News: QuadrigaCX has gone bust, Kik is fighting back, and Tether rose to 4th place, briefly

QuadrigaCX customers’ worst fears have come to pass. The Canadian exchange is officially insolvent, and all the crypto is gone—well, most of it anyway.

On January 31, after filing for creditor protection, Jennifer Robertson, the widow of the exchange’s now-deceased CEO Gerald Cotten, filed an affidavit with the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia. As it turns out, Cotten was the only person who held the keys to the exchange’s cold wallets—encrypted wallets where cryptocurrency is kept offline. When he died in December, all that crypto became inaccessible.

According to the affidavit, QuadrigaCX owes 115,000 customers some $250 million CAD ($190 million USD) in both crypto and fiat. Roughly $192 million CAD ($147 million USD) were in crypto assets, most of it in the cold wallets.

In addition to the lost crypto, $30 million CAD is currently held by payment processor Billerfy. Three other third-party payment processors are holding a combined $565,000 CAD. And another $9.2 million USD is stuck inside WB21—a money transfer service that, surprise, surprise, is being sued by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) for fraud.

But here is where things get strange. Two weeks before he died, Cotten signed a will leaving $100,000 CAD for his two dogs, according to the Globe and Mail (archive.)

I’m not insinuating any foul play here, but let’s go over what we have: Cotten and Robertson supposedly got married two months before his death. Cotten writes up a will to make sure his dogs are taken care of and Robertson takes ownership of 43% of the shares of Quadriga Fintech Solutions, the parent company of QuadrigaCX, should anything awful happen to him. Once that’s all said and done, something awful happens. Cotten goes off to India to help needy children (so nice of him) and dies.

Screen Shot 2019-02-03 at 7.47.19 AM

A month later, Robertson posts an announcement on the exchange’s website telling everyone the company’s CEO is dead. He was a kind, honest, upstanding, guy…after all, he sponsored an orphanage. And then later: Oh, and by the way, all the money is gone, because only Gerald knows where he put it.

[Update: A new twist to this plot may be developing. One Reddit user claims to have found the QuadrigaCX litecoin cold wallet addresses—and the funds appear to be on the move.] 

Elsewhere in the news, Canadian social media startup Kik plans to fight an expected SEC enforcement action over an initial coin offering (ICO). (Read my coverage here.) Kik raised $100 million in 2017 by selling its kin token. In a response to a Wells notice from the SEC, Kik argues that its token is a currency, therefore, it cannot be a security, and besides, the company never marketed kin as an investment anyway.

You could almost go along with that, as long as you completely ignored this 2017 Youtube video of Kik’s CEO Ted Livingston telling everyone how rich they could become if they owned kin. “We’re gonna put [kin] inside Kik and it will become super valuable on day one, we think.” Oops! (Read the full coverage in The Block.)

Two “professional hacking groups” are behind the majority of publicly reported hacks of crypto exchanges and other cryptocurrency organizations, according to a crypto crime report published by blockchain data analytics firm Chainalysis. The two nefarious groups so far have raked in $1 billion of hacking revenues for themselves. Of course, even thieves don’t keep their holdings in bitcoin. They converted everything to fiat.

If you thought SingularDTV was a dreadful name, the blockchain entertainment company has come up with something even more bad. SingularDTV has changed its name to Breaker. The company has a new logo, too—a circle comprised of small lines swirling inward meant to represent the “the hive mind,” a type of groupthink that decentralized projects like to associate themselves with.

Breaker owns Breaker Magazine, which changed its name to BreakerMag to avoid confusion. To go along with the new branding, Breaker (we’re talking about SinglarDTV now) also released a cringe-worthy video that starts with a man gyrating his hips and saying, “It’s like this,” and then devolves into a woman ripping a pink beauty mask off her face. As if the name change wasn’t awkward enough.

