Austrian Programmer And Ex Crypto CEO Likely Stole $11 Billion Of Ether

Ethereum, the second biggest crypto network, is worth $360 billion. Its creator, Vitalik Buterin, has more than 3 million Twitter followers, has made videos with Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis, and has met with Vladimir Putin. All the most popular trends in crypto over the last several years launched on Ethereum: initial coin offerings (ICOs), decentralized finance (DeFi), non-fungible tokens (NFTs), and decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs). And it has spawned a whole class of blockchain imitators, often called “Ethereum killers.”

Ethereum is also the subject of a great mystery: who committed the largest theft of ether (Ethereum’s native token) ever, by hacking The DAO? The decentralized venture capital fund had raised $139 million in ether (ETH) by the time its crowd sale ended in 2016, making it the most successful crowdfunding effort to that date. Weeks later, a hacker siphoned 31% of the ETH in The DAO—3.64 million total or about 5% of all ETH then outstanding—out of the main DAO and into what became known as the DarkDAO.

Who hacked The DAO? My exclusive investigation, built on the reporting for my new book, The Cryptopians: Idealism, Greed, Lies, and the Making of the First Big Cryptocurrency Craze, appears to point to Toby Hoenisch, a 36-year-old programmer who grew up in Austria and was living in Singapore at the time of the hack. Until now, he has been best known for his role as a cofounder and CEO of TenX, which raised $80 million in a 2017 initial coin offering to build a crypto debit card—an effort that failed.

The market cap of those tokens, which spiked at $535 million, now sits at just $11 million.After being sent a document detailing the evidence pointing to him as the hacker, Hoenisch wrote in an email, “Your statement and conclusion is factually inaccurate.” In that email, Hoenisch offered to provide details refuting our findings—but never answered my repeated follow-up messages to him asking for those details.

To put the enormity of this hack in perspective, with ETH now trading around $3,000, 3.64 million ETH would be worth $11 billion. The DAO theft famously and controversially prompted Ethereum to do a hard fork—where the Ethereum network split into two as a way to restore the stolen funds—which ultimately left the DarkDAO holding not ETH, but far less valuable Ethereum Classic (ETC). The proponents of the fork had hoped ETC would die out, but it now trades around $30. That means the descendant wallets of the DarkDAO now hold more than $100 million in ETC—a high dollar monument to the biggest whodunnit in crypto.

Last year, as I was working on my book, my sources and I, utilizing (among other things), a powerful and previously secret forensics tool from crypto tracing firm Chainalysis, came to believe we had figured out who did it. Indeed, the story of The DAO and the six-year quest to identify the hacker, shows a lot about just how far the crypto world and the technology for tracking transactions have both come since the first crypto craze. Today, blockchain technology has gone mainstream. But as new applications arise, one of the first uses of crypto—as an anonymity shield—is in retreat, thanks to both regulatory pressure and the fact that transactions on public blockchains are traceable.

Since Hoenisch won’t talk to me, I can only speculate about his possible motives; back in 2016 he identified technical vulnerabilities in the DAO early and may have decided to strike after concluding his warnings weren’t being taken seriously enough by the creators of the DAO. (One of his TenX cofounders, Julian Hosp, an Austrian medical doctor who now works in blockchain full time, says of Hoenisch:

“He is a person that is super opinionated. Always believed he was right. Always.”) Looked at from that perspective, this is also a tale of the big brains and big egos that drive the crypto world–and of a hacker who may have justified his actions by telling himself he simply did what the faulty code baked into The DAO allowed him to do.

In early 2016, the Ethereum network was not even a year old, and there was only one app on it that people were interested in: The DAO, a decentralized venture fund built with a smart contract that gave its token holders the right to vote on proposals submitted for funding. It had been created by a company named Slock.it, which, instead of seeking traditional venture capital, had decided to create this DAO and then open it up for crowdfunding—with the expectation that its own project would be one of those funded by The DAO. Slock.it’s team thought The DAO might attract $5 million.

Yet when the crowd sale opened on April 30th, it took in $9 million in just the first two days, with participants exchanging one ether for 100 DAO tokens. As the money poured in, some on the team felt queasy, but it was too late to cap the sale. By the time the funding closed a month later, 15,000 to 20,000 individuals had contributed, The DAO held what was then 15% of all ether and the price of the cryptocurrency was steadily rising. At the same time, a variety of security and structural concerns were being raised about The DAO, including one that would, ironically, later prove to be crucial to limiting the hacker’s immediate access to the spoils.

That problem: withdrawing funds was too hard. Someone wanting to retrieve their money had to first create a “child DAO” or “split DAO,” which required not only a high degree of technical knowledge, but also waiting periods after each step and the agreement of anyone else who moved funds into that child DAO.

On the morning of June 17th, ETH reached a new all-time high of $21.52, making the crypto in The DAO worth $249.6 million. When American Griff Green woke up that morning in Mittweida, Germany (he was staying in the family home of two brothers who were Slock.it cofounders), he had a message on his phone from a DAO Slack community member who said something weird was happening— it looked like funds were being drained.

Green, Slock.it’s first employee and community organizer, checked: there was indeed a stream of 258-ETH (then $5,600) transactions leaving The DAO.  By the time the attack stopped a few hours later, 31% of the ETH in The DAO had been siphoned out into the DarkDAO. As awareness of the attack spread, ether had its highest trading day ever, with its price plummeting 33% from $21 to $14.


Split Fortunes

The 2016 DAO crowdfunding sale drove the price of ether (ETH) to a then record high—until the June 17th attack on The DAO sent it plummeting. After the hard fork on July 20th, the old blockchain began trading as ether classic (ETC).


Soon, the Ethereum community pinpointed the vulnerability that enabled this theft: the DAO smart contract had been written so that any time someone withdrew money, the smart contract would send the money first, before updating that person’s balance. The attacker had used a malicious smart contract that withdrew money (258 ETH at a time), then interfered with the updating of the contract, allowing them to withdraw the same ether again and again. It was as if the attacker had $101 in their bank account, withdrew $100 at a bank, then kept the bank teller from updating the balance to $1, and again requested and received another $100.

