The call went out on Twitter: “For insane profits come and join the pump.”
It was an invitation to a penny stock-style pump-and-dump scheme – only this one involved Bitcoin, the soaring, slightly scary virtual currency that has beckoned and bewildered people around the world.
While such bid ’em up, sell ’em off scams are shut down in the financial markets all the time, this one and other frauds involving digital money have gone unchecked. The reason: Government authorities do not agree on which laws apply to Bitcoin – or even on what Bitcoin is.
The person behind the recent scheme, a trader known on Twitter as Fontas, said in a secure Internet chat that he operated with little fear of a crackdown.
“For now, the lack of regulations allows everything to happen,” Fontas said in the chat, where he verified his control of the Twitter account, which has thousands of followers, but did not give his identity. He added that Bitcoin and its users would benefit when someone stepped in to police this financial wild west, and that he would stop his schemes when they do.
Chinese authorities drew attention to the issue Thursday when they announced that they were barring Chinese banks from making Bitcoin transactions. The same day, the Bank of France issued its own warning about the potential risks. The news sent the price of Bitcoin tumbling, but it quickly bounced back to near its all-time high of around $1,200.
Bitcoins are little more than computer code – created according to a set algorithm and traded between online wallets using virtual keys. Some people insist that virtual currencies could become a revolutionary new form of payment in the real world. Bank of America became the first Wall Street bank to release research about Bitcoin on Thursday, noting that it could become “a major player in both e-commerce and money transfer.”
So far, though, Bitcoin has been driven up primarily by people who are betting that it will rise and rise because there is a finite supply.
The initial computer program established that only 21 million bitcoins would ever be created.
Because there are no limits on who can buy bitcoins, they have attracted investors of all stripes. The value of all the bitcoins in existence is now more than $12 billion after a volatile surge increased the value by more than 1,000 percent over the last month.
But the excitement over this rapid ascent has obscured the fraud, hacking and outright theft that have become an increasingly regular part of the virtual currency world – even for the most sophisticated, legitimate players – and the lack of any visible response from law enforcement agencies.
This has allowed more than 30 episodes in which at least 1,000 bitcoins – or $1 million at the current rate of exchange – were stolen or transferred illegally, according to a frequently updated list on the most popular online forum for Bitcoin. Of those cases, 10 involved losses of more than 10,000 bitcoins, or $10 million at the current value. The authorities have only been publicly involved in one of these cases.
“There is absolutely no consumer protection in any sector of the Bitcoin economy,” said Sarah Meiklejohn, a graduate student at the University of California, San Diego, who researches the industry.
Part of the problem is that regulators have not agreed on how to classify Bitcoin. The Securities and Exchange Commission has authority to regulate securities, like stocks, in the United States.
But so far the agency has not determined whether Bitcoin itself can be categorized as a security, making it hard for it to crack down on trading fraud.
In the immediate future, the most likely source of enforcement may be the FBI’s cybersecurity team.