Africrypt: ‘It wasn’t us’, say brothers – with no sign the R50bn they supposedly stole existed
- The two South African "kids" accused of making off with more than R50 billion worth of bitcoin have reportedly come forward, via a lawyer.
- Ameer Cajee and Raees Cajee say their Africrypt operation was hacked, and that they did not steal investors' money.
- They will co-operate with investigations, their lawyer says.
- Their cousin, and former co-director in Africrypt, separately said she trusts they "will come forward when the time is right and that they will provide the clarity that is required".
- Meanwhile there is no sign they had access to such a vast sum in the first place – not even by their own likely inflated claims.
- For more stories go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.
* This article has been updated below.
Did two South African brothers barely out of their teens pull off what may be the biggest bitcoin heist of all time, and escape with the equivalent of some R50 billion?
No, say Africrypt's Ameer Cajee and Raees Cajee about the accusation of theft – while it does not look as if they had access to anywhere near that kind of money, not even in their own (sometimes wild) imaginings.
Africrypt, an obscure crypto-currency investment operation, disappeared along with its founders earlier this year. This week the matter drew global headlines, after a local law firm involved in recovery efforts said the brothers had made off with 69,000 bitcoin – presently worth some R30 billion, but at the time valued at well over R50 billion.
Many people, including their family, have been looking for the brothers Cajee ever since, with little success.
On Friday they reportedly broke their silence, with their lawyer telling the BBC they stood by their claim that they had been the victims of hacking, and would co-operate with investigations. But their representative John Oosthuizen would not speak to details, said the BBC, including the amount of money that disappeared.
The suggestion is that the two brothers, referred to as "kids" by their family, left open the gates to the treasure house where they were keeping other people's money, and fled when they discovered it had been looted.
They have "very little life experience", Oosthuizen told BBC technology reporter Chris Vallance. Raees Cajee turns 21 on Sunday. Ameer Cajee is 19.
In a separate development, the brothers' cousin and one-time fellow director in Africrypt, Zakira Laher, said on Saturday she trusts they will come forward and explain matters. (See her full statement below.)
For reasons still not clear, the brothers were entrusted with large sums of money by South African investors. How large those sums were is not clear either; some investors claim they are owed millions – based on what appears to be inflated valuations – while others claim to have invested millions of rands, but have declined to provide proof – in the context of a tax crackdown on crypto holdings.
The 69,000 bitcoin number comes from Hanekom Attorneys, which said those tokens had been transferred from Africrypt wallets and the money "dissipated in its entirety". But the count was based on seeing blockchain-recorded balances change on a specific date, lawyer Darren Hanekom told Business Insider South Africa. Those balances are linked, albeit in roundabout fashion, to bitcoin addresses assigned to Africrypt investors. And so the 69,000 bitcoin were classed as part of the theft, while theft was assumed based on the reports by former employees who said they lost access to back-end Africrypt systems before the bitcoin disappeared.
But pooled accounts, and later remixers intended to obscure the flow of bitcoin, were a part of the Africrypt story, Hanekom said, and though he was convinced the amount involved was at least billions of rands, he could not be sure how much money was involved.
The Cajee brothers built their business on some wildly improbable claims. They listed returns that would see some investors double their money every seven months. They claimed to maintain those eye-popping returns with remarkable steadiness even as the price of bitcoin gyrated. They claimed they had created an artificial intelligence system that traded "without human intervention", while they were manually handling such easily-automated tasks as client transactions and communication. And, at one point, they claimed to have $100 million, the equivalent of some R1.4 billion, under management.
Even that, a fraction of the amount supposedly stolen, seems unlikely. Africrypt was a relatively new, and under-the-radar, operation. There is no sign it had the hundreds of thousands of clients apparently fleeced by the likes of Mirror Trading International, which ran what was named 2020's biggest crypto investment scam out of Stellenbosch.
Were the brothers laundering enormous amounts of money on behalf of organised crime, as has been tentatively suggested to explain where the money came from? There is no evidence yet that they had any connections that would give them entry to such a line of business, or that they would have had the confidence of those behind such enormous ill-gotten gains. Nor does the limited public data available via the blockchain support such a hypothesis – though there is not enough information to rule it out either.
Similarly, there is no compelling evidence either for or against the Cajee brothers' claim that they were, in fact, the victims of theft, rather than perpetrators.
By one interpretation, the duo carefully set up a classic "exit scam". Then, at the last second, they risked the entire heist by sending at least some investors a letter claiming they had been hacked, and now they risk their getaway by opening up communication through a lawyer.
By another interpretation, a pair described as cocksure – and not immune to the kind of operational lapses that could compromise IT security – were robbed, perhaps after fiddling their books, and fled in fear of vengeful investors.
Either way, those who handed cash to Africrypt seem unlikely to see it again, and regulators have little to offer other than warnings that there are many bitcoin scams around.
'I trust [they] will come forward when the time is right'
In the early hours of Saturday morning, the Cajee's cousin Zakira Laher, at one time a director of Africrypt, issued a statement. It reads, in full:
The past few days have taken a tremendous toll on my family and my mental health. I am mentally exhausted with the questions being thrown at me by journalists/suppliers and investors of Africrypt that I am in no position to answer.
The twisting of my words and the interpretation of a story that I have had no part of or that I am not able to comment on in the past few hours have been incredibly frustrating and I am exhausted and trying to get my point across and asked to be left alone.
The retelling of my words and assumptions being made are borderline defamatory ad not in the least what was said and reported on.
I have taken legal advise and I believe that I have said all that needs to be said. My official statement is that I have had no involvement in the company since late 2019. I have no idea where the brothers are nor do I know anything about the funds. I trust that both the brothers will come forward when the time is right and that they will provide the clarity that is required.
I humbly request that the media leaves me to look after my newborn and regain my health and strength.
I will be switching my phone off and not responding to any message for a while, if you are law enforcement contact me via mail.
* This article was updated after publication to include a statement by Zakira Laher.
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