Ilya “Dutch” Lichtenstein raised money from Mark Cuban and other well-known investors. His wife, Heather Morgan, built a following as a quirky rapper and social media luminary.
By Cyrus Farivar, David Jeans and Thomas Brewster
Heather Morgan and her husband, Ilya “Dutch” Lichtenstein, seemed to lead a successful life as tech entrepreneurs and thought leaders. Lichtenstein invested in startups alongside heavyweights like Marc Benioff and had launched his own company backed by Mark Cuban. Morgan styled herself as a prolific thought leader, posting online articles about women in leadership, and even had an alter ego as a goofy YouTube rapper called Razzlekhan, who talked about success and money.
But they had a secret, according to investigators with the IRS. Morgan, 31, and her husband, Lichtenstein, 34, were arrested in New York on Tuesday and charged with trying to launder $3.6 billion in bitcoin stolen by hackers from the Bitfinex exchange six years ago. If convicted of the charges against them, each could serve up to 25 years in prison. Court documents unsealed this week detail an elaborate scheme to launder and conceal the origins of the stolen bitcoins. Lichtenstein and Morgan are not charged with perpetrating the hack.
Forbes found that as the pair allegedly used a digital wallet to launder the cryptocurrency, they simultaneously styled themselves as self-made entrepreneurs, investing in companies together and, in Morgan’s case, establishing herself as a social media personality.
Since meeting about a decade ago, the two worked hard to gain a foothold in Silicon Valley and New York tech circles. Lichtenstein had proceeded through a series of failed ventures, including running a Ron Paul fan website and setting up a brain-boosting supplements business before co-founding MixRank, now a venture-backed sales and marketing company. Lichtenstein left MixRank abruptly in 2016, the same year that Bitfinex was hacked.
During that time, Morgan cast herself as an expert in “cold email” – unsolicited communications – and parlayed that into writing gigs and appearances at sales conferences.
“She came across as a smooth operator but never in a way that raised suspicions,” said Travis Lybbert, a University of California, Davis economics professor, who hired Morgan as a research assistant in 2011. “She was a very confident young person, professional, who would look for opportunities and create them.”
People who knew the couple said they were shocked by the arrests. Lybbert, in a phone interview with Forbes, said Morgan had been a promising student whose understanding of the Middle East was impressive. She “earned a place” as a co-author on the academic book chapter that they wrote together, he said: “Lessons from the Arab Spring: Food Security and Stability in the Middle East and North Africa.”
The professor said that he had given a guest lecture in one of Morgan’s classes when she was a student at UC Davis, and she approached him later, after her graduation, seeking research opportunities that could aid her “graduate studies in economics, especially in international and developmental economics.”
”She was always looking for the next thing and had really high aspirations for what she wanted to do professionally,” Lybbert said.
Lybbert also said that while he and Morgan were working together in 2011 and 2012, Morgan was ambitious and busy. After graduating from UC Davis, she traveled to Hong Kong, where she worked as an event planner, while also applying to graduate school in economics and starting her own copywriting consulting company, SalesFolk, Lybbert said.
According to Morgan’s LinkedIn page, she moved on from Hong Kong to Cairo, where she completed a masters degree in economics and international development at the American University. Morgan returned to California in 2013 and took a job with a company called Tamatem Inc., an Arabic-language mobile-games publisher, which was incubated in 500 Startups. At about the same time, Morgan launched SalesFolk. Archival copies of her website from June 2013 describe her as an “analytics ninja,” a “published author,” and as having seven years of copywriting experience.
It appears she crossed paths with Lichtenstein around this time. Listed as a testimonial at the bottom of her Salesfolk web page is a comment from Lichtenstein, who gave her services a glowing review, calling her “intense, brilliant, and laser focused,” and adding that “a single hour of brainstorming with Heather pays for itself immediately.”
In 2014, Morgan began blogging on her own site, econgoat.com, where she described herself as a “shameless economist in pearls.” In a post on April 14, 2014, she wrote: “While my risk-loving behavior may have brought me more chaos than most people could handle, mixed with some failures, it also led me to my biggest wins.” A few months later, Morgan interviewed Lichtenstein for her own YouTube channel, asking him about his company, MixRank, in a video entitled “Get your first $1 million in enterprise sales with zero marketing spend.”
By now, Morgan was getting recognition beyond her own websites. In August 2015, she was interviewed online by a sales management software company called Ambition, which described her as someone who was “rewriting the playbook on cold email outreach for [software-as-a-service] companies all over the world.” Brian Trautschold, now Ambition’s COO, who did the interview with Morgan, expressed shock that she had been accused of a federal crime. It’s “crazy,” he told Forbes in a phone interview. “She was speaking at SaaS conferences and there was no indication that the person wasn’t focused on consulting on email…It’s a shock, seven-plus years later, to see the other side of the story kind of come out.”
A few months before the Bitfinex hack in August 2016, Morgan became a freelance columnist at Inc. magazine, which described her as having gone from “sleeping on couches to creating a bootstrapped seven-figure business called SalesFolk.” The following year, she also became a contributor to the ForbesWomen section on Forbes.com, where she posted articles about topics ranging from music to food. In one post, Morgan discussed how she had a speech impediment growing up and was bullied by other students in school.
In that 2019 Forbes post, she hinted at previous legal issues: She wrote that during a business trip to Asia, she received unspecific “legal threats,” learned that her employees were “fudging numbers,” and was bullied by longtime friends. Forbes removed her as a contributor in September 2021 during a routine semiannual review.
