As Hawks start probe of MTI, investigators link with team working on alleged 2018 Ponzi scam

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  • Investigators from the Hawks probing bitcoin trading platform Mirror Trading International are working with colleagues investigating an earlier alleged bitcoin scam uncovered in 2018, called BTC Global. 
  • BTC was a South African cryptocurrency trading platform that imploded in 2018 after its "founder trader" abruptly vanished, leaving over 25 000 members unable to withdraw their investments.
  • Two and half years later, Mirror Trading International - another cryptocurrency trading platform promising lavish returns, was placed into provisional liquidation after its founder disappeared. 

Investigators from the Hawks probing bitcoin trading platform Mirror Trading International (MTI) – which was provisionally liquidated last month and whose CEO has hasn't been heard from in weeks, are working with colleagues investigating an earlier alleged bitcoin scam uncovered in 2018.

Hawks spokesperson Colonel Katlego Mogale said investigators probing MTI and another South African cryptocurrency trading platform that operated in 2018, called BTC Global, are "in communication with each other on both investigations".

"No arrests have been effected on the BTC Global investigation yet," she said. 

Both online platforms promised lavish returns to investors via trading bitcoin, and guaranteed bonuses or commissions for bringing new members on board, one of the hallmarks of a multi-level marketing operation. MTI and BTC Global have previously denied being Ponzi schemes, or doing anything wrong.

In both cases the company’s founders vanished after members started to complain that they could not withdraw their investments.  

The priority crime investigative unit started investigating "massive alleged fraud" at BTC Global in May 2018, saying the scheme was promising impossible returns of up to 50% per month.

The platform imploded the same month, with BTC Global claiming on its website that its "master trader", a person known as "Steven Twain", had disappeared.

"The admin team cannot locate him," stated a message on the group's website.

"If anyone has any information on how we can get in contact with him please get in touch and let us know."

According to the Hawks, their probe of what transpired at BTC Global - where up to 28 000 members may have lost up to R1 billion - is still continuing.  

It now appears as if many of the people connected to BTC Global were also involved with MTI, another bitcoin trading platform where members could receive bonuses or commissions if they referred new members to the site.

MTI was started in April of 2019 - about a year after BTC Global imploded - by Johann Steynberg, a businessman from Polokwane. It experienced quick growth last year, allegedly reaching 260 000 members who invested around R9 billion.  

It imploded in December after SA's financial services regulator raided its offices and later announced that it was, in its view, illegally operating without a license and had mislead clients.

In an echo of what transpired in the final days of BTC Global, MTI's founder and CEO then disappeared. On the group's Telegram channel, used for updates to members, two messages were posted in late December saying Steynberg had left the country and may be in Brazil. The group's lawyers, meanwhile, resigned, saying they could not get in touch with Steynberg. MTI was provisionally liquidated in late December, and four provisional liquidators were appointed in early January.   

One of the links between MTI and BTC Global is Cheri Marks, sometimes going by Cheri Ward, who has been involved with both schemes.

In 2018, as Fin24 reported at the time, she wrote on her blog that she was in contact with BTC Global's "master trader" Twain and had created the website with colleagues. 

“We built the website to help people to create their profiles and to ask questions because we couldn’t handle all the queries and nor could Steven," she said.

She said at the time that she was one of the few people to have "direct contact" interact with Twain. His disappearance, she said, shocked her.

In response to questions from Fin24, Marks said she was one of "thousands" of people involved with both BTC Global and MTI. 

"Social media has turned every angry investor and every anti-MLM (multi-level marketing) advocate into a journalist that speculates and 'reports' on far fetched allegations as fact," she said.

Marks took a role at MTI, where she was listed as the group's head of communications and marketing. She often hosted MTI-related videos on YouTube, including interviews with Steynberg and updates from MTI's leadership.

In a video posted to YouTube in late October, Marks, wearing an MTI t-shirt, attempted to dismiss criticism of the bitcoin trader, saying "people want to see us fail" because the group was "uplifting people". She said at the time that MTI, with its legal team, would embark on campaign to stop "lies and slanderous information".

Marks told Fin24 this week she had "had no reason to believe Johann [Steynberg] was being dishonest" until market regulator the FSCA put out a statement in late December saying the trading platform was, in its view, an illegal operation that was misleading clients and had contravened several laws.

She said only Steynberg can give answers about what transpired at the trader. 

"Let the authorities do their work,' she said. "Speculations, threats and jumping to conclusions is not productive. I have given a statement and supporting information to the commercial crime unit and I am confident they will find Johann and the truth will then come to light.",

Steynberg did not reply to a request for comment. MTI did not respond to a request for comment sent to its email address. 

* This article has been update to include responses from comments by Cheri Ward. 

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