SEC Says Ponzi Scheme Defrauded Investors of Their Bitcoins

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A Texas man has been accused by regulators of running a Ponzi scheme involving the digital currency Bitcoin.

The Securities and Exchange Commission charged Trendon Shavers with defrauding investors of nearly $150,000 worth of bitcoins through Bitcoin Savings and Trust, an online investment scheme he ran, and of making false claims while soliciting investments online in 2011 and 2012.

Shavers raised more than 700,000 bitcoins from at least 66 investors by promising weekly returns of up to 7%, according to the complaint filed Tuesday in a U.S. district court in Texas. Instead of investing the money, he used it to return interest to earlier investors, to pay personal expenses and to day-trade on various Bitcoin exchanges.

The SEC asked the court to order Shavers to pay his gains, plus interest and civil penalties.

The announcement comes as regulators have been scrutinizing companies involved with the digital currency. Last month, California regulators threatened to shut down the Bitcoin Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes, but does not sell or exchange, the digital currency. The Wall Street Journal reported that New York and Virginia have joined California in warning Bitcoin exchanges that they may be in violation of money-transmission laws.

"Fraudsters are not beyond the reach of the SEC just because they use Bitcoin or another virtual currency to mislead investors and violate the federal securities laws,” Andrew Calamari, the director of the SEC’s New York office, said in the press release announcing the charges against Shavers. 

Shavers, a 30-year-old McKinney, Texas, resident, began soliciting investments on the online message board Bitcoin Forum under the username "pirateat40” in November 2011, the complaint says. He claimed that he could produce returns through Bitcoin market arbitrage, by selling large quantities of bitcoins to "off the radar” buyers.

"[R]isk is almost 0,” he wrote, according to the complaint. In a later post, he allegedly told a prospective investor, "I gross 10.65% per week and payout 5.98% on average and it really depends on how much I want to work.”

The scheme collapsed in August 2012, according to the complaint.

All told, Shavers received at least 700,467 bitcoins from investors in seven states, a total worth approximately $4.6 million based on the average price of the currency during the time he ran the scheme. He returned over 500,000 bitcoins to investors and transferred more than 150,000 to his personal account.

The total value of the bitcoins invested in his fund would be over $66 million based on the Tuesday average price of $94.4, as quoted on Mt. Gox, the largest exchange for the digital currency.

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