A cricket-loving Sydney socialite, an affluent man-about-town — that’s how Harpreet Singh Sahni portrayed himself.
His friends saw the 45-year-old rubbing shoulders with the likes of Tony Abbott, Julia Gillard, and Mike Baird, and they’d ask jokingly when he was running for preselection.
After 12 years in Australia, Mr Sahni had accumulated an abundance of business ventures: a security company, a real estate portfolio, and a side-hustle promoting concerts for major Indian acts, like Punjabi star Satinder Sartaaj’s performance at the Sydney Opera House.
Mr Sahni had also followed the 2017 cryptocurrency boom, noting how it created unbelievable wealth for early adopters of Bitcoin.
Keen to get in on the action, for the next two years he ran the Australian operations of an international venture selling a new cryptocurrency.
But the scheme was a scam — something Mr Sahni knew from the get-go.
Indian police said his syndicate swindled investors out of nearly $50 million, nearly half coming from Australian victims.
It was ‘the safest investment on Earth’
In the winter of 2017, Mr Sahni began delivering seminars in lounge-rooms across Sydney, accompanied by a flashy Powerpoint presentation about cryptocurrencies.
“This is the safest investment on the earth right now!” he told one intimate gathering in Epping.
“This is the bloody future!”
He was promoting a new entrant to the crypto market called “Plus Gold Union Coin” (PGUC), which he told punters earned him between $5000 to $8000 on any given day.
Investors would be rewarded for recruiting new members with lucrative commissions and overseas holidays.
“People won’t be able to digest this,” Mr Sahni exclaimed, before dazzling his audience with technical details about blockchain technology and cryptocurrency mining.
By investing around $7000 in PGUC, he claimed, investors could have more than $100,000 in a year’s time.
To reap the maximum benefit, investors would have to lock into a 12-month contract during which they couldn’t cash out.
The bold facade begins to crumble
Popularity in PGUC grew quickly, and within months there were investors from 22 different countries involved.
But coin-holders soon discovered there was a problem — the PGUC website would go offline for weeks at a time, and if that wasn’t bad enough, the investors had no way to extract their money.
Then, in December 2017, the cryptocurrency price crashed, and WhatsApp chat groups lit up with users suspecting they’d been robbed.
In Australia, much of that frustration was vented at Mr Sahni, who responded with calculated nonchalance, assuring his investors everything was under control.
“Why are some people spreading false rumours in the group and stressing people out?” he told one Zoom meeting of concerned investors in April 2018.
“Don’t do such irresponsible things.”
A Ponzi scheme that preyed on faith
Mr Sahni would later admit that a few weeks after he got involved in PGUC, he started preying on some of his close friends to increase investments.
One of those was a softly spoken man named Dilip Bajaj, an influential coordinator of a local Indian-Australian spiritual community.
Mr Bajaj told the ABC he was only brought in to run technical seminars and he wasn’t in any way related to the Plus Gold Union Coin company.
“I did sufficient research to satisfy myself that my own investment into PGUC was worth a risk, and I told anyone that I introduced to a PGUC seminar to do the same.”
Background Briefing has discovered how his spiritual community, the Dada Bhagwan Foundation, proved to be fertile ground for Mr Sahni’s operation.
One senior member of the foundation told the ABC that nearly 150 people in the Sydney chapter invested in it.
A 37-year-old international student named Bhavesh Patel was one.
“I [was] in this very tough situation,” he recalled.
A factory labourer by day, Mr Patel had come into financial hardship after his wife suffered three heart attacks and required expensive medical treatment.
On one of his hospital visits, Mr Patel was accompanied by another man he knew from the Daga Bhagwan Foundation, who offered him an entry into PGUC as a way out of his troubles.
“To be honest with you, if they hadn’t met me in the temple, I wouldn’t have trusted them,” he said.
Bhavesh Patel spent a few days thinking about the peaceful Australian life he could afford from the earnings and agreed to invest around $30,000.
Another investor, a 32-year-old female who asked to remain anonymous because she works as a business analyst, told the ABC how Mr Bajaj introduced and recommended the scheme to her.
