Bitconned : Ray Trapani, who is the subject of the Netflix documentary Bitconned about the Centra Tech fraud, tells us that he always wanted to become a criminal. He is interested in illegal drugs, fancy suits, gambling and expensive cars. He says his grandfather was in the Mafia. His grandmother, who was dressed in cheetah-print and a gorgeous belt, disputes the claim. His mother claims she saw suitcases full of cash. He’s obviously from Florida.
In cryptoland time moves quickly, so I don’t think many people will remember the Centra Tech controversy. Bitconned, which, despite the title, has little to do Bitcoin, takes place during a time of ICO boom in the late 2010s. This is a step-by-step account of a fraud, told by the scammer. The scams haven’t disappeared, they’ve just become more sophisticated. Anyone who is seriously considering investing in cryptocurrencies should watch this video.
Trapani started his first OxyContin business when he was a teenager, with the help of a partner called Andrew Aguirre. Trapani says, “It was a great feeling to hit the first target.” But it didn’t last. Trapani was pulled over by police, who found an Oxy bottle that did not have his name. Trapani immediately went on the attack, accusing his friends. Aguirre was in trouble, Trapani got out. This is known as foreshadowing.
In Bitconned, it becomes very clear that Ray Trapani is first and foremost a money-lover. His second love however is himself. As narcissists are often, Trapani is undeniably charismatic on-screen. You can tell that he is having fun, because director Bryan Storkel uses Trapani to show him in action — driving a car or getting fitted for an outfit. This breaks up the monotonous interviews, which are required for such a documentary. This is a clever and creative way to make the interviews more interesting visually, while also fitting in with Trapani’s self-perception.
Trapani was able to make money by the bucketload with Miami Exotics, a legitimate car rental business. He even convinced his family to invest. He had also convinced them to sign loans. It wasn’t enough. His partners spent it exactly as you would expect: on nightlife, vacations to the Bahamas, shopping, gambling, and in one instance, a $2,000 puppy. Someone — perhaps business partner Sam “Sorbee Sharma” though he denies this in a written statement — wrote checks to “cash”, and deprived the company of money. Trapani learned of this and spent the money in an all-night Baccarat bacchanal. He overdosed on pills to try and kill himself. He survived. He then switched to crypto.
Trapani claims that Sharma betrayed him and victimized him. Sharma had a new idea. He pretended to make a debit card, which would let users spend crypto directly. Then he pocketed the proceeds. Trapani knew nothing about crypto. It was 2017 and the initial coin offering mania was just beginning. Why bother with your own crypto-business when you can rip someone else off?
Trapani, who sounds almost proud of his accomplishments, says: “It was too easy to do.” He and Sharma set up LinkedIn pages, pretending to be Harvard graduates. TenX, a company that promised a debit card allowing crypto to be spent in real life, was the first they found. They hired freelancers through Upwork to steal the idea, by stealing their website, and replacing any references to TenX, as well as a photo-shopped image of a Centra Card with a Visa Logo. They created a fake CEO by Googling images that appeared for “old white man.”
It was obvious that the card did not exist and that it was a paper thin ruse. Bitconned drove home and there were many targets for whom it didn’t matter. Jacob Rensel is an early investor who says he made good investments in Bitcoins and Ethereum. Rensel, like any other mark, is likely to insist that he is not stupid. It was for this reason that he got into crypto.
Clif High is probably the main reason this scam has gained traction. (High’s YouTube channel suggests that men sun their balls. Fine!) High advertised Centra to his fans because he had misunderstood the scam: he used data-mining for summaries and his software confused Centra Tech with a real bank, Centra Credit Union. It would have been huge if an actual banking issued a crypto-debit card. Centra Tech used the money it received from the exposure to secure endorsements by DJ Khaled and Floyd Mayweather. It’s not clear to me why people believe celebrity endorsements but Oprah will tell you that they do.
Even the scammers’ critics might have gotten into the game. Robert Farkas was one of the Centra Tech con artists who complained about the “trolls” on the chats. He told the truth rudely. Farkas boasts of making them believers, which Trapani claims they achieved by paying them.
As scams often do, the scam fell apart. Nathaniel Popper, The New York Timeswas crucial in uncovering the scam — and he shows that just a little poking caused Centra’s tale to fall apart. Sharma’s talk would have made anyone who knows people with elite education suspicious. It’s important to be able to speak with confidence in the language of authority. Sharma, Farkas and Trapani do not. The CEO’s absence should have given Rensel a hint. When Rensel became suspicious, he only had to look at Trapani’s Instagram account to see that he was lied to.
