Bitsonar Exit Scam: How Former Ukrainian Government Official Took Money From Europeans, Americans, and Russians With Cryptopyramid
This June, an ex-employee posted an announcement on the official website of cryptocurrency investment fund Bitsonar. According to it, the organization is a Ponzi scheme, and its founder is not the same person as the website had earlier stated. Meanwhile, users post numerous claims as to the impossibility of withdrawal of funds and suspect the project of pulling an exit scam.
June 2, the fund’s former employee Jan Novak posted an announcement that Bitsonar “has turned into a financial pyramid.”
“All investors should know that Bitsonar OU has turned into a financial pyramid (Ponzi), so do not be fooled by the illusions that you will be able to withdraw at least a dollar after so-called audit will end, or after they will open on bitsonar.io,” the text reads.
According to Novak, not only the clients of the fund but also employees, contractors, and consultants were all misguided by the real manager of the fund.
He noted that the money was stolen by the actual owner of Bitsonar, who is not the company’s official CEO, Marius Ziubka, but a Ukrainian national Alexander Tovstenko.
ForkLog talked with Jan Novak and other people earlier involved in Bitsonar to shed some light on the company that had been providing “breakeven” algorithmic trading services since 2016.
Novak says that he met Alexander Tovstenko in February or March 2018.
Alexander Tovstenko, photo provided by Jan Novak
“Tovstenko is a former public sector employee, a corrupt official. He was the head of the department of tenders at Ukraine’s ministry of energy. Before that, he worked at Ukraine’s ministry of ecology, and for Kyiv’s land resources. Bitsonar, therefore, was founded with the money stolen from taxpayers,” he says.
Initially, Novak consulted Tovstenko about trading bots that had been trending then. Still, the abrupt plummeting of the Bitcoin rate made them unprofitable.
“The decision was made to remake it all as a European investment find. Another project manager and I worked on remaking, content, and stuff. The trading strategies developed by the system administrator really worked, even though he had no experience in trading,” Novak continues.
According to him, at the time when he joined Bitsonar, the company couldn’t pay for servers because there was nobody willing to use their own bank card for that.
“Now I understand why nobody wanted to buy some burner cards. I was the person who helped organize the stuff, and it was me who had bought the domain names. The account access was on a name chip that I kept,” Novak elaborates.
The development of the investment fund was slow, and Novak even left the company for a while. He returned in April 2019, though, when Bitsonar was actively hiring employees and promoters.
“There were a bunch of pyramid fans, and everyone was trying to pull an MLM. But finding people who would work as talking heads was very difficult,” Novak recalls.
They even looked for them at elocution courses, and that’s where they ended up finding Marius Zhubka, a Lithuanian national living in Kyiv, Ukraine.
On screenshots provided by Novak (available here in Russian) one can see a discussion about hiring Zhubka as a nominal CEO. The chat participants note that his English is terrible and wish that he was “not as smart as Alesha had been.” In the final screenshot, they seem to be arranging a photo session and asking Marius not to get too tanned and ask his wife for a powder just in case.
“We came up with ‘Ziubka’ later because it would be hard to sell ‘zhubka’ to Russian speakers [the word ‘zhubka’ phonetically resembles the Russian word ‘zhopka’, which literally means ‘a small butt’—forklog.media]. Alexander wanted him to use a pseudonym from the start,” Novak explains.
Tovstenko went into business with Ziubka, and Marius became the nominal CEO of Bitsonar OÜ registered in Estonia.
Initially, Ziubka was listed as Marius Zacca on the official website (a screenshot made in 2019)
Notably, Bitsonar had the local license for exchange of cryptocurrency which, however, did not entitle it to manage assets or provide banking services.
This never stopped the Bitsonar founder to accept user funds for trust management while promising a 120% yearly profit and weekly payouts at the level of 4% of the deposit.
Bitsonar’s marketing campaign was quite aggressive.
An example of Bitsonar’s Facebook ad. It reads: “Heard it somewhere but don’t know how to start? A reliable investment platform. Start making money right now! 13.12 – 31.12, time is limited. +30% in 3 days!”
Commenting on the screenshot above, Novak said that it was a failed attempt to work with partner networks.
