As western brands began the stampede out of Russia a year ago, its citizens found themselves unable to pay for the international goods and services with which they had become so familiar.
Among the first firms to sever ties were the credit card companies Visa and Mastercard, leaving Russians struggling to spend their cash on services from Netflix to Amazon.
But as the country was isolated by the west, sources claim that some enterprising Russians discovered a clever loophole – by using some technological knowhow and a particular mobile phone app they could sidestep those restrictions, allowing them to stream movies and shop online.
The app in question can be traced back to the second floor of an office in London’s wealthy Knightsbridge district, where the Russian-born, British-educated tech entrepreneur Alex Grebnev runs his ventures, including Maps, a payments, mapping and cryptocurrency app.
Russian users of Maps have cast a shadow over the business – sparking concerns from business partners that it may have breached EU sanctions imposed after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. They also resulted in an important partnership with Mastercard being terminated.
And the reason? The discovery late last year that at least 111 Russian users were signed up for its app-based payment card, allowing them to use Maps to spend their cash, despite western efforts to isolate the country.
Those revelations represent the latest setback for Grebnev, one of a breed of tech entrepreneurs whose fortune has followed the boom and bust of cryptocurrencies. The former Goldman Sachs banker, who went to school with Rishi Sunak, has been caught in the fallout from the collapse of FTX, the failed crypto exchange run by Sam Bankman-Fried.
Grebnev’s ventures, which received millions of dollars of investment from Bankman-Fried, were among a group of “Samcoins” that benefited from an endorsement by the Icarus of the crypto world. As FTX’s smouldering ruins are picked over and Bankman-Fried fights lawsuits, the spotlight is turning towards his followers, including Grebnev.
His story is one of wealth, ambition, the allure of the crypto world and the ethical questions thrown up for western companies with interests in Russia since the invasion of Ukraine.
The crypto crusade
Grebnev rose to prominence in the tech world through a series of ventures spawned by the blockchain technology that underpins cryptocurrency. His two main businesses would go on to command more than $100m (£81m) of investment combined and see the value of their tokens soar as the crypto hype exploded. Grebnev and his peers hoped to get people to buy into a vision of a new financial world without the need for traditional financial institutions and reliant entirely on digital currencies exchanged between individuals. These include Maps.me, which started out as a competitor to Google Maps, but became a multifunctional app with services such a pre-paid card.
Grebnev, 43, lives near his office in a £2.7m home in Kensington, which he shares with his wife and children. The teetotal businessman, who drives an Aston Martin, is described as an “obsessive, archetypal tech geek” by associates, who note his “wild hours”, 5am judo sessions and love of chess.
Grebnev arrived in Britain as a teenager, attending the exclusive 600-year-old Winchester College boarding school alongside the future prime minister. A maths degree at Cambridge followed, then nine years at Goldman Sachs, developing trading strategies. Grebnev clocked up nearly six more years in the City, at Merrill Lynch, aiding sovereign wealth funds and corporates in developing markets.
He left to found his firm, Moonshot Capital, and in 2018 Grebnev partnered with a crypto exchange, Changelly, to launch Oxygen, a platform that allowed investors to earn money by lending out their cryptocurrencies, for a fee. Oxygen also later launched an eponymous crypto token.
He could see a route to riches. “We are at the very beginning of the journey, but the journey is happening very fast,” he said of the development of crypto as an asset class.
An associate describes him as “very sharp, quirky and funny – there’s a lot going on behind his eyes”. But another says he has a darker side. “He gets angry quickly – he has the emotional responses of a toddler.” Grebnev is understood to dispute that characterisation.
A rival to Google Maps
Grebnev also had big plans for Maps.me, a digital mapping tool that launched in 2012. The app uses satellite technology (GPS) to pinpoint a user’s exact location on a map and can be used offline to avoid costly data roaming charges when abroad.
He had bought Maps.me from Mail.ru Group, a London-listed Russian internet firm, for about $20m in 2020. Mail.ru had previously said 18% of its users were Russian. By the time Grebnev bought it, the app had been used by 60 million people in 195 countries.
He wanted to monetise those users by adding digital payments to the app, allowing them to transfer money while travelling abroad, in return for a fee. Oxygen would provide the payments infrastructure.
By March 2021, the company trumpeted the launch of Maps.me 2.0 as the “financial services of the future” and 140,000 users were signed up to the waiting list for the launch of its digital wallet.
By adding payment services to Maps, the company said it would “enrich the lives of hundreds of millions of people around the world by providing them with an easier way to pay, transfer, earn passive income and invest”. Users were promised yields of as much as 8% on the value of funds stored in the wallet, which could handle 35 currencies. The company said value in Maps.me wallets would be invested in assets with the gold standard AAA rating and held in a Swiss trust structure. An accompanying Maps crypto token was launched.
The FTX fallout
But 2022 would prove to be Grebnev’s annus horribilis, as FTX’s demise crashed the value of crypto and the war in Ukraine raised questions over Maps’s use by Russians.
Grebnev and Bankman-Fried’s fortunes were interlinked. Bankman-Fried, 31, was an MIT physics graduate and former currencies trader at rapid trading outfit Jane Street Capital, before founding Alameda Research, and then FTX. FTX would go on to become one of the world’s largest cryptocurrency exchanges, before its collapse last year. Grebnev and Bankman-Fried connected online and had a rapport.
In late 2020, Bankman-Fried was listed as an adviser to Oxygen in a document about its business model. By early 2021, Alameda – which traded crypto and also had a venture capital arm – had made two big bets on Grebnev. It led a $50m funding round into Maps.me, followed by spearheading a $40m round for Oxygen, joined by investment firms Multicoin, Genesis and CMS.
