The enticement of a cryptocurrency jackpot mixed with professed true love proved to be a costly combination for a Twin Cities man who kept his wife in the dark about the siphoning of their savings.
Police say the Eden Prairie resident was cheated out of more than $9 million over an increasingly costly half-year span when someone he connected with on LinkedIn reeled him in with promises of quick riches and a plea for him to abandon his wife and run off together.
"No one in the office has heard of a crypto fraud case as big," John Stiles, spokesman for Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, said of how the monetary loss ranks among their cryptocurrency scam investigations. "In fact, their eyes popped when I told them the amount."
The slippery-slope disappearance of the couple's money is detailed in a search warrant affidavit that an Eden Prairie police detective filed in Hennepin County District Court asking permission for him to scrutinize the man's financial dealings from Dec. 21 to June 8, when the last of the wire transactions was made.
The supposed investments the man believed would yield big cryptocurrency returns went from routinely topping $100,000 to $2.1 million in a single transaction in the scheme's waning days, the filing disclosed.
The damage, according the detective, who specializes in cryptocurrency and romance scams: $9.2 million in 21 transactions.
In the simplest terms, cryptocurrency is unregulated digital money, which is usually named by the company offering it. You buy a certain amount and your transaction is recorded in a digital ledger, which down the line is used to make sure you have enough of a balance to cover your transaction.
Here's how Eden Prairie police say in the search warrant affidavit the scam played out:
Police learned from the husband that his LinkedIn connection said she "wanted him to leave his wife for her" at some point while directing him to make large deposits from his U.S. Bank account into accounts with other banks for investment in cryptocurrency.
From there, as these fraud schemes often play out, the money goes into encrypted digital cryptocurrency wallets that only the scammer controls.
In this case, "the suspects never invested [the man's] money on his behalf, but instead used [it] to purchase cryptocurrency on their own behalf," according to the filing.
The man believed he was investing in "Coinrule-web3." Seeing a quick profit in his investment led him to believe everything was on the up-and-up, but he was told he needed to pay the $2.8 million fee to collect his windfall.
On June 15, the man's wife alerted police that he had been liquidating their investment accounts for the past six months. She said her husband "called her in a panic" the previous day and told her to withdraw all their remaining assets to pay the fee so he could cash in his cryptocurrency funds, according to the affidavit.
Police determined with a simple internet search that Coinrule-web3 is associated with numerous "cryptocurrency and romance scams." Police also noted that one of the banks that received the deposits is commonly used to launder stolen money.
"Losses on crypto fraud tend to be for significantly greater amounts than other types of fraud," Stiles, of the Attorney General's Office, said. "We have seen senior citizens lose their entire life's savings and take out multiple mortgages on their homes to get more funds for the scam."
Police have declined to reveal anything about the couple in this investigation, nor are they willing to offer an update on progress toward an arrest or charges in what they say is one of four cryptocurrency fraud cases they have investigated so far this year.
Eden Prairie police "have not investigated other cryptocurrency-related fraud cases where private individuals lost money close to the amount reported lost in this case," said Police Department spokeswoman Joyce Lorenz.
The FBI's assessment of a typical case of cryptocurrency fraud has strong similarities to how the victim in Eden Prairie got roped in and swindled.
These schemes usually take root "when fraudsters contact victims on social media or dating application sites, portraying some sort of 'innocent' connection when in all actuality it's a heavily scripted, calculated first move of many to build rapport and gain trust," read an FBI statement in March. "Eventually, these conversations lead to discussions of investment opportunities, wherein victims are lured into investing cryptocurrency funds using fake website/apps that allow them to track their investment progress.
"The deception becomes apparent when victims attempt to cash out their investments, or when communication with the fraudster is terminated."
In 2022, investment fraud tallied the highest losses, $3.31 billion, of any scams reported by the public to the FBI's Internet Crimes Complaint Center, according to the U.S. Justice Department. Frauds involving cryptocurrency represented the majority of these scams, increasing 183% from 2021 to $2.57 billion in reported losses last year.
The FBI has found that many of these reported frauds came from victims ages 30 to 49. In these schemes, often called "Sha Zhu Pan," a Chinese phrase that loosely translates to "pig butchering," scammers often prey on people through social networking and online communications platforms, dating websites, and phone calls and text messages that are meant to appear to have been misdialed.
The FBI offers this cautionary advice:
- Watch closely for website domain names that impersonate legitimate financial institutions, especially cryptocurrency exchanges, or ones that may have misspelled or slight differences from actual financial institutions.
- Refrain from downloading or using suspicious-looking apps as tools for investing.
- Before buying digital currency, carefully research what is being offered and who is offering it.
The FBI wants anyone who has been the target of a cryptocurrency investment fraud scheme to report it as quickly as possible to the agency's Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3.gov), a local FBI office and the legitimate financial institution involved.