Chaos and hackers stalk investors on cryptocurrency exchanges

Photo illustration of Bitfinex cryptocurrency exchange website taken September 27, 2017. Picture taken September 27, 2017. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration

LONDON/SHANGHAI/NEW YORK – Dan Wasyluk discovered the hard way that trading cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin happens in an online Wild West where sheriffs are largely absent.

Wasyluk and his colleagues raised bitcoins for a new tech venture and lodged them in escrow at a company running a cryptocurrency exchange called Moolah. Just months later the exchange collapsed; the man behind it is now awaiting trial in Britain on fraud and money-laundering charges. He has pleaded not guilty.

Wasyluk’s project lost 750 bitcoins, currently worth about $3 million, and he believes he stands little chance of recovering any money.

“It really was kind of a kneecapping of the project,” said Wasyluk of the collapse three years ago. “If you are starting an exchange and you lose clients’ money, you or your company should be 100 percent accountable for that loss. And right now there is nothing like that in place.”

Cryptocurrencies were supposed to offer a secure, digital way to conduct financial transactions, but they have been dogged by doubts. Concerns have largely focused on their astronomical gains in value and the likelihood of painful price crashes. Equally perilous, though, are the exchanges where virtual currencies are bought, sold and stored. These exchanges, which match buyers and sellers and sometimes hold traders’ funds, have become magnets for fraud and mires of technological dysfunction, a Reuters examination shows, posing an underappreciated risk to anyone who trades digital coins.

Huge sums are at stake. As the prices of bitcoin and other virtual currencies have soared this year – bitcoin has quadrupled – legions of investors and speculators have turned to online exchanges. Billions of dollars’ worth of bitcoins and other cryptocurrencies – which aren’t backed by any governments or central banks – are now traded on exchanges every day.

“These are new assets. No one really knows what to make of them,” said David L. Yermack, chairman of the finance department at New York University’s Stern School of Business. “If you’re a consumer, there’s nothing to protect you.”

Regulators and governments are still debating how to handle cryptocurrencies, and Yermack says the U.S. Congress will ultimately have to take action.

Some of the freewheeling exchanges are plagued with poor security and lack investor protections common in more regulated financial markets, Reuters found. Some Chinese exchanges have falsely inflated their trading volume to lure new customers, according to former employees.

There have been at least three dozen heists of cryptocurrency exchanges since 2011; many of the hacked exchanges later shut down. More than 980,000 bitcoins have been stolen, which today would be worth about $4 billion. Few have been recovered. Burned investors have been left at the mercy of exchanges as to whether they will receive any compensation.

Nearly 25,000 customers of Mt. Gox, once the world’s largest bitcoin exchange, are still waiting for compensation more than three years after its collapse into bankruptcy in Japan. The exchange said it lost about 650,000 bitcoins. Claims approved by the bankruptcy trustee total more than $400 million.

In July, a federal judge in Florida ordered Paul Vernon, the operator of a collapsed U.S. exchange called Cryptsy, to pay $8.2 million to customers after he failed to respond to a class-action lawsuit. The judge ruled that 11,325 bitcoins had been stolen but did not identify the thief. “This is no different than bank robbers in the Old West,” said David C. Silver, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys. “Cryptocurrency is just a new front.” Vernon could not be reached for comment.

Another challenge for traders: government intervention. This month, Chinese authorities ordered some mainland Chinese cryptocurrency exchanges to stop trading. The order, however, did not apply to exchanges based in Hong Kong or outside China, including those affiliated with mainland Chinese exchanges.

So-called “flash crashes” – when cryptocurrencies suddenly plummet in value – are also a threat. Unlike regulated U.S. stock exchanges, cryptocurrency exchanges aren’t required to have circuit breakers in place to halt trading during wild price swings. Digital coin exchanges are also frequently under assault by hackers, resulting in down times that can sideline traders at critical moments.

On May 7, traders on a U.S. exchange called Kraken lost more than $5 million when it came under attack and couldn’t be accessed, according to a class-action lawsuit filed in Florida. During the incident, the suit alleges, the exchange’s price of a cryptocurrency called ether fell more than 70 percent and the traders’ leveraged positions were liquidated. They received no compensation. The exchange declined to comment on the lawsuit. In a court filing, it asked for the case to be dismissed and said the claims should be decided by arbitration.

Another two flash crashes occurred this year on the U.S. exchange GDAX. The exchange said it compensated traders who lost money.

Not surprisingly, many banks are leery of cryptocurrency exchanges and some have refused to deal with them. At a bank investor conference this month in New York, Jamie Dimon, chief executive of JPMorgan Chase & Co, called bitcoin “a fraud” and predicted it will “blow up.”

Boycotts by banks can make it impossible at times for exchanges to process wire transfers that allow customers to buy or sell cryptocurrencies with traditional currencies, such as dollars or euros. In March, Wells Fargo stopped processing wire transfers for an exchange called Bitfinex, leaving customers unable to transfer U.S. dollars out of their accounts, except through special arrangement with the exchange’s lawyer. Wells Fargo declined to comment.