Part I: Noosphere
- In February 2020, Snopes published an investigation into venture capital firm Noosphere Ventures that was set up by the British-Ukrainian tech entrepreneur Max Polyakov.
- Polyakov owned, at the time, a majority of shares in the U.S. rocket manufacturer Firefly Aerospace, via this fund. He has since been forced by the U.S. government to sell his interest.
- Our investigation highlighted myriad ties between Noosphere Ventures, its principle partners, its mid-level staff, and a collection of predatory hookup websites with names like Bang Experts and Shagaholic.
- Following that investigation, an individual using a pseudonym provided Snopes with several unsolicited and detailed dossiers on obvious competitors of Polyakov, offering to pay "in crypto, if needed," to pursue the claims.
- In September 2021, that individual — apparently accidentally — revealed what appears to be his true identity: Peter Ivanof, Noosphere Ventures' chief communication officer.
Attempts to deceive this reporter began just a few months after Snopes published its February 2020 investigation into tech investor Max Polyakov's investment firm Noosphere Ventures and its deceptively marketed dating websites. Numerous individuals began sending tips, often under pseudonyms, with information alleged to be helpful should we continue researching either Polyakov or other tech investors involved in scams.
These tips were not always on the level. The deceptive outreach of one individual, in particular, provided Snopes both with the motivation to further investigate Polyakov as well as the justification to dedicate substantial resources to that effort. From September 2020 to December 2021, an individual using the name "Ivan" sent Snopes several dossiers of allegedly damaging information on people or companies. It was blisteringly obvious, even then, that all of these tips concerned competitors of Polyakov.
Ivan sent Snopes information on myriad businesses or individuals before disappearing in December 2020. But in September 2021, a few days after Snopes first began contacting people as part of this investigation, Ivan resurfaced. This time, he dangled a convoluted set of claims involving Rudy Giuliani (then-personal attorney for U.S. President Donald Trump) and his Ukrainian business partners. In doing so, he accidentally revealed what appears to be his true identity — Ivan was the chief communications officer for Polyakov's Noosphere Ventures.
The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States
When Snopes began this investigation, Polyakov was the majority owner of Firefly Aerospace, a U.S. government contractor. In 2017, he purchased the assets of a bankrupt company, Firefly Space Systems, using his own Silicon Valley venture capital firm Noosphere Ventures. Through Noosphere, Polyakov became co-founder and majority owner of the rebranded company Firefly Aerospace.
Four years later, in May 2021, Noosphere Ventures announced as part of a fundraising round that it had "sold $100 million of its holdings to some … Series A investors to satisfy what the company called 'overwhelming demand'" for Firefly shares. Following that transaction, Noosphere owned just around 50% of Firefly Aerospace.
In December 2021, however, Ashlee Vance reported in Bloomberg that this reduction in ownership, as well as Polyakov's earlier decision to step away from day-to-day activities of Firefly, were not to satisfy "overwhelming demand" but instead attempts to appease concerns raised by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), a multi-agency task force that monitors risks posed by foreign ownership of U.S. companies.
In fact, Vance later reported, CFIUS had demanded Polyakov divest completely from Firefly Aerospace if the company wanted to continue to receive government contracts or launch from U.S. soil. As a result, Noosphere as of this writing has no holdings in Firefly. "Dear CFIUS, Air Force and 23 agencies of [the] USA who betrayed me," Polyakov wrote on Facebook in a since-deleted Feb. 16, 2022, Facebook post. "History will judge all of you guys."
On that basis, Ivan aggressively lobbied this reporter to pursue a story about Mikhail Kokorich, then the Russian-born owner of the U.S. space company Momentus Space. This company, it was later reported, had also been involved in a similar dispute with the U.S. government.
Ivan later claimed credit for a November 2020 story in Quartz that first reported on U.S. government concerns regarding Kokorich's ownership of Momentus. "It's a pity you didn't use my materials on … Kokorich," Ivan later emailed. "Fortunately, Quartz did use them and made a noisy investigation, pushing the guy to leave Momentus Space."
Polyakov, a year later, would be forced to do the same with Firefly. But Polyakov's departure from Firefly did not put an end to a steady flow of tips from Ivan. As time wore on, the information provided by Ivan shifted toward the other area of commerce in which Polyakov has historically been engaged: internet marketing and advertising.
