For Sale: One Name, Barely Used, Good Credit Rating

From name tag to price tag
From name tag to price tag
Giuseppe Bottero

MILAN - “Prestanome for hire: thirty years old, good credit rating, permanent job...”

More and more advertisements like this one are finding their way onto the Internet. Literally a “lend-name,” the prestanome has made the leap from mafia-esque dodgy dealings into the real world. “The only thing I had left was my name: so I sold it,” explains one young man.

Who are these people prepared to pay big bucks for the use of someone else’s name? To find out we put our own ad on the Internet, and after two days the messages start flooding in. The first requests ask shyly for “a hand” with prepaid cards. They offer 50 euros in exchange for our name and signature on a prepaid card worth up to 500 euros. To buy what exactly?

They are followed by the artisans and the small businessmen and women. “I’m looking for funding to buy some equipment for my business. Unfortunately, I also have a mortgage with my wife, so asking for a loan is impossible.” He needs a prestanome.

“Basically,” explains the carpenter from Lecco, north of Milan, “you ask for a loan of 15,000 euros. You keep a third, and I’ll pay you back the rest in around five years. You can request the loan from whichever bank you want, and when you have everything, we’ll get organized.” Deal? Maybe.

But it’s also a huge risk, because the “customers” are extremely vague when it comes to guarantees. Some even offer advice: use this website, it will lend you money, no questions asked. It’s all so easy. Too easy.

One day later, we receive a telephone call from Andrea, an entrepreneur: “I have a business with approximately 30,000 euros of debt. I’m offering you 3,000 to take over the shares.” And so on and so forth, the proposals getting ever more detailed.

Mafia links

On the other side of the equation, there are the people behind the prestanome. The accountant who, quite openly, offers a travel agency as cover for other, more suspect, activities. The 26-year-old beautician who is auctioning off her diploma including membership of her professional association. And the master of disguise: “Do you need a name for tax relief purposes? Contact me.” No sooner said than done. He is from the region of Veneto, living in Cambodia and replies a week later: “I’ve been busy.” He explains in detail how to set up certain types of business abroad, and offers us his services.

Is it legal? You hardly need to ask. But it’s not exactly illegal either. It is a grey area filled with things unsaid, dreams of easy riches, the scars of virtual handshakes and signatures in permanent ink with extreme consequences. “I need 12,000 euros, but I’d ask for 15,000. That way I can give 3,000 to you,” writes Silvia. “The money is to pay the 19 months of tax contributions which my husband needs to retire. I guarantee repayment.” Right, but how?

Just a few years ago, the word prestanome made you think of dodgy entrepreneurs with links to the mafia, or homeless people hired for a handful of euros. Now the pool of “providers” has expanded to include immigrants and unemployed young people, just waiting to be torn to pieces by those who know how to take advantage of the naïve and inexperienced. Or else the simply desperate. Placing your name in the hands of a business can be worth up to 5,000 euros. That’s at least three months of income.

But if it goes wrong, it goes very wrong. Stories abound of people who thoughtlessly gambled with their future. People like Marika, a beautician: “I thought I was helping someone in trouble, and I let him organize everything. Suddenly, I was drowning in debt, scared, and being chased by people I didn’t know who wanted me to pay back astronomical sums. It was a disaster. It seems so easy, but just by signing your name, you can lose everything. That is what happened to me.”

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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 for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.

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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