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Inside the bitcoin bubble: Which? investigates the crazy world of cryptocurrency

Tom Wilson goes undercover to investigate the wild west of investing and the strange frenzy around Bitcoin, Ripple and other cryptocurrencies.

Inside the bitcoin bubble

Launched as a joke to highlight how recklessly investors will throw money at dubious cryptocurrencies, Useless Ethereum described itself as ‘The world’s first 100% honest Ethereum Initial Coin Offering’.

The words of warning were strong: ‘You’re going to give some random person on the internet money, and they’re going to take it and go buy stuff with it. Probably electronics, to be honest. Maybe even a big-screen television. Seriously, don’t buy these tokens.’

Despite this warning, the coin’s launch raised $30,000 from investors. The comedy currency then went up in value. How could this happen?

To understand, you need to appreciate the mania that surrounds Bitcoin, Ethereum and the many other cryptocurrencies. Bitcoin is the best-known digital currency, and it has turned investments worth just pennies a few years ago to thousands of pounds today. But even these returns pale in comparison to some of the more exotic alternatives.

There are around 2,000 cryptocurrencies currently available to investors, according to figures published on Coinmarketcap.com, and new ones are launching almost daily.

In 2017, the best-performing cryptocurrency was Ripple. It saw its price soar by more than 35,000%, meaning that a well-timed investment of £3,000 turned into more than £1m.

Cryptocurrency fraud risks

For investors looking to get involved, it’s difficult to know where to begin.

Cryptocurrencies are the Wild West of unregulated investments. Comedian John Oliver pithily described them as ‘everything you don’t understand about money combined with everything you don’t understand about computers’.

While some lucky investors have seen huge gains, the potential for losses or even outright fraud is high.

According to one estimate from Statis Group, a US research company, around 80% of all available cryptocurrencies are fraudulent, and even the ones launched in good faith have no guarantee of success or profit for investors.

The Which? Money Helpline has received dozens of calls from members who have fallen victim to scams related to cryptocurrencies. Some of them have seen their money disappear into a black hole, while others have been left effectively holding gift tokens for a shop that will never open.

I went undercover in May and June, posing as an inexperienced investor in the market. I wanted to see if cryptocurrencies really do have something to offer investors, or whether they are merely get-rich-quick schemes that are likely to end in tears.

What are cryptocurrencies?

Cryptocurrencies are experimental new kinds of money. Bitcoin is the best known, and one of the easier ones to understand.

Think of Bitcoin in two ways. Firstly, the coins themselves work like a foreign currency in a bank account. You store them in ‘digital wallets’ on a phone or computer and buy or sell via an online exchange.

The other side of the Bitcoin is the system that manages the coins, which confusingly goes by the same name.

It works a little like Wikipedia-style banking. Instead of there being licensed, trusted banks keeping track of everyone’s transactions and account balances, a network of computers maintains a database tracking the money in everybody’s accounts, and making sure only the owner of a Bitcoin wallet can spend the money in that account.

Other cryptocurrencies work in similar ways to Bitcoin, except that the networks of computers run different programs.

First stop: the Crypto fair

One of the ‘initial coin offerings’ being advertised at a Westminster cryptocurrency event

I started at a conference in Westminster, packed with companies launching Initial Coin Offerings (ICO) – in other words, creating new currencies from nothing but computer code and trying to convince investors and other businesses to bite.

The fair felt nothing like any other investment conference I had attended before. People wandered around in Bitcoin-branded Christmas jumpers and T-shirts printed with slogans such as ‘To the moon!’ and ‘Bitcoin to the future’.

For such a booming industry (cryptocurrencies are collectively valued in the hundreds of billions), it was strange how amateur everything seemed. One company claimed to be involved in the credit market, but misspelled it as ‘creadit’ on its stand.

The boom in ICOs means companies can raise thousands, if not millions, of pounds with a well-pitched coin launch. But they’re unregulated, so there are few assurances for investors that their money will be used as described, or that they’ll be able to spend or sell their cryptocurrency in future.

Some ICOs are like stock-market flotations, offering a stake in a future business. But unlike a traditional listing, the company raising funds isn’t accountable to anyone and it’s common for investors to not know who they are dealing with.

Others are closer to genuine creations of new currencies. The problem with these is that, unlike currencies issued by governments, there is very little to ensure the coins will be widely adopted, and if no one will accept a currency as payment, it’s worthless. It wasn’t clear what would give any of the coins I saw long-term staying power.

Most were designed for one specific industry or service, and a currency that can only be used to buy one thing doesn’t make much sense.

