Ray Trapani always wanted to be a criminal, he informs us at the beginning of Bitconned, a documentary now streaming on Netflix about the Centra Tech scam. His interests include illicit drugs, nice suits, gambling, and fancy cars. His inspiration was his grandfather, who he says was in the mafia. (His grandmother, looking glamorous in cheetah print and a fabulous belt, disputes this claim; his mother says she saw suitcases of cash.) He’s from Florida, obviously.
Time passes quickly in cryptoland, so I’m not sure many people remember the Centra Tech scandal. Bitconned — which, despite its title, has very little to do with Bitcoin — takes place during the initial coin offering boom of the late 2010s, a period many crypto newcomers may not remember. It’s a blow by blow of a scam, narrated by a scammer. Anyone seriously considering investing in cryptocurrency should watch it, because the scams aren’t gone — they’ve only gotten more sophisticated.
Trapani, our narrator, started his first business as a teen dealing OxyContin with forged prescriptions and a partner named Andrew Aguirre. Trapani describes the high of the crime itself, saying, “It’s always a cool feeling when you hit that first mark.” It didn’t last. Trapani got pulled over, and police found a bottle of Oxy that didn’t have his name on it. Trapani immediately flipped, ratting out his buddies. Aguirre got in trouble; Trapani got off. This is called foreshadowing.
It becomes clear very early on in Bitconned that Ray Trapani’s first love is money and his second love is himself. On-screen, he’s undeniably charismatic, as narcissists often are. And you can tell he’s having a good time — because in order to break up the monotonous talking-head interviews required for this kind of documentary, director Bryan Storkel shows Trapani in action, driving a fancy car or getting fitted for a suit. It’s a clever way to make these interviews more visually interesting that also clearly fits in with Trapani’s view of himself.
“It was just too easy to do.”
Trapani made money hand over fist with a legitimate luxury car rental company called Miami Exotics, in which he lured his family into investing. (He’d also gotten them to cosign for loans.) But it wasn’t enough. He and his partners were spending it on exactly what you might imagine: nightlife; vacations in the Bahamas; shopping; gambling; and, in one case, a $2,000 dog. More troublingly, someone — maybe business partner Sam “Sorbee” Sharma, though he denies it in a statement — was writing checks to “cash” and relieving the company of its money. Trapani found out and blew the remaining money on an all-night baccarat bacchanal. He tried to kill himself by overdosing on pills. He lived. Then he pivoted to crypto.
In Trapani’s telling, he was victimized and betrayed by Sharma. But Sharma came up with a hot new idea: pretend to be making a debit card that let people spend crypto directly and then pocket the proceeds. Trapani didn’t know anything about crypto, really. But it was 2017, and a mania around initial coin offerings was kicking off. Why even bother coming up with your own crypto business when you could rip off somebody else’s?
“It was just too easy to do,” Trapani says, sounding almost proud of himself. He and Sharma created LinkedIn pages, claiming they’d gone to Harvard. They found a company called TenX promising a debit card that let people spend crypto directly in the real world. Then they hired freelancers on Upwork to steal, essentially, the entire idea — by taking their website and replacing all references to TenX with Centra, including a photoshopped image of a Centra card with a Visa logo. They even made up a CEO by Googling photos that came up for “old white guy.”
The card didn’t exist, obviously, and the ruse was paper thin. But as Bitconned drives home, there were plenty of marks for whom this didn’t matter. The signifiers were good enough for early investor Jacob Rensel, for instance, who introduces himself by saying he’d made very good investments in Bitcoin and Ethereum. Of course, any mark is at pains to say he’s not dumb, and probably Rensel isn’t — just greedy. That was why he was in crypto in the first place, after all.
It’s unclear to me why people trust celebrity endorsements, but as Oprah can tell you, they do
Then there was influencer Clif High, who’s probably the reason the scam got any real traction. (High’s YouTube channel suggests men sun their balls. Fine!) High promoted Centra to his followers because he’d literally misunderstood what it was: he relied on data mining to make summaries of articles, and his technology had confused Centra Tech, the scam, with an actual bank, Centra Credit Union. An actual bank issuing a crypto debit card would have been a big deal. The exposure gave Centra Tech money to get endorsements from DJ Khaled and Floyd Mayweather — and it’s unclear to me why people trust celebrity endorsements, but as Oprah can tell you, they do.
Even the scam’s critics may have eventually gotten in on the game. One of my favorite parts of the documentary is the scammers complaining about people “spreading FUD,” which means “fear, uncertainty, and doubt.” It was fascinating to hear one of the Centra Tech scammers, Robert Farkas, complain about “trolls” in the chats, rudely telling the truth. Farkas brags about making them into believers — which Trapani says they did by paying them off.
The scam came apart, as scams do. Nathaniel Popper at The New York Times was instrumental in uncovering it — and as he demonstrates, just a little poking made Centra’s story fall apart. Anyone who’s familiar with people who’ve received elite educations would have been suspicious just listening to Sharma talk. (Part of the point is to learn how to confidently speak the language of power; Sharma, Farkas, and Trapani clearly do not.) The absentee CEO should have been a clue. And when Rensel got suspicious, all it took was poking through Trapani’s Instagram account to confirm he’d been lied to.