It was because of professional setbacks like these, she wrote in the Forbes post, that she decided to become a rapper, adopting the name Razzlekhan. In an Instagram post in January 2019, Morgan is wearing a black leather jacket while another woman stands behind her. “So some people in the tech world are a little bit worried about me rapping and are not sure if I should have a rap song, also some corporate people,” she said. “But you know what, I remember just as many people telling me not to take a risk, not to start a company, not to be an entrepreneur.” Many of Razzlekhan’s YouTube videos have been made private or been removed since Tuesday evening.
Since the Bitfinex hack in 2016, the couple’s online posts show an extravagant lifestyle. Morgan documented their jet-setting from Panama to Malaysia and Mexico on social media platforms.
The same month the alleged hack took place, Morgan posted a photo to Instagram. She and Lichtenstein are sitting on a blue satin couch, laughing. “I always love getting into trouble w/ this crazy guy,” she wrote. “Thanks for always inspiring me to be a better entrepreneur!”
Lichtenstein, for his part, had established himself as a minor player in the New York tech investment world, where, according to the Justice Department, he was living in an apartment at 75 Wall Street, an exclusive block where a typical condo is valued upward of $1 million.
It was an image of success he had been building for a decade. After graduating with a major in psychology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Lichtenstein had sought like-minded entrepreneurs and went to Silicon Valley, where he met other techno-libertarians, according to his trail of now-defunct websites and businesses identified by Forbes. One of his more notable sites was RonPaulFan.com, which contained a stream of news and support for the one-time Republican presidential candidate who became a famous advocate for cryptocurrency. According to the site’s banner, it was the “#1 source for all Ron Paul news.”
Lichtenstein also dabbled in selling brain supplements around this time, claiming to have created one called Instant Focus that promised to “turbocharge your productivity,” which he said helped him “code longer and be more productive” in a post on Hacker News in October 2010. He also launched weight loss sites, including MyNaturalWeightLossDiet.com, which was pushing colon cleanses and acai supplements, and what appeared to be a series of dating websites, adultfriendgrinder.com and findgeekgirls.com.
While those enterprises failed to get off the ground, he found more success as co-founder of MixRank, a data-driven-marketing startup, which was accepted into the Y Combinator accelerator program in 2011. At the time, Lichtenstein was trying to establish himself as a Silicon Valley thought leader, in a blog entitled Influence Hacks. In one post he wrote, “The amount of money you make has nothing to do with how hard you work … What markets really reward is RISK.”
Among early MixRank backers were billionaire investor Mark Cuban and the 500 Startups venture capital fund, according to Pitchbook, but both sold their stakes to an undisclosed buyer sometime between 2012 and 2015. MixRank’s other founder, Scott Milliken, didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment at the time of publication. In an email, Cuban said he “never met” Lichtenstein.
Later, Lichtenstein founded a blockchain-based cybersecurity company called Endpass and an investment business called DemandPath, alongside Morgan. In just over a decade, he was also investing in startups. Those included Routable, where he was an angel investor alongside more than a dozen other investors, including billionaire Bay Area heavyweights like Scott Belsky, Box founder Aaron Levie and Salesforce founder and co-CEO Marc Benioff. There is no indication that Lichtenstein knew or communicated with the other investors.
In one LinkedIn post from 2021, Lichtenstein wrote that he was “proud to have been among the earliest investors in Routable.” Omri Mor, cofounder and CEO of Routable responded, “Proud to have you with us from the start.” Mor didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Lichtenstein has not been nearly as prolific on social media as his wife. Over the past decade, his Twitter account was quiet for nearly seven years, from 2013 until 2020. But in January 2021, he complained about what he called “#BigTechCensorship.” Last month, he took aim at the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, lampooning him over a meme he posted. “How wild that billionaires who can do anything in the world choose to prioritize posting second rate memes on Twitter?”
Reached by phone, Liechtenstein’s father, Yevgeniy Lichtenstein, declined to speak about his son’s predicament. “I don’t want to discuss it, I’m sorry,” the elder Lichtenstein said.
A 20-page affidavit written by Christopher Janczewski, a special agent with the Internal Revenue Service, accuses Morgan and Lichtenstein of moving the stolen bitcoins “through thousands of transactions to over a dozen accounts” in their own names and businesses. One of those companies was SalesFolk, Morgan’s copywriting consulting company, according to the affidavit.
In June 2019, Morgan allegedly changed a personal bitcoin account to a business account that she had at a specific virtual currency exchange (identified in court documents as “VCE 7”), “in order to receive less scrutiny from VCE 7 about her transactions as she liquidated her BTC in greater volume,” the affidavit reads.
But it was Lichtenstein’s use of a cloud-storage account that led to the unraveling of the alleged plot. The government decrypted a file there that contained a list of 2,000 virtual currency addresses, along with corresponding private keys. Almost all of those addresses were linked to the Bitfinex heist, according to the Justice Department, which said the crypto also passed through entities owned by Morgan.
Lichtenstein and Morgan’s counsel, Anirudh Bansal, did not respond to Forbes’ requests for comment.
During a detention hearing Tuesday before a federal magistrate judge, Morgan and Lichtenstein were ordered released on bond, over prosecutors’ objections. The objections included the fact that Morgan allegedly “tried to lock her cellular phone to prevent law enforcement examination” and that the pair “engaged in extraordinarily complex laundering” of some of the bitcoins stolen from Bitfinex. In the end, however, Chief Judge Beryl Howell ordered the husband and wife to remain in custody. A hearing has been scheduled for Friday.
In August 2019, Morgan gave a lecture on “How to Social Engineer Your Way Into Anything” to a group in New York City. When asked by an audience where the line should be drawn in social engineering, Morgan responded: “I do believe that the ends justify the means sometimes,” she said. “My end goals aren’t bad or evil. I’m not trying to scam someone out of money or get someone hurt in any way.”