“This was a tough situation. Everyone around kept crying that we needed affiliates. Allegedly there were some pros that make creative stuff with 500% ROI. And in a while, we start seeing this ‘creative stuff’ in social media. This mistake cost us around $5,000,” he says.
The Golden Age and Fake Competitions
In May 2019, the developers continued testing the trading bots, which were surpassing the market average in profitability. At that time, Novak introduced Tovstenko to Pavel Lerner who was offered to become Bitsonar’s advisor.
“Pavel talked to developers and mathematicians who made the strategies, told them about arbitrage and pairs trading. Alexander was saying that everything goes well, things are being implemented, and the profitability grows. Yet, since everything came down to him, he was the only person who knew what strategies were actually being implemented.”
Left to right: Alexander Tovstenko, Pavel Lerner, and Marius Ziubka. Photo provided by Jan Novak
“It seems that was the plan: to launch a project as a technical fund, then sack all the technicians and eventually do what the directors say. I’ve been consulting lots of projects and exchange services, helped setting up bots, and knew where to order the implementation. Neither the others nor I could see that it’s a pyramid scheme,” Lerner added.
Bitsonar’s underlying MLM model was fine by everyone because it wasn’t “scammy,” Novak said. Clients were getting so-called “statuses” that granted access to investment limits five times greater than the price of such status: a $100 allowed you to invest $500 and so on. The owners of partner status with deposits of $20 thousand and more didn’t have limits whatsoever and paid 10% from each investment.
“Meanwhile, the leaders who brought new people had their rewards included in the status price, there was no pressure on the deposit itself. Nobody thought that it was an MLM, it was more an affiliate program. That’s why top bloggers weren’t afraid to promote Bitsonar. Sometimes ads went for $15 thousand.”
Despite the marketing efforts, the MLM network wasn’t growing. Novak explained it by the fact that the network marketers demanded 10–15% of the deposit and weren’t too keen on limiting themselves with statuses. Yet, people were buying statuses and investing even with such a model.
In November 2019, on Black Friday, Bitsonar temporarily lifted the limits and statuses. Their clients got incredible discounts.
“Over that period of time, Bitsonar doubled the number of clients and investments. They took in about $300–400 thousand. It’s sad to say, but people are that greedy. A client had an investment of $200–300 for about three months. On Black Friday, they deposit $12 thousand. There were many cases like that.”
At that time, the investment fund has announced a competition for 20 BTC and Mercedes AMG GT S.
“We were shooting the ‘Mercedes’ ad in a parking lot in Troieshchyna [a neighborhood of Kyiv] and then shooting the ‘winner’ near the Motherland Monument the same day. […] A foreign student played the role of Paul the British national. He pretended to be surprised and, as a crypto-enthusiast, chose 20 BTC. Then we returned the Mercedes to its real owner and he drove it home.”
The video of the fake lottery that was supposed to be live, turned out to be prerecorded. The part about picking the winner was edited in.
In December—January, a giveaway of watches from the American jewelry house Eliantte & Co. was planned. As explained by Jan Novak, the actual store, having got acquainted with the project, refused to participate and did not provide the watches. But Bitsonar continued selling lottery tickets to customers. Later, the giveaway was curtailed, on the premise that Covid-19 and quarantine were to blame.
Pavel Lerner was fired in November 2019. In his own words, the management felt that “break-even strategies do not give them the interest they need.” Thereafter, he provided advice to Bitsonar privately and upon request.
“I would help in setting up bots, but I only advised programmers. I gave no advice on finance or decision making,” notes Lerner.
In November, these services were paid in full, but for December and January, Lerner said, he never received his money.
“Lerner had it pretty rough,” added Jan Novak, “In October, he said that he was leaving for Utorg and asked to remove his mentions from materials related to Bitsonar. Alexander agreed but did not remove any mentions. Moreover, all bloggers were informed that Pavel was still a full-fledged member of the team. In December or January, Pavel visited the site, saw himself, and threw a major tantrum. He said that he would write under all new videos that he has not worked at Bitsonar since October. To which Alexander replied that he will simply pay $20,000 and all the media will say that Pavel ran away from the project and stole the money. His reputation would be forever soiled. Pavel didn’t dare to escalate and the conflict fizzled out.”
Early Issues and Transcendent Trading
Deposit withdrawal issues started abruptly, in December of 2019. Given the high volume of deposits in November and a three-month lock-up period, Novak said, the problems should have started no earlier than February.
