It seemed a simple proposition – perhaps too simple. JuicyFields, a cannabis investment platform, launched in 2020, allowed trading in both conventional and crypto funds without the background checks typically required for investment banking transactions.
According to Swedish attorney Lars Olofsson, it’s likely that many of JuicyField’s clients – he estimates up to 125,000 accounts – were unaware of the background check requirement or other discrepancies, which should have been red flags. Many of them were inexperienced investors that bought into JuicyFields based on the company’s slick marketing or on word-of-mouth from other clients that had seen significant returns – at first.
“Definitely, there was a grooming process,” Olofsson said of the company’s persuasive sales pitch. “At first, the investors did get some returns on investment, and many of them deposited more money then and told friends about it.”
In June, when JuicyFields was banned from investments and fined by German financial regulator BaFin, Olofsson believes its shadowy operators realized the jig was up. By July, the platform had shut down, with clients locked out of accounts overnight and the company’s social media accounts shuttered.
Olofsson’s research revealed that Juicy Fields GmBH was founded in Germany in 2017, with Dutch (Juicy Fields B.V.) and Swiss (Juicy Fields AG) subsidiaries to follow.
Viktor Bitner, a German citizen with Russian ties, founded the company as a “research & development company,” Olofsson said, but it didn´t start operations until spring 2020.
Following the money
Olofsson, who is also the CEO and founder of Malmo-based business consultancy PrioStarup AG, said that details have surfaced in contracts that JuicyFields held with various consultants and executives that indicate irregular activities.
“Bitner signed an agreement with a Swiss company, ALPINE Asset Management, and (its CEO) Fransesca Grecco, who received an annual management fee for $3 million. This is absolutely crazy and is 10 times as much as normal for these kind of consulting services. The only explanation is that both parties knew this was a criminal operation,” he surmised.
“I’ve [got] the agreement that was later signed with a Mr. Alan Glanse, who has presented himself as the [JuicyFields] CEO. This is not correct according to public records. … You can see that his compensation was $120,000 per year – only a 20th of what the Swiss lady got,” Olofsson added.
In fact, Glanse sparked rumors of Russian mafia involvement in July when he told Spanish finance publication El País Financiero that “three people with Russian passports” had hired him, adding he’d met with them only five times and that he was innocent of any wrongdoing.
During the interview, when confronted with documentation apparently leaked to the publication, Glanse said that Russian citizens and JuicyFields “shareholders” Paul Bergholts, Alex Vaimer, and Vasily Kandinski were “the real owners.”
Bitner also was mentioned as a “front man” in the article, though his actual role at the company has been obscured by a cast of hired consultants and executives that held C-suite positions.
Attempts to reach Bitner for comment were futile on social media accounts that have long been stagnant. A LinkedIn page lists Bitner as CEO at Juicy Grow GmbH. An attempt to reach Swiss consultant Grecco also did not receive response.
Reflections of Wirecard downfall
Clues from JuicyFields are scattered like seeds across news outlets, blogs, and social media, especially in the countries where the company found many of its investors, such as Spain, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal, Greece and Malta.
Bloggers and social media observers that track cyber criminals and scams began speculating on JuicyFields as early as 2021, with some making comparisons to the epic downfall of German payment processor Wirecard.
Listed on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange in 2005, Wirecard eventually became Europe’s largest fintech firm with a valuation of $28 billion – more than traditional financial institutions such as Deutschebank at one point. Though alleged money-laundering and fraud at the company had been reported by industry analysts and insiders since 2016, it was listed as one of the 30 most valuable companies in Germany by 2018 and expanded to establish an Asia Pacific branch and subsidiary in Dubai.
In 2019, the Financial Times reported on a series of suspicious transactions at Wirecard, which the company aggressively denied, as it had done with previous allegations. Wirecard filed suit against FT for misrepresenting “company secrets” in their reporting. Independent auditors were brought in by the company to address allegations.
By mid-June 2020, auditors revealed that $2.3 billion of cash balances that should have been in escrow accounts could not be accounted for, amounting to massive, complicated fraud. A search for the funds conducted by the company came up empty. This was quickly followed by the arrests of Wirecard’s top executives and insolvency proceedings by the end of June.
Police raids on the Wirecard offices continued, amid accusations of money-laundering and defrauding of creditors. Repercussions from Wirecard’s downfall brought about the resignation of then-president of German financial regulatory watchdog BaFin Felix Hufeld, and former Chancellor Angela Merkel and then-Finance Minister Olaf Scholz were called to testify in the scandal.
Why did it take so long for financial authorities to act, when irregular activities had been alleged for years? In 2019, regulator BaFin had already announced an inquiry into the company’s accounting and banned short-selling Wirecard stock. And it’s a question that’s come back around in the JuicyFields case.
The German regulator said they are unable to comment on Olofsson’s case but offered further details on JuicyFields.
“On 3 June 2022, BaFin prohibited Juicy Holdings B.V. from offering capital investments in the form of investment opportunities in JuicyFlash, JuicyMist, JuicyKush, and JuicyHaze cannabis plants to the public in Germany due to a violation of the German Capital Investment Act. Juicy Holdings B.V. is therefore not authorized to offer capital investments in the form of investment opportunities in cannabis plants in Germany,” a BaFin representative stated.
“Regarding our warning in relation to Juicy Holdings B.V.’s, I want to highlight that Juicy Holdings B.V.’s (alleged) capital investments were/are unregulated capital market products. This means that a company that offers such products does not require authorization from BaFin and is therefore not subject to ongoing supervision.”
Like the plot of an improbable fintech thriller, cannabis e-investment conglomerate JuicyFields has imploded into an apparent Ponzi scheme of massive proportions, leaving tens of thousands of online investors wondering who is responsible for the biggest swindle in cannabis.
