Spanish police have arrested 20 individuals in connection with a pyramid scheme that used a fake digital currency called the unete to attract unwitting investors.
The Spanish National Police Corp announced the arrests on 16th July, which took place in Madrid and other parts of the country.
Police estimate that the scheme resulted in as much as €50m in losses, ensnaring roughly 50,000 victims worldwide – with 6,000 in Spain alone.
Spanish police seized over €5m and approximately $22m from related bank accounts. Two luxury cars and 18 computers were also taken into custody. According to police, the investigation into the scheme was sparked a year and a half ago after a former employee approached law enforcement officials.
In late June, Spanish language newspaper El País reported that a number of investors had begun legal action against those allegedly behind the scheme.
That report, which focused on founder José Manuel Ramírez Marco, outlined how the scheme, launched in 2013, quickly gained traction among investors for its flashy promotional events and charismatic sales pitches.
Investors exchanged euros for unetes – modelled after bitcoin and given a promised value of $1 apiece – and were encouraged to bring more investors into the scheme in order to receive bonuses.
Police said investors were promised as much as $1,300 in weekly returns. The scheme's official site promised the ability to shop online with the digital currency.
Key to the enterprise was an operation based in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, a Caribbean island-nation and business tax haven, through which the illicit funds flowed. In April 2014, Latvian bank Riemutu closed an account owned by Ramírez in connection with an investigation into money laundering, effectively stopping the scheme in its tracks.
Ramírez also organized a so-called Unetenet Foundation to gather donations for sexual violence victims. Despite soliciting funds from investors, El País reported, Ramírez appears to have never registered the group or actually conducted any charitable activities.
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