Nicholas Weaver, a researcher at International Computer Science Institute, gave a talk at Enigma, a USENIX conference, called “Cryptocurrency: Burn it with Fire!,” where he argued the entire cryptocurrency and blockchain space is effectively one big fraud. Here are the slides to the presentation. The video is not up yet, but Weaver gave a similar talk in April 2018. (It’s funny, watch it.)

For a brief period, tether (USDT), the stablecoin associated with the crypto exchange Bitfinex, rose to become the fourth largest crypto by market cap at $2 billion. It has dropped back down to sixth place now, but who knows, maybe it will rise up again. (Read my tether timeline to learn why tether is so important to crypto markets.)

Banking giant JP Morgan says bitcoin is now worth less than the cost to mine it. “The drop in Bitcoin prices from around $6,500 throughout much of October to below $4,000 now has increasingly pushed margins further and further negative for just about every region except low-cost Chinese miners,” the bank’s analysts said. (Bloomberg)

Despite all the hype, decentralized exchanges (DEX) are not attracting much interest. According to a report in Diar, DEX volume is at an all-time low—something that’s unlikely to change, mainly due to poor usability issues. Another reason to avoid DEXs:  anyone can list any token they like—even if it’s not a legitimate one.

Binance has come up with yet another harebrained business scheme. The Malta-based crypto exchange now allows customers to buy crypto using their credit cards. I can’t see this working out too well. Banks generally distance themselves from all things crypto, and many won’t allow you to put crypto on credit cards. And even if they do, weird things happen. US-based crypto exchange Coinbase no longer accepts credit cards, but when it did, Visa actually overcharged buyers—though, it did eventually issue refunds.

An Italian bankruptcy court found Francisco Firano (aka “Francisco the Bomber”) personally liable for $170 million in losses related to the BitGrail hack in April 2018. (Last year, I wrote a story about the hack for Bitcoin Magazine.) The BitGrail Victims Group posted scans of the court documents along with an explanation of the court’s decision on Medium.

In a big win for nocoiners, David Gerard, author of “Attack of the 50-foot Blockchain,” wrote a op-ed for The Block titled “The Buttcoin Standard: the problem with Bitcoin,” where he basically takes apart bitcoin and criticizes the horrendous energy waste of proof of work. Gerard’s article was solid. But just as you might expect, bitcoiners objected en masse, and even attacked The Block cofounder Mike Dudas.

Most of the criticisms were attempts to discredit the author and consisted of vague comments, such as “[Gerard’s] thought process is fundamentally broken at the protocol level,” “I was hoping for a more astute criticism,” and “terrible journalism!

Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak, who used to go around comparing bitcoin to digital gold, admits he sold all his bitcoin at its peak. “When it shot up high, I said I don’t want to be one of those people who watches and watches it and cares about the number. I don’t want that kind of care in my life,” he said at the Nordic Business Forum. “Part of my happiness is not to have worries, so I sold it all and just got rid of it.” (Satoshi Times)

And finally, the police department in Lawrence, Kansas has been getting reports of bad actors calling people up at random to demand bitcoin.

Social media startup Kik is kicking back—at the SEC

screen shot 2019-01-29 at 12.23.59 amKik is ready to go to battle. The Canadian social media startup has decided to take on the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). At issue is whether Kik’s digital token kin is a security.

Kik raised $47.5 million in September 2017 by selling kin in an initial coin offering, or ICO — though, Kik prefers to call it a token distribution event. That was after Kik pre-sold $50 million worth of kin to a group of 50 wealthy investors, mainly blockchain hedge funds. The presale was a simple agreement for future tokens, or SAFT, which is basically, a Reg D exemption, where the investors would get the tokens at some point in the future after things were up and running.

What is kin? On its website, Kik describes kin as a “digital currency” that you can use to “earn points for watching video ads, then use points for stickers and custom emojis.” Kin is different from other in-house loyalty points, because it “can be bought and sold for real money.” In other words, you could use it as a utility token in the Kik app and also trade it on crypto exchanges for other coins, like bitcoin and ether.

