An extremely odd scam is slowly unspooling in the South Pacific, involving one of the market’s most notoriously untrustworthy cryptocurrencies and a few churches that ended up being the perfect mark for its schemes. Cryptocurrency scams are a dime a dozen in the post-recession world, and Christian communities are well-known to be easy targets for digital schemers, but this latest story is raising eyebrows because there is a very real possibility the pastors of these churches weren’t just targets — they may have been complicit.
Cryptocurrencies — digital payment systems created in the private market as a way of sidestepping government-controlled currencies — had a boom season about 10 years ago following the collapse of the stock market and the ensuing global financial crisis. Some of these cryptocurrencies provided people with a new, secure money system, but many more were exposed as scams — “currencies” worth no more than a handful of pebbles. One such cryptocurrency was OneCoin, which had an early burst of popularity before getting unmasked as Ponzi scheme. In fact, as CNN notes, the term “cryptocurrency” is a bit of a misnomer, since people who buy OneCoin can’t even access or transfer their funds.
OneCoin was created in 2014 by Ruja Ignatova and Sebastian Greenwood. Ignatova hasn’t been seen in years and Greenwood was arrested in 2018, so that’s the sort of company it is. “These defendants created a multibillion-dollar ‘cryptocurrency’ company based completely on lies and deceit,” Manhattan US attorney Geoffrey Berman said in a statement. “They promised big returns and minimal risk, but, as alleged, this business was a pyramid scheme based on smoke and mirrors more than zeroes and ones.”
But OneCoin has continued on, finding new opportunities in two churches headquartered in Samoa, with branches in New Zealand and Australia. One church is called Samoa Worship Centre, the other was the Samoan Independent Seventh Day Adventist Church’s Auckland campus in New Zealand.
OneCoin is accused of recruiting pastors to pitch OneCoin to people in their churches, resulting in a scheme that netted around a billion dollars for OneCoin. The Samoan Bank, CBS, says the pastors knew things with OneCoin weren’t on the up and up, but the pastors themselves are saying they were victims.
“SISDAC has never knowingly participated or colluded in any way shape or form with any individual or organization in this type of illegal activity,” according to a statement released May 2 from the denomination and shared by its New Zealand division. “SISDAC is seeking legal counsel over these matters that threaten the integrity and good standing of the church, its leadership, its missional work and the well-being of its loyal membership.”