My story in Decrypt: “QuadrigaCX CEO traded millions in fake funds to fund luxury lifestyle, alleges trustee”

Ernst & Young released its fifth report of the monitor last night, and it was a doozy. I covered the report for Decrypt. If you have not read my story yet, check it out here.

The monitor’s report is 70 pages long, and I recommend finding a nice comfortable spot and reading all of it. It is page after page, paragraph after paragraph, of “What the hell?”

According to the report, from 2016 onwards, QuadrigaCX went completely off the rails. Gerald Cotten, the exchange’s now deceased CEO, appears to have had no interest in running a legitimate business. He treated customer funds like his own personal bank account—a bit like Bernie Madoff, only a lot more recklessly.

Cotten gambled with his customers’ money, went on lavish vacations, flew on private jets, and bought properties, an airplane, a yacht, whatever toys he wanted. Now most of the funds on the exchange are gone, and EY still has no clue as to where the cash proceeds went. The big question is, did Cotten really act alone?

Quadriga co-founder Michael Patryn is not mentioned in the report. According to what we know, he completely stepped away from the business in early 2016. After that, Cotten allegedly became a recluse and ran the business into the ground single handedly.

EY has also released a three-part (1, 2, 3) sixth monitor’s report detailing the costs of professional services related to Quadriga’s Companies’ Creditor Arrangement Act. Moving forward, EY is now the trustee in Quadriga’s bankruptcy proceedings.

# # #

Advertisements

“QuadrigaCX traders lost money on Cryptopia on the same day in January”—my first story for Decrypt

Screen Shot 2019-05-28 at 6.56.36 PM.pngI just had my first story published in Decrypt, and you should read it!

Some background — I had been getting a few direct messages from QuadrigaCX traders who also lost money on Cryptopia, the NZ-based altcoin factory that recently went kaput. This led me into researching Cryptopia and learning the two exchanges shared a few commonalities.

Oddly, the death of Quadriga CEO Gerald Cotten was announced on January 14, the exact same day Cryptopia was hacked. This could be a wild coincidence, but still, it’s weird.

Both companies were run by amateurs, both had dollar-pegged tokens—Quadriga used Quad Bucks and Cryptopia came up with the idea for NZDT on a lark—and they both experienced crippling banking issues.

The Canadian Imperial Bank of Canada froze accounts belonging to Quadriga’s third-party payment processor Costodian in January 2018. And ASB Bank closed Cryptopia’s NZDT account just weeks later—another weird coincidence.

More details in the article!

# # #

 

 

TalkGold — the ponzi forum where Quadriga’s Patryn and Cotten first met

Previously, I wrote that Quadriga cofounders Michael Patryn and the now-deceased Gerald Cotten worked together for a period at Midas Gold, a digital currency exchanger that ran from 2008 until May 2013, when it was pulled offline. Now, it appears their connections stretch back even further.

According to data posted by Reddit user QCXINT, the two business partners appear to have been active on TalkGold, a popular forum for pushing high-yield investment programs (HYIPs), as early as 2003. Likely, that is where they first met. Evidence also suggests the two were active on BlackHatWorld, a site for discussing dubious marketing strategies for websites. Cotten also appears to have been a ponzi operator himself. 

This is a long post, so here is a quick summary of what’s ahead:

  • Cotten likely began promoting ponzis in his teens.
  • He was posting on TalkGold under the username “Sceptre.” 
  • At the same time, Patryn posted on TalkGold as “Patryn.” 
  • Patryn and Sceptre joined TalkGold in 2003, within months of each other.
  • Patryn also posted as “Patryn” on MoneyMakerGroup and BlackHatWorld.
  • Sceptre first appeared on BlackHatWorld in 2012, but then changed his profile name to “Murdoch1337.” 
  • Sceptre posted as “Lucky-Invest” on TalkGold to promote a ponzi.

What is a high-yield investment program?

HYIP is just another way of saying ponzi. These schemes typically promise ridiculously high rates of returns. But behind the scenes, no real investment is taking place. The operator simply uses money coming in from new investors to pay off earlier ones, all the while skimming money off the top for him/herself. When the supply of new investors runs out, the scheme collapses.   

Screen Shot 2019-04-23 at 11.49.46 AM
Flimflam man Charles Ponzi, 1920.

Ponzis are nothing new. The name stems from Charles Ponzi, an Italian immigrant who defrauded tens of thousands of Bostonians out of $18 million in 1920. Ponzi went to jail, and when he got out, the US promptly deported him to Italy. New York financier Bernie Madoff ran a $65 billion ponzi, the largest in history. He was convicted in 2008.

In the early 2000s, the Internet and the advent of early centralized digital currencies, like e-gold and Liberty Reserve, saw a new wave of ponzis. Operators anonymously set up their storefronts online and used e-currencies to obscure the source and flow of funds.

HYIP operators rely on social media and referrals to create hype and make their offerings appear legitimate. Despite the red flags, many people still invest in HYIPs, thinking that if they get in early enough, they can make a buck.  

An entire subculture has proliferated around HYIPs. There are sites that track and monitor HYIPs, and forums, where people go to promote and learn more about HYIPs. There’s even an HYIP subreddit, in case you want to poke around. 

