‘Close your eyes,’ says a glamorous woman wearing a sparkly jacket and a smart black dress. In front of her, 30 people look around awkwardly as she affects a soothing tone.
‘You look in your bank account and you see £1 million or £100 million and you recall what happened to you last week; you went to the British Virgin Islands and had a private appointment with Richard Branson because you have similar investments.
‘You flew there in your own private jet and you’re hiring a boat to Miami.’
Pictures of a cruise ship, a white town house and sports car pop up on a screen behind her.
Lilia Severina, pictured, praises the benefits of Bitcoin in a posh conference room in a Central London hotel. Money Mail had a reporter undercover to find out what the people who run Bitcoin seminars are telling savers about the risky investing craze that has got everybody talking
‘These are just some of the basic toys that would be very accessible as a result of a not very high investment’, she says, flicking her hand towards the images.
It’s the sort of luxury we’ve all secretly dreamt about — and apparently attaining it is oh-so-simple: just invest in Bitcoin.
The lure of making big bucks with barely any effort explains why so many people have poured into this posh conference room in a Central London hotel on a cold Wednesday evening.
Everyone here has seen an advert for a ‘free seminar’ that promises to teach them the secrets to investing in Bitcoin and other virtual currencies. The advert claims investors could double their money every three months.
It sounds too good to be true, but the event host, Lilia Severina, says it isn’t.
‘Some people in this room will be multi-millionaires in a very short period of time,’ she says.
According to Lilia, pictured, Bitcoin is the next big opportunity that could make the people sitting in this room multi-millionaires. We’re not so sure
It’s been impossible to escape news of the dramatic rise of Bitcoin over the past year.
The virtual currency is being talked about in pubs, hairdressers, at football matches — you don’t have to go far to find someone who fancies a punt. And they’re being spurred on by talk of lucky investors who have made a fortune from this so-called cryptocurrency — everywhere from Silicon Valley to rural Oxfordshire.
Last year, the value of one Bitcoin shot up from $900 to almost $20,000. But since its peak in December, the price has swung wildly, sinking as low as $6,000, before clawing its way back up to $8,578 yesterday.
The City watchdog says Bitcoin is so risky that ordinary savers should be prepared to lose everything if they decide to invest. Some high-profile banking chiefs, meanwhile, have claimed it’s a Ponzi scheme.
So Money Mail has gone undercover to find out what the people who run Bitcoin seminars are telling savers about the risky investing craze that has got everybody talking.
The cryptocurrency industry is unregulated, so there is no suggestion these seminars break any rules. But our investigation reveals grounds for serious concerns about investors being given the impression Bitcoin is a sure-fire lucrative investment with few downsides.
When I arrive at the Grafton Hotel, I’m met by Lilia’s assistant, who ticks off my name and shows me to the small conference room.
I take a seat in the front row next to three women in their late 40s who are clearly friends and deep in conversation about their busy jobs and children. Behind me is a young mother in a bright pink jumper who runs out the room to take a video call from her husband and screaming toddler.
On the other side of the room is a man in his 50s with a notepad on his lap, two young couples and a group of men in their 20s who look like they might work in finance or IT.
There is a projector screen in front of us playing a 90-second video on a loop. It starts with dramatic music, then cuts to a young man giving a glowing review of this seminar.
Just when I think I’m going to scream if I hear it again, Lilia puts on a different video showing American news presenters interviewing the likes of Bill Gates and Richard Branson about Bitcoin.
It’s been impossible to escape news of the dramatic rise of Bitcoin over the past year and the talk has been spurred on by talk of lucky investors who have made a fortune from this so-called cryptocurrency
Finally, the videos end and Lilia approaches the podium to introduce herself. She says she’s been in the financial technology industry for more than 20 years and advises companies about launching their own virtual currencies — known as an initial coin offering, or ICO.
She also lectures at universities, presents at conferences globally and is a mentor for The Prince’s Trust, she says.
Lilia is also chief executive of the firm holding this seminar — UGlobal Growth. On the company’s website it says: ‘We promise you that working with us will open a large number of opportunities in front of your eyes. We will guide you on how to capture them and how to scale your success. All you have to do is take action.’
According to Lilia, Bitcoin is the next big opportunity that could make the people sitting in this room multi-millionaires.
Many of the rich and famous — and ‘pretty much every billionaire in the world’ — are already investing in Bitcoin, she says, listing politicians such as Al Gore Jr, who served as vice-president to Bill Clinton.
It’s an impressive pitch — at least on the surface.
Unlike sterling or the U.S. dollar, Bitcoin is an entirely digital currency. The idea, Lilia says, is to have one currency that is available to everyone in the world, regardless of their background or where they live.
Billions of people across the globe don’t have a bank account or access to credit, but virtual currency could change this, she explains.
‘In five years from now, the whole banking system will be transformed,’ she says. ‘It’s like the internet. You have no choice but to be in it. Everybody is in it now, but the ones who got in it early are multi-millionaires and they are not in this room.’
Bitcoin is one of many cryptocurrencies, which exist only in cyberspace. You can exchange it via computers to pay for things, or trade it for hard cash.
One of the reasons for its popularity is that it is not controlled by major banks or central governments. This means you don’t need to pass a credit or identity check to use it, Lilia says. She claims this could help people buy a house in the future as they would not need to pass a credit check to borrow money.
But experts fear this makes Bitcoin the ideal currency for criminals. And British mortgage lenders and brokers are so concerned about Bitcoin being used for money laundering that many refuse to accept it as a deposit for a house, as they can’t trace it to find out where the cash came from.
