Fear And Loathing In The Time Of Contagion

Protest rally against Governor Whitmer's order to stay home in Lansing, Michigan
Protest rally against Governor Whitmer's order to stay home in Lansing, Michigan
Benjamin Witte

It is, of course, inevitable that governments' stay-at-home orders and other emergency measures to contain the novel coronavirus would generate differences of opinion.

And yet, even a few weeks ago, it was hard to imagine that it would take as ugly a turn as what's happening right now in the U.S. state of Michigan, where multiplying death threats against Governor Gretchen Whitmer forced authorities to close down the Capitol Building.

On various Facebook pages, people who planned to attend a far-right "Judgement Day" demonstration at the Capitol left comments this week calling for Whitmer "to be hanged, lynched, shot, beaten or beheaded," Newsweek reports. One internet-savvy thug suggested crowdfunding sources to hire a hitman.

That participants in previous protests against the governor's statewide shutdown order showed up in paramilitary-style garb and brandished assault weapons adds an obvious level of gravitas to the threats.

As an American, watching it unfold from my home in France, it's important to note that there's a political and cultural context to the standoff in Michigan that goes beyond the issue of COVID-19. And yes, it is distinctly American — particularly in the era of Trump, who describes the armed, star-spangled protestors as "very good people."

Still, facing the same global health crisis, the United States isn't alone clearly when it comes to public division and distrust: In South Korea, fears of a second wave of the coronavirus have intersected with an undercurrent of homophobia following reports linking a new outbreak of the disease to a gay nightclub, Seoul correspondent Morten Soendergaard Larsen wrote in Foreign Policy.

Elsewhere, the divisions are more subtle. Here in France, for example, French broadcaster France Bleu reported on a flurry of finger-pointing after the partial lifting this week of a two-month lockdown prompted mostly young people to pack the banks of the Saint-Martin canal in Paris for a long-awaited drink outside with friends.

That an evening apéro could be construed as a moral issue speaks volumes about the nature of this particular crisis. There are, of course, gestures here and there of solidarity. But in this bizarre context of contagion and forced confinement, more than good will, what really seems to be spreading is blame and suspicion of anyone who sees the pandemic differently than you.

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Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money but the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.

Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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