When an HYIP scheme collapses—and they always collapse—the collapse is generally blamed on a hack, a theft, or a bad investment—some type of external event that is plausibly at arm’s length from the operator. When that happens, the HYIP operator begins issuing “refunds”—in good faith, of course.

Some HYIP operators even go to the effort of setting up long-winded spreadsheets, and paying back dribs and drabs over months. Of course, the first people to get paid back are usually insiders or the operators themselves, under different names, who then loudly proclaim what a great guy the operator is, and how decent it is of him/her to spend all their time and effort refunding everyone.

The U.S. Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), the regulatory body charged with governing business between brokers, dealers and the investing public, writes that “virtually every HYIP we have seen bears hallmarks of fraud.”

TalkGold and MoneyMakerGroup

Starting in January 2003, TalkGold and sister site MoneyMakerGroup were two hugely popular Internet forums used to launch and promote HYIPs. The sites were pulled offline on August 21, 2017, a day after the U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ) filed an asset forfeiture complaint against Edward and Brian Krassenstein, the twin brothers that ran the sites. Homeland Security raided the twins’ Florida homes a month later.

According to BehindMLM, the DoJ docs read:

“Since at least 2003, Brian and Edward Krassenstein … have owned and operated websites devoted to the promotion of fraudulent HYIPs. In particular, the Krassenstein run sites ‘talkgold.com’ and ‘moneymakergroup.com’ are discussion forums in which HYIP operators advertise and promote their fraud schemes to potential victims.”

“Patryn” on TalkGold

Michael Patryn, formerly Omar Dhanani, was arrested in October 2004 on charges related to his involvement with Shadowcrew, a cybercrime message board. Operating under the pseudonym “Voleur,” French for thief, he offered Shadowcrew members an electronic money laundering service—wire him cash, and he would fund your e-gold account, thereby adding a layer of anonymity to any purchases you planned to make.

After the Shadowcrew bust, TalkGold users began to speculate that “Patryn,” a prolific poster on TalkGold, was Dhanani—and there is good reason to suspect that he was. 

“Patryn” joined TalkGold on April 3, 2003. His profile linked directly to VFS Network, a network for several digital currency exchangers, including Midas Gold, HD Money, and Triple Exchange—three that Patryn himself operated. VFS Network was also his business. (VFS stands for Voleur Financial Services.)

Screen Shot 2019-04-23 at 12.21.53 PM

If that is not enough evidence, “Patryn” openly admits on TalkGold that he operates Midas Gold. The business registration for Midas Gold also lists “Omar Patryn” (one of Patryn’s known aliases) as its sole director. 

Patryn also appears to have used the profile name “Patryn” on MoneyMakerGroup, with the same link to VFS Network. He joined MoneyMakerGroup on November 27, 2007, six months after he got out of a US federal prison, where he served 18 months related to his earlier Shadowcrew arrest.

Sceptre on TalkGold

Cotten was likely “Sceptre” on TalkGold. Sceptre joined TalkGold on July 4, 2003, three months after Patryn joined. Cotten would have been 15 or 16, at the time.  

TalkGold members were able to list “friends” on the site. A May 2013 archived profile page for Patryn shows that he had six friends—one of whom is Sceptre. Similarly, a May 2013 archived profile page for Sceptre shows he had one friend—“Patryn.”  

The two also interacted. Many of Sceptre’s TalkGold posts appear alongside Patryn’s in the same thread, either promoting or defending VFS Network, Midas Gold, or one of the other exchanges Patryn operated. (If you read my past article, there is also evidence to suggest that Cotten was the main operator for Midas Gold.)  

On December 7, 2009, when a user on TalkGold complains that he is having issues with Midas Gold, Sceptre replies, “I’ve never had any problems with M-Gold. They are usually very efficient.” Patryn follows on the same thread with, “M-Gold does not work during weekends. What is your order reference number? I will have it taken care of ASAP.”

On September 29, 2012, “Patryn” responds to someone complaining about Midas Gold keeping their money. (This was not unusual, by the way. There were many complaints about Midas Gold withholding customer funds. See here, here and here.)

“Patryn” writes:

“To the best of my knowledge, both of us have been responding to your emails. You sent me five emails yesterday demanding that I hurry up and resolve this issue. Your issue will be resolved ASAP. Unfortunately, I cannot force the banks to speed up their investigation process.”

In the same thread, Sceptre replies to “Patryn,” almost mocking the customer.

“lol, I’m surprised you’re willing to help him. You offer your dispute resolution for free, and he thanks you by spamming your inbox and complaining that you don’t reply while you’re sleeping.”

In September 2012, a poster asks, “I am looking for a LR Exchanger into HD-Money.” (Basically, the poster wants to convert one digital currency, Liberty Reserve, into another, without having to go through fiat). Sceptre replies, “For this type of trade I would use ecashworldcard.” Patryn follows by posting a link to his HD-Money site, which lists Ecash World Card as an offering.

