How a U of M prof unwittingly became one face of a major crypto scam

Andrew Halayko’s image used by fake company Centra Tech, featured on Netflix doc

Image provided by Andrew Halayko

In May of 2022, a man walked into frame on the set of Netflix’s documentary Bitconned. “Hello, I’m Michael Edwards, founder and CEO of Centra Tech,” he said, sitting down behind a wooden desk in a high-rise corner office just off Ventura Boulevard, Los Angeles, his hands clasped together on the table.

“Is that who you really are?” Responded a voice from behind the camera.

With a smile and a laugh, he set the record straight: no, that’s not who he is. “I’m Dr. Andrew Halayko, I’m a professor at the University of Manitoba.”

To this day, the professor of physiology and pathophysiology in the college of medicine knows next to nothing about cryptocurrency, but around four years ago, he found out he had been involved in the industry without even knowing. Halayko got a call from the RCMP, working on behalf of the FBI, telling him about the fraudulent use of his image on a website and requesting a witness statement. At the time, Sohrab Sharma, co-founder and president of Centra Tech, was awaiting trial for his involvement in a scam that collected over US$32 million in 2017.

Halayko learned more about the company that took his image, and a colleague showed him pages online where his name was associated with it. He later found mention of his own personal information online that people may have gotten from the photo — originally taken by the U of M — after “internet sleuths” figured out that Edwards wasn’t really a person after all.

“It makes you feel a little startled,” he said. “You wonder immediately, how did they get my picture? Why did they pick my picture?”

Halayko hasn’t found out why those behind Centra Tech chose his photo in particular, but he did discover how they got it. The scammers took it from Google when, searching for a face to use as the company’s CEO, they typed “old white guy” into the search engine, which now, he said, seems to be his new nickname.

“Everybody seems to be picking up on that, even my 90-year-old mother,” said Halayko, who was in his late fifties when the photo was taken.

Halayko was unable to travel to New York to testify in-person when Sharma pleaded guilty. Then, the FBI asked Halayko to submit a victim statement, which the producers of Bitconned later came across. After listening to the statement, they called the professor asking to talk, and he was eventually invited to travel to Los Angeles to be a part of the documentary.

When Halayko arrived on set — a high-rise office building just off Ventura Boulevard, he realized, “wow, this is a big production.”

Halayko initially figured the producers would be interested in hearing about his victim statement, but he later understood that his purpose in the documentary was to show the real-life person behind the photo and highlight the reveal the fictitiousness of Michael Edwards. That day, he also learned that the fake CEO had been killed. They asked him if he wanted to read the obituary that the men behind Centra Tech had written.

“That’s pretty creepy,” he laughed after reading his own fake obituary out loud, a moment featured in the documentary.

Following the documentary’s release, Halayko received messages regarding the documentary from friends, family and even one of his grade school teachers, and he estimates that 80 per cent of them bring up the “old white guy” comment.

“I’m having fun with 15 minutes of fame,” he said.

“What’s the chance, one in 20 million, that you end up in this situation.”