Attorney: Adam Giffords Kurtz
Pomerantz Monitor January/February 2018
Lately, Bitcoin and other digital currencies have been making headlines almost every day. For good reason: more and more people use them, while their value fluctuates wildly on an almost daily basis. Some proclaim it as the next giant leap forward in commerce, while others fear that it portends a financial apocalypse.
One conclusion, however, seems indisputable: cryptocurrency is opening the door to a whole new breed of speculators and their inevitable byproduct, securities fraud. The United States Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) has wakened to this new threat by creating a new fraud unit, while Pomerantz recently became the first law firm to file an action alleging securities fraud involving a cryptocurrency company.
But first, a short primer for those who are not yet fluent in the language of bitcoin, blockchain and initial coin offerings.
EVERYTHING YOU WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT CRYPTOCURRENCY BUT WERE AFRAID TO ASK
What is cryptocurrency?
Cryptocurrency is a digital form of money—a type of digital token that relies on cryptography for chaining together digital signatures of token transfers, peer-to-peer networking and decentralization. Cryptography is the science of coding and decoding messages so as to keep these messages secure. Coding takes place using a key that ideally is known only by the sender and intended recipient of the message.
What is Bitcoin?
Bitcoin, the most well-known form of cryptocurrency, was created in 2008 by an unknown person or group of people under the alias Satoshi Nakamoto, and released in 2009 as open-source software—in other words, software with source code that anyone with programming knowledge can inspect, modify, and enhance. Transactions are made with no middle men, and therefore no banks.
In February 2009, Nakamoto wrote, “The root problem with conventional currency is all the trust that’s required to make it work. The central bank must be trusted not to debase the currency, but the history of fiat currencies is full of breaches of that trust. Banks must be trusted to hold our money and transfer it electronically, but they lend it out in waves of credit bubbles with barely a fraction in reserve. We have to trust them with our privacy, trust them not to let identity thieves drain our accounts.”
So what is a bitcoin, if it does not exist in the three-dimensional sphere of paper money, coins, and gold blocks?
Each bitcoin is created in a process called mining, by which transactions are verified and added to the public ledger, known as the blockchain. Anyone with a sufficiently robust computer and impressive tech chops can mine for bitcoin, but it is not a task for the casual surfer. One must compile recent transactions into blocks and try to solve a computationally complex puzzle by a very long process of trial and error. The person who first solves the puzzle gets to place the next block on the blockchain and claim the rewards: the transaction fees associated with the transactions compiled in the block, as well as newly released bitcoin. Nakamoto predetermined a hard limit of 21 million bitcoins to be generated by 2140. As of January 2018, 80% of the 21 million has been mined.
How can I get and use Bitcoins?
If you don’t want to earn your bitcoins through mining, you can also purchase them through exchanges set up for that purpose. You register your details via the exchange, deposit your local currency, and then purchase the bitcoin at the current rate of exchange. Once you’ve purchased your bitcoin, it is best, for security reasons, not to leave it on the exchange for too long, but instead to move it into a software wallet, such as the Bitcoin QT client, where it will be stored on your own computer until you are ready to make a purchase or sell your bitcoin. Today, any individual investor can open a bitcoin wallet online and buy a bitcoin with U.S. dollars or other currency, and then buy and sell on any number of online cryptocurrency or ICO trading platforms.
According to a December 2, 2017 article in Business Insider, one of the first tangible items ever purchased with the cryptocurrency was a pizza. Today, the amount of bitcoin used to purchase those pizzas is valued at $100 million. Obviously, you can buy pizzas with bitcoin only if the restaurant accepts it.
In 2017, the value of Bitcoin was up over 1,300%, while other cryptocurrencies, such as Ripple, Litecoin and Ethereum, were up over 36,000%, 5,000% and 9,000%, respectively. There have also been massive declines in value, but so far these have not been permanent. These wild fluctuations provide fertile grounds for speculation, not to mention fraud.
How do crypto tech startups raise money?
In 2017, tech startups, mostly in crypto tech, raised over $4 billion in startup capital through a new crypto tech funding method called Initial Coin Offerings (“ICO”), which is also based on blockchain technology. ICOs are like a cross between a traditional Initial Public Stock Offering and crowdfunding. Instead of buying shares of stock, investors typically acquire “crypto coins,” which the company produces or hopes to produce, and which investors hope will increase in value once the venture is launched. Thus, ICOs differ from traditional IPOs in that purchasers are not getting an ownership stake in a private company and its proprietary software. They are, in effect, buying the venture firm’s currency, which may or may not prove to have value. That is one reason ICOs have become notorious for pump-and-dump scams.
