Cryptocurrency Firms Regularly Lose Codes and Money

Yves here. This Real News Network segment covers another one of our pet themes, “cryptocurrencies = prosecution futures,” by looking at scams perpetrated against cryptocurrency users.

MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Great to have you with us.

Bitcoins, cryptocurrency, are all a mystery to me and to many others. Are they real money? Why should I – why should that be the concern of hackers? One group known as a group called Alpha – a huge group apparently, as one article put it – quoting an organization called Chain Analysis – “is driven by non-monetary goals and means.” But a second, much smaller hacking group that is known as Beta, is focused only on the money. And they are both brazen about it, apparently. Add to that, as reported in this Fortune article recently, Gerald Cotten, who owned Quadriga – hope that I said that right – CX – QuadrigaCX – died in December. The company has $190 million in cryptocurrency stores inside the company and its computers, as the article points out, has roughly 26,000 bitcoin, 11,000 bitcoin cash, 200,000 LikeCoin, over 400,000 Ether, and other cryptos. But they’re not kept in a public computer, so neither his widow, nor anyone else seems to be able to access it, and people fear they could have lost all their investments.

So why should we care? What does this mean? What is this cryptocurrency? Why is it important? And what is the real danger associated with all of these hacking groups that are coming after these companies? Well, to help us sort all this out and all the vagaries of capitalism to go with it is Bill Black, Associate Professor of Economics and Law at the University of [Missouri] Kansas City, joining us today from Minnesota, and author of The Best Way to Rob a Bank Is to Own One. Bill, so, as my grandfather would say in his Yiddish: Nu? What does this mean?

BILL BLACK: And his brother would have responded: Nu? Nu? [laughter] of course. So, what it means is this: These currencies are not ready for prime time. They are not ready to be currencies. They are not actually used as currency. You can’t go and buy things at the store. And they don’t hold their value, necessarily. They can lose enormous amounts of value. And instead of being safe when you put them in the closest equivalent to a bank, they’re actually incredibly exposed to being stolen when you put them into the crypto variant of a bank. And this is so bad, these series of thefts carried out by these hypothetical groups – I want to be clear.


BILL BLACK: We don’t know that these groups exist, Alpha and Beta, and if they do exist we don’t know what they call themselves.

MARC STEINER: But why is it dangerous if there’s not – if it’s not really money? What does it mean that they’ve hacked into this place and …

BILL BLACK: Right. So it’s just analytically the – you know, forensic clues suggest there might be two groups, one of them, as you said, larger, and one of them relatively smaller, and both of them steal. One of them steals clearly to get rich, and one of them may also steal to destabilize and to move currency, because every time you steal successfully, you know, when the news comes out that the value of cryptocurrencies is going to fall. So if you’ve been betting that the value is going to fall you can make it fall through your theft, as well. That may be one of the things going on.

Now, on top of all those things, you have to actually typically memorize a computer code. Now how many of us forget our computer codes?

MARC STEINER: All the time.

BILL BLACK: All the time. Well, guess what? That’s what happens to crypto crazies. They forget their codes. And then they can’t get their money, because the only way you can get it is a code. So there’s actually arisen a private sector of folks, you know, that are sort of password whisperers. They come and they talk to you, and they try to divine what kind of code you would have created. And then they, you know, spend some months or weeks looking for it. And if they succeed, they get 30 to 50 percent of the proceeds type of thing.

All right. So. You have these nice, responsible, Canadian response to all of this is, well, I’ll be super safe. I won’t put any of the codes online, where they could be stolen by this hypothetical Alpha and Beta type group. I’ll have it all offline, and the – there’ll be only one set of key codes, and only I will know it. And that works great, unless you die.

MARC STEINER: [Laughter] And he died.

BILL BLACK: And he died without telling anybody what the codes were. Even though he had a chronic illness, and had plenty of time to tell people.

MARC STEINER: He didn’t even tell his wife.

BILL BLACK: Including the wife. And you will note that this happened in December, and we’re talking in February. And this is just becoming public. Which is to say, people that had – and here we get flaky again – nearly $200 million. But who knows, because cryptocurrency currency values vary all the time massively. But anyway, lots of it. Those folks are SOL, or they’ve got bupkis, to quote your [inaudible], right? When you get there, there ain’t no there there – type of thing – if you can’t get past the security.

