The Mystery of “Ezekiel Osborne,” the Monero Cofounder Who Wasn’t

Just over a week ago, Forbes Middle East published a profile of Ezekiel Osborne, described in the piece as a “crypto millionaire,” principal in a Middle East-focused cryptocurrency services group, and, most impressively, one of the seven co-creators of the privacy-focused cryptocurrency Monero.

Much of this now appears to have been fiction. Known Monero developers have denied any knowledge of Osborne, while onlookers quickly noticed his resemblance to a man previously known as Zeke Echelon and also as Ezekiel de Jong. Under the name Zeke Echelon, this person has advertised himself as the “Worlds best pumper” (sic), a reference to running so-called pump and dump groups that engaged in collective market manipulation.

It remains unclear how this shapeshifter managed to get his face on the cover of Forbes Middle East. Neither Forbes Middle East, nor Claudine Coletti, the bylined author of the profile, have responded to multiple inquiries about the piece over more than four days.

Though we now have multiple confirmations that Zeke Echelon and Ezekiel Osborne are the same person, there remains much we don’t know, and we would welcome further tips. Here’s what BREAKER has uncovered so far.

On Friday October 26th, Ricardo Spagni of Monero posted an alert to Twitter declaring in part that “Ezekiel Osborne is not one of the original Monero core team members . . . nor has he EVER been involved with Monero in ANY way.” This contradicted claims made by Osborne to Forbes ME that, not only was he “one of the seven initial cofounders of Monero,” but that he was made wealthy because those founders “kept 50% of [Monero] tokens for ourselves” when the coin was launched. Spagni further called this claim of a premine “baseless nonsense.” Monero was released under intense scrutiny, and is generally believed to be one of the ‘fairest’ coins ever launched, with no premine or reserve for developers.

Related: Monero’s Malware Response Workgroup Just Wants to Help

There is one slim possibility that would make Osborne’s claim, if not true, at least truth-adjescent. Monero’s core protocol was derived from CryptoNote, designed and deployed starting in 2014 by a series of mysterious figures including Nicholas van Saberhagen (an apparent pseudonym) and thankful_for_today, who helped launch a coin called Bitmonero before the broader community took away control to create Monero, in part out of a dispute over apparently falsified records. Osborne might be claiming to have been one of these early developersbut even if he was part of early pre-Monero Cryptonote development, he would have been among those kicked off the project for being untrustworthy before Monero itself was created. (You can read more about the wild early history of Monero here).

In responses to Spagni’s initial debunking, several Twitter users pointed out that Osborne closely resembled someone known to them as Zeke Echelon. One user shared images of a now-defunct Zeke Echelon Twitter account showing a man closely resembling Osborne, complete with swirling chest tattoo. This Zeke Echelon touted himself as “Worlds best pumper.” (sic)

Pump and dump groups, often organized on Discord or Telegram, coordinate active traders to collectively buy small-cap cryptocurrencies to produce a pump in their price, then dump them on the market for a quick profit. This is considered securities fraud in many jurisdictions, though it was relatively widespread and open in cryptocurrency before it became clear that regulators including the U.S. Securities and Exchange commission would treat many ICOs as securities. In other words, hardly the pastime of an early bitcoin adopter worth $200 million, as Ezekiel Osborne claimed to Forbes ME.

More striking still, observers or participants in pumps run by Zeke Echelon have accused him of not even being an honest crook. His former twitter handle, @zekeechelon, has been taken over by a critic who refers to Zeke as a “scammer” and alleged in January that “Zeke was just piggy backing off of a large[r] pump and dump group.” The current @zekechelon account has also posted screenshots showing a headshot of a man clearly resembling Ezekiel Osborne attached to @Satoshisshotgun, another Twitter using the name Zeke Echelon.

A separate anonymous video alleges that at least one of Zeke’s supposed pumps was actually engineered by an investor newsletter called Palm Beach Confidential, which has also been accused of being a pump group. This may have been a pump of the token for Cindicator (CND), a blockchain-based information aggregator project.

Zeke Echelon may have presented himself as an investment advisor or wealth manager in other contexts. One email address shown in screenshots of Zeke Echelon’s pump streams is [email protected]. Some past allies of Zeke, including the account @lyleechelon, still include references to “Echelon Private Wealth” in their bios.

