An Auckland teen who has raised millions from the public and is seeking hundreds of millions more for an exotic cyptocurrency venture appears to have inflated some of the claims of his website's success by a factor of 10,000 - although he stands by the accuracy of the claims made.
Ashutoush Sharma, a 19-year-old former Auckland Grammar student, launched e-commerce site Sell My Good in August. This week he began accepting investor funds, hoping to raise $220 million for his digital currency SMG Cash.
Cryptocurrencies - of which the most well-known is BitCoin - are a novel space for investors and regulators alike, but the Financial Markets Authority this week said the SMG Cash offer fell under its jurisdiction and issued a warning to possible investors.
"We recommend New Zealand investors do not subscribe to this offer," the spokesman said.
Sharma's new currency is intended to be the primary method of payment on his e-commerce site, and has been promoted by Sharma in emailed pitches, Facebook groups and even with a short stint on an electronic billboard in New York's Times Square.
A white paper outlining his "Initial Coin Offering" claims Sell My Good has 5m users, 10,000 new listings of goods for sale daily, and $80m of sales to date.
The site is described as an "existing marketplace that currently receives a lot of traffic and is seeing explosive growth rates. Sell My Good is projected to be a top 1000 website globally in terms of traffic by January 2018."
These claims underpin the venture, being used as evidence of both the founder's track record of business success, as well as a ready-made market for the new currency to be used.
But a Weekend Herald investigation into the Sell My Good site, examining website analytics and every single item listed for sale earlier this week, has suggested that traffic and economic activity on his site has been inflated by a factor of 10,000, or four orders of magnitude.
Despite claims of enormous turnover and traffic, a search showed around only 400 listings in total, many up to four months old.
A full 10 percent of listings of goods for sale on the site were found to have been placed by Sharma and his chief operating officer and University of Auckland student Dinyar Irani - the company's only two employees - with the pair trying to sell a soft toy and their NCEA schoolbooks.
The number of for-sale listings recorded on the site as having been added in the past month amounted to 17.
Alexa analytics, a service providing information on website traffic, shows unusual results for Sell My Good. The vast majority of visitors - 99.96 per cent percent - are reported to have come from only one country: Japan.
Despite this dominance, the site has fewer than a dozen sales listings from Japan, and Google shows the site is only mentioned once in the country's internet domain.
IT professional Ira Bailey examined the offer document and website and struggled to find evidence supporting Sharma's claims.
In an interview with the Weekend Herald, punctuated by awkward silences up to 20 seconds long following questions, Sharma stood by his claims and his venture.
"It's not [true] that we're bullshitting," he said.
Sharma claimed the low level of listings was due his culling of spam postings.
He said the Alexa analysis - which he had praised earlier in his interview as an independent barometer of success ("This is Alexa ranks, not us. And people can say 'this is legit, man'") - was out of date and not reflective of his sites' users.
Sharma insisted he had evidence to support his claims, and agreed to provide this to the Weekend Herald. This evidence has not been forthcoming, and Sharma has not responded to subsequent inquiries.
In the interview this week Sharma claimed to have raised more than $2m for the currency scheme since launching on Wednesday, and said many early investors in the scheme were New Zealanders.
"My friends and family are putting in money. It was a really emotional moment when people were breaking their savings and putting money into this idea. It gives me a lot of trust and belief," he said.
This trust and belief is not shared by the FMA, who said they had to consider "whether statements in the white paper are accurate and can be substantiated", a spokeperson said.
"We have not been able to do that prior to these tokens being put on sale."
Sharma said his firm had approached the FMA for an exemption from regulations recently, but claimed he had not heard back in time so launched anyway.
"They treated us as a joke. It's really bad, they think 'oh, he's a 19-year-old kid who knows nothing," he said of the market regulator.
For its part, the FMA said it had raised its concerns with Sharma, "but we have not received a satisfactory response".
Sharma said he had legal advice clearing his efforts to raise money from the public and was unconcerned by the FMA declining to endorse his venture.
"If they don't then are obviously certain ways around that. We could incorporate in a South Pacific country and rout the money there," he said.
Sharma is presently a student at San Francisco's "Draper University of Heroes", a for-profit bootcamp for entrepreneurs that is not accredited to award degrees.