So this is insane, but you can see the two stories are related. He was so worried about the threat of this Alpha and Beta that he took extraordinary security – security so tight that it may have destroyed all the value of the cryptocurrencies. And of course I laugh, but this is sad for the people that have their stuff in this. But they tend to be an interesting subset of folks, you know, very young, male, could never happen to me-type things. So anyway, do not buy Bitcoins or other cryptocurrencies. Don’t let your aunts, your uncles, your grandmother buy it. If you have a moronic friend who decided the way to make a fortune is to sell everything and to buy Bitcoins, get them drunk, I don’t know. Do whatever it takes.

MARC STEINER: So I mean – it would be like a country song. Don’t let your momma buy cryptocurrency. I mean, so – but what I’m saying is, very quickly, explain to me just very succinctly, and for our viewers, what the hell is cryptocurrency, and why do people invest in it?

BILL BLACK: They invested in it for two reasons, and the two are related. And – and it’s all propaganda about this and that. So the first is to get rich, of course. For the same reason people invented cryptocurrency. We don’t know who invented Bitcoins and there – it’s another whole saga – but we know that that person got really rich.

MARC STEINER: How did he get rich, though? How do you get rich from something that doesn’t exist?

BILL BLACK: Because they allocated to themselves a bunch of Bitcoin, right at the beginning. So if people are dumb enough to buy tons of Bitcoin, the value of the the Bitcoins goes up, and they make a fortune.

But of course, there’s no there there, like – Oaklands, the – you know, type of slam – type of thing. So the second thing is it is super – if you talk to folks, and boy have I – you will hear about it. I will hear about it again after this. It’s a combination of libertarian and secrecy. You know, that the government knows everything and tracks everything I do. So I’ll take this, and you know, and I’ll be off the grid. And that’s not true, also, for other reasons – including [inaudible], by the way. But you know, it – it’s some collection of those things, plus, of course, the early folks in any bubble get rich. And then the people that come along say whoa, whoa, what if I had only bought Bitcoin at, you know, day one, even today I’d be a very rich person. But you know, that’s how bubbles work.

MARC STEINER: So is there a danger – really quickly – is there a danger here in the hackers themselves, and what they might be honing in on? Or is this something that is – is this for people who invest in this – in these Bitcoins and cryptocurrency?

BILL BLACK: Yeah, so this is a subset of the population. It’s not going to have any effect on the general economy, but it does show … This is simply one of the amazing dangers of this currency, because it isn’t really a currency from a sovereign government. It is exposed to this unique loss methodology. But the bigger story, I mean, the huge losses, of course, come from the fact that eventually people go, you know, there’s no really ‘there’ there, and then the currency loses 80 percent of its value, and the people that sold everything to, you know, try to become rich without working, then they suffer enormous losses, as well.

MARC STEINER: Well, this has been – I’ve learned a lot in our brief conversation here, Bill Black, and-

BILL BLACK: Always listen to your uncle. Especially if he’s speaking Yiddish.

MARC STEINER: Always listen to your uncle. Don’t buy such a thing.

BILL BLACK: These people – these people are verblandzhet.

MARC STEINER: Right. So, friends, don’t let your friends invest in cryptocurrency. And Bill Black, thank you once again for joining us here on The Real News. It’s always a pleasure to talk with you.

BILL BLACK: Thank you.

MARC STEINER: Enjoy the Arctic weather in Minnesota. And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you all for watching. Take care.

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    1. tegnost

      usually I read these rt transcripts, but luckily today being late I listened, and the Prof is basically laughing the whole way through.

      verblandzhet …. Rosten: “Lost…mixed up, wandering about without any idea of where you are.” Can refer to being physically or intellectually lost.”

  1. cnchal

    > BILL BLACK: Because they allocated to themselves a bunch of Bitcoin, right at the beginning. So if people are dumb enough to buy tons of Bitcoin, the value of the the Bitcoins goes up, and they make a fortune.

    Reminds me of the stawk market. Example, upcoming UBER IPO. Initial investors allocate themselves a bunch of UBER stawk and if people are dumb enough to buy tons of UBER stawk at the IPO, the initial investors make a fortune, or so the theory goes.

