A 24-year-old Seke woman has impersonated Styx24.com chief executive Tatenda Mabungu, and allegedly cheated a number of people looking to buy into crypto-currencies of a few thousands of dollars, the Business Weekly can reveal.
Police spokesman chief superintendent Paul Nyathi said they had not received reports Erica Chikomo had misled anyone. Perhaps only not yet.
But Chikomo this week admitted to the Business Weekly that she failed to remit more than $1 100 Bitcoin’s worth to three people in three separate deals gone sour.
Chikomo said she took deposit of $420, $448 and $280 via Ecocash from strangers she met on a WhatsApp group, where she advertises her craft, and promised to transfer the Bitcoin equivalent to their wallets.
The transactions never happened, one week after the promise.
Soft-spoken, Chikomo claims she was locked out of her own Bitcoin wallet, and she doesn’t know how, hence the failure.
“Please do not publish the article,” the 24-year-old pleaded in an interview on March 21.
“I am working to refund those affected. I tried logging into my account but my password was rejected. I do not know how this happened because I have been using this specific wallet for a long time,” she said.
Fraudsters get rich
The rapid increase in the price of Bitcoin and the interest in buying it has led to a rise in the number of people trying to rip off prospective investors.
Fraudsters have made off with hundreds of thousands of dollars worldwide on the promise of high returns from investing a few dollars in digital money such like Bitcoin, Litecoin, Ethereum, and investing in other related financial instruments.
The scammers typically make use of the Internet and social media to connect with people, often accompanying their advertisements with pictures of expensive stuff like cars or houses.
There has not been as many cases in Zimbabwe, at least those that end up being investigated by the police.
Chikomo, who claims to have made successful mobile-based bitcoin-to-cash and cash-to-bitcoin transactions in the past, is probably a pioneer in this area.
She comes complete with a dedicated Facebook page called Bitcoin Seller — and there are many such pages on the platform by different people — and three referees to back up who she is, what she does and her legitimacy.
By her own admission, Chikomo solicits for investments on multiple WhatsApp groups as well.
Her latest victims were lured this way, in an elaborate plan that involved her acting as both buyer and seller to facilitate a transaction between two people unknown to each other, before disappearing after payment was made, alleged one of her victims who declined to only to be named.
“Chikomo advertised on Facebook that she sells Bitcoin. People sent money to her through Ecocash and she sent the Ecocash money to my business, bought Bitcoin and ran away,” complained Styx24 chief executive Tatenda Mabungu.
Chikomo could be heard pleading for mercy in a recorded conversation with Mabungu, saying: “Please do not tell them (those affected) that I gambled their money. I will pay them back…”
Mabungu had sought clarity why Chikomo was masquerading as his representative or that of Styx24 to allegedly cheat unsuspecting crypto enthusiasts of their money.
We asked Chikomo whether she was selling Bitcoin on behalf of the Gweru-based virtual money exchange.
“They are not my employers,” she admitted, but I have been referring people to their website for a fee.
“Mabungu asked me to help get clients to his exchange when they started. He said I would be paid on commission. He even paid back the transaction fee for at least three purchases of Bitcoin I made on Styx24,” Chikomo said.
Mabungu, who has since repaid the $1 148 allegedly stolen by Chikomo, ostensibly to “save the image of my business”, rubbished her claims.
“I do not work with anyone to get clients. I advertise on Adwords and Facebook, spending 300 rands daily on adverts,” he retorted.
Mabungu said: “She (Chikomo) joined Styx24 on the 23rd of February, and made a deposit of $30 or $40 and bought Bitcoin. The withdrawal fee is 0.001 Bitcoin or about $10. During the first days I would send the withdrawal fee back to every client to encourage and promote business.”
The Styx24 chief executive alleges Chikomo is a career scammer, with her “business empire” extending to include hair products, and beauty products and perfumes.
“It is not only me she has scammed. The list of victims is increasing every minute,” Mabungu added.
The Business Weekly saw a list of more than 15 people all claiming to have fallen victim to Erica Chikomo.
The figures of the alleged failures to deliver range from as little as $38 to about $250.
Some of the victims who spoke to this paper claimed to have made reports to the police, although we could not verify this at press time.
Tanyaradzwa Mudarikwa, 27, narrated his ordeal: “I was looking for Bitcoin to buy and there is this WhatsApp group,” Zim Btc Heroes”, where we buy and sell Bitcoin.
“So I posted that am looking for BTC and Erica, who was referenced by two people, responded. That was my green light to buy. I inboxed her and she said she has Bitcoin and should send money to an Ecocash number registered to Vanessa Mpofu. I assumed then Erica is Vanessa,” said Mudarikwi.
He continued: “I then sent $420 through Ecocash for $300 worth of Bitcoin and waited for my Bitcoin. It was Saturday, March 17 around 8:20pm. From 9pm it was excuse after excuse.
“At first Erica said was waiting for the administrator at Golix to approve her withdrawal. I waited until 2am but she gave the same am excuse. I asked that she reverses my Ecocash transfer because the deal had collapsed but kept giving excuses.
“Sunday morning I requested Ecocash to do reversal, and that is when I discovered that I had been scammed. Erica was playing Vanessa to be me and she was playing me to be Vanessa.”
The head of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe Dr John Mangudya has already warned Bitcoin investors who do end up buying the cryptocurrency, even legitimately, away from Chikomo’s personalised transactions, that they were doing so at own risk and will not receive protection from the law.
They should be prepared to lose all their money, he says.
You can expect more cases like Chikomo’s to crop up as fraudsters look to make a quick buck out of the ignorance of prospective crypto investors as well as from the explosive, unhindered interest in virtual money.
Do your homework. Stay safe.