NFTs, crypto & a web of deceit: How a Bengaluru digital artist was duped

The crux of a scam that saw a 71-year-old digital artist in East Bengaluru getting conned into paying about Rs 1.58 lakh over a non-existent sale.
Last Updated : 22 April 2024, 02:17 IST
Last Updated : 22 April 2024, 02:17 IST

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Bengaluru: A dubious website, non-fungible tokens (NFTs), and cryptocurrency payments formed the crux of a scam that saw a 71-year-old digital artist in East Bengaluru getting conned into paying about Rs 1.58 lakh over a non-existent sale.

Shivaprasad R (name changed), a practising chartered accountant (CA), said he began doing digital art during the Covid-19 pandemic and nearly 50 of his paintings were part of several exhibitions in Bengaluru. His works were also uploaded on his Facebook and Instagram accounts.

In October 2023, a person claiming to be an NFT art dealer on Facebook introduced Shivaprasad to www.nfttradeplace.com — a marketplace for NFTs which are digital certificates of ownership for unique items like art, music, etc. stored on a blockchain that works as a digital ledger. Unlike cryptocurrencies, NFTs are distinct and cannot be exchanged on a like-for-like basis.

The “art dealer” told the artist that he was interested in his paintings and offered to buy them. Next, “negotiations” were held through Facebook and email, and 42 Ethereum (ETH) — a type of cryptocurrency worth approximately Rs 1.09 crore as of April 17, when the complaint was filed — was decided as the price.

“The bill was quoted by the victim during the negotiations,” a cybercrime investigator told DH.

Shivaprasad listed four paintings — Climactic, Wuhan Effect-1, Welcome to Kashmir and Climactic (second copy) — with 10, 10, 10 and 12 ETH as going rates, respectively. On February 1, 2024, he made the first payment and sent 0.115 ETH, equivalent to Rs 21,653.72, as “Gas Fee” or transaction fee.

“The victim made the payment from his crypto wallet, which he set up at the scammer’s behest,” the investigator said. As the sale was completed, Shivaprasad raised his first withdrawal request of 6 ETH. He waited for a few days, but no transaction was made. When he checked again, Shivaprasad was asked to pay a “delay fee” as he had held up the withdrawal of the cryptocurrency.

“This delay fee was never discussed nor was it exhibited on the website,” Shivaprasad said in his complaint. “Helpless, since I did not have ETH in my wallet, I asked if I could make the delay fee payment in Indian rupees,” he said.

The fraudsters accepted Shivaprasad’s request and as instructed on the website, the victim made four payments to Mohammed Ekramul Haque and Mohammad Farooq through bank and UPI transfers on February 5 (two payments of Rs 25,000 each), February 6 (Rs 22,000), and February 9 (Rs 50,000).

The last payment of Rs 15,000 was made to SK Humayun through PhonePe on March 15. “Even after making the above-said payments, the website kept asking me for further payments for the withdrawal of 6 ETH,” Shivaprasad said. He added that he hadn’t raised a request for the balance cryptocurrency as he was worried about more demands for payment.

His request to deduct the delay fees from the amount of sale and remit the rest was ignored. 

On April 17, he reached out to the cyber police who opened a case under 66C (punishment for identity theft) and 66D (punishment for cheating by personation by using computer resources) of the Information Technology (IT) Act and 420 (cheating and dishonestly inducing delivery of property) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).

“The first red flag was when the victim had to pay money in the form of fees,” an officer said. “It is highly difficult to trace cryptocurrency trails. As of now, bank details and domain details of the email address used by the scammers have been sought,” the officer said.

The sale that wasn't 

The scam centred around a website posing as a non-fungible token (NFT) marketplace Conman targets senior digital artist, feigning interest in his work Negotiations made through social media and email, with a high cryptocurrency price set for the art Despite completing the sale, fund withdrawal blocked by a 'delay fee' Multiple payments extracted from the victim under various pretexts.

Published 22 April 2024, 02:17 IST

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