As the mainstream profile of cryptocurrency continues to grow, more and more ways are being found to wring as much money out of the process as possible.
High-profile crypto endorsements by celebrities have been making the news recently, and not necessarily for the right reasons. A celebrity endorsement is something that any self-respecting business owner would love to have, purely for economic reasons. In the age of social media, a single tweet by a celebrity is enough to put your product on the map.
But when it comes to the world of cryptocurrency, such practices could be bordering on the illegal. With a suspected 81% of the ICOs launched in 2017 expected to be scams, celebrities are sticking their necks out on ventures which may end up being deemed criminal.
Additionally, being paid to promote products without declaring it is punishable under anti-fraud laws, and the SEC released a statement last November stating:
“These endorsements may be unlawful if they do not disclose the nature, source and amount of any compensation paid, directly or indirectly, by the company in exchange for the endorsement.”
The first recorded case of celebrity endorsements go all the way back to the days of the Roman Empire. Local olive oil salesman would pay for the endorsements of popular gladiators who had won fame for their exploits in the Colosseum. Artists would be hired to paint giant papyrus posters of the heroes, alongside a picture of the product in question.
Not much has changed, and the growing trend of celebrities endorsing up and coming crypto start-ups seems an inevitability given how much attention the market has come under in the past year.
Floyd Mayweather & Centra
In the middle of 2017, world-famous boxer Floyd Mayweather took to Twitter to tell his 13 million followers about the upcoming ICO by Centra. Another Tweet came just hours before the ICO, with Mayweather telling his fans that he had already bought his, and that they should get theirs too.
One of Mayweather’s Centra Tweets
By October a New York Times article had appeared which showed the figures behind Centra in their true light. Centra was founded by two friends from South Florida, Sam Sharma and Robert Farkas, neither of whom had any experience in cryptocurrency or the financial industries. They had a history of fraud allegations and misdemeanours to their names, and were even being tried for perjury while their ICO was ongoing.
Centra’s ICO raised $32 million in a matter of days, and it was all based on the false promise that Centra had formed a partnership with Visa, where Centra would issue its own Visa debit card for use by holders of their tokens. The team’s announcement read:
“Centra Tech has a brilliant solution, the world’s first Debit Card that is designed for use with compatibility on 8+ major cryptocurrencies blockchain assets.”
Visa/Mastercard denied any knowledge of the scheme, and of the team members.
Sharma and Farkas were joined by Raymond Trapiani, whose role on the company website began as marketing director, but later somehow retroactively became co-founder. Additionally, the fake team went one step further and created an entirely fictional team member from scratch.
‘Michael Edwards’ was supposed to be a finance expert who had worked for years at firms like Wells Fargo and Bank of America. He was to be the experienced head who guided the young, ambitious, but inexperienced team of developers along.
Unfortunately, Michael Edwards didn’t exist. His LinkedIn profile was fake, his work experience didn’t check out, and the photograph which supposedly showed Mr. Edwards was actually that of a Canadian physiology professor which had just been ripped from the internet.
The rogues behind Centra, and Centra Tech Inc are now being charged with securities fraud by the SEC.
Steven Seagal & Bitcoiin
Former action star of the 90s Steven Seagal is no stranger to controversy, and when he became the ‘World Brand Ambassador’ for Bitcoiin around February 2017 (not to be confused with Bitcoin), he probably didn’t realise what he had let himself in for.
The Bitcoiin Website
Also known as B2G, or Bitcoiin2Gen was an Ethereum based token, which the developers said could be earned by bringing more users to the network. In other words, it was a Ponzi scheme.
Seagal made several tweets for the company before the New Jersey Bureau of Securities issued a cease and desist order to Bitcoiin on March 7th. The NJBS deemed that Bitcoiin had been offering unregistered securities. Seagal departed the project soon afterwards and deleted his social media posts which referred to the scam ICO.
Paris Hilton & Lydian Coin
In September 2017, Paris Hilton began tweeting about a new ICO that was about to launch, telling her 18 million followers:
“Looking forward to participating in the new @LydianCoinLtd Token!”
A few months later and it was revealed that Lydian Coin’s founder, Gurbasksh Chahal, was a serial woman-beater and was the subject of multiple assault charges against female acquaintances of his.
Paris Hilton’s now-deleted Instagram post
Chahal played his role to a tee, and managed to wrangle meetings with Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey – even using them in his promotional videos for Lydian Coin.
Chahal now faces serious jail time for a number of charges, including for 117 instances of violence against his girlfriend – all of which were captured on video. He also faces charges for kicking another woman, and is being sued by four of his former employees for workplace harassment.
The practice of influencing stock prices by using the social media weight of prominent celebrities is something the SEC is well aware of.
While promoting a new pair of headphones or energy drink without full disclosure could earn you a fine and a slap on the wrists, promoting financial investments which turn out to be criminal in nature could land you some serious jail time.
For now, the SEC doesn’t plan to go after the celebrities who got pulled into these scams, and instead offer this reasonable guidance:
“Investment decisions should not be based solely on an endorsement by a promoter or other individual. Celebrities who endorse an investment often do not have sufficient expertise to ensure that the investment is appropriate and in compliance with federal securities laws. Conduct research before making investments, including in ICOs.”
Celebrity endorsements are as old as the hills themselves and will likely continue to grow in practice as more crypto start-ups witness the kind of market pull that a well-placed tweet can bring.
If regulatory measures go ahead, it will mean, at the very least, that companies and their chosen celebrities will have to disclose every detail about their business activities – including a crystal clear statement regarding what is being claimed by the firm, full details of how much the celebrity has been paid and what they’re being paid for, and a prominent disclosure accompanying all tweets/posts which make it clear for people that they’re viewing an advertisement.
Such regulatory measures don’t seem unreasonable, and are already common practice for real-world businesses outside of cryptocurrency.
Thus far, the SEC don’t plan to charge any of these celebrities with criminal behaviour; the worst that’s happened is that they’ve had to embarrassingly delete some tweets from their feed.