Cotten and Patryn on BlackHatWorld

BlackHatWorld is a forum where people go to discuss “black hat” marketing tactics. Paid shilling (paying someone to promote your product on social media), negative SEO attacks (improving your SEO ranking by destroying your competitor’s) and gaming a search engine’s algorithm are all topics of discussion on this forum.

These tactics are generally used by Websites that only plan to stick around long enough to make a quick financial gain, which is exactly what HYIPs aim to do.

Someone going by “Patryn” was also active on BlackHatWorld. This person joined on September 6, 2012, and was last active on September 7, 2017. He only posted 9 messages.

Another poster—”Murdoch1337″—in BlackHatWorld, was much more active. He joined on February 12, 2012, and his last activity was January 8, 2017. This person appears to have previously been posting as Sceptre, and we believe this was Cotten. 

Screen Shot 2019-04-23 at 2.21.23 PM

(QXCINT also tells me that one of Cotten’s email accounts—g@mailhoose.com, which was tied to a number of Cotten’s domain registrations—has or had an active account on BlackHatWorld, but the method he used was too technical for me to confirm independently.)

Murdoch1337 appears as the original poster in a thread titled “Sceptre’s Spectacular Content Services!!! – $1.50 per 100 words”—an indication that Sceptre likely switched his profile name to Murdoch1337 sometime after he started the thread. He responds to other posters in the thread as if he is the one offering the content services. “That’s all the review copies for now,” he writes. “For everyone else, feel free to place your orders using the order info in my original post.”

On September 10, 2013, Murdoch1337 posts an ad for a developer to help him with an upcoming cryptocurrency exchange. In the ad, he writes:

“I am looking for a programmer who is familiar with Bitcoin to develop a website that is very similar to Bitstamp…Also, I’m looking to get this project built and online quickly, so if you are able to do it quickly, that is a bonus.”

This ad was posted three months before Quadriga launched in beta. The timing makes sense given that Quadriga was was based on WLOX, an open-source exchange solution available on Github, which would have dramatically reduced the time it took to create a functioning crypto exchange. Alex Hanin built the Quadriga platform, though it is not clear if Cotten actually recruited Hanin via this ad on BlackHatWorld.

An almost identical ad with the title “Bitstamp clone – Bitcoin trading project” was posted on Freelancer.com. The job poster, who was anonymous, had 38 projects on the site. He left a few telling details behind on one of the projects:

Hi

I’m looking for programmers who are knowledgeable when it comes to Bitcoin and I found you.

I have a number of projects that need work, including a new Bitcoin exchange. Are you able to build sites like this? If so, i’d like to get in touch

Thanks

Gerry

Skype: gerrywc

email: sceptre@countermail.com.

S&S Investments and Lucky Invest

One of Sceptre’s HYIPs was S&S Investments, a website that opened for business on January 1, 2004. (“Copyright @2004 Sceptre” is written at the bottom of the page.) He promotes the scheme as a way to double your money

“You invest a sum of money into the program and within 48 hours (usually within 18) you will receive a return of anything from 103% to 150%, possibly more.”

Screen Shot 2019-04-25 at 10.09.52 AM

He is sure to point out that this is “not what is called a ponzi or pyramid scheme.” It offers returns that are far better!  

In case the first offer sounded a little too far fetched, he changes the text later to something only slightly more believable. S&S now becomes a “fixed term investment,” which pays 115% in a week….”you can invest and walk away in profit after just 7 days!”

Screen Shot 2019-04-25 at 10.15.00 AM.png

Of course, S&S ultimately collapses, and discussion around it gets moved to the “Closed / Scammed Programs” section of TalkGold, where Sceptre continues to string along anxious investors, who continue to hold out hope for a “refund.” He writes:

“Refunds WILL take some time. I cannot guarantee that they will all be made quickly. The refund process is likely to spread over a long period of time, but I am willing to do my best to refund everyone to the best of my ability. Please be patient and you will receive a lovely surprise in your e-gold, a refund from S&S Investments,” Sceptre writes.

One TalkGold user reviewed what he considered to be the 12 biggest HYIP “scams” on TalkGold. This is what he wrote about S&S Investments:

“S&S Investments is an interesting program because it was operated by a ‘well known’ person in the HYIP arena. I use the quote marks, because this person was not well known at all, in fact he was very anonymous. No one knew his name, other than his nickname he used to post with, Sceptre. He used anonymous proxies, he was very well hidden. Yet because he had over 1000 posts on TalkGold, he earned a kind of pseudo-trust that people get from being very visible and always online.

Sceptre started off with a small little program that promised to pay back a large amount after a few days. It soon grew to become very, very popular, and it was not long before he upgraded to a fully automated script.

Sceptre wouldn’t tell people how he made the money, he just said that was his little secret. Virtually everyone invested into S&S Investments based on his post count on TalkGold. “He’s made a lot of posts on TalkGold, therefore he must be honest” seemed to be the general opinion of the investors.

S&S Investments went for sometime before cracks started to appear. First the website went offline, then was back again, but withdrawals weren’t being honoured, then the site went offline again. Finally, Sceptre made an announcement that S&S Investments were closed and refunds were to promised.

For a while, refunds did proceed, but then things started to dry up. Since the summer, no more refunds have been processed.