Kik initially announced its token sale in May 2017, four months ahead of its ICO. At the time, the company banned Canadians from taking part in its public sale, because the Ontario Securities Commission (OSC) had already deemed its token to be a security. But that didn’t stop Kik from opening its sale up to U.S. citizens.

Although Kik consulted with lawyers before its public ICO, as far as what I can read, it never actually reached out to the SEC for guidance. And it’s not like they weren’t given fair warning that this might pose a problem. 

By mid-2017, the SEC had already begun its crackdown on ICOs. Two months prior to Kik’s ICO, the regulator issued an investigative report concluding that tokens sold by the DAO (a decentralized investment fund that ran on Ethereum) were securities. That report was a cautionary tale to any other project thinking about raising money in an ICO. In a public statement at the time, the SEC said:

“We encourage market participants who are employing new technologies to form investment vehicles or distribute investment opportunities to consult with securities counsel to aid in their analysis of these issues and to contact our staff, as needed, for assistance in analyzing the application of the federal securities laws.” [Emphasis mine.]

But instead of proactively reaching out to the SEC, Kik waited to hear from them.

The SEC first contacted Kik two days after Kik’s token offering began. “It was a friendly contact for information, which we happily responded to,” Kik CEO Ted Livingston wrote in a blog post. But from there the conversations “ramped up,” and on November 16, 2018, the SEC sent Kik and the Kin Foundation a Wells notice—essentially, a letter stating that the regulator was about to bring an enforcement action against them. On December 7, Kik sent back a 31-page response.

As the SEC sees it, Kik is in violation of section 5 of the Securities Act of 1933, which states that it is illegal to sell securities unless you register with the SEC or else apply for an exemption, such a private placement, which limits a sale to accredited investors—in other words, those who know the risks and can survive the loss, if things go wrong. 

As mentioned, Kik’s private token sale was a Reg D exemption. (Here is the SEC filing from September 2017.) According to SEC rule 506 of Regulation D, purchasers receive “restricted securities,” meaning that the securities cannot be sold for at least six months to a year. Also, Reg D does not pre-empt something from being a security.  

In general, the problem with SAFTs is that, for various legal reasons (see SEC rule 144), even after the holding period, you can probably only sell your coins to other accredited investors. In other words, you cannot freely trade those coins on the secondary market. Obviously, that limits kin’s usability. It also makes kin not a very good currency, because you can’t actually buy and sell it for real money—at least not that easily.

The basic rule for determining wether something is a security is the “Howey test,” which states that a security is “an investment of money in a common enterprise with a reasonable expectation of profits to be derived from the entrepreneurial or managerial efforts of others.” In its response letter, Kik claims kin is not a security according to the Howey test, because Kik never marketed its ICO as an investment.

“Simply put, Kik did not offer or promote Kin as a passive investment opportunity. Doing so would have doomed the project, which could only succeed if Kin purchasers used Kin as a medium of exchange (rather than simply holding it as a passive investment). Accordingly, Kik marketed Kin, not as an investment opportunity, but rather as a way to participate in a fundamentally new way for consumers to access digital products and services, and for innovative developers, and their users, to be compensated for the value they provide.”

But Kik’s main rebuttal is that kin is a currency—so securities laws don’t apply.

Page 11 of the 1934 Securities Exchange Act says this:

“The term ‘‘security’’ means any note, stock, treasury stock, security future, security-based swap, bond, debenture, certificate of interest or participation in any profit-sharing agreement… but shall not include currency or any note, draft, bill of exchange, or banker’s acceptance which has a maturity at the time of issuance.”

Lawyers will have to debate how to define kin. But just as the SEC’s Munchee order in December 2017 made it clear that simply calling a token a “utility token” does not unmake it a security, calling a token a “cryptocurrency” may prove equality as futile—especially, if the token doesn’t actually work as a currency.