Review – Bitconned is an age-old tale of human greed

Crypto con artists … Sam Sharma, Ray Trapani and Robert Farkas

Netflix describes the fast-paced Bitconned – directed by Bryan Storkel and released on 1 January – as a documentary about “a crypto company dreamt up by a couple of South Florida hustlers with a knack for Photoshop and a penchant for living large”.

The movie couldn’t come at a more opportune time, as US regulators have just approved the country’s first spot-bitcoin exchange-traded funds and bitcoin itself seems to be building up another head of steam. But that’s in 2024.

In 2017, Ray Trapani and Sam “Sorbee” Sharma launched Centra Tech, which raised funds through an initial coin offering for a cryptocurrency called “centra”. Like other cryptocurrencies — including bitcoin, ether and dogecoin – it was a digital currency created without the involvement of any bank or government.

Trapani and Sharma produced the Centra Card, which they claimed worked like any debit card and allowed cardholders to spend their cryptocurrency. They made it appear as if their card was legitimately backed and authorised by Visa, MasterCard and Bancorp.

But it was all a scam, right down to the CEO, Michael Edwards, who Trapani had selected from the internet after searching for an “old white guy” to make the company seem plausible.

In fact, he was a professor of physiology at the University of Manitoba in Canada called Andrew Halayko, whose image was used without permission – and who was “killed off” in a car crash when the heat was on and those who had been scammed demanded to interview him. Asked in the documentary about ethereum and what cryptocurrency and bitcoin are, he replied: “I still to this day don’t fully understand the concept.”

Inherently criminal

Centra founder Raymond Trapani comes across as inherently criminal from the outset, a description he would not see as an insult. He had aspired to be a millionaire since childhood and ran a scheme in his early teens in which he acquired pharmaceuticals using a stolen pad of prescription paper. After reselling drugs on the street and earning thousands of dollars in illegal profits, police apprehended him, but that didn’t stop his plans to get rich quickly. About Centra, he said: “We lied, we cheated, we made millions of dollars.”

Nathaniel Popper, the New York Times journalist who eventually exposed Centra’s fraudulent claims, says in the film: “In a sense, Centra was the story of crypto itself, which is an endeavour that has something real underneath it, but keeps failing … and yet people keep coming back to it.”

When Centra’s discrepancies were exposed in print, it wasn’t long before the authorities were alerted to the fake company. The US Securities and Exchange Commission brought a complaint against Centra, at which point the money began to evaporate and the company’s biggest players — Trapani, Sharma and alleged stripper-turned-chief financial officer Robert Farkas — were eventually convicted of several crimes.

“The biggest thing is to have the judge believe you’re not going to do more crimes,” Trapani says confidently as he looks directly into the camera. “The whole point of putting someone in jail is to make sure they don’t hurt the community.”

So he cooperated fully with the FBI and ratted on Sharma and Farkas, providing evidence which put Sharma away for eight years and Farkas for a year. At one point he looks into a mirror, hair backcombed and dressed in an Armani suit, and says: “Do I look like a criminal?”

Even if viewers doubt Trapani’s sincerity, his charm worked on the judge. Trapani was sentenced to “time served”, meaning no jail time. Because he had already been in rehab for four years for his Xanax addiction, the judge praised his “extraordinary” cooperation, saying she “didn’t want to interrupt the path you’re on, because you seem to be doing so well”.

The documentary is sobering in its message: that con artists can dupe apparently educated and sensible people with just a website, Photoshop and some lies.

Let’s hope the story of Centra – a classic tale of greed and deception, only set in the digital age – is not the story of crypto.  – © 2024 NewsCentral Media

AI-generated summary of this article

  • Bitconned is a Netflix documentary about Centra Tech, a crypto scam that raised millions through lies and deception.
  • The film exposes the fraudsters behind the scheme, especially Ray Trapani, who shows no remorse for his actions.
  • The film also reflects on the challenges and opportunities of the cryptocurrency market.

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