Hey, just because someone has thousands of posts on a forum, doesn’t mean he’s a trustworthy guy. Use your head, look at what the whole program is offering.”

In May 2004, Sceptre appears to switch to another TalkGold profile, “Lucky-Invest,” to promote a Lucky Invest HYIP. 

At one point in a thread, he apparently forgets to log out of Lucky-Invest and continues responding as if he were Sceptre, until another poster calls him out:

“You forgot to sign in as ‘sceptre’. ohhhhhhhhhhhhhh . .. looks like Lucky-Invest changed their message!!! . . . too funny!!! . .. did you get caught Sceptre??? hahaha ;)”

Sceptre/Lucky-Invest replies:

“I’m not trying to hide. Lucky Invest, the Newest Investment/Game. My profits go to help pay refunds. THIS IS A GAME, IT WILL NOT HAVE ANY REFUNDS.”

This is a straight out admission that Lucky Invest was not an actual investment. It was a “game,” in other words, a fraud. When you give me your money, it is mine. There are no refunds in this game, just me sharing my profits.

Knowing that Cotten and Patryn did business together on TalkGold does not tell us where the CA$250 million worth of crypto and fiat that was on Quadriga went. (Only a fraction of those funds have been recovered so far.) But it certainly does bring up questions, such as, was Cotten really just a starry-eyed Bitcoin libertarian? Or was he a seasoned con artist, who had no qualms about taking other people’s money?

Did you enjoy this story? Become a co-conspirator. Support me on Patreon.

 

Quadriga: Patryn, Cotten, and Midas Gold—a Liberty Reserve exchanger

Screen Shot 2019-04-09 at 5.18.37 PMThe now-defunct Canadian crypto exchange QuadrigaCX was founded in November 2013. Where did its co-founders Michael Patryn and the now-deceased Gerald Cotten first meet? Did they exchange pleasantries in the Toronto Bitcoin community? Did they meet online? Or did they have other prior business dealings?

New evidence uncovered by Reddit user “QCXINT” (he’ll be posting more on Reddit soon) suggests that Cotten appears to have been involved with Patryn at Midas Gold, a Liberty Reserve exchanger, set up by Patryn in 2008.

Patryn and Midas Gold

Patryn was formerly Omar Dhanania convicted felon who was arrested in connection with online identity theft ring Shadowcrew.com in October 2004. He was 20 at the time. Working out of his home in Southern California, he was a moderator on the forum. He also offered forum members an electronic money laundering service. Send him a Western Union money order and—for a fee of 10% of a transaction—he would filter your money through e-gold accounts. E-gold was an early centralized digital currency. Dhanani served 18 months in a US prison and was released in 2007.

After the US deported him back to Canada, Patryn picked up where he left off. In April 2008, he founded Midas Gold Exchange. He was listed as the company’s sole director under “Omar Patryn,” with a company address in Calgary—although, he was living in Montreal at the time. A few months earlier, the digital currency exchange service launched on M-Gold.com (Here is an archive of the site taken in its early days, and here is an archive showing an updated design taken just before things took a dive).

In January 5, 2008, the earliest entry on the website reads:

“We have finally launched this website, and are requesting that clients place all future orders through the Contact Us page. We have, of course, been in business since 2005 and hope to continue providing you with the same great service throughout the new year. Thank you once again for your business, and have a happy New Year!”

There are no names of actual people anywhere on the site. But an October 17, 2009 entry gives the impression that a whirl of activity is going on behind the scenes.

“We apologize for the delays experienced for many clients during the course of this week. We are currently undergoing a massive corporate restructuring. During this time, some exchange directions are temporarily disabled. All pending orders should be processed within one business day.”

Digital currencies listed on the site included E-Gold, HD-Money, WebMoney, WMZ E-Currency, AlterGold E-Currency. Midas Gold even started accepting bitcoin in June 2011, but Liberty Reserve was by far its main money maker.

How Liberty Reserve worked

A Costa Rica-based centralized digital currency service, Liberty Reserve was like PayPal for criminals. You could use it to anonymously transfer the system’s digital currency LR, worth $1 apiece,* to anyone who had an account on the system. The system served millions of users around the world before May 2013, when it was shut down by the U.S. government.

(*All dollars listed in this article are USD)

To set up an account on libertyreserve.com, all you needed was a valid email address. You could make up whatever fake, silly name you wanted, because the site had virtually no KYC/AML. It did not validate identities, and you could send huge amounts of money without anyone raising an eyebrow. 

You could not fund your Liberty Reserve account directly, however. If you wanted to buy LR, you had to go through a third-party exchanger, such as M-Gold. Conversely, if you wanted to redeem your LR for cash, you also had to go through an exchanger. 

LR exchangers would buy LRs in bulk and sell them in smaller quantities, typically charging a 5% transaction fee. This setup allowed Liberty Reserve to avoid collecting banking information on its users, which could leave a financial trail—exactly what criminals want to avoid when choosing a digital currency. 

Liberty Reserve went into operation in 2005. Eight years later, the system had more than 5.5 million users worldwide and processed a combined value of more than $8 billion. Most of that volume came from the U.S.

