News: Bitmarket CEO turns up dead, Bitfinex to NYAG: ‘Yeah but no but,’ more weirdness from Tron

human-figure-outline-imprinted-on-grass-picture-id177395889It’s no fun when the money’s all gone. Two weeks after Polish crypto exchange Bitmarket shut down due to “lack of liquidity,” the lifeless body of its CEO, Tobiasz Niemir, turned up in the woods. It’s not clear if he fell in with shady characters or he put that bullet in his head all by himself.  

Here is an interview with Niemer done shortly before his death.

You remember BTC-e, the crypto exchange that was shut down in mid-2017? The U.S. is now suing the exchange and its operator Alexander Vinnik to recover penalties of $100 million imposed by FinCEN for allegedly violating the Bank Secrecy Act. Vinnik, a Russian national, is facing extradition requests from both the U.S. and Russia. (Here are the court docs.) 

Binance has been shilling its centralized BNB token. The crypto exchange regularly burns (destroys) large numbers of the token to increase the value of whatever is left. The BNB burn is “meaningless nonsense to fool suckers,” writes David Gerard. “Anyone taking Binance posts about BNB seriously as any sort of trading signal is dumb enough to trade literally any shitcoin they see, and probably deserves to.”

The hearing for Reggie Fowler, the AAF investor tied to Bitfinex’s missing $850 million, has been moved to December. (Here are the court docs.) Also, recall that he was released on $5 million bail secured by several pieces of cheap real estate and two financially responsible people. Who were his wealthy friends? A source tells me it was his ex-wife Lori Fowler and Molly Stark, the director of Spiral Volleyball, a company he owned. It pays to stay on good terms with your exes.

(Update Dec. 22: Lori Fowler and Molly Stark signed the court documents for his release.)

Bitfinex and Tether filed court docs arguing once again that they are not doing any business in New York and tether is not a security. (Here is Bitfinex counsel Stuart Hoegner’s affidavit and an accompanying memorandum of law submitted by the company’s outside counsel). It all boils down to “yeah, but, no, but yeah.” We’ll hear from the judge on Monday, July 29 as to what he thinks. 

Big whoops: Swedish crypto exchange Quickbit says it has leaked the data of 300,000 customers. According to the exchange, a third-party contractor left the data unprotected while upgrading on the exchange’s servers. 

Elsewere in cryptoland 

After bidding an astounding $4.5 million in a charity auction for the privilege to have lunch with billionaire Warren Buffet, Tron CEO Justin Sun cancelled last minute, claiming a bad case of kidney stones. But come to find out Sun’s been on the lam from China since November 2018. He is living in San Francisco now, which was where the lunch was supposed to have taken place. 

Sun was, however, feeling well enough to attend the Tron after-party on July 25, even though nothing actually happened before the party, since lunch was cancelled.

According to Chia founder Bram Cohen, Sun also forgot to make a scheduled payment as part of Tron’s mid-2018 acquisition of file sharing service BitTorrent. Someone needs to explain to Bram that kidney stones can take a lot out of a person.

In other news, the IRS is sending out scary letters to bitcoin holders, reminding them that they need to report any gains in crypto trading and pay their taxes. “Taxpayers should take these letters very seriously, IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig said. 

How did the IRS get all this info? Previously, a court ordered Coinbase to hand over the personal identifying information of customers who had transactions of $20,000 or more on the exchange between 2013 to 2015.

An MIT fellow thinks the structure of Facebook’s Libra was lifted verbatim from a paper that he and two other scholars published last year. What say you, Facebook? Are you stealing people’s ideas? It’s not like you’ve done anything like that in the past.

On the subject of Libra, one of the big selling points of the project was that it had 27 partners backing the project. But the CEO of Visa reminds us, no companies have officially joined yet. They’ve only signed non-binding letters of intent. 

Telegram is under the gun. The popular messaging service has sold $1.7 billion worth of its Gram tokens to investors. Now it needs to build a Gram wallet into Messenger by October or give all the money back — and we’re sure it doesn’t want to do that.  

