The brash billionaire owner of the Irish airline Ryanair has described Bitcoin as a “Ponzi scheme” after his image was used to dupe unsuspecting customers into a crypto scam.
Michael O’Leary, an entrepreneur not known for mincing his words, is a love-to-hate figure in the U.K. and Ireland. He has been dismissive about allegations of poor customer service on his no-frills planes, has proposed charging flyers to use the bathroom, and in 2012 claimed being paid 20 times more than his average employee isn’t enough because he works “50 times harder.”
A photograph of the sweary CEO has been doing the rounds in advertisements featured on an array of popular websites. The bogus campaign claims he told viewers on a popular late-night television show that he was making “tens of thousands of euro a day” thanks to an investment scheme called Bitcoin Lifestyle.
Quotes that appear to be from O’Leary say: “It’s literally the fastest way to make a windfall of cash right now. And it’s not going to last for much longer when people find out about it.”
The ad even claims that a financial institution called the National Ireland Bank (which doesn’t exist) had attempted to stop O’Leary’s interview from being broadcast… but it was too late.
The Times of London approached O’Leary to ask him about the advertisement, and he was unflinching in his response.
He told the newspaper: “I have never, and would never, invest one cent in Bitcoin, which I believe is equivalent to a Ponzi scheme. I would strongly advise everyone with any shred of common sense to ignore this false story and avoid Bitcoin like a plague.”
Alas, O’Leary isn’t the first high-profile individual to have their image misused in this way. Similar scams have used photographs of celebrities on both sides of the Atlantic—Simon Cowell and Kate Winslet among them.
How the scam works
Bogus investment vehicles such as Bitcoin Lifestyle pop up with alarming frequency—further damaging the cryptocurrency’s reputation in the eyes of the public.
The British consumer group Which? recently estimated that U.K. victims have lost at least £200,000 ($261,643) after being deceived by these scams.
They are much more complex than the massive Twitter hack on July 15 that pitched send-one-get-two giveaway scams on the accounts of celebrities ranging from Kanye West to Bill Gates.
The ads in question usually appear on legitimate sites such as Facebook and Yahoo, meaning that consumers may have their guard down. Clicking on them links to an advertorial on a website that’s designed to look like prominent British news outlets such as the BBC or the Daily Mirror.
Which? claimed that the scam has been doing the rounds for three years—but “countless variations” exist, meaning that it can be near impossible to block them all.
Consumers who submit their contact details normally end up receiving a call from an investment manager, who encourages them to buy £250 ($327) in BTC. They are then given login details to a trading platform where it appears that the value of their deposit is rising.
Repeated calls follow that encourage the victim to invest more and more, with one victim spending at least £5,000 ($6,534.) Although the “trading platform” said that the Bitcoin they had supposedly bought was worth 10 times more than this, they were told to send an additional £5,000 in commission to a separate bank account, and wait for their funds to be released. They’re never contacted again.
The financial journalist and consumer rights campaigner Martin Lewis was one of those targeted with these types of ads—and he has claimed the fake endorsements have damaged his reputation. In 2018, he announced he was taking Facebook to court for failing to tackle the scam ads, and alleged that more than 1,000 featuring his image and name had appeared on the social network.
Lewis settled the lawsuit in January 2019 after Facebook announced it would launch a tool so users could report scam ads, and make a £3 million ($3.92 million) donation to a charity providing financial advice to Britons. But the problem has failed to go away, with even more appearing on the Facebook-owned platform Instagram.
Lawsuits against tech giants for failing to clamp down on fraudsters are continuing to emerge. Back in April, Modern Consensus reported on how Ripple is suing YouTube. The CEO of the payments firm, Brad Garlinghouse, claimed that Ripple had spent months trying to get the video-sharing site to shut down giveaway scams in the company’s name—scams that have seen people lose countless thousands of dollars.
Shortly after that Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak filed a similar suit.
YouTube has sought to have that lawsuit to be dismissed because it did not knowingly engage in the scams—arguing it cannot be held responsible for third-party content.
Disclosure: Modern Consensus founder Ken Kurson sits on the board of Ripple.