NEW YORK - New York Attorney General Letitia James sued two cryptocurrency companies and their promoters, saying they defrauded hundreds of thousands of victims out of more than $1 billion by preying on the religious faith of people from Haitian and other immigrant communities.

In a lawsuit filed on Thursday in a state court in Manhattan, James said investors enticed by promises of weekly profits sent NovaTech Ltd more than $1 billion over nearly four years prior to its May 2023 collapse, yet only $26 million was used for trading.

She also said AWS Mining Pty Ltd falsely claimed over two years prior to its 2019 collapse that it could triple investors' money within 15 months by mining, where computers verify cryptocurrency transactions and generate new cryptocurrency.

Victims were allegedly targeted through prayer groups, social media and WhatsApp, sometimes in the Creole language.

The 12 defendants include NovaTech co-founders Cynthia and Eddy Petion, a married couple now allegedly living in Panama.

James said Cynthia Petion branded herself "Reverend CEO" and told investors that NovaTech was God's vision, but privately called herself the "Zookeeper" and belittled her investors as a "cult" where "they just agree with everything you say."

Contact information for the Petions, NovaTech AWS and their lawyers was not immediately available.

James said both frauds were pyramid schemes, where companies pay bonuses to recruit new investors. She said NovaTech was also a Ponzi scheme, where older investors were paid "profits" and bonuses from deposits of newer investors.

"These cryptocurrency companies targeted immigrant and religious communities with promises of financial freedom but instead stole their money and drained their life savings," James said in a statement. "We are seeing the real dangers of unregulated cryptocurrency platforms with schemes like these."

The lawsuit seeks restitution for victims, civil damages and a securities industry ban.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; editing by Diane Craft)