The Harsh Realities of Crypto Trading
Last week Joe Biden did a “rug pull” on the crypto world. He signed an executive order instructing the relevant federal agencies to start regulating crypto. It won’t come soon enough for the tens of thousands who have been defrauded in endless crypto scams and crypto token fraud.
Forgive me for being so old that I recall the endless Super Bowl XXXIV commercials in 2000 for dot-com companies like Pets.com. This year’s crypto spots reminded me that the dot-com ads were the high-water mark of the internet era. I have no idea if history will repeat itself this time around, but the parallel is eerie. Investors in the dot-com mania around the turn of the century lost $5 trillion. One highly rated tech fund lost 85 percent of its value in just a few months.
Headlines about the crypto world have come fast and furious over the past few weeks. They have highlighted not-that-often discussed aspects of digital currencies—aspects most fans would like to forget. Here are just a few headlines:
- Feds Arrest Husband and Wife Team and Recover $3.6 Billion in Bitcoin
- North Korean Hackers Stole $400 Million in Bitcoin in 2021
- 11 Billion in Ether Stolen by Hackers
- South African Crypto Exchange Brothers Disappear With Billions in Bitcoin
The backlist of stories for crypto scams goes on and on, including the wholesale theft of Bitcoin from Mt. Gox, the hacked Japanese exchange. Gerald Cotten, CEO of Canadian Bitcoin company Quadriga, left investors with hundreds of millions in losses. Either he looted their accounts to finance a grandiose lifestyle or died with the “key” to his clients’ Bitcoin.
As Willie Sutton, the notorious bank robber, once said when asked why he robbed banks, “That’s where the money is.” Well, there is lots of money in crypto—about three trillion globally, depending on the timeframe.
This does not count the $140 billion of Bitcoin that can’t be recovered because passwords have been forgotten or lost despite the growing cottage industry to help recover them. I like to imagine hypnotists getting into the act with the suggestion, “You will now remember your Bitcoin password.”
While there are the usual risks to any investment, crypto poses a rather unique one: outright theft. This serious underbelly of stolen funds is an issue that “investors” often don’t factor in, until it is too late.
As one crypto legal expert put it, “The lure of supposed anonymous trading and asset holding fails to recognize there is no recourse if your wallet is picked.”
How right they are. A few years ago, I noticed a few thousand dollars was missing from my bank account. It turned out two wires had been sent for $2,500 each to a bank in Chicago and then on to the Dominican Republic. Huh? I didn’t make those transactions. Calls to Chase, followed by an in-person meeting at my local branch, resulted in an investigation.
Within 24 hours, my funds were returned…because they were traceable, the transactions visible to all bank personnel. No blockchain was needed for “transparency.” It did not take the FBI years to reverse engineer a blockchain to find the hidden funds.
Beyond the new IRS requirement that all crypto transactions be acknowledged, a fact that will surprise many crypto investors is this: There may not be a way to anonymously trade crypto.
There are many ways hackers can break into hot wallets and they are working on ways to enter supposedly secure exchanges, and cold wallets too. Anyone familiar with Israeli tech knows there are scores of cyber security companies working to protect the entire gamut of digital information and assets. And who are they protecting them from? The army of black hats out there in North Korea, Russia, China, Nigeria and Iran…just to name a few. Freelance hackers are spending all day, every day, stealing crypto assets. That is when they are not trying to shut down pipelines, hospitals, power plants and cities to achieve their ransomware demands…to be paid, of course, in crypto.
The insurrectionists of January 6 discovered something similar when the FBI revealed it could read encrypted messages on Signal and Telegram. Crypto investors should be aware that Cray supercomputers in the hands of the smartest and best-funded computer scientists on the planet might be one step ahead of the off-the-shelf encryption files used by some of the largest crypto trading and storage providers. Secure encryption is only good until a hacker proves it not to be.
This does not mean Bitcoin and the thousands of other crypto tokens and currencies are always dangerous to hold. It does mean that there is an industry of people, unidentifiable without major government or private security intervention, who want to steal your crypto. Because it is not a registered recorded trade, like a gold stock transaction, the murky waters of crypto make it ideal for scammers. There is no one to cry to, no one to answer the phone, no one to meet with for help if your wallet is hacked. Anytime crypto is put into a hot wallet for a trade or transfer, it becomes bait for these sharks.
Perhaps the ultimate example is the $600 million in crypto stolen from Australia’s Poly Network, a “decentralized finance platform.” The company’s management publicly begged the hackers to return their clients’ money! If this was an SNL skit, many would find it too far-fetched.
So, for these and many other reasons, I am keeping my assets in FDIC-insured banks, SEC-registered investment houses and SIPC-insured brokerage accounts. It is a rule of markets that “no one rings a bell at the top or bottom,” but if history is a guide, the Super Bowl commercials for crypto investments may be as clear a sound as you can hear.