton and Tottenham. All were investigated by regulators, fined by regulators, investigated by police or banned by the Financial Conduct Authority, including FXVC, which sponsored Leeds United until 2021, when they were banned by the Financial Conduct Authority. While Leeds did promos like this. FXVC scammed hundreds of thousands of pounds while using their sponsorship to appear legitimate. The idea that we've been manipulated by a company like that would really sicken me. I'm pretty upset, because it was also advertised a lot, and it could be done off the website as well.
So not very happy to be honest. Yes. After seeing that FXVC sponsored Leeds United, Phil and Joyce invested £1,000 with them. The call center soon went to work. Her words to me were, "Oh, I'll take care of you like you were my own mother." One of the main things he said was, "Phil, you realize you're going to be a millionaire." promises, the couple says they believed FXVC was a reputable trading platform. Why would they allow that type of company to support Leeds United, a top football club? Because? It just doesn't make sense to me. So I took at face value that they were a good, reputable company.
Phil invested more. He bet £100,000 that the price of Bitcoin would rise and his account showed a profit of £85,000 in one weekend. So they put more and more. He always said you can get your money out no problem. Withdraw your money whenever you want. But when they started losing money, their account manager told them that their balance had fallen below a threshold. So to get the remaining money out, they would have to put in more. They did so, and then they lost everything. We had lost £341,000 in seven days. They don't care who they hurt, they don't care who they take money from.
They don't care. I knew he was deeply distressed by it and I knew he would be humiliated and ashamed. He literally held on to me that day, just apologizing and saying, I'm sorry, I'm sorry. I was stupid, I was stupid. At Leeds United, they have a duty to ensure that people associated with them are legitimate businesses and do not commit these types of scams. Leeds United told us that "as soon as we found out that FXVC had lost their license, the deal was terminated." FXVC denied any wrongdoing and told us that they fully complied with the FCA ruling.
Responding Premier League clubs said the deals were either terminated early, not renewed, or that the allegations against the would-be scam companies only came after the sponsorship deals ended. And Sevilla FC told us that once the contract ended there was no further contact with EverFX. While these brilliant videos may be history, no one to date from EverFX or FXVC has been prosecuted for these scams. One reason is that criminal investigations are very complex, expensive, and scammers seem to always be one step ahead. In Britain, none of the victims we have spoken to have been investigated by the police.
Oliver Bullough was a reporter in the former Soviet Union, but now writes about money laundering and offshore worlds. Am I surprised to learn that the British police have done nothing about these reports? No. That's tiredly familiar. If you are famous, they will be interested. But if it's just, you know, Mr. or Mrs. Smith has lost their retirement savings 40 thousand, 50 thousand, 60 thousand. They send a report and nothing happens. Oliver believes that scammers are hiding behind a complex series of offshore companies to protect their true identity. If he approaches you as an investigative journalist or, more likely, as a law enforcement officer, he must go to each of those jurisdictions, write them a letter, a formal process, and then receive information about the ownership of that company.
That can take you six months. It can take you a year. It may not be possible at all. So the goal of theComplexity is making things incomprehensible and essentially trying to force other people to give up. I'm not going to give up, but I need help. In a quiet town in Germany, I heard that the fight against Milton is on. It's an unlikely hub for the high-tech fight against scammers. The cybercrime unit here, in contrast to the UK, is making arrests across Europe and beyond. Nice to meet you. Nice to meet you Using digital techniques, the team can track crime to the dark portals of the deepest parts of the Internet and hunt down the perpetrators.
It is run by public prosecutors, who methodically collect evidence and forensically trace the vast sums of money it generates. They are operating as professional legal firms, and that is what we say. This is organized crime. And how much money are some of these large organized criminal groups bringing in? Probably hundreds of millions per year. Investigating financial scams like these means following the money. So let's say we have a victim from any platform and we know that he transferred the money from him to this bank account of any company here in Germany. And then we have all the transactions of the company, of the bank account.
And we see that there are many other victims from Germany, Austria, Great Britain and France who send their money to this bank account. But those cases are yet to be reported. And our biggest problem is that we only see reported cases. Your investigation progresses. Last year, they seized these assets from another criminal group that also operated investment scams. But the methodical collection of evidence takes years. At first, we were not at all sure if we would identify any suspects and if there would ever be an arrest. But after three years, we see that there are dozens of arrests and we were able to identify really large networks of scammers.