During 2009 to 2013, Liberty Reserve was in full swing. These were the sunshine days of criminal activity. A huge number of transactions were related to high-yield investment programs (HYIPs)—better known as ponzis schemes—credit card trafficking, stolen ID information and computer hacking.  

Cotten’s email

A data dump—in one of the court exhibits (see attachment #180 for GX 1305) related to the takedown of Liberty Reserve—shows that Midas Gold ranked 342 of the top 500 Liberty Reserve accounts in volume.

The name on the Midas Gold account is Omar Patryn, but the email address linked to it is geraldcotten@gmail.com. What does that mean? It means whoever owned that email had the authority to operate the Midas Gold account for Liberty Reserve. They could reset the password, enable or disable 2FA, and authorize transactions. 

The data indicates Midas Gold bought up more than $5 million worth of LR. At 5 percent of a transaction, that equates to profits of around $250,000—not a lot, but decent wages.

Screen Shot 2019-04-09 at 10.49.15 AM
Rank: 342, Category: Exchanger, Associated website: http://www.m-gold.com, All currencies: $5,221,489.02, LR: $5,081,353.88, Account name: Midas Gold Exchange, First name: Omar, Last name: Patryn, Email: geraldcotten@gmail.com

The email suggests that Cotten and Patryn may have worked at M-Gold.com together—though its not clear if Cotten was involved from the beginning or joined later. If anything, this could even suggest that Cotten had more control over Midas then Patryn.

Pause for a moment — if you were going to be involved in a dodgy business, why would you use an email address that directly pointed to you? I know I wouldn’t. If you are still wondering, “Was that really Cotten’s email?” The answer is, “Quite possibly—yes.”

We think this is his email because the person appears to have used that same email address for several domain registrations, including, cloakedninja.com, where you could buy proxy sites to hide your IP address, and celebritydaily.net, an entertainment news blog. A historical WHOIS data snapshot of these site reveals they both have a registration address of 346-1881 Steeles Ave W Toronto. Quadriga Fintech Solutions, the owner and operator of QuadrigaCX, is linked to the same address. 

Screen Shot 2019-04-09 at 3.56.21 PM.png

Patryn’s Liberty Reserve account

In addition to the Midas Gold account, Patryn had his own account on Liberty Reserve, but his account had no associated website. He appears to have had at least three other exchangers at the time—HD Money (archive) and E-cash World and Triple Exchange (archive). It’s possible he was selling LR through those sites as well as Midas Gold, and was just using the one account. Or Cotten could have operated Midas alone, while Patryn handled the other businesses.

Approximately $18.4 million worth of LR went through Patryn’s Liberty Reserve account. Of Liberty Reserve’s 500 largest accounts by volume, his ranked 88. If he took a 5 percent cut of every transaction, he would have amassed a healthy $920,000.

Screen Shot 2019-04-09 at 12.32.59 PM
Rank: 88, Category: Exchanger, Associated website: [field empty], All currencies: $18,653,708.71, LR: $18,416,444.50, Account type: Currency, First Name: Omar, Last Name: Patryn, email: admin@patryn.com
A passage from the court documents explains:

“Data obtained from Liberty Reserve’s servers reflects the extensive use of the company’s payment system by criminal websites. The Government analyzed the top 500 accounts by transaction volume, i.e. funds sent and received, to attempt to determine the type of activity associated with each account. The total transaction volume for these accounts is approximately $7.26 billion, or approximately 43% of the total volume of transactions on Liberty Reserve’s entire system.”

Also according to the analysis, of the top roughly 500 accounts, 44 percent were associated with exchangers, 18 percent could not be categorized, and the remaining 38 percent were categorized as follows:

“157 of the accounts, accounting for approximately $2.6 billion in transactions, were associated with some form of purported ‘investment’ opportunity. The vast majority of these accounts were linked to websites that, on their face, were clearly ponzi schemes, i.e., HYIPs. Others, at best, were associated with unregulated ‘forex’ (foreign currency trading) websites—which are likewise known to be prominent sources of fraud.”

Ruh Roh

Screen Shot 2019-04-09 at 12.57.29 AMGood things never seem to last, and in May 20, 2013, Liberty Reserve founder Arthur Budovsky was arrested in Spain for running a massive money laundering enterprise. Days later, the domain libertyreserve.com was seized.

Shortly afterward, US authorities seized more than 30 domains registered as Liberty Reserve exchangers in a civil forfeiture case, including M-Gold.com. According to court docs, “the defendant domain names were used to fund Liberty Reserve’s operations; without them, there would not have been money for Liberty Reserve to launder.” 

Following the shut down of Liberty Reserve, users were told to contact the court to recoup their lost funds—on the basis they were conducting legit business. According to court docs filed in April 2016: “Notwithstanding that Liberty Reserve had more than 5 million registered user accounts, only approximately 50 individuals have contacted the Southern District Court of New York since May 2013.” Most appeared to be victims of HYIPs and other scams. And only one Liberty Reserve exchanger contacted the court about a potential claim—and that claim was not pursued.

