YouTube Bitcoin Scammers Pose as Elon Musk's SpaceX, Steal Cryptocurrency 'Worth $150,000'

Crypto scammers appear to have stolen $150,000 worth of bitcoin in the past week by hijacking YouTube accounts and impersonating SpaceX.

Taking over legitimate accounts and changing the branding to reflect Elon Musk's rocket company, the unidentified scammers were caught live streaming footage of the founder speaking at conferences and during the historic Demo-2 test flight launch.

The streams, which were viewed by tens of thousands of people before being removed by YouTube, offered a fake bitcoin giveaway—claiming that donors would be sent double the amount of cryptocurrency back should they take part in the scheme.

Analysis of bitcoin wallets (which record transactions sent and received) since June 8 by tech website Bleeping Computer suggested it was a profitable ruse.

One wallet recorded 85 transactions, receiving 11.25 BTC ($109,600), while a second, with 37 transactions, was sent 5.51 BTC ($53,700). The nature of bitcoin means the ledger shows transactions, but not the identities of wallet account holders.

At least three YouTube channels were hacked this week to circulate the bitcoin scams, titled Juice TV, Right Human and MaximSakulevich, according to Bleeping Computer. One of the compromised accounts boasted at least 230,000 subscribers.

Discussion about the videos on the forum Hacker News indicated bots in the chat section on the broadcast talked about how they had been sent back bitcoins. Some commenters on the forum said they were forwarded to the video by YouTube's algorithm.

On YouTube Help forums, some users who claim to have fallen victim to the scam have been asking for advice on what can be done now they have sent the money.

"I was scammed yesterday 06/04/20 by a video allegedly from SpaceX," one commenter in the thread said. "It was a live broadcast, titled 5000 Bitcoin Giveaway. It was about something about SpaceX, it had a bunch of people and Elon Musk was there."

The hijacked accounts have been removed, some for violating the terms of service. Its policies don't allow videos "intended to stream content that belongs to somebody else and are not corrected following repeated warnings of possible abuse."

Content that "gets clicks, views, or traffic off YouTube by promising viewers that they'll make money fast" is also against policy, per the official set of company guidelines.

YouTube has been contacted for comment by Newsweek.

Crypto scams have evolved since first surfacing in 2018, when they targeted high-profile Twitter accounts including Musk, Donald Trump, John McAfee and Bill Gates.

Scammers would compromise verified accounts and change the picture to impersonate the holder—then appeal for bitcoin donations on the social network.

Cybersecurity researchers previously suggested the scammers' tweets were also being spread by bot networks. A hijacked account would comment on posts by the real profile holder, attempting to dupe their followers into sending bitcoins.

"There has been a perpetual cat-and-mouse game between Twitter and cryptocurrency scammers since they appeared in 2018, as scammers try to evade detection and removal of their accounts. As a result, scammers keep modifying their tactics in a variety of ways," read a research report from U.S.-based cybersecurity firm Tenable.

Twitter previously said it would ban unverified accounts that were caught changing their display name to "Elon Musk," while pledging to bulk up anti-spam capabilities.

But Musk remains one of the most popular impersonation victims. "The crypto scam level on Twitter is reaching new levels. This is not cool," he tweeted in February.

"Report as soon as you see it. Troll/bot networks on Twitter are a *dire* problem for adversely affecting public discourse & ripping people off," he wrote in response to one follower who asked what could be done. "Just dropping their prominence as a function of probable gaming of the system would be a big improvement," Musk added.

The legitimate SpaceX YouTube account has more than 4.3 million subscribers. It's live stream of the Crew Demo-2 launch last month amassed more than 56 million views.

Elon Musk
Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX, participates in a press conference at the Kennedy Space Center on May 27, 2020 in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Saul Martinez/Getty