Following the Money, ePassporte Edition

A few weeks ago, I blogged about the financial troubles afflicting ePassporte, an online payment provider whose sudden disconnection from the Visa network left many account holders without access to millions of dollars. I became interested in ePassporte because it kept popping up as I was investigating stories related to affiliate programs that reward people who peddle things like rogue anti-virus products and spam.

Since then, I’ve heard from a large number of disgruntled ePassporte account holders, most of whom were or are in the online porn industry, a market that ePassporte’s CEO Chris Mallick helped to nurture. In fact, as I noted in that original blog entry, Mallick produced “Middle Men,” a movie released by Paramount in August that is a fictionalized account of his experiences in the porn billing industry.

Many of those readers have been asking for an update on this story, and I’m afraid I don’t have a whole lot more to report. But the old adage about following the money led me to at least try to understand a bit more about how ePassporte is structured, and where its money may be.

Before I get to that, it makes sense to restate what’s been said by the parties involved. On Sept. 2, ePassporte owner Chris Mallick sent an e-mail to account holders saying the company was notified that effective immediately, Visa International had suspended the ePassporte Visa program, a card issued by St. Kitts Nevis Anguilla National Bank that ePassporte customers could use to withdraw cash at ATMs worldwide.

I contacted Visa for comment on that story, and the following Tuesday received a statement from Visa via e-mail saying that it had disconnected ePassporte at the request of St. Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla National Bank to “address certain program deficiencies.” Neither Visa nor SKNA Bank has been willing to discuss what those deficiencies may have been. A story in the St. Kitts Nevis Observer quotes a St. Kitts National Bank representative as saying Visa had cleared them of any wrongdoing, although that official – Patricia Wilkinson – declined to say who had accused them of wrongdoing or answer any other questions when I reached her by phone on Monday.

In checking out numerous forums and looking up bank and incorporation records online, I learned that ePassporte is incorporated in Curaçao, an island in the southern Caribbean Sea, off the coast of Venezuela. Indeed, the ePassporte Visa cards themselves include this information, indirectly at least, with the statement:

“This card is issued by St. Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla National Bank Limited” (“Bank”) pursuant to a license from Visa International and under a co-branding agreement between ePassporte N.V. and the bank.”

The Web site for the Curaçao Chamber of Commerce & Industry says ePassporte N.V. is registered at the address Kaya Richard J. Beaujon Z/N, Curaçao, Netherlands Antilles. The managing director of the company is a man named Gregory E. Elias (the same information is included in a old WHOIS records search for epassporte.com).

According to multiple ePassporte users with whom I’ve corresponded, any wires or bank transfers used to deposit funds in ePassporte accounts are sent to ePassporte N.V. via an entity called United International Bank N.V., an organization founded in 2009. Interestingly, United International Bank also lists the same Curaçao address, and lists Mr. Elias as a director, among others. So, on the surface at least, it appears that ePassporte and its primary bank are owned and operated by the same entity and directors.

I was able to locate a phone number for Mr. Elias and reached him this morning at United International Trust. Elias said he had no idea ePassporte customers were having trouble withdrawing their money from the bank, but he declined to answer direct questions about the situation.

“The only thing we can tell you is if you send your inquires and questions in writing to us, we will pass them on to Mr. Mallick and his lawyers,” Elias said. “We cannot go over queries over the phone. We never do that.” Elias declined to give me his e-mail address, saying I should be able to find it if I really were an investigative reporter.

Mallick and ePassporte have yet to respond to requests for comment. Mallick issued another statement Sept. 10 via an adult Webmaster forum, urging customers who were having trouble withdrawing their funds to be patient. “Our staff is all working diligently to resolve these issues and the many moving and complicated parts of getting the funds returned,” Mallick wrote.  “Therefore, please do not mistake our silence as hiding, avoiding or stringing you along. We too have funds that are stuck in the system as well as massive costs of operation without any income.”

But bereft of any hard information from ePassporte, the company’s customers have begun spinning conspiracy theories about what could have fueled the entire fiasco. Some have pointed to Mallick’s film, which according to Web site boxofficemojo.com cost an estimated $20 million but grossed less than $800,000 in a three week run at the box office that ended in late August.

In any event, I put some of the information I found into a spreadsheet (a portion of which is included below), mainly to help me understand the relationship between the various interested parties as I followed the trail of other stories I’ve been working on. It may be useful to some ePassporte customers: It includes Mr. Elias’ e-mail address and phone number.

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