A few months after M-Gold.com was seized, QuadrigaCX launched in beta. The rest is history—or history in the making—depending how you look at it. 

Did you like this story? Please support my work on Patreon, so I can keep on doing it.

 

News: Quadriga’s law firm steps down, WB21 bullies another reporter, and Tether admits it’s running a fractional reserve

Travel has been a bit exhausting lately, but my talk on QuadrigaCX at the MPWR Crypto Mining Summit in Vancouver, B.C. went well. If anyone wants to learn more about the events leading to the collapse of Canada’s largest crypto exchange, I’m told the video should be up within 30 days. I’ll post as soon as it’s available.

I’m also quoted in a BBC radio documentary on Quadriga. David Gerard and Frances Coppola are in there, too. I’m available for more talks on Quadriga and Bitfinex/Tether. If you are interested, send me an email, so we can line something up. 

I depend on reader support for the work I do. If you benefit from my stories and the resources I make available for free, please take a minute to subscribe to my Patreon account. Every little bit counts.

Now onto the news—first Quadriga. 

Stewart McKelvey, the law firm representing Quadriga in its Companies’ Creditor Arrangement Act (CCAA) has withdrawn amid concerns of a conflict of interest. What’s weird is that nobody outside of Ernst & Young (EY), the the court-appointed monitor, knows what the “potential” conflict of interest is exactly. 

The firm was also representing the estate of dead Quadriga CEO Gerald Cotten and his wife Jennifer Robertson. In and of itself, that does not necessarily represent a conflict of interest. I mean, EY would have known about this from the beginning, right? But some new info appears to have surfaced. I suspect the details will emerge eventually. We just have to keep waiting for those monitor reports to come out. 

Screen Shot 2019-03-18 at 2.58.12 PMYou recall my story on WB21, the payment processor holding $9 million in Quadriga funds? It seems like every reporter who has written about WB21 has received some type of threat—usually, a legal threat. (My story was also followed by threats on social media and email.)

Now a reporter has come forward saying that after he wrote a story on WB21, a thug appeared at his door. Totally unrelated, I’m sure. 

I’m surprised more media outlets have not covered WB21 in relation to Quadriga. But I suspect that will change soon—after all, $9 million is no small change. What I still don’t get is why Quadriga did not do due diligence before partnering with the firm. The internet is littered with people claiming to have lost money on WB21. This is one more example of how irresponsibly Quadriga conducted its business.

EY should be coming out with a fourth monitor report soon. I’ll be curious to hear if they’ve gained access to Cotten’s AWS account, which contains the platform’s historical transaction data. According to court docs, the Quadriga database was backed up hourly. (You would expect a lot more frequent backups for an exchange handling hundreds of millions of dollars in customer funds.) Also, I’m curious to learn more about the role of Quadriga’s new chief restructuring officer—and what his hourly rate is. (I’m almost certain I’m in the wrong business.) And has the representative counsel pulled together a committee of jilted Quadriga users yet? Until that happens, they have no voice to represent.

In a written statement on March 13, Robertson said that Cotten had mixed his private funds with those of the exchange’s. She wrote: “While I had no direct knowledge of how Gerry operated the business, he told me that he had been putting his own money back into QCX to fund user withdrawals in 2018 while the CIBC money remained frozen.” 

This is not new information. Robertson already mentioned this in her first affidavit, filed with the court on January 31. “Gerry told me that he was advancing his own personal funds in order to ensure that payments were made to Quadriga users,” she wrote. I can’t say what this means, other than more sloppy bookkeeping for EY to sort out. 

Reddit users claim that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) is collecting info on Quadriga. “They are suspicious and are coordinating with the FBI,” Reddit user “u/e_z_p_z-” wrote in quoting someone on Telegram. I contacted RCMP to verify, but they were tight lipped on the matter. “The RCMP is aware of the allegations against QuadrigaCX. We will not be providing any further information,” a spokesperson told me.  

Amidst the backdrop of the Quadriga fiasco, two Canadian financial authorities have published a consultation paper. The Canadian Securities Administrators (CSA) and the Investment Industry Regulatory Organization of Canada (IIRO) are seeking input from the fintech community on how to shape regulatory requirements for crypto platforms. If you want to share your ideas, submissions are open until May 15.

I don’t think bitcoiners realize how broad of an impact the Quadriga mess will have on crypto markets. Exchanges are key to bitcoin’s liquidity, and exchanges need banking. If Canadian banks were leery of crypto-related funds in the past, now they will completely steer clear of the stuff. And my guess is regulators will do their utmost to make sure what happened at Quadriga (one guy managing gobs of other people’s money on his laptop from wherever he happened to be) never happens again—not on Canadian soil, at least.

In other crypto-exchange-related news, Tether, the company that issues the stablecoin of the same name, admitted that it is operating a fractional reserve. This has been widely suspected for a long time. Tether parted ways with its accountant in January 2018 (never a good sign), and it has never had a proper audit. Amazingly, despite this news, tether has not lost its peg and the price of bitcoin has remained unaffected.

David Gerard wrote a hysterical piece on Tether for DeCrypt“Every 24 hours, the entire $2 billion supply of tethers sloshes around 3.5 times, performing vital work for the market: completing the Barts on the price charts, burning the margin traders, and keeping the game of musical chairs going just that little bit longer,” he writes.

