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9 arrested in 'JuicyFields' cannabis fraud probe

AFP . The Hague
12 Apr 2024 21:00:56 | Update: 12 Apr 2024 21:00:56
9 arrested in 'JuicyFields' cannabis fraud probe

European police have swooped on website operators of a now-defunct cannabis investment scheme, Europol said on Friday, arresting nine suspects and seizing millions of euros in bank accounts and cryptocurrency.

Some 400 law enforcement officers raided premises around Europe and the Dominican Republic on Thursday in an operation against operators of the "JuicyFields" Ponzi scheme -- which Europol said duped more than 180,000 investors around the world.

Police arrested suspects in Britain, Germany, Italy, Latvia, and Spain, as well as one of the main suspects, a Russian, in the Dominican Republic.

"According to judicial estimates, the total damages resulting from fake investments in the advertised cannabis cultivation crowdsourcing platform amount to a staggering 645 million euros," the Hague-based law agency said.

"Actual damages could be significantly higher," Europol added.

"JuicyFields" which Europol called an "elaborate" online pyramid scheme, between 2020 and 2022 enticed customers to invest as little as 50 euros to buy a cannabis plant online in so-called "e-growing opportunities."

The website claimed to link investors with producers of medical cannabis, promising "annual returns of 100 per cent or more," Europol said.

Initial investors of the 50 euros were paid out double their investment.

"Motivated by these financial gains, many investors would raise the stakes and pay in hundreds, thousands, or in many cases even tens of thousands of euros," Europol said.

"The platform feigned credibility as it was not only represented in the digital world, but upheld the image of a trustworthy legal business structure with physical offices, staff and representation at cannabis industry events," Europol said.

Although 186,000 people paid over money to JuicyFields, some 500,000 "e-growers" were getting investment returns.

In July 2022 however, the scheme's backers abruptly removed company profiles from social media networks and stopped users from logging in to their accounts, freezing cash withdrawals.

Widespread reports to police triggered Europol to coordinate a complex investigation involving various European countries and agencies.

"After painstakingly piecing together breadcrumbs of digital evidence, investigators had drawn up a joint intelligence picture that allowed police forces across Europe to initiate this wave of arrests," Europol said.

The Russian suspect was at a property in the Dominican Republic which was searched by local law and Spanish law officers, accompanied by a Europol specialist.

Police seized cash, luxury vehicles, art, cash and various luxury items, Europol said.