If you can imagine a way to lose money in crypto, I’ve heard it. Since 2017, I’ve heard from thousands of victims of every crypto scam imaginable.
But for every crypto scheme which is outright theft, there are ten trash crypto-assets created mainly to take your money and run. Each project has a story of why they are a great investment. But dig deeper and the business model is a mirage. What the founders really want to do is create as much momentum as possible and sell at the top before the illusion of value vanishes.
Sometimes you don’t have to dig very deep. For example, “BabyCake” is an explicit Ponzi scheme, if you look beyond their promises of “bringing passive income into people’s lives.” It’s one of the first tokens to have a Ponzi scheme built right into the smart contract. I count 63 other “baby” named pyramid schemes.
Usually, though, the catch is buried deeper and requires understanding the crypto ecosystem. Let’s review why there are so many scams and trash coins in crypto and how to avoid them.
Why are there so many crypto scams?
Cryptocurrencies are only pseudo-anonymous. It’s impossible to know who owns some coins from an address alone. But if you interact with the legacy financial system, for example, by cashing out your gains for fiat, your identity can sometimes be found. If you commingle your funds by moving them together, it’s possible for a chainanalysis algorithm to link activity to an identity. When I try to help victims of fraud, I can often follow the transaction trail to the cold-wallet of some exchange where the crooks traded Bitcoin for a local currency.
I think the bigger problem is that our legal systems aren’t adapted to deal with crypto fraud. Our legal institutions don’t take small-scale crypto fraud as seriously as fraud with “real” money. Lack of international cooperation means that even if I know which exchange was used to cash out stolen crypto loot, they are unlikely to cooperate with local law enforcement.
Bleeding Edge Technology
Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies are still very new. The tools needed to secure Bitcoins are still evolving and rough around the edges. I predict that in a few years, we will carry credit-card-sized devices with biometric readers that make storing and using Bitcoin both safe and foolproof. Until then, the tools for storing and transacting cryptocurrencies are rapidly evolving. There are safe methods to keeping your crypto safe (like hardware wallets, multi-sig, and steel seed backups), but many people aren’t aware of the proper techniques. Accidental and malicious loss of funds is, unfortunately still common.
A bigger reason for fraud in crypto is that crypto transactions are irreversible for almost all coins. In the legacy financial system, a fraudulent credit card charge, bad check, or unauthorized wire transfer can usually be reversed. If the theft is big enough and your lawyers are good, the legal system will tend to intervene on the victim’s side. In the crypto space, however, no matter how unjust the theft, there is nothing that can be done.
(Keep in mind though that government theft of savings through inflation and taxes is a far bigger problem than theft of crypto. While this is unfortunate for victims of theft, transaction finality is one of the primary reasons why Bitcoin is so revolutionary: it is impossible to conduct legal plunder of people’s wealth.)
A Free-Market Alternative to Wall Street
“Wall Street” (i.e. traditional securities markets) is often portrayed as the epitome of capitalism. The reality is that the government has regulated most of the profits out of securities available to the non-elite. Crypto-assets and exchanges allow novice investors access to venture capitalism for the first time since the Securities Act of 1933 limited investments in unregistered securities to “accredited” investors. Initial Coin Offerings offer normal people the ability to invest in startups without having to be worth or put up millions of dollars. DeFi (decentralized finance) exchanges operate using smart contracts, without any centralized entity to regulate. With DeFi, anyone to mint and create a market for a new token, outside the ability of any government to regulate.
The flip side is that just because everyone can create and sell their token does not mean they have a viable business model or any technical skills. All you need to be able to do is market your coin, not do anything useful with it. The vast majority of crypto projects trend back to a value of zero.
Bitcoin’s Success Inspires Copycats
Most crypto scams are not outright theft but an attempt to make a quick buck by riding on Bitcoin’s coattails. Profiting from Bitcoin’s rise requires an initial buy-in and patience. Want to make billions with an investment of zero? Too impatient for a mere doubling of your money each year? Just copy Bitcoin’s code, change a few parameters (invent some justification why they are needed) and launch your own altcoin. Repeat the scheme a few more times and get 12,881 crypto-assets tracked by CoinMarketCap.
Many projects start out well-intentioned. The founders may want to be revolutionaries just like Satoshi Nakamoto or they might have some justifiable disagreements with the team that maintains Bitcoin. However, the decentralized nature of crypto assets means that once a coin is out there, speculators will run with it. Quite often, the founder exits early with a small fortune and the project evolves in a completely different direction. The founder of Dogecoin sold everything to buy a used Honda Civic. His coin now has a $32 billion market cap.
Today, the crypto-asset market has a market cap of $2.5 trillion, 48% of which is Bitcoin. Many beginner crypto investors are branching out into altcoins hoping to see the same astronomic returns as Bitcoin in the early days.