Enough is Enough! – Corrupt ICO Advisors, Experts, and Rating Systems
Corruption creeps into everything. While the blockchain revolution was started with grand ideas of decentralization and privacy, its growing popularity has led to unsavory elements looking for ways to corrupt it for their own means. The ICO industry is an especially popular target for bad behavior. Some people are just out for the money and the blockchain is a convenient tool for them; from fraudulent ICOs to advisors and rating agencies accepting payment to promote projects without doing basic due diligence. We’re here today to shine a light on some of the worst offenders and call for more vigilance and better behavior going forward.
Let’s dive into the rabbit hole…
The case of Cremit
My research team was analyzing Cremit’s ICO and found disturbing problems, as can be seen here. These issues are not even the worst part. When my head of research approached the advisors of Cremit, he received the following response to his questions:
Mr. Vladimir Nikitin is considered to be one of ICOBench’s top experts! How can a crypto expert allow himself to join the advisory team of an ICO without doing proper due diligence on the team?
When my head of research approached another advisor, this was the response he received:
His team allowed him? He has been added as an advisor to ICO without even researching the ICO and the team himself? Tell me this is some kind of joke!
ICO advisors – you have a responsibility to the blockchain and the crypto community. You can’t keep joining ICO teams just because they pay you to do so! You should be joining teams because you believe that they have potential and you want to see them grow and succeed.
Still, the answers from these alleged top experts were better than what my head of research received when he tried to reach out to the rest of the team, including Cremit’s alleged CTO, marketer, developer, as well as a third ICOBench advisor. None of these individuals could be bothered to respond. As of publishing, we’ve received no response from any of them. You can see here how multiple attempts to contact their brand manager and one of their developers went unanswered.
What are the ICO rating sites saying?
Now let’s continue to the ICO rating websites out there. While my research team was analyzing the ICO mentioned at the beginning of this blog post, they discovered the following:
ICO rating websites – stop assigning higher ratings to the projects that pay you. Doing so greatly impacts our industry in a negative way. If you can’t put in the effort to properly and professionally review ICOs before rating them, it’s better that you go offline rather than hand out fraudulent ratings.
ICOBench continues to disappoint
I wish I could say that falsely inflated ratings were the only problems my team found on ICOBench in the course of their research. They found failures to provide accurate information about ICOs and failures to catch obvious scams. Let’s look at a couple examples.
For Ink Labs Foundation, ICOBench listed the wrong exchanges. As seen in the images above, CVProof’s coin is available on these two exchanges. Our research and discussions with members of the community suggest that this is an issue with ICOBench’s methods of collecting exchange data.
In order to save time, ICOBench uses a bot to crawl the various exchanges to see which ones are offering a coin with the ICO’s symbol. The problem arises when the ICO has chosen a symbol that matches one that is already in existence. An easy example of this is the ICO BitChord. They chose BCD as the symbol for their token; however, BCD is already in use for Bitcoin Diamond, which would lead a bot to believe that any token offering Bitcoin Diamond is actually offering BitChord.
While this is a good reminder for ICOs to make sure that they’re choosing a unique identifier for their token, it also highlights the importance of not over-relying on automation. It’s one thing to have a bot crawl the exchanges to save you the time of manually checking them yourself, but there should still be some human oversight. Before this information is added to an ICO listing, it should be checked and confirmed to avoid such mistakes. I would suggest taking an extra step in cases like BitChord/Bitcoin Diamond, such as making notes of tokens with identical or similar symbols; in this way, we will be able to avoid investor confusion.
More concerning than this issue, however, is the instance of Veio, where ICOBench failed to spot an obvious scam.
Some scams are difficult to see coming. Some broadside experts who should know better. Some, like Veio, think they can fleece investors by creating a team populated entirely by stock photos.
It’s ridiculously easy to investigate this; just do a Google image search and you can trace an ICO team member’s photo back to its source. This isn’t the only example of scams making use of stock photos or other people’s social media profile pictures to create a team out of thin air. We’re not sure how much longer ICOs will try to use this easy-to-spot method, but in the meantime, there’s no excuse for rating sites not to do this quick and easy research into the identities of the projects they’re rating.
While ICOBench did eventually catch on to the fact that Veio was a scam, for a time this ICO was listed on their site with a 3.5 rating.