    1. Thomas P

      The people who invested early in Uber put in real money with the (fairly large) risk of not getting anything back. It makes sense that they should expect a significant gain if the company they invest in work out.

      People who create cryptocurrencies don’t invest money, maybe a bit of time to come up with the algorithms, and can assign as much as they wish to themselves at the start. As long as you can convince people to pay real money for them, it’s the perfect scam.

      1. Michael Fiorillo

        Those investors, libertarian Big Swinging (Family Blog) though they may be, have no “right” to anything, if the comp[any’s business model relies upon rampant exploitation and the destruction of mass transit, as is the case with Uber.

        While they may succeed in using regulatory arbitrage and ever-weakening worker rights (made worse by their own labor relations practices) to succeed it will have been done by sublimated force, not by “right.” of any kind.

    2. milesc

      Bitcoin was software released to the world and available to everyone, everywhere on day 1. There were no “initial investors” and Bitcoin’s creator did not allocate himself a bunch of bitcoins as Black suggests. What we know about Satoshi (not much!) suggests that his motivation was decidedly not personal financial gain (and how could he have guessed Bitcoin would come this far!); rather he was continuing the decade+ work of the ‘cypherpunks’ trying to create P2P money. A million miles away from the IPO you imagine.

      1. Yves Smith Post author

        You criticize Black and yet you make up stuff?

        No one knows who Satoshi Nakamoto is, and it may not even be one person. Contrary to your assertion, some of the individuals identified as possible candidates were early Bitcoin promoters and investors.

  2. Joe Well

    the early folks in any bubble get rich. And then the people that come along say whoa, whoa, what if I had only bought Bitcoin at, you know, day one, even today I’d be a very rich person. But you know, that’s how bubbles work.

    The rise of crypto has been paining me because I knew people who were involved in Bitcoin 2012 or so, relatively early though not the first class of Bitcoin. I saw through it as a scam/bubble and something I wouldn’t want to be involved in, with at least a few people I wouldn’t want to be involved with…and missed the chance to make millions and millions.

    And I don’t want millions and millions. But It turns out that, if you are not to the manor born, virtually the only way to make enough money ($1 million to $4 million) to buy a two-bedroom condo within a reasonable commute of an “innovative” neighborhood in one of our “innovative” big blue cities is to be involved in something questionable.

    I would say the anthropology of the cryptocurrency early adopters is guys (and they seem to be almost all male) like me: North Americans and a few other First Worlders born after the Golden Age, in a time of skyrocketing economic stratification, when older paths to the upper middle class like graduate school had become economic death traps. They found a path to the upper middle class (something their college degrees sure weren’t), and they took it. They would know when to get out because the other guys like them were getting out.

    But the Faustian bargain was that eventually by 2016 or so the money came from low-information, low-resource people who were well and truly scammed and could not afford to lose it, like the South Koreans who lost their families’ savings.

    What honest options does US society give people born into this new Gilded Age who want a dignified, secure life? Of course scams like this are going to proliferate.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      US society in general gives very few options to very few people. Little bits and corners of US society give some small options to some small numbers.

      If a smaller-income life of austerity and deep cheapness is secure, is it a dignified life? Because the health-care industrial complex still offers full time perma-jobs at modest income.
      The income permits dignified survival in a non-fashionable city or town, but not in a high fashion groovy-cool yuppieville money-zone like San Frisco or Manhattan or other such places.

      I see some younger people are seeking a dignified perma-life in small-scale neo-farming or seed company founding and running within reach of support-permitting customer bases.
      So far they are achieving the dignified survival which makes them want to keep pursuing their farm-and-seed activities.

      But yes, for those who insist on becoming mini-millionaires and living a Silicon Frisco or Manhattan lifestyle, the door of opportunity has probably been welded shut and bricked over.

      1. Joe Well

        The income permits dignified survival in a non-fashionable city or town, but not in a high fashion groovy-cool yuppieville money-zone like San Frisco or Manhattan or other such places.

        This comment doesn’t deserve a reply, but this kind of callousness built on willful ignorance reflects so much pseudo-left attitudes. This is the biggest part of the generational Bernie-Clinton divide.