Storing Bitcoin is a minefield, too — you can’t simply deposit it into a regular bank account. If you don’t know what you’re doing, someone could easily hack into your computer and steal it.
And it is difficult to spend Bitcoin, as so few places — and certainly no major High Street store in Britain — accept it. So if the currency collapses, you could end up stuck with a bunch of worthless virtual coins you can’t use to buy anything and that nobody else wants.
That’s why the head of the UK financial watchdog, Andrew Bailey, said in December: ‘If you want to invest in Bitcoin, be prepared to lose all your money.’
Lilia doesn’t seem put off by any of these potential pitfalls, though. In fact, she barely mentions them during the evening.
Her only warnings come much later in the presentation, when she says there is an element of risk involved with investing and that she ‘can’t remove it completely’.
But, she says, she knows how to manage these risks and the audience will be able to as well. Near the end of the talk she also says Bitcoin is ‘not for those who don’t have any money to invest’.
At one stage, the projector screen behind her shows several bullet points, which read: ‘Some of you will make millions. Some of you will make nothing. Those who act will make it good.’
It’s quite a claim in light of the recent price swings of Bitcoin, but Lilia has an answer to that, too: she says the falls make it a great time to invest, before the price starts going back up again.
‘Opinions vary on whether, by the end of this year, [Bitcoin] will be worth $50,000 or $100,000,’ she says.
To reach these giddy heights, it would have to rise by 483 pc or 1,066 pc in ten months. To put that in context, the largest ever ten-month rise in the FTSE 100 index of UK shares was 57 pc, between March 2009 and January 2010.
Banks don’t seem convinced. Lloyds and Virgin Money have banned customers from using their credit cards to purchase cryptocurrency amid fears that people are racking up debts they may never be able to repay.
Meanwhile, Facebook has announced a ban on companies advertising cryptocurrencies on its website.
Bitcoin is not the only option, Lilia continues. There are new coins being launched every day, such as Ethereum, Ripple and Dash. On the screen it says that by investing in these lesser-known cryptos you could earn returns of up to 3,000 pc. But many of these have also crashed recently.
And it is nearly impossible for ordinary savers to know which coins will do well. Even Lilia admits on her website that ‘99 pc of these hot new cryptos will crash and burn’.
To give her audience an idea of the ‘standard’ returns we can expect, she shows us some accounts she says belong to clients.
A man she calls Jason has apparently made a 482 pc profit ($42,650 or £32,592) in six months.
‘Boris’ has made $4,975 or £2,685 in ten days — a 300 pc return.
Lilia also claims you can make money from ‘mining’. This is how new coins are created. Instead of digging with a shovel, you allow other people to use your computer power to process Bitcoin transactions and are compensated for providing that service. The beauty of mining, she says, is that returns are currently around 144 pc and once you’ve signed up you don’t have to do much more for the money to roll in. Lilia claims her machine makes around $900 a month, or about £700.
Back in the room, eyes are starting to glaze over. It’s almost 8pm and Lilia has been talking for more than an hour.
But her pitch is about to tug on our heartstrings. She explains how she moved to London from Ukraine 23 years ago with just £5 in her pocket, and now earns a fortune.
‘How much money we can make is only limited by what we believe we deserve,’ she says.
Towards the end of the presentation, she tells the story of a man who remortgaged his house and is now ‘underwater’ financially.
‘So please don’t do that,’ she says. ‘Once you get the confidence you could consider doing that, but initially just put in the money you can afford to risk and learn on. We’re here to make it a success for you, but it is a learning experience and there is risk involved.’
The only time Lilia’s friendly smile slips is when someone in the audience tries to ask a question. ‘What about regulation?’ they ask. ‘What about it?’ she retorts.
Someone else pipes up: ‘If you are a true believer in cryptocurrency and you think it is unstoppable, why would you ever convert your money back into pounds?’
‘Because I like to have a good lifestyle and I want to buy a new car and a house for my daughter and maybe a plane,’ she counters.
The advert for the seminar had promised investors would learn the ‘secrets’ to investing in Bitcoin. So far, Lilia hasn’t shared any real advice — only raved about the huge returns you can make if you get it right. To get practical help and access investment opportunities, people have to sign up to her paid course later this month.
This is apparently so popular there are only five spaces left — and so exclusive that Lilia won’t even tell the audience the price.
‘It’s expensive, but you can afford it,’ she says. Those who are serious about applying are told to fill in a form and explain why she should choose them. The team will then email them to arrange an interview.
Applicants must also leave their credit card details — if they don’t show up for the interview they will be charged £29.
As I go to leave, I pass a handful of people scribbling down their details. Some look sceptical, but others seem excited.
Lilia says the evening was designed ‘to get people interested in Bitcoin and cryptocurrency, about what it could do for them if they decided to test the water and educate themselves about this emerging market.’
She says the seminar represented her view of the market and she did not see an issue in presenting these views to anyone. ‘My role in training is to turn the individual into a better investor. In the process I am uncovering multiple opportunities in this emerging market and am encountering new people to partner with,’ she says.
Laith Khalaf, a senior analyst at investment firm Hargreaves Lansdown, says: ‘The danger is people think Bitcoin is a one-way bet. Unfortunately, get-rich-quick schemes can make you poor just as fast, and if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
‘Bitcoin has shown itself to be very volatile, and should be considered only by sophisticated investors who understand cryptocurrencies and are using money they can afford to lose.’