Securities cops: Be careful with crypto

The North American Securities Administrators Association (NASAA) are on the front lines fighting investment fraud. When they start sounding alarms, it’s usually best to listen. And today they’re sounding the alarm on all things crypto.

NASAA Reminds Investors to Approach Cryptocurrencies, Initial Coin Offerings and Other Cryptocurrency-Related Investment Products with Caution

Borg: “Go beyond the headlines and hype to understand cryptocurrency investment risk.”

WASHINGTON, DC (January 4, 2018) – As cryptocurrencies continue to garner national and international headlines, the North American Securities Administrators Association (NASAA) today reminded Main Street investors to be cautious about investments involving cryptocurrencies.

“Investors should go beyond the headlines and hype to understand the risks associated with investments in cryptocurrencies, as well as cryptocurrency futures contracts and other financial products where these virtual currencies are linked in some way to the underlying investment,” said Joseph P. Borg, NASAA President and Director of the Alabama Securities Commission.

Cryptocurrencies are a medium of exchange that are created and stored electronically in the blockchain, a distributed public database that keeps a permanent record of digital transactions. Current common cryptocurrencies include Bitcoin, Ethereum and Litecoin. Unlike traditional currency, these alternatives have no physical form and typically are not backed by tangible assets. They are not insured or controlled by a central bank or other governmental authority, cannot always be exchanged for other commodities, and are subject to little or no regulation.

A NASAA survey of state and provincial securities regulators shows 94 percent believe there is a “high risk of fraud” involving cryptocurrencies. Regulators also were unanimous in their view that more regulation is needed for cryptocurrency to provide greater investor protection.

“The recent wild price fluctuations and speculation in cryptocurrency-related investments can easily tempt unsuspecting investors to rush into an investment they may not fully understand,” Borg said. “Cryptocurrencies and investments tied to them are high-risk products with an unproven track record and high price volatility. Combined with a high risk of fraud, investing in cryptocurrencies is not for the faint of heart.”

Last month, NASAA identified Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs) and cryptocurrency-related investment products as emerging investor threats for 2018. Unlike an Initial Public Offering (IPO) when a company sells stocks in order to raise capital, an ICO sells “tokens” in order to fund a project, usually related to the blockchain. The token likely has no value at the time of purchase. Some tokens constitute, or may be exchangeable for a new cryptocurrency to be launched by the project, while others entitle investors to a discount, or early rights to a product or service proposed to be offered by the project.

NASAA has developed a short animated video to help investors understand the risks associated with ICOs and cryptocurrencies. NASAA first alerted investors of the risks associated with cryptocurrencies in 2014.

Common Cryptocurrency Concerns

Some common concerns investors should consider before investing in any offering containing cryptocurrency include:
  • Cryptocurrency is subject to minimal regulatory oversight, susceptible to cybersecurity breaches or hacks, and there may be no recourse should the cryptocurrency disappear.
  • Cryptocurrency accounts are not insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), which insures bank deposits up to $250,000.
  • The high volatility of cryptocurrency investments makes them unsuitable for most investors, especially those investing for long-term goals or retirement.
  • Investors in cryptocurrency are highly reliant upon unregulated companies, including some that may lack appropriate internal controls and may be more susceptible to fraud and theft than regulated financial institutions.
  • Investors will have to rely upon the strength of their own computer security systems, as well as security systems provided by third parties, to protect purchased cryptocurrencies from theft.

Common Red Flags of Fraud

NASAA also reminds investors to keep watch for these common red flags of investment fraud:
  • “Guaranteed” high investment returns. There is no such thing as guaranteed investment returns, and there is no guarantee that the cryptocurrency will increase in value. Be wary of anyone who promises a high rate of return with little or no risk.
  • Unsolicited offers. An unsolicited sales pitch may be part of a fraudulent investment scheme. Cryptocurrency investment opportunities are promoted aggressively through social media. Be very wary of an unsolicited communication—meaning you didn’t ask for it and don’t know the sender—about an investment opportunity.
  • Sounds too good to be true. If the project sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Watch out for exaggerated claims about the project’s future success.
  • Pressure to buy immediately. Take time to research an investment opportunity before handing over your money. Watch out for pressure to act fast or “get in on the ground floor” of a new tech trend.
  • Unlicensed sellers. Many fraudulent investment schemes involve unlicensed individuals or unregistered firms. Check license and registration status with your state or provincial securities regulator. Contact information is available here.

 

 

Bitcoin: What could possibly go wrong?

Bitcoin prices reached a new high today of $2,700 per bitcoin. What could possibly go wrong?

It’s hard to know where to start, but the parabolic arc of the bitcoin chart is one place. Spikes like this rarely end well. Here’s today’s bitcoin:

Look familiar? Here’s the Nasdaq during its halcyon days.

Of course, there are other reasons to fret about the rapid rise in value of something that has no earnings or dividends, as many of the tech wreck’s biggest failures did. One is the increasing cost of mining bitcoins. To create a Bitcoin, you have to use massive computing power to solve mathematical puzzles. The process is fairly succinctly laid out in this useful story: 

“Bitcoins are mined by getting lots of computers around the world to try and solve the same mathematical puzzle. Every ten minutes or so, someone solves the puzzle and is rewarded with some bitcoins. Then, a new puzzle is generated and the whole thing starts over again.”

The difficulty of the new puzzle — and the electrical cost of finding the answer — depends on demand. Back in May 2015, the bitcoin network ran on about 343 megawats, or enough to power about a third of the homes in San Jose, Calif. in May 2015.  Another estimate put the cost of mining one bitcoin at the same rate as running an average home for 1.57 days. (Bitcoins are granted in blocks, rather than individually).

Back then, a bitcoin was worth about $650. You can find out the current cost of mining bitcoins here.

Aside from the rising costs of mining bitcoins, there’s the theft problem. The problem with untraceable currency is that, well, it’s untraceable. Once it’s gone, it’s pretty much gone. And like many things stored on computers, bitcoins are vulnerable to hacking, as the 2014 theft of $700 million in bitcoins from Mt. Gox demonstrated.

Why invest in bitcoin? I honestly can’t imagine. If you’re thinking that government-issued money is going to go away, it’s hard to imagine bitcoin transactions in the smoking rubble of civilization. (As a friend of mine noted, it would probably be better to have a few things to trade, like food or wine). And it’s hard to imagine that governments will long tolerate alternative currencies. And bitcoin certainly doesn’t seem to be immune to bubbles. I hope you are.

Update: That was fast. Bitcoin’s down 9% today. 

Media preview

Thanks to Business Insider for the two charts, and the smart reporting.