        In the case of Boston, we’re talking about barring 80-95% of the US population from almost the entire inner core encompassing about 3 million people, not some kind of niche neighborhood. It is socioeconomic, generational, and racial (in the case of blacks and Latinos) segregation on a previously unimaginable scale. And then those wealthy grayhairs who are hoarding opportunity want to give to the Human Rights Campaign and call themselves progressives, and wonder why so few people listen to them anymore. Oh, and they’re pro-immigration–just not to their municipalities!

        I see some younger people are seeking a dignified perma-life in small-scale neo-farming or seed company founding and running within reach of support-permitting customer bases.

        Seriously? “Get off my lawn, kid, and go live on a farm!”

        1. drumlin woodchuckles

          You must be new here. I will leave it up to those who have read my comments down the last couple or so years to decide whether your analysis of my knowledge and my attitude is correct or not so far as they are concerned.

          People who have read my comments on immigration over the last two years will decide whether your comments on “pro-immigration progressives” describe my position or not. And based on what they decide, they may well decide whether you know something or not.

          This is the biggest part of the generational Bernie-Clinton divide? Which candidate do you suppose I supported? Go on, take your best guess . . .

          How many grayhairs are wealthy enough to hoard opportunity and what opportunity are they hoarding? I am a pharmacy technician and I make $46,000 per year and I live in a townhouse unit in a low-to-moderate income co-op. What opportunity am I hoarding exactly? Especially given that new 25-years-old-and-younger people keep joining my hospital’s pharmacy-technology workforce as older people keep leaving it for either other jobs or retirement.

          Oh, and . . . neat trick suddenly invoking the 3 million job-denied people of Inner Boston as if you cared about that all along.

          Kid, if I had a lawn I would tell you to get off it and go live on one of the new mini-microfarms which young people are starting all around the mid-size Midwestern city I live in.

        2. Michael Fiorillo

          I’m a retired public school teacher, living in a rent-stabilized apartment in the now hyper-gentrified city I was born and lived most of my life in. For many years, it was considered a (Family Blog)hole that people should have eagerly left.

          Does that make me one of your “wealthy grayhairs… hoarding opportunity?”

          It wouldn’t surprise me if you thought so, since I frequently experienced that contemptuous attitude among a subset of younger teachers (always from elsewhere, and always from affluent backgrounds) toward career teachers who were born here. And God forbid those career teachers were white working class Italians, Jews or Irish from the Outer Boroughs; little effort was made to hide the contempt for them, with Social Justice platitudes often a vehicle for expressing it.

          Funny, how virtually none of those people stayed in the classroom with the kids, and all went on to “better things.”

          1. Joe Well

            Michael, I would only ask people like you to show solidarity with younger people who also grew up in that area and either had to move away or live with constant anxiety of being forced out, as well as all the people from communities where there is little economic opportunity.

            As someone who doesn’t own a home you obviously aren’t remotely one of the individuals benefitting from this housing injustice, quite the contrary. I would hope that you would recognize that your situation in a rent-stabilized home would be more secure if housing were more plentiful and affordable, so you would have somewhere to go if you lost your current home.

            In the New Deal and post-WWII era, the government devoted itself to building dignified housing for most people. Housing justice was a cornerstone of the New Deal and I’d hope it could be of today’s left as well.

            1. Michael Fiorillo

              Fair enough, but then I’d expect you to do likewise, and not propagate inter-generational conflict on this site, which only helps those you claim to oppose.

              It’s not about when you were born; it’s about your class status.

              Also, your presumptuous admonition for me to show solidarity with people in regions with little economic opportunity directly contradicts your attack on drumlin woodchuckles, whose analysis sought to do the same.

              You strike me as exactly the kind of Leftist who has made me despair of Left activism, after a lifetime of it.


  3. Synoia

    “lose” Right!

    Amazing how a person dies in a foreign country……and poof a lot of money vanishes.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      If you bought a crypto currency, your money vanished into the seller’s pockets the moment you paid for it.

      If the keeper of the passwords dies, no money vanished because no money ever existed in the computer to begin with. What existed was the holographic image of money, and that vanished the way any hologram vanishes when someone turns out the lights. But the money?
      That vanished the moment the sucker bought the hologram.

