How Celebrity Gossips and Horoscopes Landed an Australian ‘SMS Genius’ Millionaire in US Prison


The rise from poverty to the wealth of Australian tech tycoon Zhenya Tsvetnenko happened swiftly. The pioneer of automated SMS messaging was a Russian-born, Perth-raised businessman who, in the early 2000s, developed the technology from his tiny bedroom while surviving on two-minute noodles.

History of the Scam:

The 42-year-old acquired a $100 million fortune from the program, giving mobile phone users access to services like weather predictions, regularly updated inexpensive gas rates, and subsequent horoscopes and celebrity gossip headlines.

Tsvetnenko used his money to buy seven homes in Australia and overseas, expensive automobiles, a wedding that cost $600,000, and extravagant parties, one of which included the musician Snoop Dogg.

Three years after being named to the BRW Young Rich List in 2012, the “SMS genius” orchestrated a global auto-subscribing scheme that eventually defrauded Americans of more than $41 million while taking home $15.4 million for himself.

Detention and Extradition:

His extravagant lifestyle ended in 2018 when officials detained him due to an extradition request from US officials who had discovered “one of the greatest telecoms frauds in the country’s history.”

He resisted extradition for three years in prison in Perth, but in the end, he gave up and was sent back to the US in late 2021. He entered a guilty plea to conspiracy to conduct wire fraud and money laundering in February 2022, and in June, he received an eight-year prison term.

According to Damian Williams, the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Tsvetnenko charged consumers $9.99 each month to receive unsolicited texts about entertainment-related topics, including celebrity gossip and trivia.

Most victims ignored the messages as spam and did not sign up for the service or agree to the charge. They were unaware of the charge until they saw it on their phone bill.

“Tsvetnenko and his co-defendants earned a fortune by falsely billing their clients for text messages they didn’t need to authorize, in a method known as “auto-subscribing,” then laundering the money through shell companies,” Williams claimed.

Current details about the case:

He has already paid back almost $15 million in forfeiture. He will now serve 98 months in federal prison, paying a high price for his mobile fraud.

During his extradition battle, the father of two filed for divorce from Lydia, whom he had married before becoming rich.

According to court records, Hakea Prison prisoners and Lydia, with his nine-year-old child, served as the fraudster’s references before his punishment.

In a letter addressed to the court, Tsvetnenko also expressed regret for the scam, in which he promised to “not go wrong again.”

“I used the argument that it wasn’t a lot of money and nobody was getting injured to justify my conduct at the time. By deceiving myself, I am extremely sorry for what I did and the damage my actions resulted in.” 

Darcy Wedd, a native of Western Australia and his co-conspirator, is already serving ten years in a US jail for the fraud.

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