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IN-DEPTH: Silicone Valley Shares – red flags aplenty as South Sudanese worry over invested cash

South Sudanese who sank their hard-earned money into a “US venture capital firm” promising breathtaking returns are worried. They have reason to be – there are many signs that Silicone Valley Shares is not what it appears to be.

It’s not hard to miss the frustration and mounting worry among those in South Sudan who invested in Silicone Valley Shares, which claims to be a US-headquartered venture capital firm with more than US$6.4 billion in assets under management.

“My experience is so bad, I wish I didn’t take the initiative of investing my hard earned money there, the company’s problems keep on increasing every day. I am not sure if they will ever operate again,” Caesar Lemmy told 211 Check. 

He has lost $1,542, a fortune in South Sudan, the young country charting its post-conflict path

The company appeared in the country in December 2021, promising outsized returns. It registered with the justice ministry as Silicone Valley South Sudan Co. Limited, according to public records seen by 211 Check and also shared on social media.

But the company quickly ran into trouble. Its website was suspended in early September 2022, before being restored. Its offices were subsequently closed by security services while investors reportedly stormed its office in the South Sudan capital Juba because they couldn’t withdraw their funds.

Lemmy said he tried to withdraw his money unsuccessfully. “I tried after they restored the website, but the money was never deposited into my account, and most people are also complaining about the same,” he said.

South Sudan currency
A picture of South Sudan's currency. AFP

Ezekiel Matiop told 211 Check he lost $3,400. He had already written it off, he said, even as he called for those responsible to be punished. 

“In developed countries cases of fraud are treated as criminal cases but in South Sudan we are used to suffering and have to endure this big scam,” Matiop said. “The good thing is that it has taught us a great life lesson.” 

Several other investors interviewed by South Sudan broadcaster Eye Radio in late September 2022 also spoke of their worry that they had lost their money. One said he had invested $4,100 and that he was in a WhatsApp group of hundreds of other investors – and that there could be more. 

Venture capitalists provide financing or other investment to startup companies and small businesses, trading the risk for the hope of handsome returns. But it’s not clear what Silicone Valley Shares’ business model is. 

The company has kept a low profile, save for a man who appeared in an online video identifying himself as an executive named “John Brian”. He claimed the company’s Juba staff had been detained but, in an interesting twist, the Juba staff denied this

Soon after, Silicone Valley Shares received another blow, when local banks were ordered by South Sudan’s central bank to freeze the outfit’s accounts. 

211 Check took a longer look at the operation and identified several red flags. The firm had not responded to our findings as of the date of publishing this report. 

Silicone Valley Shares claims to have invested in companies older than itself

The firm’s name is clearly meant to identify it with Silicon Valley, an area in the US known for incubating and housing a large number of technology companies.

(Note: Silicon is a naturally occurring non-metallic element, whereas silicone is a class of silicon-based chemical compounds.)

Silicone Valley Shares claims to have “helped launch and commercialise 200-plus companies since 2010”, including investments in DocuSign, Jet.com, Kiva Systems, LinkedIn, Rapid7, SurveyMonkey, Taleo and TellApart.

These companies did not immediately reply when we asked by email if Silicone Valley Shares was an early backer.

But DocuSign, Kiva Systems and LinkedIn were all founded in 2003, well before 2010, the year Silicone Valley Shares claims it was established.

Its website domain history is also inconsistent with its supposed founding date. A domain record gives information about a website, including who it is registered to and when the site was first registered.

A search of Silicone Valley’s record on Whois, a popular domain tool, shows 29 October 2021 as the date on which the website was created. It is however possible it had a different internet address before then.

WhoIs

Screenshot of the Whois record for siliconevalleyshares.com 

The website’s domain authority (or DA), a measure of how likely it is to appear in search-engine results, is extremely low. Some tools score it just two out of 100 while others don’t even return a result. This should be compared to the websites of companies like LinkedIn (DA of 99) and Survey Monkey (93), which Silicone Valley Shares claims to have helped commercialise.