Round two: the hotel sales pitch

This advert made bold claims about the future price of bitcoin – which has since fallen

I spotted an ad for a seminar held at a four-star central London hotel. The ad declared ‘Bitcoin to hit £30,000 in 2018!’ and, nonsensically, that ‘there are more millionaire’s [sic] being made from Bitcoin faster than anything in history’.

The ad, which was published by both the London Evening Standard and Metro newspapers, was concerning. It hinted at huge profits with no mention of the risks.

When I called the number listed on the ad, the line was dead. Nonetheless, I heeded the warning to ‘hurry’ for the ‘limited places’ and signed up.

The session, held in a bustling room of perhaps 150 people, was run by a charismatic former property developer who paced up and down the stage like a Baptist preacher, his voice amplified by a hands-free microphone.

He explained how he was in fact selling a two-day seminar that would provide seven tips on cryptocurrencies that could rise by 35,000% in the year ahead, potentially turning a £1,000 investment into £350,000.

The audience, ranging from experienced cryptocurrency enthusiasts to novices with little to no knowledge of Bitcoin or investments in general, were sceptical.

Cryptocurrency seminar at a West-End hotel
Cryptocurrency seminar at a West-End hotel

‘Why are you charging us if you’ve made so much from Bitcoin already?,’ asked one.

The host explained that the seminars weren’t cheap to run, and that he’d already spent a lot booking the hotel and taking out newspaper adverts.

The collected £1,500 course fees (rising to £2,000 if not bought immediately) would be spent on dancers and pyrotechnics at the full event to make it memorable, he said.

Cryptobank Global, which ran the seminar, has not responded on these points. Metro and the London Evening Standard say the advert is under review and will not appear again in its current form.

The trading training course

Next, I approached a company in south London, having seen an advert online offering the chance to learn how to trade Bitcoin.

When I first arrived, I was told the session had been cancelled as the person running the event and other attendees had pulled out. I was told to come back the next day.

One of the courses focused on trading, rather than cryptocurrencies
One of the courses focused on risky trading strategies, rather than cryptocurrencies

The following day, there were still no other attendees. It transpired that the man who had turned me away the day before was running the course.

This ‘investment expert’ was in his early to mid-20s, and he seemed to have little knowledge of Bitcoin. He was instead selling a course on how to day trade – in other words, make short-term bets on whether Bitcoin, or other more traditional financial products, such as shares and foreign currencies, would rise or fall.

Bafflingly, I was told that this was less risky than buying and holding Bitcoin.

Towards the end of the free session, the coach turned on the hard sell. He offered me a three-day training course, bursting with extras that could, he said, make me a professional trader. It was claimed that some 400,000 people had completed the course already, which seemed unlikely.

The one-to-one training course, he explained, would usually cost £5,000, but he could offer it to me for £1,976 (inc VAT) if I bought it immediately. What’s more, I could bring a friend along for free.

The buy-it-now offer kept getting better: extras including 12 weeks of investment tips (£5,000), a monthly online course for two years (£5,000), one-on-one mentoring (£30,000) and trading analysis (£100,000) thrown in, taking the whole package price to £155,994 (+VAT).

With over £150,000 of training for less than £2,000, the deal seemed too good to be true

The poor explanations of trading risks, lack of information about Bitcoin and pressure to hand over around £2,000 immediately, left me with the firm impression that I should steer well clear.

I later asked Raven Trading to comment on my experience. It said that its course was purely for educational purposes, and that it’s not offering advice. It insisted its offer was genuine.

Make your own bitcoin

The next event didn’t offer coins, but rather a free seminar about investing in a business that would profit from Bitcoin technology. ‘Why buy Bitcoin when you can own the means of production?,’ asked the advert, inviting me to an event in a conference centre in the West End of London.

I was greeted on arrival by two of the company directors in a seminar room set up for around 30 people, although there were only half a dozen there.

The directors explained their background in IT, and that they had previously provided IT services to the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the City of London Police.

The MoD wasn’t able to confirm this, although the City of London Police confirmed Bladetec (the company behind the Bitcoin mine) had provided IT services some years ago, although it had nothing to do with Bitcoin.

The company explained that it was looking to raise between £3m and £10m to buy computers that would be used to process transactions. After three years, it would sell the computers and return the profits to investors.

The directors explained some risks of investing (it might lose money if the price of Bitcoin fell, and investors would need to find someone to sell their shares to if they wanted to cash in early), but the sales documents I reviewed set alarm bells ringing.

The sales pitch showed how profits would be affected depending on the value of Bitcoin when the company was liquidated, but didn’t seem to take into account other risks.

