We lost everything: UAE and Middle East residents scammed in 'like-and-earn' scheme

Dodgy earning app Sky Media that claimed partnership with YouTube, TikTok and Facebook halts withdrawals and vanishes


Mazhar Farooqui

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File photo used for illustrative purposes
File photo used for illustrative purposes

Published: Fri 16 Jun 2023, 8:55 AM

Last updated: Thu 16 Nov 2023, 1:17 PM

After losing his job as a cleaner in Dubai, Godfrey Mugunga, 33, found himself at the crossroads. With his back against the wall, the Rwandan took a leap of faith and entrusted his entire $2,500 (Dh9,175) savings to Sky Media, an 'earning app' that promised a way out. The offer seemed straightforward: Watch a YouTube video and earn a daily income of $35 (Dh128).

This opportunity held the potential to sustain not just Mugunga, but also his family including his infant daughter. However, what initially seemed like a hopeful lifeline soon turned out to be a devastating deception, leaving Mugunga and countless others shattered, their financial futures in ruins.

Over the past two weeks, multiple victims, like Mugunga, have shared their harrowing stories with Khaleej Times. They have detailed how they were deceived into joining Sky Media, an overseas company supposedly based in the US and engaged in social media marketing, claiming to be in partnerships with YouTube, TikTok, and Facebook.

Here's how the app is advertised:

The company's app offered a trial period to earn up to $20, with the option to withdraw the money in Binance or USDT, a stablecoin linked to the US dollar. However, to maximise their earnings, users were encouraged to upgrade to VIP levels, requiring investments ranging from $150 to $40,000.

Here's how an "agreement" reportedly looks:

The assigned task seemed straightforward: Watch videos, interact with posts, leave a like and comment. It seemed like an opportunity too good to pass up. Shortly after its launch in 2022, Sky Media witnessed a surge in registrations from across the group.

Here's a look at one such group:

One Telegram group alone comprises over 22,000 victims, primarily from the Middle East. Among them are 20 employees working at a hotel in the Dubai Marina area. Several victims reached out to this Khaleej Times reporter to narrate their misfortune. Over many meetings, e-mail exchange, chats and phone calls, it was found that each of these victims suffered financial losses ranging from $2,000 to $15,000. Abdul Qader, an affected individual, estimated his personal loss at $2,500. "Collectively, our losses exceed Dh200,000," informed Qadir.

Contentment prevailed among the participants as long as payments continued to flow in. However, their sense of security was shattered in early May when the company suddenly halted all withdrawal requests and its entire team vanished without a trace.

E-mails sent to Sky Media by Khaleej Times remain unanswered. The Sky Media app is no longer available, and the phone numbers listed on its website are no longer functional.

Mugunga said his involvement with Sky Media began in February 2023 when he was searching for a new job while on a cancelled visa. A friend invited him to a hotel in Deira, where Sky Media agents recruited new members and encouraged investments.

"Convinced by their promises, I invested $400," he recalled. However, a week later, a manager persuaded him to bring more people into the business and upgrade his package. He added: "So I invested an additional $850, bringing our total holdings to $2,500." Just one day after making the payment, Sky Media halted withdrawals and vanished.

Ironically, just before this freeze, the company had proposed a limited-time scheme, promising chances to win iPhones, laptops, Audis, BMWs, and cash rewards. Reportedly, "thousands of people" from the Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia invested substantial amounts, completely unaware of the company's premeditated escape plan.

Jhocy Llena, a Filipina expat in Dubai, said that she and her friend collectively lost nearly $57,000 (Dh209,000) to the racket. Similarly, A Khan and Mohammed Mohibullah from Qatar estimated their losses at $5,000 (Dh18,350) each.

Elena Topliceanu, a former employee at a Dubai hotel hailing from Romania, discovered Sky Media through a friend. "It was introduced as a marketing company serving famous clients seeking more likes and subscribers for their media channels," said Elena. "I was told I could invest anything between $400 (Dh1,468) and $400,000 (Dh1.47 million). Withdrawals were made in a virtual cryptocurrency wallet, and payments were in USDT," she said.

Initially skeptical, Elena and her husband observed videos featuring team leaders and managers from the Middle East, assuring them of the company's legitimacy. Gaining confidence, they decided to invest. Elena recalled: "My husband contributed 400 USDT, and then I forked out 1,250 USDT."

The couple was subsequently added to Sky Media's Telegram and WhatsApp groups, where messages and videos propagated the illusion of success. "Events and meetings were organised, and offices and conference rooms were rented to make everything seem real. Team leaders were appointed for each region, speaking on behalf of Sky Media to encourage more people to join," said Elena.

On the weekend of May 5-8, a lucky withdrawal event was held, accompanied by enticing bonuses. Many fell for the ruse. Elena said when the payments dried up, and she voiced her concerns, she was expelled from the company's official groups. In response, she created a support group to unite those seeking accountability and restitution.

"More and more people joined, hoping that those behind this fraudulent scheme would be held accountable," she said. "We lost everything, including the trust of our families who contributed to Sky Media's pockets."

Saif Patel from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, who lost $1,500, said the daily income depended on the level of investment. "For example, those at level 3, who had invested $1,250, received a daily income of $34. Although users could withdraw funds daily, a 15 per cent tax on withdrawals exceeding $10 USDT led most people to accumulate $10 daily before making a withdrawal. The process took 24 hours to credit funds into their Binance wallets and remained inactive from Friday to Sunday," he explained. "There were other lucrative rewards to keep people caught in, like a reward of 200 USDT for introducing a person at level 3, then a lucky draw with prizes from 500 USDT to iPhones to even cars if you upgrade your level."

Ali Al Laban, who invested $400 in Sky Media, eventually upgrading to VIP Level 3 with $1,250, said when transactions suddenly stopped for a week, the company claimed their system had been hacked. "They demanded additional payments for various reasons, leading to mounting suspicions. Finally, they closed the platform, only to reappear under a new name." TK from Saudi Arabia, who lost an undisclosed sum of money, said in hindsight, he feels the company was paying old investors from money given by new ones. "It's the classic trait of a Ponzi scheme," he added.

Intriguingly, Sky Media's promotional material had a detailed section explaining why they were not a Ponzi scheme:

"The biggest problem with the Ponzi scheme is that there is no product and no real income. It is to use the money of later investors to pay the initial investors. It will collapse if no one invests," reads an extract from their brochure.

Residents warned

In a continuous effort to safeguard residents, authorities in the UAE have issued repeated warnings against deceptive social media advertisements that lure individuals with false promises of easy money and swift profits. Police departments across the Emirates have launched multiple campaigns on various social media platforms, aiming to alert the public about fraudulent websites, dubious social media links, and misleading online advertisements that entice victims with the prospects of attractive returns and high rewards.

Scammers also impersonate officials from government agencies to dupe the public. Abu Dhabi police warned UAE residents about increased fraudulent calls and counterfeit websites. Fraudsters employ deceptive text messages that imitate government institutions and officials that aim to deceive or lure individuals.

The UAE Public Prosecution also urged social media users to be vigilant and avoid dealing with unauthorised parties. Such entities use fraudulent methods and advertise themselves across social media.


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