Part of the joy of Bitconned is the way it paces the telling of this story. It’s striking how much of it relied on trust and intermediaries. Clif High relied on his little automations without double-checking them. His subscribers relied on Clif High without double-checking him. Investors relied on the Visa logo without double-checking it, and on LinkedIn resumes without double-checking them.
The director doesn’t seem to notice he’s gotten caught up in Trapani’s charisma, too
But this story isn’t told from the journalist’s point of view. It’s told by Trapani, who cooperated with the feds to nail his co-conspirators. Parts of the documentary are clearly filmed before Trapani’s sentencing hearing, and the crew is with Trapani when he misses the birth of his first child to spend time in court, where he discovers he’ll do no jail time.
Storkel means to tell some kind of cynical story about the way things are now, complete with the use of Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows.” He’s so focused on this that he doesn’t seem to notice he’s gotten caught up in Trapani’s charisma, too.
Trapani tells you he’s a liar immediately, right at the start of the documentary. He tells you he’s not trustworthy. But part of what makes him so charismatic is that he’s able to draw you in, make you feel that you alone are getting the real story. He lies to other people, but not to you. It’s very flattering, isn’t it, to believe that you alone are getting the truth from a liar? I think that’s how he got Storkel.
Both Storkel and Trapani are gifted storytellers. Bitconned moves along briskly thanks to dramatic reenactments; you’d have to stay for the credits to know even the dog in some of the shots with Centra Tech investor Rensel is an actor (played by Honor Bowlin). I don’t especially mind reenactments, but they do put the thumb on the scale by presenting what someone says happened as fact. That could be wrong for any of a number of mundane reasons (misremembering, for instance), but with Trapani in play, the filmmaker may very well be recreating a lie — and lending it visual weight.
Trapani’s version of events is a version that clearly benefits Trapani. In this telling, he’s a scammer who got away scot-free, a wise guy, real smart, knows how to work the system, an American anti-hero. (Remember those images of Trapani driving a fast car and getting fitted with a suit?)
“Anytime somebody tells you ‘I don’t really feel comfortable answering that question,’ or ‘These are questions that are very, very tough for me to answer,’ you know that there’s something going on here.”
It serves Storkel’s purposes not to challenge his star too much. But Farkas and others who got burned by Trapani tell a different story: Trapani was whacked out on drugs. He didn’t really do much of anything — just spent money and acted like a mini mafioso, and then immediately ratted on his compatriots to save his own skin. Trapani isn’t clever in this telling. He’s just a sleazoid who happened to be at the right place at the right time.
Meanwhile, Sharma can’t defend himself on-camera as easily — he’s in jail. He’s accused of a plethora of misdeeds, including using a Miami Exotics credit card to take a Bahamas vacation, forging signatures on checks, and using Centra Tech money to repay Miami Exotics’ loans. It’s not until after the credits run that we learn he denies all this, again giving Trapani’s version of the story extra weight.
Storkel isn’t really concerned, I think, with doing anything more than entertaining, which aligns neatly with what Trapani is trying to do. At times, that means there are weird tidbits that are simply left hanging. Near the end of Centra Tech’s run, for instance, Sharma supposedly talked a Korean firm named Bitsset into helping dupe the world into thinking the fake card worked. I found this odd — what kind of legitimate company would agree to be in on a scam? But the documentary moves past it quickly.
The Bitsset thing bothered me. So I started digging myself, only to find… nothing. There were no Google results for Bitsset in English, except in the criminal case against Sharma. My colleague Sarah Jeong did a cursory pass over the Korean language web and found a lot of MLB results (the Korean characters for Bitsset and Bo Bichette of the Toronto Blue Jays, it turns out, are the same), as well as drill tip sets and articles about actress Jacqueline Bisset. Bitsset itself was largely absent, except for a few internet comments. So what was it? A more thorough investigation could have uncovered how a real firm was fooled into helping a scam, or it could have uncovered another set of scammers. Either of those things would have been helpful in illuminating the broader cryptocurrency environment.
Any time a crypto promoter claims something is “FUD,” you should definitely look into it
Storkel isn’t totally snowed. He has Popper tell the audience how journalists know someone’s full of shit: “Anytime somebody tells you ‘I don’t really feel comfortable answering that question,’ or ‘These are questions that are very, very tough for me to answer,’ you know that there’s something going on here.” So at the end, when Trapani won’t say what happened with his Centra Tech money or where he got the money to buy a house, you, the viewer, know there’s something going on. But Storkel doesn’t feel compelled to find out what.
That’s fine, I guess. Documentaries often ride the line between actual journalism and entertainment. Storkel loses nothing in entertainment by going along with Trapani’s story. And Bitconned, despite its execrable title, is certainly entertaining!
This story of trust — trusting the wrong people, simply because they’re charismatic, and not doing the due diligence required — isn’t limited to small-time investors like Jacob Rensel. I’ve now sat through two massive fraud trials where the big boy VCs who manage other people’s cash did fundamentally the same thing. Even though Storkel doesn’t dig as deeply as he could, the movie does illuminate some of the dynamics of how massive frauds work. For instance, any time a crypto promoter claims something is “FUD,” you should definitely look into it.
But as Storkel demonstrates, even knowing you’re dealing with someone untrustworthy isn’t necessarily enough to keep you from being taken for a ride. Centra Tech’s successor was FTX. If there’s another bull run, the next scam will be even bigger. Everybody knows.