June 25, 2024

Scammers swindled $685m from investors lured with ostensible profits from the cultivation of marijuana

Hemp plants are cultivated for medical research at the Royal Agricultural Station Pang Da in Samoeng district in Chiang Mai. (Bloomberg File Photo)

An elaborate police operation across borders has apprehended a group that stole 645 million euros ($685 million) from individuals in 35 nations through a fraud scheme focused on the cultivation of medicinal marijuana.

Europol announced on Friday that nine individuals have been taken into custody, with a substantial amount in euros, as well as cryptocurrency from their bank accounts, being confiscated.

On Thursday, around 400 law enforcement officers raided various locations across Europe and the Dominican Republic in a massive crackdown against the operators of the JuicyFields Ponzi scheme. According to Europol, this scheme misled over 180,000 investors worldwide.

The syndicate devised a marketing strategy and participated in cannabis expos to persuade individuals from countries such as Spain, France, and Germany to invest in the scheme.

“Judicial estimations suggest that the total losses attributed to the fraudulent investments in the falsely-promoted cannabis cultivation crowdsourcing platform, reach a staggering 645 million euros,” says the press release from the Hague-based law enforcement agency.

“Actual losses could be substantially higher,” added Europol.

From 2020 to 2022, according to Europol, JuicyFields lured potential investors with a low investment entry point of 50 euros to buy a cannabis plant online, capitalising on the promise of “e-growing opportunities”.

The website purported to connect investors with producers of medical cannabis, guaranteeing “annual returns of 100% or more,” according to Europol.

Initial investors who invested 50 euros saw their investments double.

“Due to these financial gains, many investors increased their stakes and invested hundreds, thousands, and in some instances, tens of thousands of euros,” explained Europol.

“The platform projected the guise of a trustworthy and legitimate establishment with physical offices, staff and representation at cannabis industry events, not just existing on the digital landscape.”

Despite 186,000 individuals investing their money in JuicyFields, around 500,000 “e-growers” were receiving investment returns.

In July 2022, the scheme’s backers abruptly deleted the company’s profiles from social media platforms and locked investors out of their accounts, subsequently crippling cash withdrawals.

A flurry of reports to police prompted Europol to coordinate an intricate investigation involving multiple European countries and agencies.

The operation was led by the Spanish police, together with Europol and forces from Germany, France, the Dominican Republic, the United States, and the United Kingdom.

The suspects, who remain anonymous, were arrested under suspicion of fraud in Spain, the UK, Germany, Latvia, Poland, Italy, and the Dominican Republic.

Spanish police informed that the scheme was promoted through an advertising campaign featuring luxury cars, hotel parties, and music videos. Victims were escorted to legitimate cannabis plantations that were implicated in the scam.

Police reported that they had frozen bank accounts holding 58,600 euros and 116,300 euros in cryptocurrencies, and reclaimed 106,000 euros in cash. Furthermore, properties valued at 2.6 billion euros have been seized.