Even worse, once the vulnerability became public, the remaining 7.3 million ETH in The DAO was at risk of a copycat attack. A team of white hat hackers (that is, hackers acting ethically) formed and used the attacker’s method to divert the remaining funds into a new child DAO. But the attacker still had about 5% of all outstanding ETH, and even the rescued ether was vulnerable, given the flaws in The DAO. Plus, the clock was ticking down to a July 21st deadline—the first date when the original hacker might be able to get at the funds they had diverted into the DarkDao.

If the community wanted to keep the attacker from cashing out, they would need to put tokens in the hacker’s DarkDAO and then in any future “split DAOs” (or child DAOs) the unknown hacker created. (Under the rules of the DAO smart contract, the attacker couldn’t withdraw funds if anyone else in their split DAO objected.) Bottom line: if the white hats ever missed their window to object, the attacker would be able to abscond with the funds—meaning this informal group would have to be constantly vigilant.

Eventually, after much bickering (on Reddit, on a Slack channel, over email and on Skype calls) and Ethereum founder Buterin publicly weighing in, and after it seemed that a majority of the Ethereum community supported the measure, Ethereum did a “hard fork.” On July 20th the Ethereum blockchain was split into two. All the ETH that had been in the DAO was moved to a “withdraw” contract which gave the original contributors the right to send in their DAO tokens and get back ETH on the new blockchain. The old blockchain, which still attracted some supporters and speculators, carried on as Ethereum Classic.

• • •

On Ethereum Classic, The DAO and the attacker’s loot (in the form of 3.64 million ETC) remained. That summer, the attacker moved their ETC a few hops away to a new wallet, which remained dormant until late October, when they began trying to use an exchange called ShapeShift to cash the money out to bitcoin. Because ShapeShift didn’t at that time take personally identifying information, the attacker’s identity was not known even though all their blockchain movements were visible.

Over the next two months, the hacker managed to obtain 282 bitcoins (then worth $232,000, now more than $11 million). And then, perhaps because ShapeShift frequently blocked their attempted trades, they gave up cashing out, leaving behind 3.4 million Ether Classic (ETC), then worth $3.2 million and now more than $100 million.

That might have been the end of the story—an unknown hacker sitting on a fortune he couldn’t cash out. Except last July, one of my sources involved in the DAO rescue, a Brazilian named Alex Van de Sande (aka Avsa) reached out, saying the Brazilian Police had opened an investigation into the attack on The DAO — and whether he might be a victim or even the hacker himself.  Van de Sande decided to commission a forensics report from blockchain analytics company Coinfirm to help exonerate himself (though then, the police closed the investigation, he said). In case any similar situations arose in the future, he went forward with the report examining those cash-out attempts in 2016.

Among the early suspects in the hack had been a Swiss businessman and his associates, and in tracing the funds, Van de Sande and I also found another suspect: a Russia-based Ethereum Classic developer. But all these people were in Europe/Russia and the cash-outs mapped onto an Asian-morning-through-evening schedule—from 9 A.M. to midnight Tokyo time—when the Europeans were likely sleeping. (The timing of their social media posts suggested they kept fairly normal hours.) But based on a customer support email the hacker had submitted to ShapeShift in the leadup to the attack, I believed they spoke fluent English.

Jumping off from the Coinfirm analysis, blockchain analytics company Chainalysis saw the presumed attacker had sent 50 BTC to a Wasabi Wallet, a private desktop Bitcoin wallet that aims to anonymize transactions by mixing several together in a so-called CoinJoin. Using a capability that is being disclosed here for the first time, Chainalysis de-mixed the Wasabi transactions and tracked their output to four exchanges. In a final, crucial step, an employee at one of the exchanges confirmed to one of my sources that the funds were swapped for privacy coin Grin and withdrawn to a Grin node called grin.toby.ai. (Due to exchange privacy policies, normally this sort of customer information would not be disclosed.)

The IP address for that node also hosted Bitcoin Lightning nodes: ln.toby.ai, lnd.ln.toby.ai, etc., and was consistent for over a year; it was not a VPN.

It was hosted on Amazon Singapore. Lightning explorer 1ML showed a node at that IP called TenX.

For anyone who was into crypto in June 2017, this name may ring a bell. That month, as the ICO craze was reaching its initial peak, there was an $80 million ICO named TenX. The CEO and cofounder used the handle @tobyai on AngelList, Betalist, GitHub, Keybase, LinkedIn, Medium, Pinterest, Reddit, StackOverflow, and Twitter. His name was Toby Hoenisch.

Where was he based? In Singapore.

Although he was German-born and raised in Austria, Hoenisch is fluent in English.

The cash-out transactions occurred mainly from 8 A.M. until 11 P.M. Singapore time.

And the email address used on that account at the exchange was [name of exchange]@toby.ai.

In May 2016, as it was finishing up its historic fundraise, Hoenisch was intensely interested in The DAO. On May 12, he emailed Hosp a tip (“Profitable crypto trade coming up”) to short ETH once the DAO crowdfunding period ended. On May 17th and 18th, in the DAO Slack channel, he engaged in a long conversation in which he made, depending on how you count, 52 comments, minimum, about vulnerabilities in The DAO, getting into various aspects of the code and nitpicking over exactly what was possible given the way the code was structured.

One issue spurred him to email Slock.it’s chief technology officer, Christoph Jentzsch, its lead technical engineer, Lefteris Karapetsas, and community manager Griff Green. In his email, he said he was writing a proposal for funding from The DAO for a crypto card product called DAO.PAY, and added, “For our due diligence, we went through the DAO code and found a few things that are worrisome.” He outlined three possible attack vectors and later emailed with a fourth. Jentzsch, a German who had been working on a PhD in physics before dropping out to focus on Ethereum, responded point by point, conceding some of Hoenisch’s assertions but saying others were “false” or “don’t work.” The back and forth ended with Hoenisch writing; “I’ll keep you in the loop if we find anything else.”

