The Belgian state is due to go to court on 8 November: 18,000 users of the Cryptoplatform Vitae blocked by Justice want to regain access to their coins. The court calls Vitae a pyramid scheme. The members think it’s an investment in a better world.

‘Join us, and make a difference, that is urgently needed today.’With stories about a better world with less poverty, two Antwerp citizens recruited members for their new platform: Vitae in 2019. A social network like Facebook, but more honest, linked to a cryptocurrency. Vitae would not make a profit by selling user data to advertisers, such as Facebook and related parties. Members could earn their own money by scoring likes.

  1. For months, even years, hundreds of thousands of people were members of the Cryptoplatform Vitae.
  2. Thousands of people paid monthly membership fees to test the Facebook Alternative for the global rollout.
  3. Suddenly, the court took the platform offline, as Vitae allegedly scammed customers with a large pyramid scam.
  4. While the judicial investigation is still ongoing, 18,000 members are demanding that the platform be reopened.

That’s how it works. Members pay $ 199 a month to test the platform. Paying membership is not mandatory, but it brings benefits, such as additional functionalities. A customer first buys vitae crypto’s, which are then converted into points. You can use those points to share posts. That costs 0.1 unit. If you receive a like of share, it yielded 0.2 or 0.3 units. The addition of new members also resulted in units. You could then convert the units in your digital wallet back into vitae coins at a later date.

‘I was suspicious in the beginning’, says an investor, who put 5,000 euros into the company. ‘Yet I gave in. I missed my chance once. When a friend advised me to invest money in bitcoins years ago, I didn’t. In hindsight, I could have been rich. I didn’t want to miss the chance again’, he says. ‘The representative also promised no extreme returns and the founders came across as reliable. Two religious Jews, who regularly stressed how much injustice their family had seen in World War II. They won’t con anyone, will they?’

‘The striking thing is that some people really made a lot of money with it’, he says. ‘I know a Belgian who brought 2,300 friends, who eagerly shared his posts. He could live off the proceeds of Vitae. But it only happened that way if you joined a lot of people.’

Little is known about the background of the Founding Fathers Mendy Z. And Shrage P. Some customers heard that the men had made a lot of money by investing early in the bitcoin. A photo of them posing with Jean-Marie Pfaff became notorious, because it gave the impression that the ex-Red Devil also invested in Vitae. But Pfaff says he doesn’t know the men and never invested in their company.

Other people – from Belgians and Dutch to Vietnamese, Indians, Filipinos, Americans and South Africans-did. The platform had 223,000 members in 177 countries when the Belgian court pulled the plug in June 2021.

On 22 June, investigators from the Belgian federal police and Europol raided 17 addresses in Belgium and Switzerland. During house searches, they confiscated 1.1 million euros in cash, 17 (luxury)vehicles, gold and watches. The court also blocked 1.5 million euros in virtual coins. Five suspects, including Mendy Z. And Shrage P., were arrested and interrogated. The public prosecutor considers Vitae a criminal organisation guilty of fraud and money laundering.

For the Vitae members, that action came out of nowhere. They did not know that investigators have been investigating Vitae in complete discretion since March 2020. The court sees the company as not a fair alternative to Facebook, but an illegal pyramid system. The updates for which the members pay monthly do not exist, according to the Justice Department. The system is based on the constant growth of New (paying) members and the promised roll-out of a free platform is always pushed forward. It’s not clear how Vitae would survive as a free service. This led to the suspicion that something was wrong. By requiring the purchase of vitae coins, the company created an artificial demand, which, according to the court, was based on nothing.

All reasons for justice to lock down the social network and the cryptocurrency. Those who browse to Vitae’s websites will see a STOP page from the authorities. Anyone who tries to visit the site encounters the message that the content is considered illegal by Belgian law. But many users don’t want to accept that.

Vitae member K. never felt the victim of scammers. She testifies anonymously, because she feels that the Justice Department is labeling her as a member of a criminal organization. She heard about Vitae from a friend. After a few information sessions, she became convinced of Vitae’s project. 200 dollars a month for a European alternative to big tech from America or China: that was an acceptable amount. She doesn’t say exactly how much money she put into the platform. She convinced others to join. ‘I still haven’t seen any evidence that Vitae was fraudulent’, she says. ‘First show that the money seized has a link to Vitae. And those luxury cars, they were mostly Audi’s and BMW’S. ’

Most of all, she feels like a victim of Justice. ‘Our cryptocurrencies have become worthless and we can no longer access our wallet. I find that scandalous.’ K. repeats several times: “Members from other countries ask for proof, and don’t understand that we’re already four months to get it.’

Also B., who wants to remain anonymous for the same reason as K., feels that Vitae did what it promised. ‘You could always see what happened to your money. The system was transparent. They had the company based in Switzerland, just because the cryptocurrency market there is better regulated by law. No one was obliged to pay for the upgrades. We did that voluntarily’, says the man. ‘I saw it as a way to continue to do charity after my retirement. I registered an Indonesian street kid at my expense. That could make one or two dollars a day. For someone like that, that’s a big amount. That the court should look at the members in Asia. We only ask for information and prove that this is fraud. This is still not happening after a year and a half of research. We are supposedly victims, but we are being treated as stepmother.’

Lawyer Hans Van de Wal (Elegis) will visit the court of First Instance in Brussels on 8 november for B., K. and almost 18,000 supporters of the group We are Vitae to ask for the reopening of the platform.
Compensation

Van de Wal will also claim compensation for the plummeted value of the cryptocurrency. ‘According to the court, my clients are victims, but only suffer damage from the blocking. Customers of a fraudulent bank manager can still access their account, right?’

Others wonder why Justice did not intervene earlier. ‘After two days I regretted my investment’, says the investor. ‘It just couldn’t be right.’ He investigated himself and found that the company did not have an office in Switzerland, only a PO Box. ‘I called the neighbors. They said that there were other companies registered at that address all the time. They’d never heard of Vitae.’The Trade Register of the canton of Zug has about a hundred registrations at Bahnhofstrasse 16, the address that Vitae used. The street appears in an investigation by the Luzerner Zeitung as a hotspot for P. O. Box companies.

The investor knocked on the door of the law firm De Groote-De Man, which called on the victims to report. ‘We help some fifty victims with a claim. There could be more’ ‘ says lawyer Jeroen De Man. ‘Not everyone thanks us. Our office got a lot of angry e – mails – often in English or Vietnamese-from people demanding that we stop. “We love Vitae. Stop your action.’ That really surprised me.’

Mendy Z. and Shrage P. are free on condition and dispute that they organized a fraudulent pyramid scheme. Their lawyer Walter Van Steenbrugge does not want to comment. Mendy Z. unexpectedly published a video this week, after months of radio silence. ‘We will show everyone that we are a movement of people who are committed to our goal and our mission. As long as we breathe, there is hope’, he says. ‘Where we encounter cynicism, we answer with that timeless slogan, which sums up the spirit of a people: ‘We are Vitae’.’

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