Risk & Compliance

SEC Says Centra Tech ICO Was a $32M Fraud

The startup's co-founders spun a "web of lies" to deceive investors into participating in its initial coin offering, according to an SEC lawsuit.
Matthew HellerApril 4, 2018

The co-founders of a blockchain products company have been charged with spinning a “web of lies” to raise more than $32 million from investors through an initial coin offering that was endorsed by boxer Floyd Mayweather.

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission said Tuesday that the Centra Tech ICO was an illegal offering of securities and that co-founders Sohrab “Sam” Sharma and Robert Farkas deceived investors by making false claims about the company’s financial products.

The promotional campaign for the ICO allegedly misrepresented, among other things, that Centra Tech had partnered with Visa and Mastercard and its CEO was an experienced businessman named “Michael Edwards.”

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Neither Visa nor Mastercard “had any relationship or partnership with Centra, and certainly none where Centra was authorized to issue, sell, or otherwise distribute Visa or Mastercard credit or other payment cards,” the SEC said in a civil complaint.

Sharma and Farkas have also been charged with securities fraud in a parallel criminal case.

“We allege that Centra sold investors on the promise of new digital technologies by using a sophisticated marketing campaign to spin a web of lies about their supposed partnerships with legitimate businesses,” Stephanie Avakian, co-director of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement, said in a news release.

The Centra Tech ICO offered investors the opportunity to invest in the company by acquiring Centra digital coins, or tokens. The offering began in late July 2017, shortly after the SEC delivered a jolt to the ICO market by declaring that federal securities laws apply to the sale of new digital coins.

According to marketing materials, the purpose of the Centra ICO was to finance the startup’s digital currency product portfolio, including a debit card that users could load with the cryptocurrency of their choice and then use to make purchases at any establishment that accepts Visa or Mastercard.

Mayweather and DJ Khaled, who served as official “brand ambassadors” for Centra, are not identified in the SEC’s complaint. But Steve Peikin, co-director of the division of enforcement, said Sharma and Farkas “relied heavily on celebrity endorsements and social media to market their scheme.”