By Decrypt

Three UK nationals are charged with orchestrating a $3 million scam related to the “Evolved Apes” NFT collection, the U.S. Department of Justice said on Thursday. Mohamed-Amin Atcha, Mohamed Rilaz Waleedh, and Daood Hassan are accused of wire fraud and money laundering in what authorities called a pump-and-dump scheme.

The DOJ said the charges stemmed from a 2021 scheme to get NFT collectors to purchase one of “10,000 unique” Ethereum-based NFTs called Evolved Apes that could then be used in an online battle royale game. The defendants made off with 798 ETH, worth around $2.7 million at the time.

“As alleged, the defendants ran a scam to drive up the price of digital artwork through false promises about developing a videogame,” U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Damian Williams said in a statement. “They allegedly took investor funds, never developed the game, and pocketed the proceeds.”

The DOJ alleges that Atcha and Waleedh aggressively promoted Evolved Apes, including hiring an unnamed social media influencer to shill the project.

A pump-and-dump scheme is when investors are enticed to buy an asset based on misleading information. The fraudster uses early interest to drive up the price of the asset, only to sell everything off and disappear—or “rug pull”—leaving unwitting victims holding worthless tokens.

According to case documents, Waleedh identified himself as the lead marketing manager for Evolved Apes when attempting to withdraw funds that had been stuck on an unnamed cryptocurrency exchange that the group was using. When Waleedh was allowed to access the funds, the DOJ alleged, he transferred them to a cryptocurrency address controlled by Hassan.

“Digital art may be new, but old rules still apply: making false promises for money is illegal. As we allege, thousands of people believed these false promises and were tricked into buying these NFTs, including here in the Southern District of New York,” Williams said. “NFT fraud is no game, and those responsible will be held accountable.”

If convicted, the trio faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in federal prison.

Rug pulls are rampant in the cryptocurrency space. Most recently, two rug pulls made headlines, including in May when a purported “mother and son” duo staged a scandalous livestream to pump the “LIVEMOM” token and made off with $300,000. This was followed by another scheme in which a pseudonymous creator shilled the “HANDS” meme coin.

“I don’t have hands, I cannot rug you guys, chill,” the creator said during a livestream on the NoHandsNoRug Twitch channel—only to reveal his hands before selling the 7 SOL accumulated in the scheme, worth around $1,000.

Edited by Ryan Ozawa.

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Source: Decrypt