Stock images and phantom management

Archived versions of the Silicone Valley Shares website, captured between 21 December 2021 and 30 August 2022 on the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, list the following “expert management team”, with photos supposedly of each executive: 

  • chief executive officer Zhirong Jeffrey 
  • director of IT and innovations Lew Son 
  • director of sales, marketing and business development Jenifer Sting
  • finance and accounting director Alex Joe

However, reverse image searches – a way of tracking down the usage history of a photo – of the profile pictures show very different details. “Lew Son” seems to be Johan Dennelind, a Swedish businessperson and current board chair of KCOM, a UK telecoms company. 

“Jenifer Sting” appears to be Jen Leary, the chief executive of US accounting and consulting firm Clifton Larson Allen LLP. “Alex Joe” uses the photo of Johan Thijs, a Belgian and the chief executive of KBC Group, a Belgian financial services group. Rather strikingly for a tech CEO, “Zhirong Jeffrey” has no digital footprint.

Our efforts to contact these people through LinkedIn and their current companies were unsuccessful at the time of publishing but there is no evidence these businesspeople have any affiliation with Silicone Valley Shares.

Capture

Screenshot of what Silicone Valley Shares claims to be its team of experts, captured on 24 December 2021

Testimonials also spun from thin air

The profiles of the “management team” were removed in later versions of the website, but the site still features testimonials from three supposedly satisfied clients.

The testimonials are allegedly from “Arjun Thakur” from India, “Racheal Davis” from the US, and “Adebola Ogundipe” from Nigeria.

UserFeedback

Screenshot of alleged user feedback on the Silicone Valley Shares website

But reverse image searches show that the photos of “Thakur” and “Davis” are stock images. These are widely available photographs anyone can use either for free or for a fee, instead of commissioning a photographer. 

The photo of “Ogundipe” is actually of Ernest Ojeh, a Netherlands-based Nigerian user experience designer.

We contacted Ojeh via LinkedIn and he told us he had never come across the company.

“I am shocked to see this. I have no idea who runs Silicone Valley Shares and why they have used my picture on their site. I have never heard of them before,” he said.

US records come up empty

Silicone Valley Shares claims to be a limited liability company (LLC), headquartered in San Jose in the state of California in the US. According to the California Corporations Code, a limited liability company is required to file articles of organisation with the California secretary of state. 

Information on any corporation or business entity in the US is usually obtained by performing a search on the secretary of state website of the state or territory where that corporation is registered. 

The California business registry office directed 211 Check to its public portal.  

A search on the portal returned no results for a limited liability company named Silicone Valley Shares.

SearchResults

Screenshot of search results for entities recorded with the California secretary of state

The company’s listed phone numbers and addresses also don’t match any results we could find.

On its website Silicone Valley Shares claims that its office address is City View Plaza 100 W San Fernando St #320, Downtown San Jose, CA 95113, USA. However, the address's street view on Google shows a building that appears to be a residential apartment.

When one searches for “Silicone Valley Shares LLC” on Google Maps, the result returns the location 320 San Jose Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94110, and not City View Plaza 100 W San Fernando St #320, Downtown San Jose, CA 95113

This inconsistency would be suspicious for an established company anywhere in the world, let alone one worth billions of dollars.

Capture 2

Manipulated images of alleged “Silicone Valley Shares LLC” offices and events on Google Maps

The uploaded images of the San Jose Avenue address on the Silicone Valley Shares website also appear to be either stock photos or images that have been digitally edited.

A reverse phone lookup also showed that the area codes of the company’s two listed phone numbers are for the states of Ohio and Nevada , not California where San Jose is located.

There are still more inconsistencies. In a blog post Silicone Valley Shares says its clients can access its services using m-Gurush, a mobile money platform popular in South Sudan.

But on Twitter m-Gurush said it was unaware of Silicone Valley Shares and that they were “not in partnership”.

Tweet

Screenshot of tweet reply from m-Gurush

A Ponzi or pyramid scheme?

M-Gurush requires users to register, deposit and withdraw cash through an agent. But investors in Silicone Valley Shares reported a different method.

“There's what they called float, so you give cash to someone who has float, and he sends you the float, then you can invest that float,” Matiop told 211 Check. 

A typical contract can be seen here. Investors were also meant to be paid their interest through bank deposits or in cryptocurrency.

Silicone Valley Shares has a referral programme which claims that when new investors you bring into the business click on a website link and make an investment, you are credited with a particular percentage commission of their investment amount. 