ICO ratings should never be done for payment. ICO rating websites need take extreme measurements to avoid corruption. Don’t get me wrong – I am not against profiting financially, but there are red lines that should never be crossed. Paying for advertisement, including premium listings, is fine and is a common practice. To build brand awareness and exposure you need to pay for your marketing efforts. However, paying for ratings is completely different and doing so is misleading ICO investors, especially the inexperienced ones. The crypto industry has enough problems with world governments and banks, we don’t need to add to these issues by perpetuating the reputation that the industry is filled with scams and fraud. We need to do everything we can to protect ICO investors so that the industry will continue to grow and continue to change our lives for the better.
The community has had enough!
I’m not the only whistleblower! A quick tour of the crypto experts on LinkedIn will turn up many others directly calling out ICOBench, fraudulent raters, and the pay-to-play mentality rearing its ugly head in the crypto community.
Hosam Mazawi called this issue out back in April, pointing out a couple of blatant examples of ICOBench advisors giving a scam a good rating, only to hastily revise their ratings when other, more vigilant sites spotted the truth.
I enjoyed Hosam’s article so much that I reached out to him for his opinion about Cremit. He provided this insightful quote:
It doesn’t make sense to see ICO’s rated 4.9/5 or 9/10, when you compare them to ethereum ICO.
Let’s assume that ethereum is 10/10, now compare every other single ICO to ethereum as benchmark, what rating would you give Cremit ICO with their “top star” ICO bench advisors?
Steven J. Bodnar spells it out clearly. “Web crawling does not equal due diligence.” It takes actual research to provide ratings of any value, and this combination of slap-dash effort and bribery is pulling the entire industry down into the mud.
Bruno Skvorc seems to believe that the writing is on the wall for ICOBench. He doesn’t think that they are going to be able to recover from this damage to their reputation, especially not since so many experts refuse to be associated with them, as seen here:
You’ve got to respect Jen Buakaew. She doesn’t pull any punches about the steamier side of the blockchain industry. She could have just stopped at ICOBench, but her other points have some real merit even if they’re outside of the scope of this blog post.
Other people seem optimistic. Sophia Ha Ho is refusing to take sides, and rightly pointing out that this is an embarrassing situation for all of us to be in. She’s holding out hope for ICOBench to turn things around, which may make her a minority in the crypto community.
In the meantime, those who still believe in the value of ICOBench’s ratings may find themselves ridiculed on social media, as happened to Zhazira Lepess, founder and CEO of ZAZA.
Getting a 4.9 out of 5 rating on a legitimate site would be something worth crowing about, but if you’re proud of your rating on ICOBench, people will be happy to drag you back down to reality. I especially like this pointed comment from Robert Herman:
A “pointless rating meaning nothing”. How much longer until it goes beyond meaning nothing? At this rate, anyone sharing their ICOBench rating may risk facing suspicion that they paid to get it.
It’s also been a subject of some discussion on crypto subreddits, as seen on this post from user Take50 on /icocrypto:
This is a case where you really want to read the comments. Other Redditors are sharing their experiences, research, and opinions about shady ICOBench experts and ICO advisors.
The fact that you can pay for a better ICOBench rating is an open secret, to the point where it’s no longer shocking when you hear about it. Well, Markus Hartmann, co-founder of Alethena, might have some insight to share about that. You see, like me, Markus is concerned about the current state of ICO lists and ICO rating, so he decided to see what would happen if he tried to improve the ranking of his own ICO.
There’s a lot of great stuff in Markus’s article, but this really brings it full-circle.
It’s Still Happening
Addendum, September 10th. We recently saw this post from Benjamin Hall on LinkedIn:
Not sure what you’re reading there? Think your eyes are deceiving you? Don’t worry, Hall elaborated:
It sure looks like Nikitin is admitting that the ICO he’s serving as an advisor on, that he’s asking Hall to improve the rating on, is “garbage.” Not the worst garbage, sure, but there’s not many ICOs worse than it? So why is he serving as an advisor? Why is he asking his fellow ICOBench expert to change his rating?
Oh yes, we should also mention that since we originally published this article, Nikitin has joined ICOBench’s team as “Chief of Bench.” You’d think a lofty title like that would come with more concern with his image, but no. What does image and title manner, as long as you can still have “garbage” ICOs hire you as an advisor?
This needs to stop.
This behavior we have seen with ICOBench, Cremit, and others cannot continue. My team, and those who share our convictions, will continue to fight scammers. We will fight the ICO teams who believe they can fool investors and get away with it. We will call out the corrupt ICO advisors who join projects without conducting their due diligence.
We advise all crypto experts and ICO advisors to stop thinking about making a quick buck, and instead consider their own integrity and the future of the crypto community. The blockchain can accomplish great things, but not if it’s being held back by greed and dishonesty.