But instead of further email exchanges, on May 28th, Hoenish wrote four posts on Medium, beginning with, “TheDAO—risk free voting.” The second, “TheDAO—blackmailing withdrawals,” foreshadowed the main issue with The DAO and why Ethereum ultimately chose to hard fork: if it did not, the only other options were to let the attacker cash out his ill-gotten gains or for some group of DAO token holders to follow him forever into new split DAOs he created as he attempted to cash out. “TLDR: If you end upon in a DAO contract without majority voting power, then an attacker can block all withdrawals indefinitely,” he wrote. The third showed how an attacker could do this cheaply.


To put the enormity of this hack in perspective, with ETH now trading around $3,000, 3.64 million ETH would be worth $11 billion.


His last, most telling post for the day, “TheDAO—a $150m lesson in decentralized governance,” said DAO.PAY decided against making a proposal after uncovering “major security flaws” and that “Slockit down-played the severity of the attack vectors.” He wrote, “TheDAO is live … and we are still waiting for Slockit to put out a warning that THERE IS NO SAFE WAY TO WITHDRAW!”

On June 3, his last Medium post, “Announcing BlockOps: Blockchain Hack Challenges” said, “BlockOps is your playground to break encryption, steal bitcoin, break smart contracts and simply test your security knowledge.” Although he promised to “post new challenges in the field of bitcoin, ethereum and web security every 2 weeks,” I could find no record that he did so.

Two weeks later came the DAO attack. The morning after the attack, at 7:18 A.M. Singapore time, Hoenisch trolled Ethereum creator Vitalik Buterin by retweeting something Buterin had said before The DAO was attacked, but after it was known that the vulnerability used in the attack was evident in the DAO’s code. In the two-week old tweet, Buterin had said that he’d been buying DAO tokens since the security news. Over the following weeks, Hoenisch tweeted anti-hard fork posts like one titled, “Too Big to Fail is Failure Guaranteed.”

Curiously, on July 5, a couple weeks after the attack, Hoenisch and Karapetsas exchanged Reddit DMs titled “DarkDAO counter attack” — though the substance of the messages is unclear because Hoensich has deleted all his Reddit posts. (Hosp recalls that Hoenisch told him he had deleted his Reddit account after an altercation with an “idiot” on Reddit over The DAO.) Hoenisch wrote, “Sorry for not contacting first. I got carried away from finding it and telling the community that there is a way to fight back. In any case, I don’t see any way the attacker can use this.”

After Karapetsas told Hoenisch of the white hats’ plans to protect what was left in The DAO, Hoenisch replied, “I took down the post.” Karapetsas responded, “I will keep you up to date with what we do from now on.” Hoenisch’s last message in that exchange: “I’m sorry if I messed up the plan.”

On July 24th, the day after the Ethereum Classic chain revived and began trading on Poloniex, Hoenisch tweeted, “ethereum drama escalating: from #daowars to #chainwars. Ethereum classic now traded on poloniex as $ETC and miners planning attacks.” On July 26th, he retweeted Barry Silbert, the founder and CEO of the powerful and well-respected Digital Currency Group, who had tweeted, “Bought my first non-bitcoin digital currency…Ethereum Classic (ETC).”


“He (the DAO hacker) really screwed the pooch. Reputation is way more valuable than money.”


Upon hearing the name Toby Hoenisch, without knowing evidence indicated he was the DAO attacker, Karapetsas, a usually good-humored Greek software developer who was one of the DAO creators and had engaged with him by email and on Reddit, said: “He was obnoxious…. he was quite insistent on having found a lot of problems.”

After hearing that the DarkDAO ETC had been cashed out to a Grin node with Hoenisch’s alias, Karapetsas observed that if Hoenisch had instead remedied the situation while the DarkDao funds were frozen, the Ethereum community would have given him “huge kudos” for finding the weakness and then returning the ETH. Similarly, Griff Green, whose current projects lean towards helping non-profit and public causes grow in the digital world, believes the hacker missed the chance to “be a hero.” Says Green: “He really screwed the pooch…Reputation is way more valuable than money.”

Ironically, in a 2016 blog post, Hoenisch wrote, “I’m a white hat hacker by heart.’’ Twenty days later came the DAO attack.

As I noted earlier, after being sent a document laying out the evidence that he was the hacker and asking for comment for my book, Hoenisch wrote that my conclusion is “factually inaccurate.” He said in that email he could give me more details—and then did not respond to four requests for those details, nor to additional fact checking queries for this article. In addition, after receiving the first document detailing the facts I’d gathered, he deleted almost all his Twitter history (though I’ve saved the relevant tweets).

In May 2015, Hoenisch and the cofounders of his crypto debit card venture—first known as OneBit—had some success at a Mastercard Masters of Code hackathon in Singapore. They started making the card available that year on an invitation-only basis, because, as Hoenisch explained on Reddit, “We don’t want to launch a half-assed Bitcoin wallet that gets us in trouble for violating KYC (know your customer) laws. And yes, legal is the main reason we can’t just ship it.” A Bitcoin Magazine article at the time said Hoenisch had a background in AI, IT security and cryptography.

In early 2017, just months after the presumed DAO attacker stopped trying to cash out their ETC, Hoenisch’s team—by then operating as TenX—announced it had received $1 million in seed funding from (among others) Fenbushi Capital, where Ethereum founder Buterin was a general partner. Then came the $80 million ICO. In early 2018, things started to go south for TenX when its card issuer, Wavecrest, was booted from the Visa network, meaning that TenX’s users could no longer use their debit cards.

