How alleged Asian crypto scam became headache for Comerica, Mastercard

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Comerica has accused an Asian cryptocurrency firm of conducting an investment scheme that falsely portrayed the Dallas bank as a financial backer — including hosting events featuring actors pretending to be Comerica executives. Mastercard, which the crypto firm promoted as its other partner, also says the claims were untrue.

Even though many banks have embraced blockchain and are experimenting with crypto, the incident is another example of why banks still have trust issues with digital assets.

On Sept. 27th, Comerica released a press statement distancing itself from a company named VRB Corp., which the bank alleged is involved in a cryptocurrency scheme in several Asian countries.

VRB said on its website that Comerica financially supported the cryptocurrency company, according to the $72.4 billion-asset bank.

VRB’s website is no longer live. However, several Facebook pages associated with VRB could be found with images featuring its logo on signage flanked by Comerica and Mastercard logos. After a reporter contacted the owner of the pages, the images were taken down.

Comerica and Mastercard denied ever having any affiliation with VRB.

“Our legal team continues to aggressively pursue takedown of VRB web domains that make reference to Comerica,” the bank said in the statement.

The crypto firm’s alleged attempts to fool investors and potential customers didn’t end there.

Comerica said in its statement that VRB hosted events in several Asian countries, including Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Japan, where it supposedly used actors pretending to be bank employees.

“Those involved with VRB cryptocurrency have sought to use the Comerica brand name to lend their operation legitimacy, and individuals attempting to make that association are not Comerica employees,” the bank said in the statement.

On one VRB-associated Facebook page, a video shows a signing ceremony in a banquet hall full of investors between VRB and a Mastercard executive named Howard Charlton, who is identified as the “Asia Pacific operator of Mastercard.”

Mastercard's website does not list any Howard Charlton as an employee, and does not list anyone with the title of Asia Pacific operator.

"Despite any claims that are being made, Mastercard does not have a relationship with VRB Corporation," a spokesman said.

VRB’s prospectus for investors can be found on some online message boards.

In the prospectus, VRB said it would visit Comerica in September at its headquarters in Dallas. It claimed Comerica would guarantee refunds to capital investors should VRB fail. “If anything happens to VRB wallet loss, there’s a guarantee [sic] refund of your initial capital fund by Comerica Bank,” the prospectus read.

VRB in late June circulated a press release stating a partnership with Comerica. The press release announced the creation of the “world’s first contract-based cryptocurrency bank, VRB.”

“VRB is a brand-new species of bank, which has emerged from the collision of a group of technological geeks specializing in blockchain and the more than 150-year-old Comerica Bank from the USA,” read the release.

VRB distributed the release through Business Wire. The press release itself is no longer available on popular public relations portal, but can still be found on third-party sites.

Business Wire did not respond to a request for comment from American Banker about the press release in question.

Comerica twice last week declined to discuss the matter beyond its official statement.

Mastercard did not respond to additional questions about why the card network was targeted.

“With cryptocurrencies still being a relatively new thing, it’s an opportunity for scammers to make money,” said Rahul Telang, a professor of information systems at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College.

Market manipulation on crypto exchanges came to light last year when The Wall Street Journal found that dozens of trading groups manipulated the price of certain digital tokens to the tune of $825 million in trading activity over a six-month period. The Journal said it found 175 pump-and-dump schemes involving 121 different crypto coins.

“When you come out with something and say it has the support of a bank, it helps to give credibility to the idea,” Telang said, in his take on the VRB matter. “This company was looping in a bank to their product to make some quick money.”

“I’m surprised a bank’s name would be used in this way because eventually the bank is going to find out and take the necessary actions,” he added.

It is unclear who organized VRB. On one of its Facebook pages, VRB lists a room at the Sheraton Imperial in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, as its offices “where our Bitcoin trades 24/7, daily from Monday to Friday!!! Money earns from 9% up to 25% daily.”

The company did not respond to a request for comment when contacted through a request-for-information form online.

A reporter repeatedly attempted to contact the owner of VRB’s Facebook pages. Posts to the pages were marked by Facebook as originating from a user based in Quezon City, the Philippines.

Someone, who did not identify himself or herself, responded to initial inquiries sent through Facebook to the owner of the pages. When asked about the accusations about VRB the individual wrote back, "I think they have legal team for that issue sir?"

The individual stopped responding to any other questions after that.

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Bitcoin Cryptocurrencies Distributed ledger technology Blockchain Fraud International business