She’d known him for 15 years and trusted his judgement.
She went to a couple of the PGUC seminars and thought if Mr Bajaj saw it as a good opportunity to invest in, who was she to question it?
She and her parents invested $38,000 — money they never saw again.
Mr Bajaj says he lost money too, more than $22,000.
“I was [an] investor who got trapped into this scam and became a victim of the same and take full responsibility for myself as I took the risk with my own greed of getting [into] a quick-rich scheme,” Mr Bajaj told the ABC.
Indian police give victims ‘a ray of hope’
More than a year passed and victims were giving up hope of retrieving their money.
Multiple investors made formal complaints to NSW Police about how they had been robbed.
Then the news broke in August 2019 — Indian police had arrested Harpreet Singh Sahni in a New Delhi hotel.
It turned out they’d been monitoring him after a Sydney real estate agent named Rajiv Sharma filed a formal complaint in India over PGUC.
Mr Sahni was then driven almost 1000 kilometres in a police jeep to the city of Bhopal to be charged, Mr Sharma told the ABC.
“I didn’t even know this was possible. I was sitting at Bhopal police station when they brought him in front of me and asked me to identify him,” Mr Sharma said.
Mr Sahni stood expressionless before dozens of flashing press cameras as officers from the Madhya Pradesh Special Task Force announced they had captured the masterminds behind a $50 million crypto racket.
The police explained how nearly half that money had been stolen from Australian victims, and the money Mr Sahni and his co-accused had taken from investors had been spent at casinos and parties.
“It’s clear from this that they had no intention of investing and they had planned to deceive from the beginning,” Inspector Ashok Awasthi said.
‘I was fully aware,’ the ringleader confesses
In three written confessions, Mr Sahni admitted he had been approached by three Indian men in early 2017, who told him they could get people to invest in a cryptocurrency networking business and scam them.
He admitted he was fully aware it was a fraud, and despite this, continued organising promotional seminars to lure investors across Australia.
In one signed statement, Mr Sahni said he earned an eight per cent commission every time he got someone to invest.
He said he earned approximately $540,000 worth of PGUC coins and deposited $135,000 into his Westpac bank account.
In March this year, Rajiv Sharma delivered Mr Sahni’s confessions to Riverstone Police Station and lodged a complaint against Mr Sahni and his alleged co-conspirators.
Background Briefing has seen screenshots from the PGUC platform, showing that Mr Sahni, and the people below him in the marketing chain, had more than 1700 active investor accounts in the system.
Scam victim Bhavesh Patel said that if this had happened to 1000 white Australians with English as a first language, Australian law enforcement would have acted by now.
“I am sorry to say I am Indian; that’s why you can’t take any action,” he said.
Last November, Mr Patel tried to file a report at Blacktown police station, but said he left dismayed.
“I put in a complaint and the police [said they] can’t help me,” he said.
“What the police were telling me was, ‘look man, this is a volunteered investment, they didn’t put a gun to your head’.”
When Mr Patel tried to track down what had happened to his money, he said a member of Mr Sahni’s inner circle threatened his life.
In a statement, NSW Police said it “investigates crime without discrimination”.
It acknowledged a significant amount of evidence they had received would require the assistance of translators.
“It’s not unusual for these matters to take over 12 months, two years to investigate,” said Matthew Craft, the NSW Police Cybercrime Squad Commander.
“What complicates that further is when you have matters that do cross jurisdictions and overseas, it becomes far more costly and time-consuming to get that information in an admissible format.”
Despite confessions, victims are still awaiting justice
Meanwhile, members of the Dada Bhagwan Foundation said the scam had caused deep rifts in their community.
Some, like Bhavesh Patel, have walked away from the movement.
“As an international student, I’m struggling financially, they [the Daga Bhagwan community] should support me, but they took advantage.”
Back in India, Harpreet Singh Sahni is still facing charges worth a maximum 24 years imprisonment.
He and his co-accused will face Bhopal District Court on November 25.