“Even then it was clear that not all trading is done by bots. Alexander had no trading experience. It was only in May 2019 that I registered him on Binance, and in June he first learned about the blockchain.com wallet. Moreover, he determined which crypto to trade through meditation (I’m not kidding).”
[Here Alexander says that he was “a fool to trust technical analysis, as he should have meditated on the deal right away”—note by Jan Novak]. Screenshot
ForkLog has found individual messages from Bitsonar clients, complaining about the quality of service in September 2019.
A tricked client complains about not being able to withdraw $600. The testimonial says that Bitsonar support provided nothing but a promise to “answer soon.” Source: Finotzyvy.com
But Novak insisted that until December 2019 all clients were able to withdraw their money.
“There is no objective reason why deposit payments ceased in December. Even if we assume that this is a Ponzi scheme, there was enough money to keep paying until February. Alexander probably embezzled the funds.”
Around the same time, internal conflicts started happening in Bitsonar. According to Novak, the reason behind the main conflicts was that on December 25th, Alexander said there’s no money left to pay the bonuses. He then left for Dubai to celebrate New Year’s Day. Later, he returned for a few days, came to the office wearing a new Louis Vuitton tracksuit worth several thousand dollars, said that there’s no money still, and was gone to India.
The conversation where Alexander Tovstenko shares video from a celebration in Dubai after saying that the company can’t afford to pay employee bonuses. Screenshot
In January 2020, the team faced problems taking out the profits so they made up a technical security audit.
“We were indeed moving to another system, from one hot wallet to another. We’ve indeed been hacked. It had to do with a trading bot vulnerability. It was hacked with a script and about 4 BTC (about $40 thousand at the time) was stolen. It was used as the far-fetched explanation as to why people can’t withdraw their money.”
In February, the Bitsonar team was joined by Otokar Kasynets who was recommended as a “professional in attracting funds.”
In 2015 and 2016, Kasynets was the head of marketing at Kairos Technologies (Kairos Planet), a company showing signs of a pyramid scheme.
In September 2016, the company stopped making payments. Although there was no announcement regarding Kairos Planet liquidation, most of its employees left during that period. There’s a detailed Russian-language investigation about the company and the associated allegations.
ForkLog was unable to find information about the damages caused by Kairos Planet.
“[Otokar’s] task was to organize the MLM department at Bitsonar,” Novak said, “But because Alexander hadn’t fulfilled several agreements, Otokar terminated all relationships unilaterally. Since he is a very rich person, he simply stopped getting in touch.”
Alexander Tovstenko still expects to hear from Otokar. Screenshot
According to Novak, Tovstenko personally made decisions as to withdrawing customer funds at the time.
Novak added that every time a customer managed to get their deposit or even a part thereof back through scandals or threats, Tovstenko was “literally going bonkers.”
“He cried that nobody will ever get a bonus because people must not ever take money out of the system,” he recalls.
Jan Novak: “A Slovenian customer requested withdrawal of 1 BTC. Alexander wanted to pull the wool over his ears about being an ambassador and getting bonuses. He was ready to offer anything just to stop him from withdrawing money.” / Screenshot.
According to Novak, he and Tovstenko had numerous disputes about U.S. nationals.
“Back in July, he was already obsessed about entering the U.S. just because they have a high average check. I told him many times that one couldn’t go there with an unlicensed company. He brushed it off all the time,” Novak says.
Alexander Tovstenko musing about ways to enter the U.S. market: “I’m thinking about the USA. Maybe we should make the legend more intricate. Like they voluntarily gave the green to charity etc. I so want them to participate.” Screenshot
By the time “everything turned into money collection,” according to Novak, he broke up with the management and left Bitsonar in March 2020.
Exit Scam and the Founder’s Great Escape
Novak claims that in addition to client funds, Alexander Tovstenko attracted money from third-party investors, allegedly to promote Bitsonar. According to him, from March to August 2019, Tovstenko received $450,000.
Money was sent in several batches. The chat participants enjoy what they see. Screenshot
The chat participants enjoy the “nice stash.” The sender of the photo notes that the money is already in BTC and asks to make a chat with lawyers. Screenshot
Tovstenko’s receipt for $100,000. He claims that the money will be spent on recording videos, holding promotional events, and preparing speakers. He also promises to pay back from Bitsonar profits to the amount of 10% a month as long as Bitsonar remains active.