On Oct. 1, 2020, TenX announced it was sunsetting its services because its new card issuer, Wirecard SG, had been directed by the Monetary Authority of Singapore to cease operations. On April 9, 2021, TenX posted a blog called “TenX, Meet Mimo.” It outlined a new business that would offer a euro-pegged stablecoin, which kept its value pegged to a fiat currency such as US dollars or euros or Japanese Yen. The market cap of TenX tokens, which spiked at $535 million, now sits at just $11 million. TenX has rebranded itself as Mimo Capital and is offering holders of TenX tokens mostly worthless MIMO tokens instead at a rate of 0.37 MIMO for each TenX.

Hosp, who was the public face of the company while there, was booted by Hoenisch and another cofounder in January 2019. This occurred a couple months after some crypto publications reported on Hosp’s past affiliation with an Austrian multi-level marketing scheme. However, before hearing that evidence indicated Hoenisch was the DAO attacker, Hosp said his feeling had been that Hoenisch had perhaps pushed him out over jealousy that Hosp had sold bitcoin at the top of the bubble in late 2017, netting himself $20 million. Meanwhile, Hoenisch had kept all his crypto as the bubble – and his personal net worth – deflated.

“He came from a very poor family, he had no experience in investing, and he was in crypto in 2010 but he had literally no money, nothing, when we were in Las Vegas together [in the summer of 2016] he had nothing, and I was doing really well with my investments… he would always push for getting more salary, for having something nicer.” Hosp also mentioned Hoenisch had to send money home to his mother, who had raised him, as well as his sister and brother, as a single parent.


As new blockchain applications arise, one of the first uses of crypto—as an anonymity shield—is in retreat.


Upon hearing that Hoenisch was the likely DAO attacker, Hosp said he was “getting goose bumps” and begin recalling details from his interactions with his former partner that now seemed to take on new significance. For example, when asked if Hoenisch was into Grin (the privacy coins to which the hacker had cashed out) Hosp said, “Yes! Yes, he was. He was fascinated by that…I lost money because of those stupid coins! I invested in them because of him, because he was so fascinated by them.”

He said that Hoenisch was also obsessed with building a Bitcoin/Monero “atomic swap” – or a way to use smart contracts to swap between Bitcoin and the privacy coin Monero. At the time, Hosp was confused by that, because he felt there was no market for such a product. Later, Hosp pulled up chats from August 2016, in which Hoenisch seemed excited about the price of ETC, the coin held by the hacker after the ethereum fork.

When trying to recall the incident that he believed prompted Hoenisch to close his Reddit, Hosp began searching on his computer and muttered to himself, “He always used tobyai.” He confirmed that one of Toby’s regular email addresses ended in @toby.ai.

Recalled a still astounded Hosp: “For some weird reason, he was quite well aware of what was happening…He understood more of the DAO hack when I asked him what had happened…than I had found on the internet or anywhere.”

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Follow me on Twitter or LinkedIn. Check out my website.

A former senior editor of Forbes, I’m a crypto journalist, host of the Unchained podcasts, and author of The Cryptopians: Idealism, Greed, Lies, and the Making of the First Big Cryptocurrency Craze. https://bit.ly/cryptopians

Source: Exclusive: Austrian Programmer And Ex Crypto CEO Likely Stole $11 Billion Of Ether

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Recent News

Jump Trading Replaces Stolen Wormhole Funds After $320M Crypto Hack

The cryptocurrency arm of Jump Trading said on Thursday it had restored more than $320 million to crypto platform Wormhole after the decentralized finance site was hit with one of the largest crypto heists on record.

In a tweet, Jump Crypto said they chose to replace the stolen money “to make community members whole and support Wormhole now as it continues to develop.”

Chicago-based Jump Trading acquired Certus One, the developer behind Wormhole, in August.

Wormhole, an online platform that allows the transfer of information across crypto networks, said on Wednesday it had been “exploited” for 120,000 digital tokens connected to the second-largest cryptocurrency, ether.

At the time of its announcement, the market value of the tokens was just over $320 million.

The cryptocurrency arm of Jump Trading said on Thursday it had restored more than $320 million to crypto platform Wormhole after the decentralized finance site was hit with one of the largest crypto heists on record. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration

maxslides-768x101-1The theft was the latest to hit the fast-growing but mostly unregulated DeFi sector. DeFi platforms allow users to lend, borrow and save – usually in crypto – while bypassing traditional gatekeepers of finance such as banks.

“All funds have been restored and Wormhole is back up,” the platform said on Twitter after earlier saying on its Telegram channel that “all funds are safe.”

London-based blockchain analysis firm Elliptic said that attackers were able to fraudulently create the wETH tokens, almost 94,000 of which were later transferred to the ethereum blockchain, which powers transactions for ether.

Elliptic added that Wormhole has offered the attacker a $10 million “bounty” to return the funds, citing messages embedded within ether transactions sent to the attacker’s digital address.

MAJOR HACKING RISK

Cash has poured into DeFi sites, mirroring the explosion of interest in cryptocurrencies as a whole. Many investors, facing historically low or sub-zero interest rates, are drawn to DeFi by the promise of high returns on savings.

adaleadzYet with their breakneck growth, DeFi platforms have emerged as a major hacking risk, with bugs in code and design flaws allowing criminals to target DeFi sites and deep pools of liquidity, and also to launder the proceeds of crime, while leaving few traces.

Fraud and theft at DeFi platforms surpassed $10 billion last year, research by Elliptic shows, laying bare the risks in the fast-growing but mostly unregulated area of cryptocurrencies.

Last August, hackers behind likely the biggest ever digital coin heist returned nearly all of the $610 million-plus they stole from the DeFi site Poly Network.

Hacks have long plagued crypto platforms. In 2018, digital tokens worth some $530 million were stolen from Tokyo-based platform Coincheck. Mt. Gox, another Japanese exchange, collapsed in 2014 after hackers stole half a billion dollars of crypto.