Last April, Grebnev met Bankman-Fried at FTX’s now infamous crypto gathering in the Bahamas, where the latter shared a stage with Tony Blair and Bill Clinton. Bankman-Fried gave Oxygen credibility in the crypto industry. The value of its tokens reached as high as $4 in 2021, valuing the currency at a total of $189m, according to the CoinMarketCap website, while Maps tokens were worth $118m at their peak.
This was allegedly part of Bankman-Fried’s masterplan: to use his clout in the crypto industry to push up the price of “Samcoins” in a coordinated strategy with FTX sister company Alameda Research. Developers behind crypto projects were persuaded to make their trading debuts on his FTX exchange. Alameda would then buy the newly listed coins – which included Maps, Oxygen, Serum, Bonfida and Solana – to increase their scarcity and push up their value, according to the New York Times. There is no suggestion that Grebnev or those behind the other Samcoins would have been aware of this strategy.
But in November, as Bankman-Fried’s $16bn fortune evaporated along with FTX’s collapse, crypto publication CoinDesk reported that a leaked Alameda balance sheet showed FTX’s assets consisted largely of FTT, Maps, Oxygen, Serum and other cryptocurrencies – difficult holdings to convert into cash. It has been estimated that the value of Maps, Oxygen, Serum and Bonfida – which made up a third of FTX’s assets – more than halved to $2.9bn on the day before the bankruptcy.
In the aftermath, Oxygen tweeted that the “Maps and Oxygen teams are shocked by events relating to FTX Group’s bankruptcy proceedings. While FTX Group did not hold any equity in the Maps or Oxygen businesses, it did hold a significant proportion of Maps/Oxy tokens.” It also acted as a “custodian” for more than 95% of the supply of its tokens, it admitted. Both tokens have crashed from their highs.
Lawyers for FTX claim to have located more than $5bn in assets as creditors aim to recoup their losses.
Since Putin’s invasion of Ukraine last February, the use of Maps by Russians has come under scrutiny.
Grebnev had scored a coup in September – by teaming up with Cambridge-based fintech Monavate to add prepaid Mastercards to Maps. By knitting this card together with its digital wallet, Maps’s users would be able to “enjoy cashback, discounts, and other rewards when travelling, anywhere Mastercard is accepted”. Users would pay $10 for the card and be charged $0.50 per transaction, meaning potentially huge rewards for Grebnev. By this point one million people were on the waiting list for Maps’ digital wallet.
After a pilot scheme, the Maps Mastercard and wallet launched in October. As well as digital cards, Maps also offered physical plastic cards, which sources say were distributed in Europe and Dubai. Questions soon emerged about whether Russians were using the cards. A Maps channel on the Telegram messaging platform included many users with Russian phone numbers, who appeared to be located in Russia, screengrabs show.
The Maps wallet included a virtual sim function that would let people use their mobile phones abroad without incurring hefty roaming charges, by buying a data bundle. Sources claimed the virtual sim allowed Russians to exploit a loophole: users would appear to be located in the country they were buying the data from, allowing them to disguise that they were in Russia.
An article on the Russian version of AppleInsider in November even claimed to show how to use Maps to pay for purchases on foreign websites such as Airbnb given the country’s blacklisting by Visa and Mastercard. The author said they had used an image of a non-Russian passport to pass ID checks. Sources alsoclaimed Russians abroad could also use the wallet.
By October, Monavate had suspicions that Russians were using Maps cards. In November, Monavate audited Grebnev’s Swiss company N2, which runs his operations, and found that 111 cards were issued to Russian users, contravening Mastercard and Monavate’s policies not to operate in the country.
N2 immediatelyblocked these users and Maps posted a Telegram message in November stating: “We had to stop all transactions made only from the territory of the Russian Federation, as well as limit the process of issuing cards to new users located in the territory of the Russian Federation.” But N2 said it expected this to be a “temporary ban” until mechanisms to ensure registrations were not from restricted countries were improved. N2 declined to comment on the message.
Monavate continued to have concerns that Russians might be using the app, and that N2 had not carried out sufficient checks to ensure that sanctions on Russia had not been breached. The EU had tightened sanctions on Russia in October, banning all crypto-asset wallets, accounts and custody services.
It has emerged that some users – who appeared to be located in Russia – were later unblocked and remained on the platform into early 2023. It is understood N2 has blamed this on a technical fault by a payment processor, and said the situation was quickly rectified and no sanctions were breached.
In early February, shortly after Mastercard blocked Maps, Monavate terminated its deal amid concerns over checks on users’ location. It is understood that N2 has accused Monavate of misrepresenting events to Mastercard, disputed how many Russian card holders were found to be using Maps and said it had not made a concerted effort to build up a business in Russia. N2 said the virtual sim was in a “testing phase” and it “has never offered any service or product designed to disguise a user’s true location”.
N2 said: “N2 does not accept and, indeed, refutes the claims and allegations being made. N2 takes them very seriously. The company has taken careful steps to ensure its compliance with applicable laws and sanctions. The company operates robust compliance procedures in line with all applicable laws and has at all times set and adhered to high standards.”
Mastercard said: “The standards and principles that govern our network help to deliver a consistent, secure experience and compliance with legal requirements. We continually work with our customers to ensure these standards are met.” Monavate declined to comment. Sam Bankman-Fried did not respond to a request for comment.
In late February, Mastercard and Visa halted a push into crypto after the industry meltdown in the wake of FTX’s collapse.