Crypto trading has exploded in the last year and a half, and crooks have taken notice. They’re finding new ways to pounce and pilfer, and these crimes have recently skyrocketed.
Hatim Mursi says he had an entire life’s savings stolen in a cryptocurrency investment scam, more than a half-million dollars.
“I felt very vulnerable and I felt violated,” said Mursi. He says the funds are ”completely, completely, completely gone."
The Fort Lauderdale resident says it all started when he received what he thought at the time was a wrong message on WhatsApp. It was a message he thought was meant for a friend.
“It’s from somebody’s who’s confused, supposedly,” Mursi said. “The person apologized and then followed back by saying, ‘oh you seem nice.’”
That’s when he says the online relationship began.
“They give you the feel that they’re very intelligent, very caring," he said.
They chatted about everything from music to politics to business, but only via text.
“They asked me if I have interest in cryptocurrency,” Mursi said. “I’ve never actually invested in crypto.
He said the person followed up. "It was, 'oh, by the way, here are the trading sites.'"
At first, the person referred him to legitimate trading platforms where Mursi said he decided to open an account.
“She started sharing with me links to this new company,” Mursi said. “Then said that they’re about to start having their crypto be traded.”
He said the woman claimed to have insider information. “Then she introduced me to this website. Where that’s the only website where you can actually purchase that coin,” Mursi said.
He did some research on the company and thought the site seemed legitimate, so he decided to open an account on “Owllex.com.”
In order to buy this supposed new coin, Mursi said he needed to fund the website’s virtual wallet with other cryptocurrencies. So he purchased Tether, a well-known crypto coin, from Binance.US, a well-known legitimate trading platform, and transferred the funds to the new site.
“I was like, well, Binance has been around forever,” Mursi said. “If they allowed me to do that, that’s one thing that made me feel a little bit comfortable.”
He even tried transferring funds back to Binance and said it worked.
“Binance now accepts the transaction back, I’m thinking, okay this is a valid site,” said Mursi.
Mursi then started moving over thousands of dollars worth of cryptocurrency after that.
“Every time I add you see the cryptocurrency going up. Up. Up,” Mursi said. “I had seen about 35k in a period of a week grow into over $400,000"
It seemed too good to be true — because it was.
Mursi started getting suspicious. He said the company kept pushing deadlines, like for the initial coin officer.
He found similar scam stories to his online and discovered the website had several aliases.
But it was too late. In early October, the Owllex.com website became unavailable, and it still is.
Mursi lost any possible way to access his money.
“For a whole week, I just couldn't sleep,” he said.
The Florida Attorney General’s Office has received nearly 100 complaints regarding these types of scams with a major uptick in October.
Even more shocking, the Federal Trade Commission says from October 2020 to March of this year, there were 12 times the number of crypto investment scams reported compared to the same period the year before.
“We’ve seen a lot of these types of cryptocurrency scams start on social media,” explained Christopher Leach, a staff attorney for the FTC. “Somebody approaching you in that form, who you don’t know saying come and invest with me, that’s a red flag right there.”
He says to be aware of broad claims about specific or high returns. “Claims that you can double, triple, 10x your money. That is a very clear red flag,” Leach said.
He says it’s important to do your research, check reviews and be wary of someone pressuring you to invest immediately.
A Binance.US spokesperson sent NBC 6 a statement saying, “There are bad actors in every industry. It is the responsibility of all legitimate industry professionals to help educate our users on common scams and do extensive research before using or performing any transaction with unregulated platforms. At Binance.US, the security of our customers and their assets is our top priority. As a result, we have content available to our users such as safety and security tips and education points on common cryptocurrency scams. Additionally, our security, risk and compliance teams monitor account activity, including blockchain transactions to and from Binance.US. The teams identify and blacklist addresses associated with suspicious or malicious behaviors and work with law enforcement to take down malicious sites.”
“I think the newness of crypto really provides a fertile ground for folks who want to run scams in that regard,” Leach said.