  4. McWatt

    Max Keiser, who I admire greatly, was an early booster of crypto. Anyone know where he stands on it now?

  5. Savita

    ‘But of course, there’s no there there, like – Oaklands, the – you know, type of slam – type of thing. ‘

    did these people learn English? At school? Or is this how everyone speaks in the US?

    1. flora

      Ah well,… the side reference to Gertrude Stein’s comment “there is no there there” combined with the US current cultural commentary on Oakland is understandable to the US’s colloquial speakers of a certain age. Failure of non-colloquial US speakers of a certain age to understand the comment is another example of A.I.’s potential failure points. heh. (Where A.I. is rule based, as is learning English as a second language.)

      1. flora

        Note: I do not reference ‘colloquial English’ because colloquialisms may differ in all the English speaking countries. e.g. England’s colloquialisms may have no meaning in the US or Canada or Australia or India, and the reverse is also true.

  6. flora

    Yves and NC have been on this beat a long time. For instance, in January 2014:

    “If you believe the hype, you’ve been had. ” – Yves.

    NC pointed out the many dangers of bitcoin and crypto, and was promptly attacked in comments for by bitcoin touts for ‘failure to understand the technology’, as if technology was the real issue, when of course it is not.

    Thanks to NC for guiding me to question (and avoid) the razzle-dazzle ‘invest in bitcoin now!’ mania of the time. Too many ignored the warning, imo. ‘You can lead a horse to water…’

    “And thus the whirligig of time brings in his
    revenges.” – Shakespeare

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      If some of those touts were in fact cult-members and true-believes, one can only feel sad and sorry for them for their losses.

      If some of those touts really were touts . . . low level shearers of the sheep and fleecers of the flock, then let us earnestly pray that they lost every cent they ever paid for a bitcoin. Let us pray that they are where they belong . . . . sleeping under Bill Clinton’s Bridge to the Twenty First Century.

      1. flora

        Yes. As Anatole France did not quite say:

        “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich bitcoiners and poor bitcoiners alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal their bread.”

        1. drumlin woodchuckles

          Or to put it another way, there are bitcarneys and bitmarks. The bitmarks deserve better, but they will have to learn how to ask for better. Perhaps this blog can help some of them learn to ask for the better which they deserve to get.

          As to the bitcarneys, they deserve to sleep under Bill Clinton’s Bridge to the Twenty First Century.

    2. milesc

      Anyone who managed to hold onto their bitcoin since 2014 did tremendously well. Bitcoins were a lot cheaper back then.

  7. WestcoastDeplorable

    Just to refresh everyone’s memory, Bill Black is the guy who put 1,000’s of banksters in prison during the S&L crisis. We should be paying homage to him with his own holiday, statues, or something similar.

    1. flora

      Yes, I agree. (Although, the midwesterner in me says ‘you don’t adulate anyone because that would be unseemly, for both you and the object of your great respect’.) Bill Black helped clean up the Savings&Loan financial corruption and brought the Keating 5 to brook. (The US used to actually regulate large financial institutions – once upon a time.)

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        And could again, if an overwhelming majority of officeholders were elected based on very specific plans very specifically stated to re-regulate.

  8. Oregoncharles

    ” And he died without telling anybody what the codes were. Even though he had a chronic illness, and had plenty of time to tell people.

    MARC STEINER: He didn’t even tell his wife.

    BILL BLACK: Including the wife.”

    First thought: yeah, sure. Plus he went to India, apparently to die. Or maybe just to hide. We’ll see how long his (new, apparently) wife stays in Canada.

    His middle name isn’t Beta, is it?

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Yes, a lot of people are skeptical of his “death,” particularly since he prepared his will a few weeks before it, provided for his chihuahua, and transferred a lot of property to his wife. Wonder if you can get good plastic surgery in India. You can in Thailand…..could he get there without showing a passport using a land route?

      1. Procopius

        Speaking of Thailand, there are, or at least used to be, lots of small shops on Khao San Road in Bangkok, where documents of various kinds are available at surprisingly affordable prices. Including death certificates. I suspect there are similar shops in India, perhaps in Goa, which used to be a hippie destination. Where did Gerry Cotten go to open his new orphanage?

