New Delhi: In a dramatic turn of events, on August 4 at 11:45 am, a two-member squad from the Economic Offences Wing (EOW) of the Odisha police, spearheaded by Deputy Superintendent of Police Sasmita Sahoo, descended upon a nondescript hotel in the dusty town of Sri Ganganagar, Rajasthan. Exhausted but resolute, they had pursued 40-year-old Gurtej Singh Sidhu, the alleged mastermind behind a colossal “cryptocurrency scam” valued at nearly ₹1,000 crore, across a relentless chase spanning Goa, Delhi, Amritsar, and finally Rajasthan.
Operating discreetly in plainclothes, the team arrived with a clear objective. Although they believed Sidhu occupied one of the hotel’s “super deluxe” rooms, they wisely chose to discreetly confirm his presence first. A hotel waiter subsequently validated his identity, matching both name and description. Just before 1 pm, accompanied by Rajasthan Police personnel, the EOW squad made a swift entry into the room. Initially, Sidhu attempted to proclaim his innocence but fell silent as the officers detailed the extensive list of unsuspecting victims ensnared by his multi-level marketing scam, recounted Sahoo.
The EOW disclosed that Sidhu was the driving force behind a scheme known as Solar Techno Alliance (STA), which he purportedly presented as a cryptocurrency akin to the more established Bitcoin, Ethereum, Dogecoin, or Litecoin. Promising investors substantial daily earnings, ranging from $20 to $3,000, contingent on their participation and recruitment of new members, the scheme ultimately lured victims across various states, including Odisha, Bihar, Delhi, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Haryana. Shockingly, Odisha alone accounted for at least 10,000 victims, reported Jai Narayan Pankaj, Inspector General at EOW.
Subsequent to Sidhu’s apprehension, Odisha’s EOW apprehended two additional associates: Nirod Das, responsible for Odisha operations, and Ratnakar Palai, the propaganda head. Additionally, four individuals have been issued lookout notices by the Bureau of Immigration, including a Hungarian national.
The arrested individuals currently face charges under various sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), encompassing cheating, forgery, and criminal conspiracy, in addition to sections of the Prize Chits and Money Circulation Schemes (Banning) Act.
EOW’s inquiry into this case commenced earlier this year following receipt of intelligence inputs. Prior to pursuing Sidhu, DSP Sahoo posed as an NGO worker seeking supplementary income during a meeting with the Odisha head of STA, confirming their suspicions. Consequently, EOW filed a case at its dedicated police station on July 22. However, the true extent of this “scam” only became apparent following Sidhu’s arrest, revealing a sprawling operation spanning a dozen states, encompassing suspected money laundering, benami transactions, and potential involvement of NRIs in Canada, Dubai, and Hungary.
Pankaj expressed astonishment at the audacity of the scheme, masquerading as cryptocurrency while essentially operating as a multi-level marketing scam. He emphasized that thousands of individuals have suffered the loss of their life savings, characterizing the scam as among the largest ever witnessed in India.
Unraveling the Scam: How STA Deceived Its Victims
In the world of cryptocurrencies, where innovation and technology have redefined finance, the Solar Techno Alliance (STA) token emerged as a fraudulent scheme targeting unsuspecting victims. Founded in September 2021 by Gurtej Singh Sidhu, STA ostensibly presented itself as a cryptocurrency, leveraging buzzwords such as green energy and solar technology.
Sidhu’s deceptive strategy revolved around YouTube videos, Facebook and Instagram posts, and word-of-mouth marketing to lure new members into purchasing STA tokens, with initial investments ranging from US $30 (approximately ₹2,500) to a staggering US $10,000 (₹8.3 lakh). The promise of monthly returns, spanning 7% to 13%, contingent on the investment amount, enticed individuals from various walks of life.
Membership tiers, named after precious gems, determined the “daily assured income” for investors. The lowest tier, Pearl, guaranteed a mere $1.5 daily income, while the highest, Kohinoor, offered a staggering $2,500 daily income. Between these extremes lay tiers with names like Ruby, Emerald, Topaz, Diamond, Pink Diamond, Blue Diamond, and Hope Diamond. To participate, investors were required to install an e-wallet on their mobile phones, allowing them to secure a regular monthly return, subject to a 100-day holding period and the recruitment of additional members. Membership grants access to a 40-month withdrawal window.
Cryptocurrency has faced criticism due to its lack of connection to tangible assets and its potential to facilitate illegal activities such as money laundering and hawala operations. In the context of Sidhu’s STA scheme, the use of cryptocurrency masked a vast network that was built on the exploitation of innocent victims.