Bitfinex’ed, the pseudonymous tweeter and persistent critic of Bitfinex, unlocked his twitter account, so you can now retweet his tweets again.

[Read my Tether timeline to learn the full history of Tether and Bitfinex, the crypto exchange that it is linked to.]

Mark Karpeles, the former CEO of Mt. Gox, the Tokyo-based crypto exchange that went bust in 2014, was sentenced in Japan. Judges found him innocent of the major charges of embezzlement and breach of trust, but guilty of improper management of electronic funds. They gave him a suspended sentence of four years. Essentially, that means, as long as he stays out of trouble, he won’t go to jail and is a free man.

CBOE Futures Exchange (CFE), the first U.S. exchange to introduce a bitcoin futures product in December 2017, has decided to pull the plug on bitcoin futures trading.

Bitcoiners have long counted on a flood of institutional money to prop up the price of bitcoin—but it is just not happening. As the crypto markets began to tumble in 2018, CBOE saw scant trading volume on its bitcoin futures product. It also lost market share to Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) bitcoin futures, which launched the same month.

Trading volumes for bitcoin futures on both these exchanges pale in comparison to BitMEX, an unregulated exchange in Hong Kong, where you can gamble your bitcoin away at 100x leverage. (I wrote a story on BitMEX for The Block in January.)

More than six months since Intercontinental Exchange (ICE), the parent company of the New York Stock Exchange, revealed its plans for a bitcoin futures market, Bakkt is still awaiting regulatory approval.

Elsewhere, the bear market continues to take its toll on crypto exchanges.

Trading volumes on Coinbase are dropping precipitously. The Block estimates that the U.S.-based exchange will make less than half the amount on trading commissions in 2019 than it did the prior year—if market conditions remain the same.

To make up for that, Coinbase is raising some of its trading fees. It is also listing more coins, the latest being Stellar Lumens. Stellar was started by Ripple co-founder Jed McCaleb, with lumens aimed at being part of a low-cost payment network. A bit of history here: McCaleb was the creator of Mt. Gox, which he later sold to Karpeles.

Bithumb, the largest cryptocurrency exchange in South Korea, plans to shed 150 of its 310 employees, according to CoinDesk.

And Hong-Kong based crypto exchange Gatecoin (not to be confused with crypto payment processor CoinGate) is facing liquidation. The story of Gatecoin reads like a series of Mr. Bill episodes. (Terrible things always happened to Mr. Bill.) After losing $2 million worth of crypto to a hack in 2016, the exchange hopped from three different banks only to have its bank accounts frozen at every one of them. Gatecoin gave up on the traditional banking system and turned to an unnamed French-regulated payment processor in September 2018. The firm returned the favor by keeping a large portion of Gatecoin’s funds. Now, a court has ordered the exchange to shut down.

You have to wonder if there isn’t more to this story. Why was this exchange booted off so many different platforms? Who was the payment processor that kept its money?

 

Quadriga’s representative withdraws from CCAA hearings over ‘potential’ conflict of interest

Screen Shot 2019-03-15 at 10.14.59 PMStewart McKelvey, the law firm that has been representing Quadriga in its Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act (CCAA), is stepping down due to a “potential” conflict of interest.

Maurice Chiasson, a partner at the law firm, sent a letter to the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia on March 13. He explained that his firm was stepping down in response to concerns brought up by court-appointed monitor Ernst & Young.

Stewart McKelvey was representing both Quadriga in its CCAA hearing and the estate of the firm’s dead CEO, Gerald Cotten. The letter hints that new information has surfaced since February 5, when the hearings began.  

“We have been advised that the concerns regarding a potential conflict have arisen as a result of information, which has come to the attention of the monitor since the start of the CCAA process,” Chaisson said in the letter.  

He adds that, “Notwithstanding that no information has been disclosed, which provides a basis to conclude there has been or is the potential for conflict, we are of the view that the appropriate course in these circumstances is to withdraw from our representation of the application companies in the CCAA process effective immediately.”

The firm will continue to represent the estate of Jennifer Robertson, Cotten’s widow.

Chetan Phull, a Toronto lawyer, who specializes in crypto and blockchain, told me it is uncertain why Stewart McKelvey is not insisting that the conflict be disclosed. 

“It is even more curious why the firm believes the best course of action is to withdraw, without any evidence of a conflict or potential for conflict,” Phull said.

He noted that a conflict could arise from less obvious aspects of this case, such as whether Robertson breached a duty of care owed to the “corporate applicants” (meaning Quadriga CX) or a dispute with regard to how the firm’s legal fees should be paid.  

“At the end of the day, the letter is intentionally vague, probably to avoid raising issues that would prejudice the applicants,” Phull said.

Roughly $220 million CAD ($165 million USD) is still missing or unaccounted for after Quadriga became insolvent. Meanwhile, Robertson seems to have done okay. 

In a will signed weeks before his death on December 9, Cotten left an airplane, a yacht, and properties worth millions of dollars to his new bride. Robertson was also left in charge of Quadriga, since she inherited a large share of stock in the company.