Interview with Denis Salangin, Founder of PayFair
PayFair is a unique story in the ICO world. While some ICOs raise millions only to never deliver a project, PayFair successfully launched their platform with less than a quarter of a million dollars, USD. We reached out to their founder to get some insight into how they did it, and what role they see themselves playing in the crypto community.
1. Can you tell us a little bit more about you and your background?
My name is Denis Salangin, the founder of PayFair.io and an entrepreneur with a background in the mechanisms that drive decentralized systems within the blockchain. Myself and the team form the backbone of PayFair.io.
2. How did PayFair start?
Over the years we had spent significant amounts of time trawling through forums, and we found a clear trend, a lack of confidence between buyers and sellers. This was the initial spark that caused us to create PayFair, a trust-less platform that eliminates the need for a third party and enables two individuals to trade cryptocurrency and goods and services all in one place. A true marketplace.
3. Why did you build PayFair?
To put it simply, we saw a problem and knew we had the solution! We were also in a lucky position where we had the means to create the solution which is usually the biggest hurdle.
4. Who are the core team members? What’s their experience and role in Payfair?
Our core team members are focused on the technical side of the project. As PayFair is a package of products rather than just a platform, there is an enormous demand on development. We also work very closely with several members of our community who assist John and Dmitriy with the marketing and social media side of the business.
5. How much did you raise during your sale?
We collected $51,000 during our pre-ICO and $170,000 during the ICO. When we look at the market in general and see projects raise hundreds of millions, it’s laughable. They have so much financial backing but spend years attempting to launch a project, then once it is launched there is no involvement with the community and updates are months apart. We at PayFair feel money is important, but the team and our reputation are worth far more.
6. Compared to other ICOs, you have a working product and main net live. How did you manage to deliver this?
Hard work, sleepless nights and a strong team. Development of a product needs dedication, without this you are destined to fail. These one hundred million ICOs may appear successful on paper but where is their product? The issue is their teams are usually a collection of people-influencers or marketing gurus. They all miss the one thing you need, solid developers, and lots of them! Sure you can hire a developer, but if they are not truly aligned to what the project is trying to become, they start working against each other and slow down development.
7. How do you define your community? Is it a strong community of supporters?
PayFair’s primary asset – after the platform itself – is the community. The feedback the community has given us has impacted how the platform operates and looks; their input will always be in our mind. Additionally, there are several members of the community that have formed groups outside of the main chat that promotes development, marketing, and general support; it’s these groups that make such a mammoth project easier to manage.
8. You are not listed on top exchanges although you have solid team and much-needed product, why so?
We get asked this a lot. The first point to mention is that PayFair is its own exchange. Really, there’s no need to go outside of the platform itself. However, many new investors will naturally look to larger exchanges first. These larger exchanges can cost between $500,000 to $1,000,000 per listing pair. PayFair cannot entertain these costs at this time. We do however recommend exchanges such as Chaoex and IDEX as these are easy to use and our current primary exchanges.
9. What would you do differently if you go back 1 year?
Sell ETH at all time high! But really, who wouldn’t!
I feel we could have focused more on primary exchanges before the market turned bull. It’s this bull market over the Christmas period that caused larger exchanges to ten times their prices. Other than that, we are happy with the decisions we have made as a company and with the community.
10. What are your future plans?
Naturally, some things we need to keep to ourselves for now! However, some of the more public plans are improving the usability of the platform, including further work on scalability. Marketing focus once the market levels out, Open Source API and Telegram Bots for automated and easier trading. Lots to come!
11. Any other words to the crypto-community?
Cryptocurrency is in its infancy. If you have an idea and see there is a real need, go for it and never look back. You can’t change the world with dreams, it requires hard work, and sleepless nights, if you can pull it off, you could change the world we live in.
12. Any advice to entrepreneurs that are working to launch an ICO?
I see too many ICOs launching as an obvious means to improve their financial position. The world is seeing cryptocurrency in a bad light because of these multi-million dollar ICO teams disappearing off the face of the earth. If you genuinely want to be successful, dedicate your life to the project, through good times and the bad, and always keep your word.
Mission Implausible: Next Summer’s Biggest Blockbuster?
Have you heard the plot of the new blockbuster thriller with Dom Fuse in the lead role as a CIA operative embedded in the crypto world? He’s the tough-talking all-action hero who is called in to the shadowy department, within a department, within a top secret corner of CIA Langley. Dom’s boss sits in semi darkness and briefs him about a mysterious genius at the heart of the dark web, who must be tracked down in order to restore the financial balance of a world being bent out of shape by cryptocurrencies.