Source: Jump Trading replaces stolen Wormhole funds after $320M crypto hack | Fox Business

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Money Has Never Felt More Fake

Calvin Becerra went viral earlier this year for a less-than-ideal reason. He got bamboozled out of what he claims is some $2 million in cryptocurrency and NFTs and complained on Twitter about the incident. Scammers pretended to be interested in buying one of his NFTs in a Discord channel and tricked him by saying they could help him fix a problem with his crypto wallet. During troubleshooting, they raided his wallet. The experience, he says, “felt like death.” He’s gone to great lengths to get the stolen digital assets back, paying hundreds of thousands more dollars to retrieve the tokens, including, most importantly, his three bored apes.

For many outsiders, it’s hard to grasp paying so much money for a trio of cartoon monkeys once, let alone twice. At some point, you’ve just got to let sunk cost be. But Becerra, 40, insists it’s worth it — he believes in NFTs, or at the very least, the moneymaking power of them. “They’re important to me because of the value that they will continue to increase by,” he says. “They’re huge.”

He’s right that NFTs — non-fungible tokens, little digital assets that exist on a blockchain — are having a moment. What’s not really clear is why. Then again, everything about money feels a little strange at the moment. Between NFTs, crypto, and GameStop, AMC, and other meme stocks, money has rarely felt more fake. Or, at the very least, value has rarely felt so disconnected from reality.

The concept of value is a fuzzy one, and valuation is often more art than it is science. Psychology has always played a role in money and investing — and there have always been bubbles, too, where the price of an asset takes off at a rapid pace and disconnects from the fundamental value. As Jacob Goldstein wrote in Money: The True Story of a Made-Up Thing, all money is sort of a collective myth. “Money feels cold and mathematical and outside the realm of fuzzy human relationships. It isn’t,” he wrote. “Money is a made-up thing, a shared fiction. Money is fundamentally, unalterably social.”

The social aspect is clear in much of what’s going on now, whether it be a group of investors on Reddit trying to take down a hedge fund betting against GameStop or people paying thousands of dollars to claim ownership of digital art they could effectively have for free. But why certain groups of people have trained their focus on certain items is hard to parse. Becerra insists there’s a utility to the apes — there’s merchandise, events, and he sees having them as the “new world flex,” like a watch or a nice car. “Everything’s hype, a social media world, right?”

Lately, the hype aspect of money has felt more true and important than ever.

It’s been a weird year in money

Historically, the economy was theoretically based on labor and value creation at the individual level, and on the structural level, voting shares in companies based on their financial fundamentals and future value, said tech industry veteran Anil Dash, CEO of the programming company Glitch. But that idea died long ago. “A machine is what it does, and the purpose of the system is the output of the system. And the purpose of our financial systems … is to create ever more detached financialization that can just generate what the industry calls wealth and what the rest of the world just doesn’t see.” In other words, the confusing status of value today is a feature, not a bug.

You can see this clearly in the markets in 2021. One of the first big stories of the year was the GameStop saga, and it was a fun one. An army of day traders on the Reddit forum r/WallStreetBets drove up the price of the game retailer’s stock in a matter of days, forcing halts in trading and costing some hedge funds that had been betting against the stock quite a bit of money. They rallied behind a guy who goes by Roaring Kitty; in one YouTube video about GameStop, he pretended to smoke a cigar while wearing a cat mask.

There have been all sorts of efforts to ascribe some bigger takeaway to the GameStop story — perhaps it was a populist uprising or a sign that there was something very broken in the market. But generally, most of the efforts to pull a concrete meaning out of GameStop fall flat. It was a relatively ephemeral incident where, as is often the case in investing, there were some winners and some losers. GameStop’s stock price has remained relatively high, compared where it was before January 2021, because enough investors have stuck around to keep it there.

GameStop has come to epitomize an era of meme investing, where ordinary investors are piling into stocks and cryptocurrencies and digital assets not necessarily because they believe in the underlying value of the thing they’re buying (though some do) but instead because it just seems like a thing to do. Dogecoin or NFTs or stock in theater chain AMC get popular online or in their social circles, and they turn around and think, why not?

“For a huge swath of the retail world, the mentality has merged of what is trading versus what is investing versus what is essentially just gambling,” said Tyler Gellasch, executive director of Healthy Markets, a nonprofit.

The scenario has generated quite a bit of fingerwagging from Very Serious People who say what’s going on is beyond the pale, that investing is supposed to be about underlying value and the real, tangible worth of a thing. NFTs and Shiba Inu coin, they say, are clearly fake. At the same time, so is so much of what’s going on in finance and the economy already — including the spaces the Very Serious People occupy.

During the 2008 financial crisis, for example, exotic financial instruments created out of subprime mortgages among Wall Street and banks helped take the economy down. They also revealed regulators to be asleep at the wheel. Very recent history makes it hard to take the Very Serious People in finance and government seriously as responsible stewards of the global economy. The financial industry has gone to great lengths to create new financial products with the potential to do more harm than good in the name of making more money.

“To have a boomer burn down the planet and then have them wag a finger that crypto’s bad for the environment? Please, that’s absurd,” Dash said.

“Money feeling strange in 2021 is based on a decade of money slowly feeling strange for lots and lots of different people throughout the world,” said Lana Swartz, an assistant professor of media studies at the University of Virginia who focuses on money. “We’re at a stage where the government and financial institutions are revealed to be less dependable than we ever imagined they would be, so why not YOLO?”

A made-up quote from a 2021 Onion article gets at the attitude:

NFTs might be bizarre speculative bullshit, but what isn’t? Aren’t we all just finding ways to turn everything that exists into something we can make money off of? I might be throwing away thousands of dollars on NFTs, but you’re throwing away thousands of dollars on TSA PreCheck or lottery tickets or donating to political candidates or raising children. Critics will say NFTs are wasteful and can be used for fraud and other crimes—fine, yeah, find me something that isn’t?