The reward for Bitcoin mining depends on how busy the network is, so the amount of coins the company earns is unpredictable, yet their model didn’t allow for this.

What’s more, the computers could be worth far less when sold than they’d been bought for, which could exacerbate investors’ losses.

More worryingly, while the sales document said that there were no conflicts between the interests of directors and the shareholders, the sales documents mentioned in passing that the business premises were owned by one of the company directors, who would be renting the property to the business.

When I looked further into the headquarters of the business, which was aiming to become one of ‘the biggest Bitcoin mines’ in Europe, it appeared to be a small residential property in south London.

Bladetec has since told us that it will not rent premises from its director, that its estimates for resale value of its computers is conservative and that it offers a traditional investment vehicle for people buying Bitcoin.

To its credit, and unlike some of the businesses featured in this article, Bladetec explicitly warned of many of the investment risks, and that it should only be considered by sophisticated investors who did their own research.


The Strange World of Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs)

Here’s a selection of recently launched, or soon to launch, coins that we saw at the Cryptocurrency fair which don’t stand up to scrutiny, in our view. None of these ICOs have responded to our questions.

Goldmint.io

Goldmint may appeal if you want something more tangible than purely digital money. It claims each coin is backed by 31 grams of physical gold. But it doesn’t add up.

Gold needs to be stored safely and ideally be insured, too. Goldmint doesn’t explain how the costs of that are covered, nor how you can get your hands on the gold if you want to cash out.

Gladage

Gladage claims to offer a way to fund retirement and long-term care. If you buy it to fund your retirement, you’ll be taking a very high level of risk, trusting it to survive and thrive for perhaps decades.

What’s more, the company behind Gladage will receive most of its money up front. And if Gladage fails, it will still have the proceeds in its bank account.

Cashbet.com

Designed to be used in online casinos, Cashbet is the ‘exclusive and official blockchain partner of Arsenal FC’.

In our view, this ICO seems far more like gift vouchers for an online casino than a currency. The token was not listed on any exchanges at the time of writing this article, but listed on three separate exchanges in June, before this article was published. Since becoming publicly listed, its price peaked at around $0.57, though it was trading at around $0.17 on 9 July.

A spokesperson for Arsenal said: ‘[We] conduct appropriate due diligence through independent experts on all our prospective commercial partners and their industries and are comfortable with our partnership with CashBet Coin.’

Don’t fall foul of fraudsters

The current feeding frenzy around the ever-growing number of cryptocurrencies means that anyone with a laptop and a passing knowledge of computer programming can essentially mint their own currency.

Scammers are also targeting people trying to buy legitimate (yet still highly risky) cryptocurrencies by publishing fake adverts online.

Action Fraud has warned of dozens of people who have been tricked into investing after reading fake testimonials that pretend to be endorsed by Martin Lewis of MoneySavingExpert.com and Deborah Meaden of Dragon’s Den.

Although cryptocurrencies aren’t regulated, the police can still take action when they find evidence of fraud. The problem is that scammers aren’t the only ones who are making money out of these cons. Huge companies are making money advertising dubious investments, and in doing so are giving them an air of credibility.

Martin Lewis is taking action, suing Facebook for defamation for repeatedly running adverts in his name that promote Bitcoin and similar products. But more needs to be done.

Google stopped accepting adverts for ICOs in June. Newspapers now need to shape up as well, and not allow unsubstantiated claims about Bitcoin returns in adverts.

Before you invest in bitcoin…

Be very sceptical

If you’re considering investing in Bitcoin or any other cryptocurrency, take time to understand what you’re buying. Fundamentally, you need to understand why the coin has a good chance of being adopted as a currency over the long term.

If you can’t see its benefit over traditional currencies, you’re probably not alone. If other investors realise the emperor is wearing no clothes, coins you buy could be worth nothing.

Understand the risks

Unlike with a traditional currency, there’s not a nation of people who are compelled to use it by their government. Your coins will only hold value if someone will accept it as payment.

There are added risks as cryptocurrencies are completely unregulated. You often buy them via an exchange, and there have been several cases of seemingly reputable exchanges going bust, or making it difficult for investors to cash out.

Consider traditional investments instead

It’s difficult to resist the lure of growing your money 100-fold in a single year. But as with all investments, if it sounds too good to be true, there’s probably a reason for that.

Investors should aim to get rich slowly by aiming for the long term and diversifying their investments. If you do decide to invest in Bitcoin, make sure it’s a small part of your portfolio and consider professional advice.

Update: This article has been updated to reflect that Cashbet tells us its ‘iGaming token’ Cashbet Coin was listed on three exchanges in June, and can now be traded.  

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