Bitconned‘s pace in telling this story is part of its appeal. It’s amazing how much relied on intermediaries and trust. Clif High trusted his automations, without checking them twice. Clif High’s subscribers trusted him without checking twice. Investors relied upon the Visa logo, without checking it twice. They also relied upon LinkedIn resumes.
This story is not told by a journalist. Trapani tells the story, and he worked with the feds in order to nail his coconspirators. Trapani was clearly filmed in the documentary before his sentencing hearing. The crew is also with Trapani as he misses out on the birth of his child to attend court.
Storkel is trying to tell a cynical tale about and the way things are right now. He uses Leonard Cohen’s song “Everybody Knows” to do this. But he seems to be so caught up with Trapani that he hasn’t noticed he’s also been swept away by his charisma.
Trapani immediately tells you that he is a liar, at the very beginning of the documentary. He says he is not trustworthy. He’s charismatic because he can make you believe that only you know the truth. He may lie to others, but not to you. Isn’t it flattering to think that you are the only one who can get the truth from someone who lies? I believe that’s the way he got Storkel.
Both Storkel & Trapani have a gift for telling stories. Bitconned is a fast-paced movie thanks to the dramatic reenactments. You’d need to watch the credits to find out that even the dog (played Honor Bowlin) in the shots of Centra Tech investor Rensel was an actor. Reenactments aren’t my favorite, but I do like the way they present what claims happened as fact. This could be incorrect for a variety of reasons, such as a misremembering. But with Trapani, the filmmaker is likely to be recreating an untruth and giving it visual weight.
Trapani’s version is one that benefits Trapani. In this version, he is a scammer, who got off scot-free. He’s also a smart guy, who knows how to manipulate the system. An American anti-hero. (Remember the images of Trapani in a fast-moving car and a suit?
Storkel is best served by not challenging his star. Farkas, and other people who were burned by Trapani, tell a completely different story. Trapani had been ravaged by drugs. He did not do much — he spent money, acted like a mafioso and then ratted out his fellow Italians in order to save himself. Trapani’s story is not clever. He is just a sleazoid that happened to be in the right place and at the right moment.
Sharma, meanwhile, can’t easily defend himself in front of the camera because he is currently behind bars. He is accused of many crimes, including using the Miami Exotics card to pay for a Bahamas trip, forging checks and using Centra Tech funds to repay Miami Exotics loans. Trapani’s version is given more weight after the credits, as he denies the allegations.
Storkel doesn’t seem to be concerned with anything other than entertainment, which is in line with the goals of Trapani. Sometimes, this means that there are strange tidbits left untouched. Sharma, for example, allegedly convinced a Korean company named Bitsset to help fool the world that the fake card actually worked near the end of Centra Tech’s run. This was odd. What kind of company would be willing to join a scam? The documentary quickly moves on from this.
I was bothered by the Bitsset. I decided to do some digging and found… nothing. Google did not return any results in English for Bitsset, other than the criminal case against Sharma. Sarah Jeong, my colleague, did a quick search in the Korean language and found many MLB results, as well as articles on Jacqueline Bisset, drill tip sets, and other information. was mostly absent from the web, with and comments. What wasit, then? An in-depth investigation would have revealed how a legitimate firm was tricked into assisting a scam or could have exposed another group of scammers. Both of these things could have helped to illuminate the cryptocurrency world.
Storkel’s not totally snowed. Popper explains to the audience that journalists can tell when someone is lying: “Anytime someone tells you that they don’t feel comfortable answering a question” or that these are questions that I find very difficult to answer”, you, as the viewer, will know that something’s going on. Storkel isn’t compelled to investigate.
It’s okay, I suppose. Documentaries are often a mix of journalism and entertainment. Storkel does not lose any entertainment by following Trapani’s tale. Bitconned despite the execrable name, is entertaining!
thing.” I’ve watched two trials of massive fraud, where the big boys that manage other peoples’ cash did the same thing. Storkel may not have done as much research as he should, but the movie still sheds light on the mechanics of massive frauds. You should investigate any claim made by a crypto promoter that something is “FUD.”
As Storkel shows, knowing that someone is untrustworthy doesn’t mean you won’t be taken advantage of. Centra Tech was succeeded by FTX. The next scam will be bigger if there is another bull market. Everyone knows.