US investigators joined an investigation into Mirror Trading International, seen as 2020's biggest cryptocurrency scam, to help liquidators of the South African scheme recover the assets of out-of-pocket investors.
MTI, which in November said it had 260,000 members around the world and 23,000 Bitcoin now worth about $885 million (R13 billion), was placed in final liquidation in June. Its overseers have asked a South African court to declare the operation unlawful and the nation's financial regulator has called it a Ponzi scheme.
The firm's liquidators "had meetings with international law enforcement agencies like the Federal Bureau of Investigation, after being approached by them," the grouping, made up of five trustees, said in an emailed statement on Tuesday. "The FBI is joining forces with the liquidators of Mirror Trading International in the interest of several US and local investors."
The collapse of MTI shone a spotlight on the safety of South Africa's booming cryptocurrency market, and plans are underway to toughen regulation and oversight. A second major scam emerged in June, when two brothers disappeared along with Bitcoin from their own investment platform.
The whereabouts of Johann Steynberg, who spearheaded MTI, have been unknown since the trader's clients first reported they were unable to withdraw their funds. "Although there is a paper trail (airplane ticket) regarding his possible flight attempt to Brazil, no video or photo confirmation could be obtained that he did leave the country," the joint liquidators said.
The liquidators also question the validity of a court filing by Clynton Marks, one of the members of MTI's management team, suggesting that having MTI declared an illegal entity would prejudice its investors.
"It is not correct that having the business model of MTI declared a fraudulent and illegal scheme would allow the liquidators to seize all of the money that flowed into the scheme," they said. "Liquidators will only be entitled to recover payments made to investors which were not legally owed to them."
Funds recovered would be spent reimbursing MTI's true victims, they said.