Bankruptcies, lawsuits, thefts and information leaks are inseparable companions of any big business, and cryptocurrencies are no exception. CoinFox recalls the most scandalous failures of the blockchain industry.

Every child learning to walk and run will be falling, and sometimes quite painfully. The teething problems of the rapidly developing cryptocurrency industry – gullibility, fecklessness, incompetence, overestimation – resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars lost. As we will see, even successful and reputable startups are not immune from this risk.

Mt. Gox: A company that nearly buried bitcoin

The Japan-registered exchange used to be the biggest online platform for BTC/USD operations, brought to the world in 2009 by Jeb McCaleb as an online marketplace for wizard-themed playing cards (its name stands for “Magic: the Gathering Online Exchange”). Just like an evil wizard, it made a vast sum of money disappear without a trace. Some of its clients lost a fortune.

The trading platform, which in 2013 processed 70% of all bitcoin operations, collapsed due to a flaw in its code that allowed hackers to steal digital currency from customer accounts. Over 2011- 2014, the violators managed to drain 744,408 bitcoins, including 100,000 belonging to the company itself. At that moment, the loss was estimated at over $450 mln and amounted to 7% of all bitcoins in circulation.

The company admitted the losses in February 2014. And it came as little surprise to people who had knowledge of the Tokyo-based company’s inner work.  Gox is the worst-run business in the history of the world,” said bitcoin advocate Roger Ver, who tried to help the company to sort out an earlier hack, which also resulted in a large bitcoin leakage. No wonder, the Wired magazine ruthlessly criticised Mt. Gox as a “messy combination of poor management, neglect, and raw inexperience.”

So frustrating was the money loss and so vast was the scale of the scandal that many people believed it would undermine public trust forever and drive cryptocurrencies totally beyond the law. Up until the crisis, bitcoin had been gradually gaining world acceptance, and the damage to its reputation could have destroyed it for good.

It is notable that on 20 March 2014, Mt. Gox declared it “found” 200,000 bitcoins worth around $116 million in an old digital wallet from 2011. In April, suffering from a lawsuit avalanche, the company that had nearly buried the world’s most popular cryptocurrency gave up its plans to rebuild under bankruptcy protection and asked the Tokyo court to allow its liquidation.

KnCMiner: the short journey “to the skies”

The Swedish company KnCMiner had an extraordinary start. In the beginning, it managed to raise $32 million of investments. Business Insider UK included the miner in the list of top-21 most influential bitcoin companies. In June 2015, KnCMiner implemented the new powerful Solar ASIC that was supposed to boost the efficiency of mining, but that turned out to be useless due to the anticipated bitcoin block reward halving.

“We knew that there were risks related to doing this in Sweden. We aimed for the skies, not to build a mediocre medium sized business. We got big investors on board and took a chance. But it hasn’t paid off,” said CEO Sam Cole.

Early in 2015, a scandal broke out around the quality of KnCMiner’s products and services. According to Swedish media, more than 100 clients accused the company of fraud and sent a collective complaint to Swedish authorities. As the dissatisfied clients claimed, the mining device called Titan did not work well and caused ignition, whereas the company refused to return the money for it. Besides, it was reported that the company refused to communicate with the lawyers that represented the interests of the clients.

“All the while we were having huge problems with their machines (fires, burnt-out cores, random shutdowns, etc.). [At the same time], KnC was making press/Twitter, etc. releases about how happy their customers were with the junk they had sent them,” wrote one of the enraged clients.

The Swedish court ruled in favour of KnCMiner, refusing to satisfy the claim of the applicants, but that did not help the company: due to the abovementioned reasons, the KnC was unable to cover its own expenses. Besides, the lawsuits brought in by its American clients are still being considered by courts in the USA.

Cryptsy: how to lose $6 million

The operation of the cryptocurrency exchange Cryptsy ended in January 2016, also in a flop. According to the company, that was caused by a hacker’s attack that resulted in Cryptsy losing 13,000 bitcoins and almost 300,000 Litecoins (which equalled more than $6 million in January). However, in reality, the theft had happened eighteen months before – on 29 July 2014. The management of the exchange decided not to report the large cryptocurrency leak from the users’ “hot wallets”, hoping to recompense the stolen money with their own reserves.

