An investigative look into the Pink ICO building an app for sex workers. Is it a scam? If it is, it's a good one.

In July, I wrote this investigative piece about eros.vision, a decentralized app for sexworkers. Eros.vision had all the features of a Web 3.0 marketplace: it was encrypted and decentralized, with no server to take down, and used peer-to-peer cryptocurrencies to settle transactions. Unfortunately, several things about the project seemed very fishy. You can read the details in the original article.

That, I thought, was the end of that. Then, on the morning of Aug 29, I received an interesting email. Someone calling himself Brad Anderson (he would later tell me it is not his real name), had read my article and wanted me to cover his own start-up, Pinkapp.io. Apparently I'm now the go-to journalist for all cypherpimp projects.

In brief, Pink is an app for sexworkers and clients to find each other. They develop the app, fund it with a tokensale, and take a cut of transactions. Sexworkers benefit because the app would take care of evaluating clients and scheduling appointments. Clients pay cash (usually), the worker sends Pink a fee through bank transfer or Paypal or whatever, and Pink pays a dividend to investors in Monero.

Pink are currently doing a token sale on their website, and claim to have sold ~1.1 million tokens at $1 apiece. Sexworkers would send the app 20% or so of their fee, and Pink send half of this to investors.

Part of me was impressed that 'Brad Anderson' still wanted me to cover his platform after I wrote what was basically a hit piece on the last one. He must be confident in it. That got him some points at the start. I started emailing with him, and investigating the platform. The picture that emerged was much less visionary than Eros's decentralised anarchy, but has its strong points, though you'd be a fool to invest money in it.

What does the token do?

If you've been around ICOs, you know that is a key question used to sniff out cash-grabs: "What does the token do?" Page four of Pinkapp's pitch deck explains correctly what blockchain tokens should and should not be used for: it is silly for a retailer to create their own money for their platform; Bitcoin or dollars or Monero or whatever do a fine job at that. However, it does make sense to create tokens as shares in an organization, similar to how companies in the legacy economy trade their wares using the local currency, but shares in companies are tokenlike assets you can buy, sell, or invest it. Pink are perfectly right in saying that, and claim their token will be a share in their escort agency, granting owners dividends.

Pink is a centralised TOR marketplace

Decentralisation is the banner that unites the blockchain community, and Pinkapp, to be clear, makes no attempt to be decentralised. It is a traditional, centralised escort agency, with staff and contractors. All the money flows through the management. They are a trusted third party. It's an even worse than trusted third parties in the legacy economy, as you have no recourse if they don't hold up their end of the arrangement.

Much like the Silk Road, Alphabay, or the Hansa Market, it is a centralised shop for people to buy and sell verboten goods, hiding behind TOR. It's a darkweb market 1.0 for sex. Couldn't it be shut down the same way those markets were? Anderson is confident it cannot be, because of extra security measures he uses. These are described in detail here on Pink's Medium, and I won't analyse the exact security design in this article, but - as I found to be the norm with Pink - it is not an unfeasible idea. I had software architects look over Pink's proposed design, and they said it would make the service run very slowly, and there may be some unthought-of holes in the design, but it does seem to be a way to run a hidden service on TOR with greater anonymity.

Anderson was insistent that Pink will be a full-service agency, with brick-and-mortar services in addition to its software platform. "Pink will be the platform sex workers and clients use. Pink will contract the supporting roles. It's more similar to a full service escorting agency." His vision is to provide the software for sexworkers and clients to find each other, take a cut of every booking, and use this money to hire local contractors to provide various support services, including photography (to help workers promote themselves), and identity verification of clients.

Identity verification of clients?! To visit a sexworker‽ Why‽ Anderson told me that there will be different levels of verification available, from verifying phone number by SMS, to showing official ID documents on a video chat. Anderson says this will scare some users off, but they prefer to err on the side of protecting the worker. I must admit that it was difficult to catch him out, and he does seem sincere. The same system of checking IDs will be used to make sure the workers are of age. I expect this will be a major obstacle to adoption; the difference between Pink and existing escort advertising sites is that you have to show your ID to use them. That's not really a competitive advantage.

I found one reference to security guards being provided, and thought this was something of a red flag, because while people may think sexworkers use security guards, in reality that is rare. But Anderson later told me, "For launch we are not going to do the physical security aspect. It is too ambitious for people to accept and was distracting people from our primary goal." The fact that he scaled back the product to be more realistic made me think - contrary to my initial expectations - that he actually is building a product of some kind, rather than raising money on an empty promise. They later issued an update saying, "Pink has slightly pivoted. No longer will Pink perform health checks or require monitored physical verification of providers. For launch, we will not be providing physical security."

Reputation

As with the security design of their TOR site, Anderson had a well-thought out response to my question about Pink's reputation system. It is worth quoting here:

Providers can rate clients as well as review them. Reviews are internal, only visible to providers and only viewable when reviewing a client for a booking. That is, it's not a free-for-all database. Most likely they will be semi anonymous at first, so a client can't ask a sympathetic provider to check out their specific feedback from another provider. We're open to evolving this, so long as it maintains confidentiality and doesn't become an attack vector on providers.

Clients can rate providers, but the system is a very simple system. Basically to answer the question if the provider is as advertised and was it a good date. No further details. We want to avoid review culture. Providers won't be directly impacted by a single poor rating. We aren't going to decimalize everyone and rank search results so a 4.92 is above a 4.91 - it will be more general and granular.