He wanted to know if the prosecutors knew who was behind the Milton group. So I had to ask. Who were the big bosses of the Milton group? No comment. No comment. Good night. Hello. Yes you are. You're talking to Jen. I have been passed down the chain to a retention manager. It's the same job Alex had while he was working at the call center in the Ukraine. Later, he sold a few different brands, but since then he has discovered many more that follow the same pattern. He found dozens of different brands, but they all had identical registration pages.
The exact same wording in their terms and conditions, and the exact same login pages. Alex then discovered that they all share the same unique code in their design and the same online deposit page where customers can choose to invest with
dollars, pounds or cryptocurrencies. EverFX has the same login page and the same code and the same script in the same structure as all these other websites. Yes. So, are you 100% sure it's a Milton group website? Yes, I am one hundred percent sure. Okay, let's see how many brands there are in all. 152. Wow. It's a big network of brands, but are there other connections?
We decided to follow the money. Like me, many people now hand over Bitcoin and Bitcoin is on a public ledger which means you can track where it goes. So it should be simple, but it's not. Because there are thousands and thousands of crypto wallets that channel money. When I started this journey, I put my money into the Coinevo brand. Victims have been doing this for years, putting money into other brands, including EverFX, the brand that scammed Barry. The money moves through a complex system of wallets but ultimately ends up in a few dozen. We suspect, owned by the people behind the scam.
We do not know for sure who owns these wallets. But mapping this network is useful because it shows that these marks are linked. We saw my Coinevo money joining an EverFX moneypath here before moving on to the rest of the network. So this is a trade that I opened and I don't like to do it that well. I'm like red. I have been trying to contact Coinevo but have not received a response. Maybe they know who I really am or are only interested in people who have invested the most. Antoine still hasn't contacted me. So I decide to cut my losses and withdraw my money.
So I get this email. Hello Jenny. The passport you have sent us is false. I assume you know this. So make yourself pretty, please. With sugar on top. Despite the persecution, I never got back the money that was still in the account. So how can we find out who is behind these crimes? When Alex the undercover mole was working for Milton, he recorded their 2020 New Year's Eve party with a secret camera on his watch. Are there clues here as to who the masterminds of the Milton group are? The audio reveals a man named David, who was crowned Milton's father.
When I worked on the first investigation, we identified this David as Georgian national David Todua. To simplify the complex connections in this network. We're going to give him a nickname, Mr. Orange. These are photos from the now-deleted Instagram feed of him. Showing him at the party with other important figures from Milton's group and him posing with guns. So where does Mr. Orange fit into the broader Milton organization? Two years after the party, he has an office in a new call center in kyiv that sells EverFX and other Milton brands. Ukraine is clearly important to his entire operation.
But they, like everyone else, were about to get a scare. The Ukraine was invaded and Alex, watching out for scammers from his hideout, saw evidence online that call center staff were fleeing the war. One place he has seen job ads is in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. I have come to the capital, Tbilisi, to meet local investigative reporter Nino Bakradze. Hello. Hello.
We have an informant who thinks they are moving people from the Ukraine to Georgia. A few months ago there was a big scandal related to call centers. And the prosecutor's office closed several offices. But since then, we know that the area is clean and that these call centers moved out of the country. There was an investigation story that you can see there. I know who is. This? Yeah, I know who this guy is. His name is Michel Benimini. I investigated him before Benimini was charged in Israel with tax evasion, but he never showed up at his trial.
I think we have to investigate for ourselves. Our own research shows that Michel Benimini, let's call him Mr. Red, registered one of Milton's first trademarks, Cap MP. So this suggests that he has been involved for a long time. I'm curious, but it doesn't take long for Nino to come back with more. He's found evidence of a call center and it's active. You were right. His name is M.G. Capital. M.G. Capital, the company founded by Yousef Mgleazde four years ago. I found your ID scan and email address in the business register. And I have a rental agreement signed by Yousef Mgleazde And he signs a rental agreement in 2019.