Finally, Sergey Ivancheglo (aka “Come from Beyond”), the founder of IOTA and one of the project’s core developers, quit the IOTA Foundation. The two remaining directors are non-developers, but we’re sure they’ll handle everything just fine on their own. Nice bunch of people, really. 

 

News: Former Wex CEO arrested, CFTC probes BitMEX, Facebook’s Libra grilled in Washington

Since I’m now the editor of an ATM website, let’s start with bitcoin ATM news. LibertyX is adding 90 machines to its bitcoin ATM network. It now has over 1,000 machines.

Actually, these are not new machines. They are traditional cash ATMs that are bitcoin enabled. A software upgrade on the machines allows users to buy bitcoin with a debit card. The ATMs continue to dispense cash as well. 

According to CoinATM Radar, there are now 5,200 bitcoin ATM machines on this earth. Who the heck is using them? At least one operator, frustrated by a lack of business, has moved his Bitcoin ATM into his mother’s garage. 

In the exchange world —

Criminal in handcuffsDmitri Vasilev, the ex CEO of defunct crypto trading platform Wex, was arrested in Italy. Wex was a rebrand of BTC-e, an exchange that was shut down in 2017 for being a hub of criminal activity. BTC-e was also linked to the stolen bitcoin from Mt. Gox.  

Economist Nouriel Roubini — aka “Dr. Doom” — has stepped up his attack on crypto derivatives exchange BitMEX. In a scathing column in Project Syndicate, Roubini claims sources told him the exchange is being used daily for “money laundering on a massive scale by terrorists and other criminals from Russia, Iran, and elsewhere.” 

Days after Roubini’s column came out, Bloomberg reported that the CFTC was investigating whether BitMEX allowed Americans to trade on the platform. In fact, we know that crypto analyst Tone Vays, a New York resident, was trading on the platform until November 2018 when his account was terminated.

Regulators are cracking down on crypto exchanges. As The Block’s Larry Cermak points out, the situation is getting “quite serious.”

Elsewhere, Bitpoint, the Tokyo-based crypto exchange that was recently hacked, says it will fully refund victims in crypto, not cash. Roughly 50,000 users were impacted when $28 million worth of crypto vanished off the exchange. Two-thirds of the stolen funds belonged to customers of the exchange. 

U.S. crypto exchange Coinbase has killed off its loss-making crypto investment packages. After shutting down its crypto index fund due to a lack of interest, it closed its much ridiculed “Coinbase Bundle.” The product launched eight months ago with the aim of making it easy to purchase a market-weighted basket of cryptocurrencies. 

Malta-based Binance found itself $775,000 richer when it stumbled across nearly 10 million Stellar lumens (XLM). Turns out, the exchange had been accidentally staking (receiving dividends) on its customers lumens for almost a year. It’s planning to give the tokens away in an airdrop and will also add staking support for customers.  

Tether, the stablecoin issued by Bitfinex/Tether, is now running on Algorand, a new blockchain protocol. It’s also running on Omni, Ethereum, Tron and EOS. Presumably, running on a plethora of networks makes tether that much harder to shut down. It’s sort of like whack-a-mole. Try to take it off one network, and tether reappears on another. 

There are now officially more than $4 billion worth of tether sloshing around in the crypto markets. That number almost doubled when Tether inadvertently issued $5 billion unbacked tethers when it was helping Boston-based crypto exchange Poloniex transfer tethers from Omni to Tron. Oops.

Also interesting —

David Gerard is working on a book about the world’s worst initial coin offerings. He recently uncovered another cringe-worthy project. “Synthestech was an ICO to fund research into transmutation of elements, using cold fusion — turning copper into platinum. Literally, an ICO for alchemy. Turning your gold into their gold.” 

Facebook’s Libra had a busy week.

U.S. Secretary of Treasury Steven Mnuchin gave a press briefing on crypto at the White House. (Here’s the transcript.) He is concerned about the speculative nature of bitcoin. He’s also seriously worried Libra will be used for money laundering. He said the project has a long, long way to go, before he feels comfortable with it. 

