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Thursday, Jun 13, 2024

Crypto Scammers Rip Off Billions as Pump-and-Dump Schemes Go Digital

Crypto Scammers Rip Off Billions as Pump-and-Dump Schemes Go Digital

You remember The Money Chant: Matthew McConaughey thumping his chest, talking fools and money before - sniff! - a little lunchtime “tootski.”
Titan Maxamus has been there. Well, not there, in a “Wolf of Wall Street”-style boiler room. There on the other side — as the mark. Titan Maxamus knows the game. All the brazenly cynical players do. In Scorsese’s cinematic bender of sex, drugs and stocks, it’s called the pump and dump. In today’s cryptocurrencies, it’s known as the rug pull.

Maxamus thinks he got rug-pulled the other month in some sketchy digital token called — wait for it — Safe Heaven. Like countless dreamers in today’s memeified markets, he’s been gambling $50 here, $100 there on what are known as Shit Coins, obscure digital something-or-others being minted by the thousands. This stuff makes Bitcoin look good as gold.

One moment, Safe Heaven was flying. The next, it was crashing. Maxamus (that’s his online persona. His real name is Glenn Titus), can’t prove anything. But he suspects what, in retrospect, seems forehead-slappingly obvious: some small-time hustler created Safe Heaven with a few deft keystrokes, hyped the hell out of it — and promptly cashed out. Telegram, a popular instant messaging app that’s become a major crypto boiler room, immediately fell silent. The Safe Heaven Telegram group, once thronging with rocket emojis and Elon Musk GIFs, was deleted. The Safe Heaven Twitter account hasn’t been updated since May 28.

“Everybody I know has gotten rug-pulled,” says Titus, a 38-year-old butcher in Salem, Oregon. “You know, you win some, you lose some. Hopefully, win more than lose.”

It might sound like a joke, given the crypto meltdowns of late, but serious money is at stake here. Billions — real billions — are getting pilfered annually through a variety of cryptocurrency scams. The way things are going, this will only get worse.

Back in the Wall Street Dark Ages — six, 12, 18 months ago — these sorts of shenanigans were mostly associated with shlocky brokerages like the one depicted in the 2013 Wolf. In those halcyon days before GameStop, Dogecoin and the rest, schlubs on Long Island might pitch ridiculous over-the-counter stocks to the gullible.

Nowadays crypto hustlers and star-gazers like Titan Maxamus have established a weird symbiotic relationship. It seems to capture everything that’s gone wrong with money culture, from Reddit-fueled thrill-seeking to conspiracy theorizing to predatory wheeling-dealing. The rug pull is only one play. There’s also the gentler soft rug, the crypto version of getting ghosted on Hinge. And the honey pot, which functions like a trap. Old-fashioned Ponzi schemes, newly cryptodenominated, have swindled people out of billions too.

At times the result can start to resemble the Agatha Christie mystery classic “Murder on the Orient Express”: The who in this dunnit is somehow everyone. Grifters will grift. But like Maxamus, many marks actually expect to get snookered once in a while. Both sides, the swindler and the swindled, are in on this one. Elaborate social-media systems have sprung up to flag potential trouble, not only to avoid it but maybe even to profit from it.
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