Our Hero Investigates
So Dom sets off down the highway on a supercharged motorbike (because how else would you investigate crypto irregularities?), and along the way has some highly unlikely romantic encounters, and gets to play with lots of gadgets and guns. I won’t reveal all the twists and turns but there’s a lot of staring at multiple computer screens, and crashing through firewalls and heavily encrypted sites, usually in a matter of seconds. When this happens Dom’s nerdy hacker sidekick always shouts, “We’re in!”
What Dom discovers is that at the center of a whole spiraling web of deceit is a global conspiracy centered around the creator of the blockchain, bitcoin, and everything which has followed. It was all a mistake which got way out of control. The secret CIA department within a department was set up to penetrate the trade in weapons and drugs, and the whole crypto idea was launched simply as a Trojan horse (in the original non-viral meaning of this) to get deep inside the dark networks.
Crypto was never supposed to actually work, and be adopted by non-combatants around the world. But then people everywhere started cottoning onto this new thing, imagining use-cases, inventing new applications. Wow, you could even do a sort of crowd-funding thing called an ICO for new startups and hey, you could invent your own tokens! The irony was that here was something started by the law-enforcers which was now spinning into lawlessness and anarchy. Decentralization was the name of the game, and like the old myth of Pandora and her box, now the word was out it was proving ever more impossible to shut down the system.
Eventually after many thrills and spills – and here comes a spoiler alert – Dom tracks down the person behind the whole vast conspiracy. Naturally they meet in a dark underground car park. That’s the way it always is – you wouldn’t expect them to meet in a nice restaurant would you? His boss steps from the shadows: “How did you work it all out?” she asks. “We thought we’d covered our tracks, but we needed to confirm for sure before we shut it all down.”
“And now I’m the only person standing in the way of collapsing the whole cryptosystem?” asks Dom, staring down the barrel of a machine pistol held by his boss. “I’m sorry that I figured out your plan, Satoshi.”
Of course this is clearly a fictional screenplay, and nothing like it could ever occur in real life. Could it?
Good news bad news
There’s a ton of good news/bad news jokes, along these lines: “Good news – I borrowed your Lambo… and the airbags work.”
Another: Doctor to Patient – “I have bad news, you only have 24 hours to live. Even worse news – I meant to tell you yesterday.”
Crypto’s version of the old joke
Now we have our very own crypto good news/bad news joke in the form of: “Good news, the world’s first official state-sponsored cryptocurrency has been running since February 2018. Bad news, it’s the Venezuelan petro.”
Oh, hang on, that’s not a joke, it’s actually true.
With hyperinflation rampant in the country, it was clear that something had to be done by the Venezuelan government. The International Monetary Fund reports Venezuela’s economy shrinking by some 18% this year, and inflation has hit one million per cent. Half a million Venezuelans have already crossed the border with Ecuador, to escape the impossibilities of their home economy. Until the recent massive devaluation of the bolivar fiat currency there were scenes reminiscent of Weimar Germany after the First World War, when a wheelbarrow full of banknotes was needed to buy a loaf of bread.
On launch of the petro, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro said it would, “Make new forms of international financing available,” and help pull the country out of its economic nosedive. The cryptocurrency – which is supposedly backed and guaranteed by national gold, diamond, and petroleum assets – can be used for almost any payment including real estate, gasoline, flights, and taxes. And now, even a loaf of bread.
It sounds almost feasible, which is the good news – or as good as it gets – so perhaps everyone in the cryptoworld should be celebrating that finally there’s a government which is not only crypto-friendly, but has actually created its own coin. However, the bad news is much more extensive. Everything about the launch was bungled, including the petro white paper which began by citing Ethereum as the platform, but by February had changed platforms to NEM. The confusion was so widespread (including different and contradictory versions of the white paper being published at the same time) that scammers easily established fake petro sites on other platforms and made a killing. Kerr-ching!
If you searched far and wide for a brilliant example of how NOT to do an ICO, you couldn’t find better than the sad story of the petro.
USA President Trump was then quick to jump on the newborn cryptocurrency, making it illegal for American citizens to invest and trade, while the highly-respected Brookings Institution reported that, “The Venezuelan Government has resorted to a deceitful means of introducing the petro… which exists to create foreign currency reserves from thin air.” Things were not looking good, and since then they have gone from bad to worse. A pity, because this could have been a success, a bad news/good news tale with a happy ending.
Matt O’Brien of the Washington Post offers the punchline to this crypto joke which isn’t a joke: “The petro might be the most obviously horrible investment ever. The petro is about creating something useless — that’s why only foreigners can buy them, but only Venezuelans can spend them.”