But the exchange failed to make up for the loss. In October 2015, rumours began to spread regarding the hard financial situation of the platform: users started noticing problems when trying to remove their money from exchange wallets. But Cryptsy CEO Paul Vernon denied any financial difficulties faced by the company.

The exchange blamed the hacking on one of the platform’s developers, Lucky7Coin. However, some of the clients have a different opinion: they suspect the owner Paul Vernon and his ex-wife Lori Ann Nettles of removing the funds and cashing them out. Now they are involved in court proceedings in Florida.

The collective lawsuit to Vernon and his former spouse reads that the money removed from Cryptsy was cashed out and spent to buy a $1.5 mln villa on the Florida coast and an Infinity QX80. A temporary sale ban has been imposed on this property following the investors’ demand.

Bitcoin Foundation: the weakest link

Lost credibility – that is the situation the Bitcoin Foundation ended up in. Initially launched to spread the knowledge of cryptocurrencies and popularise bitcoin, the foundation was supposed to act as a link between the bitcoin community and the conventional industries and governmental bodies. But the practice has shown that companies can perfectly do it on their own without any help, while the fund’s monthly budget, as big as $150,000, would make for a modest crowdfunding campaign of an emerging cryptocurrency startup.

The financial position of the Bitcoin Foundation has got worse during the last eighteen months. First of all, the foundation has lost part of its funds due to the high volatility of bitcoin. Secondly, the inflow of the donations to the not-for-profit organisation by bitcoin companies has considerably dwindled. That happened due to the fund being increasingly accused of inefficient spending of its money. For instance, the community was outraged to learn that Board Member Patrick Murck had spent $12,000 to visit a seminar in London.

In October 2015, at a board meeting, it was announced that the organisation has funds only sufficient to operate until March 2016. The board members had to donate money from their own pocket: the head of the Foundation Bruce Fenton, as well as Board Members Bobby Lee and Brock Pierce, contributed $10,000 each. About $65,000 was also received from a miner who chose to remain unknown.

Still, the foundation has failed to return the main investment – the trust of the industry. The letter Fenton wrote in May in which he tried to encourage Bitcoin Core developers to enhance cooperation with the fund was scorned by the community. The Core team was not convinced either: Peter Todd noted that Bitcoin Foundation is not the organisation that people want to be associated with. “I personally would like to distance myself from it,” he added.

After Bruce Fenton quit his position of CEO, it was occupied by a South African venture investor Llew Claasen. He will have to make a difficult choice: whether to try and return the trust of the industry with more investments, or follow the advice of some bitcoin activists and shut down the organisation.

The DAO: the tragedy of “not-so-smart” contracts

For a long time, the community only preferred to talk about the advantages of decentralisation: resistance to fraudulent schemes, saving on intermediaries, a more transparent governance system where every participant has a voice that will never be ignored in the voting. True democracy.

Now we know what the ticket costs that brings you to this democratic paradise: $60 million. This is the sum lost by The Decentralised Autonomous Organisation (The DAO), albeit not completely, due to a loophole in the platform’s code. Earlier this year The DAO triumphantly raised about $150 million attracting investors by its innovative design.

The smart contract turned out to be not so smart: the fraudster managed to outsmart it and make use of a vulnerability in The DAO’s architecture. On 17 June, 3.6 million ethers were removed from the DAO’s main account, which at that moment equalled $60 million. Formally, though, the thief has done nothing illegal, it was not even a hack: he made use of a legitimate function provided by the smart contract itself.

Now Ethereum developers are hastily proposing various decisions: from “doing nothing” to temporarily freezing all the funds in The DAO (including those rescued and removed to safe accounts) and even calling off transactions in the whole Ethereum network. Although the latter can certainly return the funds, it will give the industry an irreparable reputational blow. One of the advantages of the blockchain – irreversibility – will be discredited. And whenever you allow yourself to pull back and change the name of the game, there will be always room for fraudsters.

 

Elena Platonova, Ludmila Brus