It sounds like the plot of a William Gibson novel: a group of idealistic students use an anonymous digital currency originally intended as a joke to buy vital supplies of food and medicine, which they smuggle across the border to help their countrymen escape brutal persecution from an increasingly authoritarian regime digitally tracking their every move.
This isn’t the setting of cyberpunk thriller, though. It’s the harsh reality faced by a group of South American activists, or so they claim.
Doge Save Venezuela purports to be raising funds to help dissidents in the area, which is currently wracked by the largest anti-government protests in a decade. And they’re doing so using Dogecoin—a cryptocurrency based on Litecoin and emblazoned with the Doge meme.
Here’s how the operation apparently works: Since its launch at the end of March 2014, donations have been solicited on Twitter using the handle @DogeSaves. (The group also tried on Reddit but were not well-received.)
Though the exact size of the campaign is unclear, I am told it’s led by a small group of Colombian and Venezuelan university freshmen who exchange the dogecoins for medicine with a Colombian pharmacist in Bogotá willing to accept the cryptocurrency as payment. For reference, 1 dogecoin is currently worth around $0.000535, though it fluctuates constantly; one dollar is equivalent to 1,863 dogecoins at the current rate.
Food is reportedly bought in Cucutá, a Colombian city close to the Venezuelan border. The goods are then smuggled into the country through the jungle that separates the two countries, an operation made even riskier by the “FARC guerilla [that] has control over those borders.” Once inside Venezuela, the uncle of one of the activists who owns a truck apparently delivers the supplies to opposition activists.
After hearing about their campaign, I reached out to them for more information about their dissident activities. Concerned over government surveillance over Skype or email, we talked via Twitter DM (Direct Message) last week. It’s an understandable concern, given the Venezuelan government now requires grocery shoppers to log their fingerprints.
Doge Save Venezuela told me they’d spent $1486 so far, or an incredible 2,775,494 dogecoins—though the majority of funds apparently came from selling tickets to a private lottery competition they claim to run in Columbia.
Things were just starting to get interesting when I asked for some kind of proof as to who they are. (Cryptocurrencies are deliberately anonymous, after all.) That’s when they declared that they “don’t have to prove anything to anyone” and immediately stopped responding to questions.
Suspicious, I did some digging. Crawling back over their Twitter account (which has existed in some form or another since 2011) and their online presence elsewhere, it appears that the only Dogecoin wallet associated with @DogeSaves is DN2fvMDBSaAkvkTWfbK6SuLsMS1366oVoc. They had told me they’d spent just 86,760 dogecoins as of April 7—far below the millions of dogecoins that $1486, the other fundraising figure they had quoted, would amount to (even accounting for non-Dogecoin profits from the lottery).
A quick look at the dogechain (a public ledger of all past dogecoin transactions), however, reveals that wallet in question had, as of April 15, only ever received 25303.64796257 dogecoins, or a paltry $13.59.
Going further back through @DogeSave’s Twitter history, it turns out the account used to be used for a very different purpose. It was formerly known as @emetropoli and was used exclusively to spam links for pseudoscientific development apps for disabled children on the Amazon App Store.
The science behind one of the apps the account promoted, the learning assistant My First Numbers, was based on Glenn Doman and the Institute for the Advancement of Human Potential’s “dot method.” It has been described by the American Academy of Pediatrics as “unfounded… based on oversimplified theories… offer[ing] no special merit, [and] that the claims of its advocates remain unproved”.
It was only on March 29 that @emetropoli switched track, became @DogeSaves, and began proselytizing about the dangers of the Venezuelan regime.
The account continues to post automatically hundreds of times a day, automatically retweeting all mentions of #DogeCoin and spamming the same few messages about trying to “save Venezuela,” and how “national fiat money is used as toilet paper.”
I contacted the account for comment but received no response.
Strangely, the account has changed names once again—this time to Jesica Montoya, or @tiprain, and now claims to be a “venezuelan girl currently scaping from the ditactorship in my country and living in Colombia.”
The account has also begun using a new Dogecoin wallet to solicit donations; it has received 642 additional dogecoins to date.
The Dogecoin community is fast becoming famed for its generosity and its charitable campaigns, from funding Kenyan water wells to sending the Jamaican bobsleigh team to Sochi. But this kindness can attract unwanted attention.
Regardless of whether the Venezuelan Dogecoin activists were opportunist scammers, it’s clear that alternative cryptocurrency evangelists will need to be more careful in future. As the ascent of Bitcoin has illustrated, what’s worth mere pennies today could be worth a car in years to come.
But for now, a mere $13 later, perhaps Doge Saves Venezuela should stick to selling dodgy apps.