Set It and Forget It

Vanuatu, Ransomware, Trevor Milton, Jewel Heist, and Ron Popeil

Vanuatu

Vanuatu is a small island nation in the South Pacific. It looks beautiful in photos, and is probably a lovely place to visit. One way the government makes money is by selling citizenship to people who want to invest in or immigrate to Vanuatu. It’s a big business for them:

The sale of passports brought in more than US$100m to the Vanuatu government last year, with analysis by Investment Migration Insider finding it accounted for 42% of all government revenue in 2020. Revenue from the program has enabled Vanuatu, one of the poorest countries in the world, to reduce its debt stock.=

This seems good! Anything to help a poor island nation survive. However:

A months-long investigation by the Guardian has detailed for the first time how, for US$130,000 each, Vanuatu sold passports – and with them visa-free access to the UK and EU – to thousands of individuals, including some high-profile former politicians, and also to people linked to sanctions, or facing serious allegations, or with warrants out for their arrest.

Two names on the list of people facing serious allegations are the Cajee brothers, who are currently on the lam after disappearing with a few billion dollars in crypto. They’ve got some good company on Vanuatu, if that’s where they’re holed up:

Libya’s former UN-backed prime minister Fayez al-Sarraj purchased Vanuatu citizenship for himself and his family in January 2020 while still in office.

[…]

The disgraced former Turkish banking mogul Hayyam Garipoglu obtained Vanuatu citizenship in January 2020.

[…]

Abdul Rahman Khiti, a Syrian businessman obtained Vanuatu citizenship in January of this year. Just a few weeks earlier, the US imposed sanctions on a number of Khiti’s businesses.

[…]

Vinay Mishra, a former leading Indian politician accused of fleeing justice amid a high-profile corruption case, currently lives in Vanuatu.

The most interesting of the people named in the Guardian piece is this guy:

Gianluigi Torzi has not only been granted a Vanuatu passport, he has already had to surrender it to police.

Torzi, an Italian businessman accused of extorting the Vatican of €15m ($17.75m) in relation to the purchase of a luxury London property, was forced to surrender his Vanuatu passport to UK authorities in May.

I am not a lawyer or an Italian, but I feel like extorting the Vatican is not the best idea. They have a lot of money and a long memory. Anyhow! Vanuatu seems like a great place to visit, but you might bump into the occasional international criminal at the hotel bar.

Ransomware

We talk a fair amount about people suing companies for things. We also talk about ransomware, which is becoming the crime of choice as crypto values rise. We also also have talked about Colonial Pipeline, who got hacked, paid the ransom, but not before gas supplies across parts of the US were disrupted:

At first [Eddie] Darwich was skeptical of the other gas station owners who were calling him with news of a strange computer hack attack on Colonial Pipeline, the company that ran the network of fuel pipes serving much of the East Coast. The pipeline had been shut down, and panicked drivers were buying extra fuel, leading to a run on gas supplies.

[…]

On May 12, five days after an employee in Colonial’s control room discovered the hack, Darwich’s pumps ran dry. He desperately called his supplier, who told him the only thing he could do was wait. Darwich wasn’t the only one who needed gas: Thousands of stations in a dozen states were in the same bind.

Well, now people are suing Colonial:

Now he’s suing Colonial Pipeline over those lost sales, accusing it of lax security. He and his lawyers are hoping to also represent the hundreds of other small gas stations that were hurt by the hack. It’s just one of several class-action lawsuits that are popping up in the wake of high-profile ransomware attacks.

Another lawsuit filed against Colonial in Georgia in May seeks damages for consumers who had to pay higher gas prices. A third is in the works, with law firm Chimicles Schwartz Kriner & Donaldson-Smith LLP pursuing a similar effort.

In the past, companies mostly had to worry about data breaches - hackers stealing millions of credit cards or other consumer data. Now they have to worry about all the secondary effects of a ransomware attack, like gas station owners who can’t get fuel. The lawyers think it’s great, though:

This is an extremely developing and increasing area,” said John Yanchunis, a veteran class-action lawyer with Morgan & Morgan who worked on data breach lawsuits against Yahoo, Equifax and Target. His firm is involved in the lawsuit against Colonial that seeks to represent gas station owners.

There is an important discussion to be had about the investments large companies make in IT security, and there should absolutely be ways to punish them for their mistakes. I don’t know if endless class action lawsuits are the best way to accomplish this since, as we’ve seen, it’s often only the lawyers who make money from them.

Trevor Milton

I know we talk a lot about Trevor Milton and Nikola, but it’s not my fault they keep making news:

In Southern District of New York federal court on Thursday, Nikola founder Trevor Milton was charged with securities fraud. The charges allege that Milton made a series of materially false claims which portrayed the electric vehicle company Nikola as far closer to releasing a functional product than it actually was, and raising more than $500 million of investment in the process.

Finally! I know these investigations take awhile and the SEC has a lot on its plate, but this case seems pretty cut and dried:

Specifically, the indictment argues Milton used a staged video to create the false impression its Nikola One semi truck prototype was capable of moving under its own power, when in fact the vehicle was simply rolling downhill. Additionally, Milton falsely claimed the company was producing its own hydrogen fuels at below-market rates and had obtained “billions and billions and billions and billions” of dollars worth of committed truck orders, according to the indictment.