In February Zeke Echelon, by then using the twitter handle @satoshisshotgun, appears to have reached out to another trading account, @cryptostaker, to offer them a place in a pump group also allegedly including crypto day-trading personalities Philakone and Eric Choe. When @cryptostaker declined the offer, Zeke wrote that they should then “count us in your enemies and be ready for upcoming challenges.”

@Smokinether, who shared the interaction with @cryptostaker, was a regular viewer of Zeke Echelon’s livestreams. “In the live stream he used to make the viewers buy a shitcoin, then he would dump,” said @smokinether, who spoke under condition of pseudonymity. Echelon also showed the name Ezekiel Osborne accidentally on his stream, according to @smokinether.

After inquiry into his alleged affiliation with Zeke Echelon/Ezekiel Osborne, Philakone replied only “Me penis is big!” and immediately blocked me. Eric Choe has not commented.

The @satoshisshotgun account has since been suspended. The last functional Twitter account used by Zeke Echelon appears to have been @echelonzeke. It is now set to private, and did not reply to inquiries about Ezekiel Osborne. BREAKER reached out to several other email addresses affiliated with Zeke Echelon and received no response.

Perhaps the most compelling evidence that Ezekiel Osborne is a dedicated scammer is, strangely, not connected with his Zeke Echelon persona. A May 2 Medium postthe only entry from an account called Crypto Crewprofiles someone named Ezekiel de Jong. A photo of de Jong shows a man who is clearly Osborne at some sort of cryptocurrency conference—though the image appears to have been Photoshopped around Osborne’s face, suggesting the even wilder possibility that the crypto-pioneer Echelon/de Jong/Osborne has never actually been to a crypto conference. Many of the details in the (poorly-written) Medium post correspond to elements of the Forbes ME profile of Osborne.

Those include de Jong/Osborne’s supposed donation of “massive amounts of money to charities including those of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and the Salvation army” (sic), and his founding of Mt. Khalifa, a “multi-award winning Cryptocurrency hedge fund and blockchain advisory and development team.” The Mt. Khalifa website is largely broken, and its “Team” section is blank. The Forbes ME profile also includes reference to Lightspeed Tech, another company supposedly founded by Osborne. That company’s webpage is blank, except for…the Forbes ME cover featuring Osborne.

All of this suggests that Zeke Echelon had kicked off a grassroots effort to reboot his image as Ezekiel de Jong, before engineering a Forbes cover as Ezekiel Osborne.

The remaining question, then, is how Forbes Middle East failed to perform basic due diligence on a supposed “crypto millionaire” who made such outsized claims. One important factor here is the relationship between Forbes and Forbes Middle East. Forbes Middle East is published by Arab Publisher House, which licenses the Forbes brand from Forbes Media U.S. Forbes Media U.S. says it does not have any editorial oversight of Forbes ME.

A screenshot from the Khaleej Times story about Ezekiel Osborne

Forbes Middle East and the bylined author of the profile, Claudine Coletti, have not replied to repeated inquiries over more than four days about the reporting process that led to the profile. The profile is not marked as sponsored, and Coletti is a staff member, not one of Forbes U.S.’s notoriously unethical “contributors.” That suggests Osborne simply deceived the publicationa stunning journalistic black eye not only for Forbes Middle East, but, inevitably and regardless of its lack of direct responsibility, for the Forbes organization.

If Forbes ME was scammed, they weren’t quite the first victim. Osborne has also been covered by Khaleej Times, a seemingly legitimate news outlet based in the United Arab Emirates. That piece also credulously recounts Osborne’s myths of getting into crypto in 2012 and being “a founding member of Monero” in 2014.

The Khaleej Times piece also mentions that Osborne plans to launch his own ICO this month, which highlights the real risk of this sort of shoddy pseudo-journalism. Osborne is clearly ready to leverage the legitimacy granted by his fraudulent Forbes Middle East profile into another opportunity to exploit innocent bystanders. Publications who give him legitimacy are sacrificing their own.

Updated 10/30/18 1:53 p.m. with statements from Forbes Media U.S.