In both cases, bad actors will get us investigating them. If we get multiple credible reports against a provider or client, they'll be banned at our discretion. We want to provide a safe system for everyone, but are also aware some clients will try to take advantage and use this as leverage - do this or I'll report you and get a friend to do the same. To the extent avoidable, we will avoid letting our rating system be used to coerce anyone.

Money

Pink plan to allow sexworkers to receive payment in cash. How then, does it get to Anderson in whatever San Francisco coffee shop he is running the business from? He replied, "we pay [support staff] via cryptocurrency or via traditional methods. It is a lot less hard to get access to the financial system than one assumes. A lot of people are willing to do things for money, to put it simply. Same goes for receiving payments."

This system could work for the workers and for Pink, I suppose, but there is one party it would not work for: the tokenholders, who are supposed to get a percentage of Pink's profits.

As I said, it does make sense to offer blockchain tokens that grant a share of digital profits - but only if the profits are part of the same digital system. If an organization runs on Ethereum, and accepts payments in Ether, then, sure, smart contracts can automatically send profits to tokenholders. But when money is transferred via cash, Western Union, and a mixture of cryptocurrencies, a token on Ethereum can't do anything about that. It is impossible for the dividends to be "Distributed automatically to shareholders via smart contract" as the pitch deck claims on page 19. Tokenholders would have to rely on centralised figures, hiding behind thick walls of anonymity, to do their accounting fairly. There is nothing to keep Pink honest in their payouts to tokenholders.

Even if Anderson is sincere, and the team are serious about building Pink, they are offering a lousy deal, as someone pointed out in this Reddit comment. At the time of writing, Pink is selling shares at $1, and plans to sell them for $10 in January. There are 23,450,000 shares, so they are estimating their company is worth $23.45 million now and will estimate it at $234.5 million in January. Brad Anderson (Reddit user ecnei) responds that Pink is indeed worth that much. For comparison, Uber valued themselves at $4 million in their initial funding, and they had code and a credible team.

Say they take 20% of the cost of a date, and pay 50% to tokenholders as they claim they will in the pitch deck. To get back the $10 you spent, $2.345 billion worth of business would have to be done on their app. This is unrealistic. You should not invest in any business that values themselves so highly and has nothing to show.

No code to show

When I asked Anderson if there was any code I could look at, as evidence that he was really building his service, he replied, "We'll have some UX info available soon. We're undecided on how much development to publish openly. Tradeoff between building trust vs opsec. Open beta testnet (not live providers) in November."

The investment proposition: unknown people, with no reputation of track record in business, no code or product to show, are asking you to believe their start-up will do $2 billion in business, and they offer no guarantee you will get your money. And you will have no recourse if they don't hold up their end, as they are anonymous.

Scamcoins and shitcoins

At a blockchain event I was at recently, someone wise said: "A shitcoin is not the same thing as a scamcoin". Some ICOs (like Eros.vision) have no intention of building a product; they are raising money to run off with it. Some have the best of intentions and are just terrible investments. It's clear that Pink is a terrible investment, from the arithmetic, and the risk created by asymmetrical trust, but it's a lot less clear if it's an actual scam.

There are several kinds of scam Pink could pull. The simplest and quickest would be keeping the ICO money and delivering nothing. A longer con would be the the exit scam, where they run the business for long enough to build some reputation and traction, and then one day just hit the off switch and keep all the money they are handling at the time. Several darknet markets have done this. It's possible because of their centralised, trusted third party design. All money flows through them. And their anonymity means no one would have any way of holding them accountable.

Does that include dessert?

In perhaps the weirdest event that has ever happened to a Crypto Insider journalist researching a story, I received this email from Anderson:

I have an offer: We'll pay for you to have a dinner date with an escort in your city (if you're currently in US/CA/UK/IE?). The idea is that you can interview an active worker unrelated to Pink and get their thoughts on the industry, Pink, SSIO [sexservice.io], and others - all expenses paid by us. If you or someone you know might be interested, please tell me.

I would be happy to do an interview with one of his team, or a platform user, to research my story. But an offer to meet someone 'unrelated to Pink' for a story on Pink is just bizarre. I don't know if it was an attempt to bribe me with honey to write a positive article, or an attempt to wine and dine me to write a positive article. I had mentioned to him twice in our email thread that I had sexworker sources for the article, so meeting some random worker would not offer me new insight.

If it's a scam, it's a good one

Pink address the concern that they're scamming in their FAQ. They simply say that they could be, and you have to trust them. Their detailed security design, their considered reputation system design, and their scaling-back of the security plan read as authentic. But of course, all of this is just words. It could be a string of false disqualifiers, a double-bluff. My intuition says it's not, but it is stupid to invest real money based on the words of an anonymous, unaccountable internet persona.

On the other hand, the video testimonials Anderson often points to, in his emails, and from Pink's social media accounts, are extremely unconvincing. This girl is clearly reading somebody else's words. There are plenty of lousy products available online that have testimonials. But most of all, these girls have never used Pink's app, because it isn't built yet. You don't value a company at $23 million on the strength of video testimonials. The claim to automatically pay investors via smart contract is clearly bullshit, as it's incompatible with taking cash.

Time will tell. I wouldn't be particularly surprised if it turns out everything Anderson told me is true (barring the ridiculous valuation of his company), and they have a working product out next year.

Featured image from Shutterstock

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Conor O’Higgins has been a digital nomad for seven years. He learned the internet marketing game with Google and Facebook ads, but in the wake of the Snowden revelations, abandoned that to help marketing and communications for a more decentralized, encrypted internet. He is not a fan of current implementations of social media, but can be contacted through conorohiggins.com

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