Mark Yusko — the founder of Morgan Creek Capital Management and a cryptocurrency evangelist — was watching basketball with his wife last week when he learned about the scam.
A con artist, or group of them, had set up an Instagram account using his name and photos to bilk people with fake investment opportunities.
@markyusko3321 had nearly 6,000 followers as of March 21. For months, it had been posting images of Yusko, stacks of cash, a gold Bentley, and the like, plus pitches for a get-rich-quick scheme.
“Make 100% of your investment as from $50 to $5000 within 72 hours in your bitcoin wallet, a try will convince and thank me later 🤝,” read one error-filled caption. It closed with a WhatsApp number, and an invitation to “Contact me for more information.”
That’s exactly what this Institutional Investor reporter did.
Just before midnight on Thursday, March 21, I sent the imposter a WhatsApp message using my own account, which is listed under my first name, and said I was “interested maybe.”
The next morning, I got a response: “Am Mark Yusko an expert trader on forex, binary and bitcoin mining.” The minimum investment was $500, and payout would be deposited directly into my local bank account or any e-wallet.
The scammer’s WhatsApp profile picture betrayed the same ignorance of Wall Street culture as the Instagram posts. What do rich and important institutional asset managers like? Apparently, undergrad economics textbooks, old MacBooks showing currency charts, and gold Bentleys. Also, a box of watches.
“Are you with me?” demanded Fake Yusko. My reply: “For sure, I’m ready. 💵💶💴”
At that point, it seemed best to contact the actual Mark Yusko, and fill him in on what was going on. He called on Friday afternoon and was game to speak to his imposter. Unfortunately, the scammer did not pick up, citing a meeting.
Yusko had managed to get the Instagram account shut down within hours of reporting it. To verify he was, indeed, the real Mark Yusko, he had to submit a photograph of himself holding his photo identification. But Yusko was surprised to learn that the charlatans continued their shake-down via WhatsApp.
“That is just crazy,” he said, describing mixed emotions. “The first is anger, that somebody is trying to capitalize on your name, or notoriety, on social media. Then the anger gives way to legitimate concern because it hurts the real person’s reputation. Our business — financial services — is all about trust and reputation. Then I started to get less worried: the types of people that would be interested in a get-rich-quick scheme are probably not the type that deal with our products.”
Yusko is right with respect to Morgan Creek, the investment firm he founded in 2004 after leading the University of North Carolina’s endowment for years. Morgan Creek serves institutional clients like post-secondary funds, pension plans, and family offices. A professional investor is highly unlikely to see a gold-plated Bentley on Instagram and think, “I’m in!” But if they did, some would say that they deserve what they get.
But Yusko is also a vocal leader in cryptocurrency. His background, and Morgan Creek credentials, helped legitimize the category for investors. For crypto cynics, this latest scam will show how far from “institutional quality” Bitcoin & co. remain — or at least, how rife they are with fraudsters.
The Securities and Exchange Commission last year set up its own honey trap for naïve people looking to jump on the bitcoin bandwagon. HoweyCoins.com mimics a bogus coin offering, with a countdown clock to inspire FOMO. (Fake Yusko also amped up the urgency of investing, inundating me with 26 messages since Friday.) It’s unusual for the cash-strapped regulator to go to such lengths. But for one, crypto scams are cheap and easy to set up, and secondly, they’re everywhere.
When someone clicks on “Buy Coins Now” on HoweyCoins.com, the SEC serves them a lesson on the five red flags of crypto scams. The Yusko imposter checked at least four of the five: Claims of high, guaranteed returns, celebrity endorsements, investing with a credit card, and a false sense of urgency. In other words, it’s a classic.
The real Mark Yusko has been the focus of crypto fraud before. Both he and his business partner have been “SIM-swapped,” which is when a scammer uses a fake ID to obtain a new SIM card for someone else’s phone. Insert that card, and they’ve got a replica of their target’s phone. It’s common in crypto circles, because people often have Bitcoin wallets on mobile devices, Yusko said.
“It is a little scary,” he said. “Someone can go on the dark web and get my telephone number, home address, and a fake ID of me. My partner got SIM swapped too, and they started doing real ransom stuff, saying, ‘I know where your daughter goes to school.’ That is horrifying.”
After that experience, his wife did not find Phony Mark funny at all. “She was pretty worked up,” Yusko said. “You don’t want to cross Stacey.”
What else did he have to say to his imposters? “The serious message: cease and desist. The less serious message: Get a life.” Not his, presumably.
Late Monday afternoon, March 25, the scammers received my last WhatsApp message calling out the fraud.
They still want to talk.