We identified Yousef Mgleazde's profile on Facebook. Then we discovered the people in the photos. So we found a person who worked at a call center and persuaded her to talk to you. We met the young woman who had worked at M.G. Capital in the center of Tbilisi. She doesn't want to speak in front of the camera, so we didn't show her face and we changed her voice. Ivana was told to choose a fake English-sounding name and to never reveal that she was calling from Georgia. She was selling a Milton brand. But who is Joseph Mgeladze, our Mr.
Green? Can your other business links tell us about this network? We already know that he founded and owned MG Capital, which appears to have sold off Milton's brands. But Mr. Green also founded this company. Directors of it have included two men who appear to be connected to the network. This guy, Mr. Blue, owned a company called Nash Pay, which has provided technology to the Milton Group brands, a company that he sold to Mr. Orange, gun lover David Todua, and Mr. Pink. Mr. Blue is a senior at EverFX, as well as other crucial Milton technology companies. And finally, some of these key companies operated out of the same building that housed Mr.
Orange's new office in kyiv. All this looks very cozy. The offshore world is opaque, with some people deliberately spending a fortune muddying the waters of their operations. But they can't be sure that the past will remain buried forever. As the world wakes up to the revelations of the Panama Papers... In 2016, millions of documents that were supposed to be confidential were leaked. They revealed the true owners and inner workings of the directors of hundreds of offshore companies. They were called the Panama Papers. So let's go back in time and see what the leak can tell us about our people of interest.
Four of them are there. They have a history together and seem to be running a network of non-Milton companies around the world. But many of these companies have something in common. They are linked to an office block in Tbilisi called the Pixel Building. The document trail ends here, throughout all our investigations of the Panama Papers, we have analyzed thousands of documents abroad. And many of these early non-Milton companies appear to have been founded or registered by one person. Mr. David Kezerashvili But who is this Mr. Kezerashvili? He is a former Georgian politician. He was defense minister during the war against the Russians in 2008.
When he left office, he began his business career. Based in London, he cannot return to Georgia as he was found guilty of corruption in what he says is a politically motivated case. Accepting this, the British courts refused to extradite him. In Georgia, some remember him as Mr. Offshore and the leak of non-Milton Company data shows that he sat at the center of this network of offshore companies. Our men held high positions in these companies that Mr. Kezerashvili registered all over the world. Multiple paths seem to lead to it. We were invited back here by Europol, who targeted some of the same people we did, and now we're joining them in call center raids.
Simultaneous actions are taking place in Ukraine, Albania and North Macedonia. We have no idea where we are going. They told us to follow the car in front of us. The last time they did a raid like this, the heads of the call center were notified. So it all depends on the secret. We pull into this parking lot and the German and Georgian police are coordinating their actions. The prosecutors just walked in. But they told us that the place is already secured. Would you like to talk to us about what happened here? I don't understand. You don't understand anything I'm saying.
Although you just answered me in perfect English. Did you know that it was supposedly a scam? I'm not wanting you to record this video right now, and I'm not going to answer your questions. What was the brand you sold here? We are very happy with the situation at the moment, to the extent that we can examine all the materials and the people, we see that some evidence is clear evidence as far as the German desk is concerned, as far as the German market is concerned . And obviously we see very good indications of such activity here. At the moment, there are 30 raids in Georgia in the center of Tbilisi, they are attacking a company that we already know - M.G Capital.
These displays are really interesting. Here you have the back office of a brand called Eco Sales and you have the names of the people they called to get money. And here you have four British names here. So you can see that this is just a call center that was supposedly scamming people all over the world. And let's see if we can see how much money they got from various people. Going through our pictures afterwards, I found a note "no responsibilities, wants to buy a property, no discussing the number but has savings less than 10K, very p**** should rip off soon For the German prosecutors, this is four years in the planning and now they have time to reflect We know of course, for example, the FCA in Great Britain says that scams are the biggest threat to private investors But on the other hand, we see due to our actions and our investigations in recent years, that there are also some positive effects, that the perpetrators are more careful and at least they don't target the German market as much as they did maybe two or three years ago, the overall damage is still hundreds of millions.
We can probably talk about
billions not only in Germany, but worldwide. We saw many British victims on the computer screens in the call center. If you were to finish your investigation, where would that leave you? We have to be realistic. We cannot save the world. It's hard enough work saving the German market. There should be some kind of law enforcement in Britain that I know of. So that's your main responsibility. and see it froma legal perspective, it is not in our jurisdiction. The raids made headlines in Georgia. Mgladze, our Mr. Green gave a press conference after one of the scam marks was broken into an office on his property.