The view may be nihilistic, but in the current scenario, it isn’t entirely wrong. So much of the economy feels like a scam — the gig economy, student loans, the hope of retirement, a 9-to-5 job. Consumers are always being tricked and squeezed by corporations. The promise of the middle class is fading fast, so for a lot of people, it just feels like you might as well lean into whatever financial chaos is available to try to hit it big. If housing prices are so high you’re never going to be able to own a home, why not try your hand at real estate in whatever the metaverse is?

Crypto feels like a scam. So does a lot of the economy.

It’s easy to be dismissive of the current state of casino capitalism, where random people are just tossing random money at random anything. It’s also relatively easy to recognize that this landscape is likely to be one where there are few winners, and the winners are probably going to be the people who were already winning, financially.

“For every one person that makes money, you have 100 people that have lost money. It’s basically just a giant wealth redistribution scheme,” said Stephen Diehl, a software engineer in London who recently laid out a scathing and widely read critique of the crypto asset bubble. “Why it seems so fake is nobody can quite figure out what these things are, and they’re being presented to different people with different stories.”

Dash is one of the originators of the NFT concept, but he worries about the clearly fraudulent nature of some dealings in the market. “They had to coin the phrase ‘rug pull’ to describe the fraud that happens in NFT communities because that type of thing is so common. What does that tell you?”

Value is ultimately a story, one we tell to ourselves and to others. In the United States, we’ve convinced ourselves of the story of the dollar, which is backed by the full force of the US government. But it’s ultimately just a piece of paper. Cryptocurrencies and NFTs and AMC all come with their own stories, which, admittedly, can be on the kooky side.

There’s more to the current money landscape than dogecoin and meme stocks that makes the whole thing seem a little fake. The stock market soared during much of 2020 and 2021, even during the depths of the pandemic, making it hard not to wonder what the whole thing is for. The federal government was able to deliver a lot of money through monetary and fiscal relief to keep the markets — and regular people — afloat. It’s a lesson that when the government needs to find money, it can. But whether or not the influx makes money feel fake depends on your perspective.

“Isn’t this the year that money has felt most real?” said Mike Konczal, director of macroeconomic analysis at the Roosevelt Institute. “Child poverty cut in half, unemployment insurance capable of giving workers actual bargaining power for a change, real wage increases across the majority of people, wealth doubling in the bottom 50 percent.”

It’s a strange place we’re in, which might explain why these tangible improvements don’t seem to dislodge national feelings of alienation. The state of the world and the economy can feel really hopeless. There’s mass distrust in institutions and in government, and economic mobility is increasingly hard to achieve. We’re in the midst of a pandemic that doesn’t look like it’s ever going to really end. NFTs feel like a scam, but then again, so does everything.

Becerra appears determined to stick with NFTs, despite having been very publicly scammed. After all, he’s gone to great lengths to get his bored apes back. When he talks about them, he vacillates between speculator and true believer, in one moment saying he plans to sell them if the price gets high enough, in another talking about them with quite a bit of affection.

“I’m not holding this forever. I don’t care about those apes that much, you know?” he said. He knows the hype could fade. Maybe that will take the sudden value of his cartoon monkeys with it; maybe it won’t. However, he considers the apes to be “blue chip” NFTs, a designation that in the stock world would put them on the same level as well-established major corporations such as Apple and Berkshire Hathaway. “That’s why someone like me, who has money, invests only in the blue-chip ones.”

Most of this is probably a bubble

Becerra, who describes himself as a motivational speaker, high-performance coach, and entrepreneur, compares the current moment in crypto to the 1990s. “This is our dot-com boom,” he said. Of course, the dot-com boom ended in a bust.

It’s impossible to look at what’s happening in investing now and not think that that the prices on many of these assets are divorced from their actual worth. The value of random NFTs and cryptocurrencies skyrocket seemingly out of nowhere, sweeping up hundreds and thousands of people in the process. Sometimes, the bubbles burst fast because the investment falls out of fashion or it winds up being a pump-and-dump scheme, where fraudsters are creating a buying frenzy around certain assets only to suddenly dump them and flee. The broader crypto bubble is still inflating.

If NFTs and crypto, as a concept, prevail, it’s unlikely all of the current projects and fads will. Everybody’s hoping they’ve got a golden ticket, or at least a gold-plated ticket, that they can sell before everyone else realizes what they’ve got is a fraud. Some people in the industry acknowledge that most of this stuff is likely to implode.

“The parallels with the dot-com boom are very apt, the reason being that like 99 percent of these coins out there are going to be worth zero in 10 years. But the ones that remain, the companies that remain … those are going to survive and create long-lasting things that change our lives,” said Jim Greco, managing director of crypto trading at Radkl, a digital trading firm. “Amazon survived the dot-com boom.”

If you buy into the idea that a lot of this investing is pretty divorced from reality, then the question is how long this lasts. For now, the music’s still playing, so people are dancing. How long the song keeps going depends on how long the people holding onto the assets can keep singing.

“It’s really incumbent on people who hold these investments to perpetuate their value, whether that’s through evangelizing to other people or by building systems to make it usable and useful and relevant,” Swartz said. “But then in order to realize the value, to translate it into money, you have to sell it.”

If and when the bubble around some of these hyped investments bursts, a lot of people are going to get hurt and lose money. In NFTs, evidence suggests those who are already wealthy and powerful are the ones ruling the roost, just like in the stock market. While there are true believers in crypto projects, so much of it is just speculation, and venture capitalists and hedge funds are more likely to win the speculation game than the little guys caught up in the mania.

Hilary Allen, a law professor at American University who specializes in financial regulation, said the risk around so many speculative and contrived investments on the market is more tied to the potential ripple effects. Essentially, is the current moment the dot-com bubble or the lead-up to the 2008 financial crisis?

“If it’s just a dot-com bubble, it sucks for the people who invested,” she said. “But if it’s 2008, then we’re all screwed, even those of us who aren’t investing, and that’s not fair. It really depends on who’s getting into this and how integrated it’s getting with the rest of the financial system.”