        1. Yves Smith Post author

          Yes, I would imagine there are some border check points that don’t have the scanners that they have in US and major foreign city airports, which I am pretty sure not only records the entry/exit but also validates the passport v. some sort of registry.

  9. Oregoncharles

    Hmm – a footnote, of sorts: if my son had bought Bitcoin when his nephew told him to, as he could have done, he’d now be very rich, even with the large declines. Doing precisely that is what saved Wikileaks, when the US cut them off from their fundraising. Assange expressed gratitude.

    OTOH, exchanging it for real money, sooner than later, would be a really good idea.

  10. wallstreetfix

    Exchanges are not the asset! Does the name Mt Gox sound familiar? Any person who did a cursory google search at the time would have found a plethora of warnings not to use the exchange well prior to it going under. In this case the warnings were less shrill. Until there are more secure, idiot proof exchanges (like Coinbase) then there will always be stories like this. I’m disappointed that people who do not understand crypto are spreading bad intelligence and unable to appreciate the difference. Ultimately the use-case technology needs to evolve to the point where individuals will be interacting with crypto and not know it nor will they understand how it works.

    How about that microwave or that combustion engine – how many of the folks who use them daily understand how they work? While I find this sad, as I wish more folks had sufficient education, time, resources and curiosity, it doesn’t mean that technology is not valid and revolutionary.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Lordie. Your comment serves to gloss over that customers lost about $190 million, and if they’d dealt on any sort of traditional exchange, this never would have happened. The whole point of crypto was that it was supposed to be a libertarian paradise…yet people want to trade bitcoin and some want places for safe-keeping and to distance their identity from ownership even furhter, aka wallets, and look what happens when you have no regulation!

      You lecture people about not understanding how things work…..and then make clear you don’t understand how exchanges work. And I’m not about to explain, either. You need to do the digging.

      1. Skip Intro

        I think the result was entirely appropriate for a ‘Libertarian Paradise’. If you have to trust some sort of communal exchange, what sort of rugged individual are you anyway? In the end the omniscient and omnipotent Market Forces will correct this, and reputational damage to (the estate of) Cotten will remove him from the marketplace, or at least force substantial rebranding. Another happy ending in Libertarian Paradise, our own little Digital Somalia™

      2. tim

        I thought the whole point of BitCoin and blockchain was we wouldn’t have to pay or trust intermediaries like banks anymore – that blockchain allowed us to go to a pure P to P society? Instead, we seem to have seeded and even creepier group of intermediaries.

      3. milesc

        There are such things as regulated cryptocurrency exchanges — he named one, Coinbase. Not that people should leave hundreds of millions of dollars worth of crypto there either, but they do!

        There’s a well known saying in the space: “not your [private] keys, not your crypto!”

        Anyone entrusting their bitcoin with a third party should heed the warning and do their due diligence.

        1. Yves Smith Post author

          You apparently have a reading comprehension problem or else you are straw manning me. Neither is on here. One more remark like this one and your privileged will be revoked.

          Many people choose to use cryptocurrency wallets to provide for greater anonymity (all that gets recorded on the blockchain is the wallet identifier) and as protection from hard disk failure, theft, or destruction resulting in the loss of their holdings, which as you know, has happened more than a few times.

      1. milesc

        Bitcoin does have certain qualities (can’t be counterfeited, easily and freely transferred/received, easily divided, etc).

        New volume records are set almost daily on (a website for person to person exchanges of bitcoin) in Venezuela—I doubt much of that is speculation.

  11. Wukchumni

    All the various cryptocurrencies are essentially limited editions, not all that different than the plethora of coins & medals issued by the Franklin Mint in the 1970’s. Most of what they made was struck in sterling silver and 98% is currently only worth the silver value, but early in the game there was heavy interest in utter garbage, really based on how many were made. If they only made 20,000 Bahama proof sets, oh yeah, it was strictly limited, but who gave a rat’s patootie?

    The silver lining with the Franklin Mint stuff was there was a basement level value, on account of it being silver, what’s Bitcoin melt for?

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      Different sets of carnies and different sets of marks, in search of different sets of greater fools.

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