Acting Manhattan U.S. Attorney Announces Extradition Of Co-Founder Of Global Cryptocurrency Ponzi Scheme
Audrey Strauss, Acting United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, and Peter C. Fitzhugh, Special Agent-in-Charge of the New York Field Office of Homeland Security Investigations (“HSI”), announced that GUTEMBERG DOS SANTOS, a citizen of Brazil and the United States, was extradited from Panama on November 25. DOS SANTOS is charged by indictment with co-defendants Pablo Renato Rodriguez, Scott Hughes, Cecilia Millan, Karina Chairez, and Jackie Aguilar for their roles in an internationally coordinated fraud and money laundering ring involved in defrauding individuals through investments in AirBit Club, a purported cryptocurrency mining and trading company. DOS SANTOS was arrested on August 18, 2020, in Panama City, Panama, and will be presented later today before U.S. Magistrate Judge Katharine H. Parker. Rodriguez, Hughes, Millan, and Aguilar were arrested in the United States on August 18, 2020, and Chairez was arrested in the United States on October 20, 2020. The case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge George B. Daniels.
Acting United States Attorney Audrey Strauss said: “As alleged, Gutemberg Dos Santos played a key role in an international investment scam that promised extraordinary rates of return on phantom investments in cryptocurrencies, defrauding victims of tens of millions of dollars. Thanks to HSI, Dos Santos is now in U.S. custody.”
HSI Special Agent in Charge Peter C. Fitzhugh said: “The extradition of Dos Santos reflects the determination of agents from HSI New York’s El Dorado Financial Crimes Task Force to dismantle global criminal organizations, wherever the investigation takes us. Utilizing our broad authorities and network of law enforcement partners, HSI will continue to hunt those who allegedly prey upon innocent citizens for financial gain.”
According to the allegations in the Superseding Indictments:
Rodriguez, DOS SANTOS, Hughes, Millan, Chairez, and Aguilar participated in a coordinated scheme in which victim-investors (the “Victims”) were induced to invest in AirBit Club based on the promise of guaranteed profits in exchange for cash investments in club “memberships” (the “AirBit Club Scheme” or the “Scheme”). Beginning in late 2015, AirBit Club, through its founders, Rodriguez and DOS SANTOS, as well as its promoters (the “Promoters”), including Millan, Chairez, and Aguilar, marketed AirBit Club as a multilevel marketing club in the cryptocurrency industry. Promoters falsely promised Victims that AirBit Club earned returns on cryptocurrency mining and trading and that Victims would earn passive, guaranteed daily returns on any membership purchased.
Rodriguez, DOS SANTOS, Hughes, Millan, Chairez, and Aguilar traveled throughout the United States, and around the world to places in Latin America, Asia, and Eastern Europe, where they hosted lavish expos and small community presentations aimed at convincing Victims to purchase AirBit Club memberships. In furtherance of the AirBit Club Scheme, the Victims were induced to buy memberships in cash, including in the Southern District of New York. Following a Victim’s investment, a Promoter provided the Victim with access to an online AirBit Club portal to view the purported returns on memberships (the “Online Portal”). While Victims saw “profits” accumulate on their Online Portal, those representations were false: No Bitcoin mining or trading on behalf of Victims in fact took place. Instead, Rodriguez, DOS SANTOS, Millan, Chairez, and Aguilar enriched themselves, and spent Victim money on cars, jewelry, and luxury homes, and financed more extravagant expos to recruit more Victims.
Hughes, an attorney licensed to practice law in California, had previously represented Rodriguez and DOS SANTOS in a Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) investigation related to another investment scheme known as Vizinova before aiding Rodriguez and DOS SANTOS in perpetrating the AirBit Club Scheme by, among other things, helping to remove negative information about AirBit Club and Vizinova from the internet.
In many instances, as early as 2016, Victims who attempted to withdraw money from the AirBit Club Online Portal and complained to a Promoter were met with excuses, delays, and hidden fees amounting to more than 50% of the Victim’s requested withdrawal, if they were able to make any withdrawal at all. In one instance, Aguilar told one Victim of the AirBit Club Scheme who was complaining about her inability to withdraw AirBit Club returns that she should “bring new blood” into the AirBit Club Scheme in order to receive her returns.
In April 2020, another victim received a notice on the AirBit Club Online Portal that his account was closed – and principal investment lost – due to “execution of financial sustainability Reserve, policy #34 of the Airbit Club Terms and Conditions, due to the economic and financial crisis caused by (Covid-19).”
Rodriguez, DOS SANTOS, Hughes, Chairez, and Millan sought to conceal the AirBit Club Scheme, as well as their respective control of the proceeds of that Scheme, by requesting that Victims purchase memberships in cash, using third-party cryptocurrency brokers, and by laundering the Scheme’s proceeds through several domestic and foreign bank accounts, including an attorney trust account managed by Hughes (the “Hughes Trust Account”). The Hughes Trust Account was ostensibly intended to maintain custody of Hughes’s law practice’s client funds. Instead, the Hughes Trust Account was used by Rodriguez, DOS SANTOS, Hughes, and Millan to conceal the nature and origin of the AirBit Club Scheme’s illicit proceeds. Through that account, Hughes directed Victim funds to the personal expenses of Rodriguez, DOS SANTOS, Millan, and himself, and funded promotional events and sponsorships designed to further promote the AirBit Club Scheme. In total, the defendants laundered at least $20 million in proceeds of the Scheme through these various methods.
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DOS SANTOS, 45, of Panama City, Panama, is charged with one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, one count of conspiracy to commit bank fraud, and one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering. The wire fraud conspiracy and money laundering conspiracy charges each carry a maximum term of 20 years in prison, and the bank fraud conspiracy charge carries a maximum term of 30 years in prison. The maximum potential sentences are prescribed by Congress and are provided here for informational purposes only, as any sentencing of the defendant would be determined by the judge.
Ms. Strauss praised the outstanding investigative work of Special Agents from Homeland Security Investigations’ El Dorado Task Force, HSI Panama, the HSI Panama City Transnational Criminal Investigative Unit, and HSI New Orleans. Ms. Strauss further thanked the attorneys and investigators at the SEC whose expertise and diligence were integral to the development of this investigation.
The case is being handled by the Office’s Money Laundering and Transnational Criminal Enterprises Unit. Assistant United States Attorneys Kiersten A. Fletcher, Cecilia E. Vogel, and Elizabeth A. Espinosa are in charge of the prosecution.
The charges contained in the Indictment are merely accusations, and the defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.
 As the introductory phrase signifies, the entirety of the text of the Superseding Indictments and the description of the Superseding Indictments set forth herein constitute only allegations, and every fact described should be treated as an allegation.