Emily Stewart

Emily writes about the intersection of business, politics, and the economy. She is specifically interested in how people experience the forces of capitalism and money. Prior to joining Vox, Emily covered politics at The Street, including the rise of Donald Trump and the stock market’s reaction to politics and policy. She graduated from Columbia University and resides in Brooklyn, New York.

Source: From crypto to meme stocks to NFTs, money has never felt more fake – Vox

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SEC Charges Ripple With Selling $1.3 Billion In Unregistered Securities, XRP Loses $2 Billion In Market Value

The Securities and Exchange Commission has charged cryptocurrency pioneer Ripple Labs, the firm that owns a majority of the world’s third-largest cryptocurrency, for allegedly raising $1.3 billion in an offering of unregistered “digital asset securities”–a huge sign U.S. regulators could ramp up oversight of the cryptocurrency space as the market surges to new highs.

According to the SEC’s complaint, Ripple, its cofounder Christian Larsen and CEO Bradley Garlinghouse raised capital to finance the firm’s business through an unregistered public offering of XRP tokens beginning in 2013.

The complaint, filed in Manhattan’s federal district court, also alleges that Larsen and Garlinghouse carried out personal unregistered sales of XRP totaling roughly $600 million.

As of 3 p.m. EST, the value of the XRP token had plunged roughly 12% over the last 24 hours, according to crypto data firm CoinMarketCap, wiping out more than $2 billion from the cryptocurrency’s market cap.

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“It’s not just Grinch-worthy, it’s shocking,” Garlinghouse told Fortune when he warned of the impending lawsuit on Monday evening, later tweeting that Ripple, a San Francisco-based firm last valued at $10 billion in 2019, “is ready to fight” the suit. “It’s an attack on the entire crypto industry and American innovation.”

The SEC has largely cracked down on crowdfunded token sales, commonly referred to as initial coin offerings, but XRP is easily the largest cryptocurrency targeted by the SEC as a security; officials in 2018 declared ether and bitcoin were currencies and not securities because of their decentralized nature.

Crucial Quote

“We allege that Ripple, Larsen and Garlinghouse failed to register their ongoing offer and sale of billions of XRP to retail investors, which deprived potential purchasers of adequate disclosures about XRP and Ripple’s business and other important long-standing protections that are fundamental to our robust public market system,” said Stephanie Avakian, director of the SEC’s enforcement division on Tuesday.

Big Number

$653 billion. That’s the current market value of all the cryptocurrencies across the world, more than tripling this year alone, according to CoinMarketCap. At its peak in January 2018, the market was valued at more than $800 billion. XRP’s current market cap of $21.6 billion is bested only by ether ($71 billion) and bitcoin ($435 billion).

Key Background

Heightened regulatory scrutiny from nations such as South Korea triggered a near-85% crash in cryptocurrency prices in 2018, but the United States has been slow to issue broad-based regulation. Among the most vocal U.S. regulatory agencies when it comes to cryptocurrency, the SEC spent months drafting guidance it released in April 2019 about when and how cryptocurrencies may be classified as securities, but it’s been relatively quiet on the front ever since.

The suit against Ripple, however, could mean that’s set to change as the cryptocurrency market soars toward new highs during the pandemic. “There is more and more interest from a wide spectrum of people, both inside the crypto space as well as inside the traditional financial institutions who are asking us for guidance,” an SEC Commissioner told CoinDesk in October. “I think we’re going to be forced to confront that more and more in the coming years.”

What To Watch For

Competition–from the government. Though it has not committed to the idea, the Federal Reserve is exploring the possibility of debuting its own central bank digital currency, Goldman Sachs said in a Sunday note. Officials have warmed up to the idea of a central bank token “largely out of concern that wide adoption of alternative digital currencies could endanger financial stability, U.S. financial intermediaries and the Fed’s ability to influence financial conditions,” Goldman analysts led by Jan Hatzius said.

Tangent

During the pandemic many investors have flocked to cryptocurrency–and namely bitcoin–as a hedge against longer-term inflation concerns, which have escalated in the face of increased government spending for coronavirus relief measures. In a report released Monday, digital asset management firm CoinShares said cumulative investments into cryptocurrency funds have totaled about $5 billion so far this year, eclipsing the approximately $1.4 billion plowed into the space through the end of last year.

Chief Critic

“Other major branches of the U.S. government, including the Justice Department and the Treasury Department’s FinCen, have already determined that XRP is a currency,” Ripple Counsel Michael Kellogg said in a statement to Forbes, arguing that the currency designation means XRP transactions fall outside the scope of federal securities laws. “This is not the first time the SEC has tried to go beyond its statutory authority. The courts have corrected it before and will do so again,” he added.

Further Reading

Ripple says it will be sued by the SEC, in what the company calls a parting shot at the crypto industry (Fortune)

Ripple’s Trillion-Dollar Man (Forbes)

As Bitcoin Surges 15%, Here’s What Wall Street’s Saying About The Cryptocurrency’s Meteoric Resurgence (Forbes)

U.S. Government Voids Public Comments On Newly Proposed Crypto Wallet Rule (Forbes) Follow me on Twitter. Send me a secure tip.

Jonathan Ponciano

 Jonathan Ponciano

I’m a reporter at Forbes focusing on markets and finance. I graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where I double-majored in business journalism and economics while working for UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School as a marketing and communications assistant. Before Forbes, I spent a summer reporting on the L.A. private sector for Los Angeles Business Journal and wrote about publicly traded North Carolina companies for NC Business News Wire. Reach out at jponciano@forbes.com.

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CNBC Television

Ripple CEO Brad Garlinghouse addresses the Securities and Exchange Commission’s lawsuit over the XRP cryptocurrency.

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IRS & Global Tax Enforcers Expand War on Cryptocurrency Fraud

Tax authorities, both domestic and abroad, have been continuously building an arsenal of tools and experts to monitor and audit crypto transactions. This increased weaponry has led to a growing number of international arrests by the Joint Chiefs of Global Tax Enforcement (J5) and the US Department of Justice (DOJ), with each member organization arresting individuals allegedly involved in crypto fraud, and/or seizing funds from their activities.