Swedish attorney and CEO of PRIO Startup Ltd., Lars Olofsson, places partial blame on international banking systems, because several transactions generated by the JuicyFields platform should have triggered institutional systems that detect suspicious activity.
Financial regulatory agencies in in Germany and Spain also issued warnings about the company weeks before JuicyFields’ collapse in mid-July, when investors accounts were frozen.
“Several companies, organizations and individuals have facilitated this. An operation like this could never operate in a vacuum. It needs all kinds of suppliers who directly or indirectly facilitated or looked the other way,” Olofsson told Investor Times last week.
Recent developments indicate that suspended Australian fintech company iSignthis (ISX) and its subsidiary ISX Financial EU may be implicated in the scandal. Olofsson confirmed that the Australian bank received funds from JuicyFields.
By the end of July, Olofsson had been contacted by more than 300 victims, with an average investment of €30,000 each. He is one of several European attorneys listed on the JuicyFields’ website as taking cases of victims.
The scope of the scam is potentially enormous.
Fortune.com noted that JuicyFields may be the largest “crypto scam” of 2022, with investors out $273 million in bitcoin alone, though others speculate the actual amount will be in the billions. In Spain, attorney Emilia Zaballos said that her firm has received more than 6,000 emails in regard to the case.
Class action suits are beginning to take shape, though getting to the bottom of the rabbit hole will be complicated. There are dramatic theories regarding who may own the company and if they have absconded with the funds, or if the accounts were drained by hackers.
A revolving door of C-suite players, shady operators behind the JuicyFields website and alleged Russian mob characters left behind a confusing breadcrumb trail of addresses and registrations, in Amsterdam, Switzerland, Zurich and elsewhere – all of which lead to nowhere and no one.
Former JuicyFields executives basically have disappeared. Luxemburg-based publication Delano reported: “Identifying the companies involved – which may well be fictitious – locating their directors and tracing the flow of money will be a long-term task.”
Of no reassurance to JuicyFields’ victims, Olofsson added that he believes Russian organized crime involvement may be a strong possibility, though he has no conclusive evidence supporting that assertion.
Industry insiders and pundits said that JuicyFields’ business model and marketing tactics were suspicious from the start. Some pointed out that industry media on the topic was sparse, but piecemeal posts on social media hinted that all might not be quite right at the investment platform.
That didn’t stop international investors from signing up for promises of rapid returns – more than 50% in little more than 12 weeks – on per-plant investments with the JuicyFields cannabis growers. Clients were allowed to deposit up to €180,000 per account without background checks typically required for such investments.
The company invested heavily in marketing, becoming a splashy presence at industry trade shows where they plied potential customers with open bars and attractive spokesmodels.
At the International Cannabis Business Conference, held in Barcelona in March, JuicyFields was a conspicuous show sponsor, with two logo-ed Lamborghinis parked at the entrance to the show and at VIP events hosted by the company. At that time, accounts were still being opened, and investors were encouraged to sign up friends for financial rewards.
JuicyFields’ Timeline of Decline
By early June, the German Federal Financial Supervisory Authority, known as BaFin, issued a ban on investment in the company because it failed to file a required prospectus. Little more than a month later, BaFin levied a €1 million fine against the company for failing to withdraw cannabis for sale in Germany. JuicyFields responded, saying it was revamping its platform to comply with regulations.
By July 11, the company’s IT, customer support and payments “teams” announced they would strike the next day over disputes with management. The announcement triggered a panic among investors, who found themselves unable to withdraw funds from their accounts.
The next day, a Telegram account used by the company to communicate with clients was shut down, and contact information on the website was altered.
Recently appointed JuicyFields CEO Willie van der Merwe released a statement saying that the site had been shut down during “updating” in order to prevent hacking. It was the first of several confusing statements from various executives attached to the company.
On July 13, Communications Director Zvedza Lauric tweeted a video stating the website had been hacked and that the company was waiting to release funds. Statements on other social media said the situation would be resolved within 48 hours.
By July 14, van der Merwe resigned after less than two months as CEO, and company social media accounts started to shut down.
Three days later, former CEO Alan Glanse posted documents that indicated Paul Bergolts, Alex Vaimer and Alexi Kandinski were in control of the company. All are Russian citizens, spurring the Russian mob rumors.
On July 17, Brigit-Elisabeth Neumann, who claimed to have been CFO and a board member, posted a video and written statement claiming that changes to the website were made to “deceive” the platform’s e-growers. Her statement went on to say that she and a group of “directors” who had been listed on the site never had access to or anything to do with the JuicyFields platform.
Neumann indicated that she and these directors had formed JuicyFields AG and would file a complaint against the team at JuicyFields.io ,including Glanse, strategic partner Erika Misela and the Russian trio.
According to Spanish news outlet El Pais, JuicyFields sent out its last, confusing email to customers on July 19, which advised affected parties to “use the following email addresses to submit your story, speak your mind, send collateral for an emergency refund, or embark on a long road of endless conversations with our lawyers.”
The JuicyFields.io website has changed appearance several times since the collapse in July, and it is unclear who is operating it. The landing page now features a purple marijuana plant with Private Grow Operations Project” in a large white font and the JuicyFields logo in the upper left corner.
The page also features what seems to be an open letter for those wishing to file complaints, full of grammatical errors and links to various attorneys and victims’ groups. Cryptic screenshots of texts apparently aimed former executive Friedrich Graf von Luxberg (and his brother Stefan Ludwig), who have been implicated in the scam, also are included.
A link to refund instructions appears near the bottom the page and includes a statement saying that users that have submitted “required collateral” are already being paid from “remaining cash reserves.”
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