Ivan's dossiers consistently accused other businesses of behavior Polyakov himself or his own businesses have engaged in. Like Polyakov's apparent effort to highlight Kokorich's foreign ties at a time when the government was investigating his own, the accusations appeared to be designed not to inform but to divert attention away from Polyakov's own and often similar liabilities.
Another target was a Ukrainian IT company that, Ivan alleged in December 2020, was both involved in "a lot of fraud and cheating transactions" and also "hiding its dating business." Though he referred to a competitor, this is essentially the same behavior Snopes documented regarding Together Networks and Noosphere Ventures in its 2020 investigation.
"Are they ashamed of [their] dating business?" Ivan asked rhetorically of this competing company. As Snopes shows in this series, Polyakov or his associates have apparently gone to great lengths to disguise the ownership and control of Polyakov's empire of predatory dating sites.
By April 2021, perhaps because nine consecutive emails to this reporter had gone unanswered, Ivan seemed to have lost interest. On Sept. 15, 2021, Snopes contacted the first person from whom we sought information as part of our work for this investigation. This person, identified later in this series as "Individual Three," was listed as owner of a company that handled customer complaints for Together Networks dating websites.
Seven days later, on Sept. 22, 2021, Ivan reemerged in this reporter's inbox with the claims about Giuliani.
Evidently misinformed, Ivan wrote in this new email chain that he and his "partners" knew Snopes had been "investigating Giuliani related topics." (Not so.) "I don't want to write this via mail," Ivan told this reporter, "so if you have a Signal, I could find you there and send more details." Ivan was adamant that Snopes pursue these convoluted allegations, offering to cover the cost of an investigation in "crypto, if needed."
For someone concerned with maintaining anonymity, shifting to Signal was a likely misstep. When Ivan contacted this reporter on that app, he did so with an account registered to a phone number used as the contact number in news releases for the bitcoin exchange CEX.io. These releases were signed by that company's then-communication officer, Peter Ivanov. A man named Peter Ivanov, who used to work for CEX.io, is presently the chief communications officer for Noosphere Ventures:
The Giuliani tip from that Signal account largely concerned various business partners in Ukraine with whom Giuliani allegedly worked. These individuals were involved, our tipster said, in "leaking money from Ukraine to Cyprus." As the rest of this series demonstrates, the profits from Polyakov's own businesses — which rely heavily on Ukrainian labor — often flow through Cyprus, a well-known tax haven that is considered a high-risk financial jurisdiction due to its "weak measures to combat money laundering and terrorist financing."
Several months later, after Snopes reached out to another Together Networks employee, Ivanov contacted this reporter from a Noopshere email address. Still unaware of our suspicion that he was "Ivan," Ivanov intended to inform this reporter that Noosphere was aware that Snopes "may be working on a news article related to Noosphere and/or Max Polyakov," and that we should "direct any inquiries" to Ivanov in writing.
Snopes took him up on that offer: We asked why it appeared he had been sending us multiple dossiers on Noosphere's competitors, and if that attempt to fund a Giuliani investigation at Snopes was part of an effort to distract us from looking into Polyakov. We haven't heard from him since. He did not respond to multiple subsequent requests for comment and did not confirm his involvement in the dossiers. The individual operating Ivan's Signal account did not respond to a request for comment, either.
Polyakov is a near-perfect case study into how the ultra-wealthy can hide money offshore and obscure its origin while simultaneously manufacturing a vision of themselves incompatible with reality. In a 2013 note announcing the founding of his Menlo Park, California, venture capital firm, Polyakov explained that the corporation's main investment would be in training workers to be "super activists of honesty, beauty and justice."
Providing damaging business intelligence under the guise of journalism aside, this is an absurd way to describe a group of entrepreneurs whose decade-long modus operandi has been — and remains — using predatory websites with names like Shagaholic to convince people who are unlikely to read a terms-of-service page to give up their credit card number.
Does the following series expose the secrets Polyakov and his associates have apparently been trying to hide? Do those secrets reveal the reasons CFIUS demanded Polyakov give up Firefly Aerospace? We don't know because CIFUS did not respond to our request for comment. What this series does reveal, however, is exactly how central internet scams have been — and still are — to Polyakov's career.