Not surprisingly, the US Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is keeping pace with these efforts and closing in on those who may have attempted to take advantage of the perceived anonymity of these transactions to evade taxes. As these tax authorities continue their collective efforts, the question becomes: who will be the next target of this expanding arsenal?

Crypto tracing for hire

Public records reveal that the IRS and other federal agencies have recently entered into agreements with a number of private cryptocurrency analytics companies to gain access to certain blockchain tracing software. This is unsurprising, given the US government’s recent outreach to members of the cryptocurrency community. For example, the IRS recently sought assistance from several cryptocurrency tax software companies for the audits of tax returns involving on-chain and off-chain cryptocurrency transactions.1

The statements of work for these arrangements provide that the IRS “is engaging outside contractors to assist our revenue agents in calculating taxpayers’ gains or losses as a result of their transactions involving virtual currency.” The DOJ is also advertising positions for crypto experts to assist law enforcement with “undercover operations on the Dark Web and undercover cryptocurrency transactions, technical skills and technology to perform block-chain analysis to trace transactions.”2

The IRS Criminal Investigation Division (IRS CI), the largest federal law enforcement agency in the US Department of Treasury, is also expanding its crypto capabilities. As part of its Cryptocurrency Initiative, IRS CI recently issued a public request for tools related to cryptocurrency, including applications “to more easily trace privacy coins and other protocols that provide anonymity to illicit actors.” This coordinated effort by the IRS and other federal agencies to acquire crypto talent forecasts a looming crackdown on the use of virtual currency for illicit purposes, and those that facilitate its use for those purposes.

International enforcement: Pooling of resources

The global tax community has also pooled its resources to target crypto fraudsters. The J5, which consists of the leaders of the tax enforcement agencies in Australia, Canada, the Netherlands, England, and the United States, was formed to investigate and combat cross-border tax and money laundering threats, including cybercrime, cryptocurrency, and enablers of global tax crimes. This has led to the J5 making several recent arrests involving certain cryptocurrency transactions. One of the J5’s stated missions is to “collaborate internationally to reduce the growing threat to tax administrations posed by cryptocurrencies and cybercrime and to make the most of data and technology.”

The J5 has held annual events known as “Challenges,” where investigators, cryptocurrency experts, and data scientists from the member nations exchange data and techniques. These combined efforts have led to an uptick in enforcement activity by member nations, including:

Two men were arrested in February 2020 in the Netherlands on suspicion of money laundering using cryptocurrencies via the subject crypto service provider. This arrest was the apparent culmination of the Dutch Fiscal Information and Investigation Service’s investigation of a crypto service provider discussed during the 2019 Challenge. The amount laundered was approximately US$118,800, indicating that the J5’s targets are not limited to the million-dollar players.

A Romanian programmer in Germany was arrested and pleaded guilty in July 2020, for conspiring to commit wire fraud and offering and selling unregistered securities. The activity is connected with the programmer’s role in a cryptocurrency mining scheme that defrauded investors of at least US$722 million worth of bitcoin.

The DOJ has also continued its enforcement efforts in earnest. Just last month, the DOJ:

  • Announced the seizure of millions of dollars in bitcoin associated with financing of terrorist organizations, including al-Qassam Brigades, al-Qaeda, and Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). The operation involved, among other things, an investigation into certain alleged Syrian charities and also led to the unsealing of criminal charges for two Turkish individuals. Acting United States Attorney Michael R. Sherwin commented that this seizure, the largest of its kind, “reflect[s] the resolve . . . to target and dismantle these sophisticated cyber-terrorism and money laundering actors across the globe. While these individuals believe they operate anonymously in the digital space, we have the skill and resolve to find, fix and prosecute these actors under the full extent of the law.”
  • Filed a civil forfeiture complaint related to two hacks of virtual currency exchanges by North Korean actors. The complaint alleges that these North Korean players stole millions of dollars’ worth of cryptocurrency and then laundered the same through Chinese over-the-counter crypto traders. Acting Assistant Attorney General Brian C. Rabbitt of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division proclaimed, “Today’s action publicly exposes the ongoing connections between North Korea’s cyber-hacking program and a Chinese cryptocurrency money laundering network.”
  • The first hack dates back to July 2019 when an agent tied to North Korea allegedly stole over US$272,000 worth of crypto. This agent then engaged in “chain hopping,” a process whereby the user converts cryptocurrency into other forms of crypto in order to make the illegal transactions more difficult to trace. Then, in September 2019, another agent with ties to North Korea hacked a US-based company, stealing nearly US$2.5 million in crypto.

Avoiding the land mines and risks: The time to act is now

The message is ominous. The recent J5 activity and the US government’s stockpiling of crypto experts and tracing software leaves little doubt that tax enforcement efforts in the crypto space is ramping up. Indeed, in its February 18, 2020, newsletter, the J5 warned that “it cannot be ruled out that more international investigations by the J5 countries will follow” from the data sharing at the Challenges.

At home, the DOJ, IRS, and IRS CI remain laser focused on abusive crypto schemes, as evidenced by their call to arms for crypto experts and tracing software. While the above DOJ actions focus on anti-money laundering activity, they demonstrate a growing familiarity with these systems which will lead to future cases in other areas, including tax evasion.

Thus, any company operating in this high-risk industry should consider whether its compliance measures are adequate to protect its systems from being used, purposefully or not, to further activity that may become the focus of the government’s increasing scrutiny in this space. This is especially so in light of the DOJ’s updated guidance for corporate compliance programs places greater emphasis on continuous data driven compliance programs that are responsive to industry risks.


Footnotes

1 Hamza Ali and Allyson Versprille, IRS Seeking Private Companies to Aid With Cryptocurrency Audits, Bloomberg Law: Tax 2 Dark Web and Cryptocurrency International Computer Hacking and Intellectual Property Attorney Advisor

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