“One gave $250 thousand, another gave $200 thousand, some with a receipt, some without. But they were all serious people, not some average Joes. Alexander, not wanting to repay the debt, at first was hiding from them in Kyiv. Then one of these guys turned to the police and Alexander was tracked down. But there was no police statement because Tovstenko apparently had connections there. They’ve met together, talked, and Alexander promised to repay the debt.”
In May 2020, Tovstenko agreed to meet with one of the investors in Odessa to discuss the situation.
“These guys were driving to Odessa in two cars: the fellow who invested money, his wife and two of his friends, who were not even involved in this story. They hosted Tovstenko in a hotel at their own expense, he ate oysters for $50. One day, as they were walking in the park, a police bus drove up, officers in civilian clothes came out, showed their IDs, and asked ‘[Alexander], are you all right?’ They’ve then put him in a minibus. After 15 minutes, the KORD squad [Ukrainian analog of SWAT—forklog.media] arrived and put the police officers and the investor along with his friends face down on the floor. Alexander probably had it thought out in advance, organized and approved by someone. Most likely, he paid someone in law enforcement. No matter how much it cost, $30 to 50 thousand, it was still less than giving back $450,000.”
While still in the minibus, Tovstenko filed a complaint on investors and they were promptly arrested on charges of kidnapping and extortion, Novak said.
An extract from the Ukrainian register of prejudicial inquiry. It lists Alexander Tovstenko as the victim of the crime described in clause 146 pt.2 of Ukraine’s Criminal Code, which covers ordering an abduction.
“People invested $450,000 in him, and he put them in jail. The one who gave the money is awaiting trial under house arrest, another one is currently in jail, and the third one is on the run.”
According to Novak, Bitsonar exit scam actually took place in late April—early May 2020.
The bulk of the damage was inflicted upon users from the USA, Canada, Russia, Ukraine, Great Britain, Spain, the Netherlands, Germany, Slovenia, and Thailand.
The total damage from the activities of the Ponzi scheme, according to the data available to Novak, exceeded $2.2 million. $1.3 million came via the Internet, $450,000 came as a loan from investors, and $200,000 were attracted through an MLM scheme.
“We’ve headhunted two networkers from OneCoin, and within two months they organized more than a hundred people who generated this money. But the Ponzi scheme was unable to grow further due to the fact that MLM was organized too late when issues with payments have already started.”
According to Novak, Tovstenko and Ziubka probably won’t be affected financially at all, but they will suffer serious reputational losses.
“With the aid of my lawyers, I composed a letter in which I outlined the scope of liability that awaits Alexander in various jurisdictions: in the US, for example, it’s up to 85 years in prison, in the EU—up to 20 years, Russia/Ukraine—up to 12 years.”
For his part, Novak is willing to both contact the law enforcement concerning this and testify as a witness in court.
“I called Marius and advised him to report Tovstenko to the authorities. If Marius sits on his hands, it will be him, as CEO and founder, who will be dragged to the court. He won’t react to my attempts to get in touch with him. Most likely, he does that on Alexander’s advice, but this is his life and his choice.”
He added that after the publication on the Bitsonar website, Tovstenko put a price on his head:
“I had gangsters waiting for me just outside my house. I had to flee and live elsewhere, although I have a wife and two small children.”
On June 2, 2020, Bitsonar User Agreement was edited.
In several sections, the company makes a point of denying any responsibility for financial losses clients may face and declares that it is unable to guarantee the exact amount of daily bonuses, advising to take this fact into consideration before making deposits.
“Please, pay attention to the fact, that the daily bonuses amount not only cannot be exactly specified, but, subject to different circumstances (such as market volatility, technical or other issues with algorithms), may even have negative rate, and You shall consider this fact prior to making any contributions. On the other hand, we use different methods and measures to avoid negative rate, still, we do not warrant or guarantee it,” states the document.
The older version places much less emphasis on risk.
According to certain sources, the Estonian regulator has recently revoked the Bitsonar license.
Just days after Jan Novak posted his message on the Bitsonar website, the foundation moved to the bitsonar.io domain.
Bitsonar.io domain information. Source: Whois.net
ForkLog will continue monitoring the situation.
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