He says that his company rents the spaces and offices to other companies, but he doesn't know what it is. A company that rents shelving actually does. So he is saying that he was just renting space to another call center but he owns MG Capital. Yes, we know that he founded MG Capital and he also mentions that he was a partner, a business partner of David Kezerashvili So we know that the links between these men go back. Thanks to the Panama Papers leak. Then the pattern was that Kezerashvili was the link between our men. But if the royal links were previously confidential, could they be again?
So fast forward to the present. All of the men appear to have been key figures in the Milton group that ran or owned technology companies or the fraudulent EverFX brand. But does Kezerashvili fit in now? Well, he's actually not in the paperwork. This is what we can see. He is related to this company, which used to own EverFX. Through his venture capital firm, he owned the brand and website of this technology company, which built the EverFX trading platform and website. His personal company email servers were on the same private servers as EverFX, Axios and Newage. He owns a building in Kiev where the original call center moved in 2020 and where EverFX was sold and where Mr.
Orange had an office where many of these companies were housed, and which was raided in the Europol action in Ukraine. And this gives us a clue to Kezerashvili's Social Circle. At a wedding in 2018, he was photographed with Mr. Orange and Mr. Red, as well as other key Milton figures. He also has interesting connections on social networks. Kezerashvili regularly likes and shares Facebook and LinkedIn posts from various tech groups, as well as EverFX and its successor Axios. And his Facebook friends have included at least 45 other people linked to some of these companies. And of course, he's also Facebook friends with Mr.
Pink, Mr. Blue, Mr. Green and Mr. Orange. And Mr. Red? Well, that's his cousin we went to. Mr Kezerashvili's £80 million London home to see if he could answer these questions about his role. Hi, I'm a journalist. I'd like to speak to David Kezerashvili. Is he available? No. Not available? Well. Thank you so much. OK, bye. He did not want to speak to us, but his lawyers made it clear that Mr. Kezerashvili strongly denies any relationship with Milton, or that he profited financially from the scams. He says that to the best of his knowledge, EverFX was a legitimate business and that the connections we have found to the people and IT behind it prove nothing.
Mr. Chelidze and Mr. Gogeshvili strongly deny our accusations saying that EverFX is a legitimate and regulated platform. They deny knowledge of Milton or any connection between EverFX and the brands. We identify. Those who suggest have misused their source code and branding to confuse users. They say that EverFX has never had a crypto wallet and has no control over how its third-party payment processors direct funds. Mr. Mgeladze said: "I completely deny these allegations. I am not involved in any way with Milton. I have never owned call centers or any other company engaged in the deceptive sale of financial products." Neither Mr.
Benimini nor Mr. Todua responded to our questions. EverFX denied our allegations and said that they are a legitimate and regulated platform where the risks are fully explained. They investigated Barry's case and found out that he was responsible for their losses. In our anonymous case, we were told that his losses were due to his moving to an unrelated company and that they fully cooperated with the FCA.
I feel utterly ashamed of how well I was fooled. I don't want my friends to know how stupid I've been. I always worked very hard for everything I earned in my life, losing $30,000 to a bunch of scammers. I was absolutely devastated by it. I just don't feel like I can trust anyone again. It has taken us over a year to uncover the identities of some of the biggest players we believe are involved in this billion dollar scam. Navigating through this complex and sophisticated tangle of fictitious companies, digital evidence, and crypto wallets, we feel able to name them for the first time.
Since the raids, Alex has been tracking Milton's crypto wallets. So the volume is lower. The volume is lower. That means the raids have had a huge impact. Yes, I think so, because we see a very significant decrease in billing. Good for the victims. Good for the victims. So the raids had an impact. But our recent analysis suggests that scams are now rebounding to almost 85% of what they were. So can this billion dollar scam ever be stopped? The money that flows from this type of crime through the offshore world into the pockets of a small number of people is so attractive and so corrupt that it is incredibly difficult for any society in any political system to conjure up the means to stop it.
Four months after the raids, we are not aware of any prosecutions of any of the individuals we have identified.
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