Dubai resident Amjad Ali's (name changed) phone feels like a ticking time bomb in his hand. Each ring slices through his nerves, an unending onslaught of anger from people across the globe. It's a living nightmare, all because of an investment gone horribly wrong — an investment that included not just his money but the hard-earned savings of his brothers and sisters.
The Dubai resident placed his faith in Metaverse Foreign Exchange (MTFE) with $25,000, coaxing his family into this financial leap of faith. But MTFE didn't stop at just vanishing with their funds; they plastered Amjad's cellphone number across the internet as their contact at their supposed Dubai office in Deira.
For Amjad Ali, it's a cruel joke he can't escape. "Each ring," he says, his voice heavy with frustration, "is like a dagger through my veins. I am besieged by irate calls from people all over the world. They think I represent MTFE. It's an incessant onslaught."
This surreal ordeal isn't Amjad's alone; it's a quandary impacting thousands like him who've fallen victim to MTFE's fraud, both in the UAE and far beyond.
Promises of riches unravel into global scam
MTFE entered the scene as an enticing investment platform, luring unsuspecting individuals with the promise of unparalleled returns through foreign exchange trading within the metaverse. All one had to do was download an app, create a virtual account, deposit cryptocurrency, log in daily for an hour to earn a quick 30 per cent monthly return, and invite others for even more lucrative rewards. The app's user-friendly interface welcomed investors of all backgrounds, including those with no formal education.
Brand ambassadors and CEOs were appointed across various countries, including the UAE, adding an air of legitimacy to the cyber Ponzi scheme. However, the illusion could not last forever. The unlicensed forex broker collapsed last week, leaving a trail of devastation worldwide.
Data from a traffic checking tool shows that most visitors to MTFE's site hailed from Asian and African countries such as Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, India, Nigeria, and the UAE, with nearly 30 per cent from other parts of the world. MTFE's Dubai Support Team alone boasts nearly 10,000 members on Facebook, while their Telegram channel has over 71,000 subscribers from around the world.
The company's scheme primarily targeted social media platforms to reel in potential victims, luring them with the promise of alluring earnings.
Users were directed to utilise cryptocurrency for deposits and withdrawals, adding a layer of complexity that obscured transactions and allowed the scheme to operate discreetly.
To instil trust, MTFE permitted small initial withdrawals, crafting an illusion of a profitable platform that urged users to invest more. The Ponzi app thrived on a referral programme, rewarding users who brought others on board with bonuses, fuelling its exponential expansion.
Aggressive "team leaders" further promoted the platform to their followers and friends, accelerating the scheme's rapid spread. Malicious actors them guided investors to acquire USDT (a cryptocurrency) from exchanges like Binance, executing payments through mobile financial services and bank transfers.
On Wednesday, Bangladesh's Police Bureau of Investigation (PBI) arrested two individuals under the Digital Security Act in connection with the scam following a court order. Yet, the masterminds remain elusive, leaving countless grappling with losses.
How MTFE operated
The online company promised an earnings bonanza of $40 each week with just a $500 investment. In pursuit of these incredible returns, people invested their savings, sometimes resorting to selling valuable household items or pawning them.
Victims said those who recruited a certain number of investors earned the title of CEOs within the company. Initially, each CEO received $1,800 to lease an office. Profits were disbursed every week at upscale hotels, accompanied by lavish meals. It was at these events that attendees learned how to invest in MTFE through cryptocurrency.
Sri Lankan expat M.L. Silva, who attended one such event at MTFE's now-closed Al Mamzar Centre office, said he lost $10,000. "We were shown how many of the world's wealthy were investors with MTFE. I fell for the trap and invested $10,000. Until last fortnight, my virtual account showed that my investment had swelled to $24,000. But now, the site has stopped working."
Initially, investors were informed that the app was undergoing maintenance. However, when concern escalated, MTFE issued a statement on August 17, dismissing reports of their collapse as "misinformation". They urged investors not to make hasty decisions based on false information, assuring them that they were "closely monitoring the situation and taking all necessary measures".
Yet, investors remained far from convinced. Any hope of recovering their losses was dashed when MTFE issued another statement just two days later, acknowledging the loss of nearly all their assets and seeking additional investments to cover their losses.
One sceptical investor responded to their statement on social media, saying, "I've already been burned once. Why would I invest with them again?"
An overseas victim, unwilling to disclose the extent of his loss, said, "I borrowed money from friends and family, took bank loans... Everything is gone."
Amjad Ali who works as an assistant at a project management company in Dubai, said he has become a mental wreck. "If losing money is not not bad enough, I get calls hurling expletives," said Ali, who now keeps keeps his phone switched off for most of the day.
Last week, MTFE was removed from the App Store and Play Store, where it boasted a rating of 4.1 out of 5. However, victims assert that it's too little, too late. "We tried to withdraw our funds but can't do that anymore," says a Sharjah resident, estimating his loss at $30,000. "Worse, the numbers of all their representatives are either switched or ring incessantly. I don't know who to contact and where."
This predicament echoes across the globe, particularly in Bangladesh, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, and Kuwait, where MTFE had a substantial presence. The scheme originally operated from the domain 'mtfe.ca.' However, after a regulatory fraud warning from the Ontario Securities Commission in early July, MTFE shifted to 'mtfe.io.'
Determining the exact number of victims and total losses is challenging, but a Bangladeshi newspaper has reported losses from the country alone at approximately $2.5 billion. People familiar with the case said this could be just the tip of the iceberg.
Azad Rahman, Additional Superintendent of Police at Bangladesh's Criminal Investigation Department (CID), said they will untangle the intricate web of the fraudulent enterprise by gathering information on all parties involved. The Bangladesh Financial Intelligence Unit (BFIU) also held a meeting earlier this week to deliberate on the matter.
(Names of victims have been changed to protect their identity)
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