OneCoin Ponzi scheme fans gamed reviews on TrustPilot and Quora

Inauthentic accounts boosted purported cryptocurrency’s online reputation amid regulatory scrutiny

@DFRLab
@DFRLab
Jan 29 · 4 min read
(Source: @KaranKanishk/DFRLab)

As the cryptocurrency Ponzi scheme OneCoin faced increasing regulatory scrutiny for fraudulent marketing tactics, suspicious accounts launched an astroturfing campaign on TrustPilot and Quora to boost its online reputation.

The supposed cryptocoin made headlines in late 2019 for all the wrong reasons. Its enigmatic founder, “Cryptoqueen” Ruja Ignatova, mysteriously vanished from the public eye after getting embroiled in multiple legal cases for running the multibillion-dollar pyramid scheme. To lure investors, Ignatova manufactured and systematically promoted the idea that OneCoin was a superior alternative to Bitcoin, perhaps the highest profile actual cryptocurrency. The DFRLab found evidence to suggest that OneCoin may have also used inauthentic tactics to promote trust for its brand online.

OneCoin, a “digital currency”

An archived copy of OneCoin’s now-defunct About page. (Source: Wayback Machine)

Since its launch in 2014, much of OneCoin’s marketing compared it to Bitcoin. In her public talks, Ignatova often invoked the philosophy of technological libertarianism undergirding Bitcoin but positioned OneCoin as the superior alternative.

While OneCoin claims to be a private cryptocurrency, it functions according to the principle of pyramid marketing, using existing investors to recruit new investors. For each recruitment, the investor earns a percentage of the “profits.” The scheme eventually unravels once the pool of new investors dries up.

Hijacking TrustPilot reviews

Reviews of OneCoin on TrustPilot spiked in September-October 2019, just as the supposed cryptocurrency was facing significant scrutiny. (Source: @KaranKanishk/DFRLab)

Similarly, breaking down OneCoin’s TrustPilot ratings by month revealed that the website received a fair amount of one-star ratings but that those ratings were buried under a sudden spike in five-star ratings in October 2019.

OneCoin’s ratings on TrustPilot showed a similar spike as the reviews. (Source: @KaranKanishk/DFRLab)

The DFRLab could not identify whether the reviews came from either automated or inauthentic accounts because of the design of the TrustPilot user interface. The October 2019 spike in five-star ratings, however, indicated an abnormal influx of favorable reviews just as OneCoin’s public relations and legal woes mounted. The possibility remains that the influx for both ratings and reviews was organic, though the timing and extreme bias was highly suspicious.

Quorauthentic behavior

One of the profiles was “Alicia Gordez,” a self-described “Cryptocurrency Expert and Investor” who exclusively answered questions about OneCoin. No profile picture or other social media accounts on other platforms could be linked to this account, though Quora’s only policy on misrepresentation is a sparse answer regarding sockpuppeting that does not address profile photos or accuracy of profile details. The Alicia Gordez account was active from January to March 2018 and seems to have been most prolific during OneCoin’s booming days.

Timeline of “Alicia Gordez’s” activity on Quora. (Source: Quora/archive)

Another account, “Gabriel Pillaih,” had responded to only two questions, both about OneCoin and had no profile picture and a very low follower count.

Gabriel Pillaii’s profile on Quora. (Source: Quora/archive)

Many other accounts presented themselves as subject-matter experts on cryptocurrency and yet only commented on the viability or value of OneCoin. The DFRLab could not confirm the identity of the individuals, as searches on other social media platforms returned no similar or matching results.

Conclusion

On two sites — TrustPilot and Quora — the DFRLab found evidence of inauthentic activity in reviews and discussions related to OneCoin. While there was no direct evidence tying these inauthentic profiles and reviews to OneCoin employees or evidence of automated activity on either platform, the profiles and favorable reviews nonetheless served to boost trust for the OneCoin brand as it faced a multibillion-dollar scandal.


Kanishk Karan is a Research Associate with the Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).

Follow along for more in-depth analysis from our #DigitalSherlocks.

DFRLab

@AtlanticCouncil’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. Catalyzing a global network of digital forensic researchers, following conflicts in real time.

@DFRLab

Written by

@DFRLab

@AtlanticCouncil's Digital Forensic Research Lab. Catalyzing a global network of digital forensic researchers, following conflicts in real time.

DFRLab

DFRLab

@AtlanticCouncil’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. Catalyzing a global network of digital forensic researchers, following conflicts in real time.

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