Even while Quadriga users were experiencing delays in getting cash out of the exchange, Cotten and Robertson were buying up properties. Between mid-2016 and late-2018, the two bought 16 properties, worth $7.5 million CAD ($5.6 million USD), according to CBC.

Before Quadriga filed for creditor protection on January 31, Robertson removed Cotten’s name from the ownership of four Nova Scotia properties, took out collateral mortgages on all four and moved at least two of the properties into the Seaglass Trust, according to the Chronicle HeraldIt is not clear if Stewart McKelvey set up the trust.

Robertson is owed $300,000 CAD ($225,000 USD), which she put up to kick off the CCAA process. On March 5, the court deferred an order to pay her back.

 

Third EY monitor’s report on Quadriga reveals empty bitcoin cold wallets and a dribbling of new funds

Screen Shot 2019-03-02 at 3.33.35 PMErnst and Young (EY), the court-appointed monitor in Quadriga’s Companies’ Creditor Arrangement Act (CCAA), has filed its third report in Nova Scotia Supreme Court.

The defunct crypto exchange was holding $250 million CAD ($190 million USD) in crypto and fiat at the time it went bust. EY has been trying to track down any recoverable funds—and it’s not finding much.

The majority of the recoverable money will likely come from Quadriga’s third-party payment processors. The monitor has written to 10 known payment processors requesting they hand over any funds they are holding on behalf of Quadriga. (Previously, EY identified nine payment processors. Now it has added one more, though it does not reveal the name.) Here is the grim news: since its last report filed on February 20, EY has only recovered an additional $5,000 CAD ($3,800 USD) from the payment processors. 

This is in addition to the $30 million CAD ($23 million USD) EY has already recovered from the two payment processors Billerfy/Costodian and 1009926 B.C. Ltd. 

More money is out there, but getting at it may be tough. As I wrote earlier, WB21 is sitting on $12 million CAD ($9 million USD), which it is refusing to relinquish. EY notes that “further relief from the court may be necessary to secure funds and records from certain of the third party processors.”

So negligent was Quadriga in its bookkeeping that it appears to have lost track of some of its money altogether. EY located a Quadriga bank account at the Canadian credit union containing $245,000 CAD ($184,000 USD). The account had been frozen since 2017.  

EY also reached out to 14 other crypto exchanges looking for accounts that may have been opened by Quadriga or its dead CEO Gerald Cotten. EY did not name any of the exchanges, but four replied. One of them was holding a small amount of crypto on behalf of Quadriga, which it has handed over to EY.

I don’t know this for sure, but it is possible the exchange that returned the funds may have been Kraken. 

[Update: I was wrong. Kraken CEO Jesse Powell says, “Nothing recovered from Kraken. So far, we have not discovered any accounts/funds believed to belong to Quadriga.”]

Two thirds of the customer funds ($180 million CAD or $136 million USD) that Quadriga held at the time of its collapse were said have been in the form of crypto located in cold, or offline, wallets that only the exchange’s dead CEO had access to. However, it is looking more and more like those funds may have never existed. 

EY identified six cold wallet addresses that Quadriga used to store bitcoin in the past. Other than the sixth wallet, there have been no deposits into the identified bitcoin cold wallets since April 2018, except for the 104 bitcoin inadvertently transferred to one of them from Quadriga’s hot wallet on February 6, 2019. 

Post April 2018, the sixth wallet appears to have been used to receive bitcoin from another crypto exchange account and subsequently transfer the bitcoin to the Quadriga hot wallet. The sixth wallet is currently empty. The last transaction from the sixth wallet was initiated on December 3, 2018, days before Cotten died.

The monitor also identified three other potential Quadriga cold wallet addresses used to store cryptocurrency, but provided no detail.

Quadriga apparently created 14 fake accounts on its own exchange for trading fake funds. Deposits into some of the accounts “may have been artificially created and subsequently used for trading” on the platform, the report said.

A few other items in the monitor’s report caught my attention.  

Quadriga’s platform data is stored in the cloud on Amazon Web Services (AWS). But because the account was in Cotten’s personal name and not the company’s, EY is seeking a court order to authorize access. Here is where that gets weird: EY notes that there is possibly another AWS account in the name of Jose Reyes, the principal of Billerfy. Why would a payment processor need access to Quadriga’s transaction data?  

Also buried in the monitor’s report are signs EY may be getting frustrated in its dealings with Robertson and her stepfather Tom Beazley. They are the only two directors left at Quadriga. A third director, Jack Martel, resigned last month.

Recall that in her second affidavit, Robertson sought the appointment of a chief restructuring officer (CRO) for Quadriga. EY states that it “continues to see some benefit” of having someone independent of Robertson and Beazley making decisions at Quadriga.

The wording is careful, but the report goes on to say that in order for EY’s investigation “to proceed appropriately, without any conflict or appearance of any conflict,” EY needs to communicate with Quadriga “in an appropriate manner and at an appropriate time.”

Finally, less than one month in, the cost of Quadriga’s CCAA procedures now sits at $410,000 CAD ($309,000 USD).