These are things you can’t do if you’re running a publicly traded company. The SEC will notice! Heck, you probably can’t say most of this stuff if you run a private company either, because you’ll be sued by your investors. There’s some new details in the indictment about how hard Nikola had to work to stage the truck stunt:

The indictment confirms that the truck’s movement was the result of rolling from the top of a hill, and claims the “towing-and-rolling process” was repeated three times to generate footage for the company’s commercial. Some footage was also sped up in editing, which “had the effect of making the Nikola One appear to move faster.”

Also how not a truck the truck was:

The indictment also gives more detail on precisely how nonfunctional the vehicle was. Prosecutors say all electrical components in the truck were powered externally (rather than from the truck’s battery), neither the fuel cell nor hydrogen gas storage tanks had been installed, the air compressor and turbine had not been commissioned, the gearboxes had not been assembled, and the vehicle-level controls were not complete. The dashboard interface that Milton appeared to use to start the truck was an off-the-shelf tablet and was not integrated into the vehicle’s systems in any way, the filing also alleges.

This is a lot of effort to put together a scam video, but in a deeply depressing way it did actually work, since Nikola went public and is still in business, and many of its executives - especially Milton - made a lot of money from the deal. I look forward to a trial with exhibits like this one:

Jewel Heist

We are suddenly talking a lot about jewel heists, because another one happened in France this week:

French police have arrested two suspects after a thief took jewels worth between €2m and €3m (£1.7m and £2.55m) from an exclusive Paris store and scooted off before the alarm could be raised.

They are using “scooted” literally in this case:

CCTV shows the alleged thief, grey-haired and wearing a light-grey suit, white shirt and tie, arriving at the store about 5.10pm on Tuesday. Shortly afterwards he was filmed leaving the shop with a white bag of jewels and gemstones and departing on a green scooter that he had left parked outside.

Apparently he posed as a customer, then drew a knife and threatened workers, making off with millions of dollars’ worth of expensive jewelry. Oh, and also:

After the heist, potential witnesses at a nearby cafe told Le Parisien they saw and heard nothing. Many were reportedly distracted by the presence of one-time screen hard man and martial arts specialist Jean-Claude Van Damme at the nearby opticians.

Was JCVD in on it? Why are Europeans suddenly so into jewel heists? I have so many questions.

Ron Popeil

Ron Popeil, godfather of the infomercial, passed away this week. Some of the stuff he sold was good, some of it was junk, but no one sold it like Ron:

Mr. Popeil’s mastery of television marketing, dating to the 1950s but spanning several decades, made him nearly as recognizable onscreen as the TV and movie stars of his era. Several of his catchphrases — especially “But wait! There’s more” and “set it and forget it” — have endured beyond his retirement.

[…]

“Ron literally invented the business of direct-response TV sales,” Steve Bryant, a one-time QVC host, said in 1994. “Ron paints in very definable brushstrokes, and every doubt in the customer’s mind is wiped away.”

He had…quite the family:

His father, Samuel Popeil, was the inventor of the Chop-O-Matic and several other well-known items, and as a teenager Ron began selling his father’s inventions at a Walgreen’s store in Chicago.

He described his relationship with his father, who died in 1984, as all business. In 1974, Samuel’s second wife, Eloise, was convicted of attempting to hire two men to murder him. After serving 19 months of her sentence, the couple later remarried.

Even if you don’t know Popeil’s name you may recognize the brand he created, Ronco:

After getting his start selling his father’s products, Mr. Popeil created his own company, Ronco, which he sold in 2005 for about $56 million. The company’s sales dropped 35 percent in the year that followed, and the company went bankrupt within two years before being revived in 2008.

SNL did skits about his gadgets. Weird Al wrote a song about him. Popeil wasn’t bothered, since he knew who he was:

“I’ve gone by many titles: King of Hair, King of Pasta, King of Dehydration, or to use a more colloquial phrase, a pitchman or a hawker,” Mr. Popeil said in 1995. “I don’t like those phrases, but I am what I am. Pick a product, any product on your desk. Introduce the product. Tell all the problems relating to the product. Tell how the product solves all those problems. Tell the customer where he or she can buy it and how much it costs. Do this in one minute. Try it. You know what it sounds like? It comes out like this: Brrrrrrrrrrr.”

Rest in Peace, King of Hair.

Short Cons

Bloomberg - “On that basis, stablecoins could well be taking questionable reserve assets and converting them into stable digital cash.

WaPo - “Facebook ads from Kirk’s tax-exempt nonprofit insist the government has “NO RIGHT to force you to inject yourself with an experimental vaccine,” and say the best response to outreach about the shots is to, “LOCK YOUR DOORS, KIDS!!”

ProPublica - “The city of Youngstown, Ohio, is cracking down on a company that touts itself as the maker of the world’s first self-chilling beverage can, saying it hasn’t lived up to its pledge to hire workers and bring economic development to the city’s long-suffering East Side.

Raw Story - “A self-described hacktivist shared the website's data with the newspaper, showing that most users have only 100 magacoins, but at least some of them have taken advantage of an offer of 1,000 free magacoins to certain radio hosts, media personalities, bloggers and grassroots groups who agree to promote the cryptocurrency.

Tips, thoughts, or As Seen on TV gadgets to scammerdarkly@gmail.com