The blockchain is the technology that makes Bitcoin, cryptocurrencies and ICOs work. In short, the blockchain technology is open-source software that creates a ledger maintained and visible by all users, and that cannot be altered or erased. The blockchain is like an immutable, comprehensive, real-time Google Docs Excel spreadsheet maintained and visible by every user that correctly records every transaction.
In a NYT article dated January 16, 2018, Steven Johnson wrote:
The only blockchain project that has crossed over into mainstream recognition so far is Bitcoin, which is in the middle of a speculative bubble that makes the 1990sinternet I.P.O. frenzy look like a neighborhood garage sale. And herein lies the cognitive dissonance thatconfronts anyone trying to make sense of the blockchain: the potential power of this would-be revolution is being actively undercut by the crowd it is attracting, a veritable goon squad of charlatans, false prophets and mercenaries. … the Bitcoin bubble may ultimately turn out to be a distraction from the true significance of the blockchain.
Nefarious ways bitcoins have been used.
One of the key features of cryptocurrency is the anonymity of transactions. When the Silk Road, an online marketplace for illegal drugs, launched in 2011, it used bitcoin as its chief form of currency. According to the same December 2, 2017 article in Business Insider quoted above:
Bitcoin is inherently traceless, a quality that made it the ideal currency for facilitating drug trade on the burgeoning internet black market. It was the equivalent of digital cash, a self-governing system of commerce that preserved the anonymity of its owner.
With Bitcoin, anyone could take to the Silk Road and purchase cannabis seeds, LSD, and cocaine without revealing their [sic] identities. And the benefit wasn’t entirely one-sided, either: in some ways, the drug trafficking site legitimized Bitcoin as a means of commerce, even if it was only being used to facilitate illicit trade.
The energy used to mine for bitcoins.
The creation of each virtual bitcoin consumes real energy—an exorbitant amount. According to a December 2017 article in Ars Technica, the bitcoin network is consuming power at an annual rate of 32TWh—about as much as the country Denmark. Each Bitcoin transaction consumes 250kWh, enough to power a home for nine days. Some crunching the numbers predict that the Bitcoin network will use as much electricity as the entire world does today by early 2020, a sobering thought.
EFFORTS BY POMERANTZAND THE SEC TO TAME CRYPTOCURRENCY ABUSES
Pomerantz and the SEC are actively involved in anti-fraud §10(b)(5) efforts and enforcement activity, respectively, as they pertain to the cryptocurrency and ICOmarketplace.
Last year, the SEC made it clear that most ICOs and the sale of their tokens will constitute the sale of securities within the meaning of the U.S. securities laws and, therefore, most ICOs will be subject to SEC registration, enforcement and the securities’ antifraud laws. Since this first enforcement action, SEC Chairman Clayton specifically warned that the SEC will investigate and prosecute ICOs for securities law violations, and that he had yet to see an ICO that was not a sale of securities required to comply with all securities laws.
The SEC also announced the formation of a new, robust internal cyber-crime unit that will police the crypto marketplace targeting distributed ledger technology and ICOs for securities law violations. In December 2017, the SEC obtained a cease and desist order against a tech company that was in the process of a $15 million ICO, for selling unlicensed securities. Currently, China and South Korea have banned Bitcon trading, and recently
The only blockchain project that has crossed over into mainstream recognition so far is Bitcoin, which is in the middle of a speculative bubble that makes the 1990sinternet I.P.O. frenzy look like a neighborhood garage sale. And herein lies the cognitive dissonance that confronts anyone trying to make sense of the blockchain: the potential power of this would-be revolution is being actively undercut by the crowd it is attracting, a veritable goon squad of charlatans, false prophets and mercenaries. … the Bitcoin bubble may ultimately turn out to be a distraction from the true significance of the blockchain.
Merrill Lynch, the brokerage arm of Bank of America, has banned its financial advisors from trading Bitcoin for their clients because it is “too much of a risk” for investors, according to an internal memo circulated to 17,000 of its of its own traders.
On December 21, 2017, Pomerantz was the first law firm to file a securities fraud class action complaint against the Crypto Company (“CRCW”), a crypto currency company. We allege that CRCW engaged in stock manipulation after its shares surged more than 17,000% in less than 3 months and to have made false and misleading statements relating to the compensation of paid promoters and the insider sale of stock. CRCW traded over-the-counter at $575 per share when trading was suspended by the SEC on December 19, 2017.
Pomerantz, at the leading edge of the litigation area relating to cryptocurrency, is working to protect investors in this cryptic and to date under-regulated field.