An investor can commission to a fourth level. This is how pyramid schemes work.

ReferralProgrm

Screenshot of Silicone Valley Shares referral programme

Pain at the bank

On 23 September 2022, the Central Bank of South Sudan directed all commercial banks in the country to block and freeze the accounts of Silicone Valley South Sudan Co. Limited.

BankLetter

Letter from the Bank of South Sudan directing commercial banks to freeze accounts of the company

Banks have started complying. The Equity Bank of South Sudan told 211 Check “it had already blocked the account of Silicone Valley Shares when the rumours about their business came out”.

Ecobank told the Voice of America’s South Sudan in Focus programme that it would close the company’s account in keeping with the regulator’s order.

Experts poke holes in firm’s model

211 Check asked finance and technology experts about the company. Silicone Valley Shares promises investors profits of between 350% and 876% for investments of a minimum $50 and a maximum $100,000. They claim to calculate this hourly.

David Marko is a software engineer at Juba-based NiloTech. He said no investment or financial technology firm accrued hourly interest for their investors while consistently claiming to be immune to the risk, or operated with aggressive multi-level marketing, forcing their clients to keep onboarding people. 

“A scam is usually apparent when a company tries to sell the most complicated asset or idea to the least educated customers. They claim investments for customers in US stock markets to a customer base from a country that doesn’t have a local securities exchange,” Marko said.

“If it sounds too good to be true, it is because it is,” he said. He highlighted “better alternatives” for South Sudan’s rising middle class, such as savings and credit corporations (Saccos) and microfinance companies. 

Marko also posted a thread on Twitter about his reservations.

Deng Akoi Arok is a financial technology (fintech) entrepreneur in Juba. He said fintech was the use of technology to improve delivery of financial services, mostly through a user interface. 

“While Silicone Valley Shares provided a dashboard, its returns were not verifiable because no one knew their product. It's been labelled as a cryptocurrency company but does not fit any known crypto business model,” Arok told 211 Check. 

Wani Steven, a technology lawyer at Witness Law Advocates in Juba, told 211 Check that the lack of a clear explanation of how the company made money “is serious and should be investigated”.

Firm’s registration missed the mark – lawyer

The police headquarters in Juba have told aggrieved investors to open cases as Silicone Valley Shares is registered in South Sudan.

Spokesperson Maj Gen Daniel Justin reportedly said the police had obtained documents that supported this. 

The documents have been doing the rounds on social media and include a certificate of incorporation from the justice ministry and a letter of “no objection” from the interior ministry. 

But technology lawyer Steven told 211 Check that these were not enough.

“My view is that Silicone Valley has not complied with all the laws regulating the type of business they were engaging in. Incorporating a general trading company and acquiring letters of no objections and approval to acquire stamps from the police, is not sufficient for the type of business they were doing.”

Steven said that as a platform that claimed to conduct online services, which included engaging in share trade, they should have obtained a licence from the National Communication Authority.

They should also have gotten a licence from the central bank, “which generally regulates any business that engages in money lending or similar engagement to what Silicone Valley was doing”.

In its letter to banks, the central bank of South Sudan said it froze the company’s shares because it was “still under investigation on issues related to compliance with all the relevant laws of South Sudan”.

Conclusion: Be cautious when investing

All available evidence indicates that Silicone Valley Shares is not a registered LLC in California, as it claims to be. Experts have also cast doubt on whether it has followed all applicable laws in order to operate as it has been in South Sudan.

The company's name is not in the California secretary of state's business database. Its website address does not correspond to the address on Google maps, and its phone area code does not match San Jose, California, where it claims to be based.

On its website the company uses a mix of stock images, manipulated images and photos of seemingly arbitrary individuals, which is highly unusual for a legitimate company.

Inconsistencies like these should be warning signs to anyone who plans to invest in a company that it may not be reliable. For many who have invested in Silicone Valley Shares, it may be too late to get their money back, but its example may serve to warn others of how to avoid suspicious investments.

This report by 211 Check was written as part of the 2022 Africa Check fellowship programme. The programme is one of many ways in which Africa Check fosters the practice of fact-checking across the continent.

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