Unlike bitcoin, which goes wildly up and down in price, Libra would have a stable value, because it would be pegged to a basket of major currencies, like the dollar, euro, and yen. Although, nobody is quite sure how that will work and what currencies it will be pegged to. Tether has a stable value, too, of course.

After his talk, Mnuchin flew off to Paris, where he met with finance ministers from six other powerful countries at the G7 summit. Everyone there agreed they need to push for the highest standards of regulation on Libra. 

Meanwhile, David Marcus, the head of the Libra project, got a grilling in Congress over privacy and trust issues. (You can watch the Senate hearing here and the House Financial Services Committee hearing here.) Nobody believes Facebook will keep its word on anything.

All of this is happening, of course, just after the social media giant got a $5 billion slap on the wrist for privacy violations following the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

The dumb tweet of the week award goes to Anthony Pompliano, co-founder of a digital asset fund Morgan Creek Digital, who says dollars aren’t moved digitally, they are moved electronically. For some reason, he has 250,000 followers on Twitter. The historic tweet even made it in FT Alphaville.

Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak has joined an energy-focused blockchain startup in Malta. The Mediterranean island nation is gung-ho about blockchain. It is also a haven for money laundering and the place where a female journalist who tried to expose government corruption was blown up in 2017. 

U.S authorities have charged former Silk Road narcotics vendor Hugh Brian Haney with money laundering. The darknet market was shut down in 2013. Special agents used blockchain analytics to track down Haney and seize $19 million worth of bitcoin. 

This clever young man has made a business out of helping crypto exchanges inflate their volume. 

ConsenSys founder Joseph Lubin is being sued by a former employee for $13 million. The employer is alleging fraud, breach of contract and unpaid profits.

Former bitcoin core developer Peter Todd is being sued for allegedly touching people inappropriately.

And finally, bitcoin ransomware Ryuk is steadily making its way into China.  

 

 

News: LEO getting pumped, Cryptopia scrambles to save its data, Poloniex says it’s stopped ignoring customers

This newsletter is reader supported. If you appreciate my work enough to buy me a beer or cup of coffee once a month, that’s all it costs to become a patron. I’m trying to pick up freelance gigs when I can, but one of the joys of writing for my own blog is I can write whatever I want, when I want. On to the news…

Bitfinex and LEO

Screen Shot 2019-05-29 at 5.43.17 PMUNIS SED LEO, the full name of Bitfinex’s shiny new utility token, is in its second week of trading. The price started at around $1, but it’s already climbed to a high of $1.52, according to CoinGecko. I’m sure the price increase is totally organic—not.

There are 1 billion LEO in circulation—660 million issued on Ethereum and 340 million issued on the EOS blockchain. 

Crypto Rank warns that 99.95% of LEO coins are owned by the top 100 holders. Also, Bitfinex still has not disclosed information about the investors. “We consider that the token can be manipulative,” Crypto Rank tweeted.

Given its $850 million shortfall, Bitfinex needs to pull in more money. It recently entered the initial exchange offering (IEO) business. IEOs are similar to initial coin offerings (ICOs), except that instead of handing you money directly to the token project, you give it to the exchange, which acts as a middleman and handles all of the due diligence.

Tethers

As the price of bitcoin goes up—at this moment, it is around $8,730—the number of tethers in circulation is going up, too. There are now more than $3 billion worth of tethers sloshing around in the crypto markets, pushing up the price of bitcoin.

Whale Alert says $25 million worth of tethers were taken out of the supply and put into the Tether Treasury. Kara Haas tells me, don’t worry, $150 million Ethereum-based tethers were just issued, and they more than make up for the difference.

Omni tethers, Ethereum tethers, Tron tethers. Tethers appear to be constantly coming and going, bouncing from one chain to another. It gets confusing. But maybe that is the point—to keep us confused. And to add to the jumble, tethers are now executing on EOS.

In the next couple of weeks, Tether is also planning to issue tethers on Blockstream’s federated sidechain Liquid. And later this year, the Lightning Network.

I updated my recent tether story to note that if you want to redeem your tethers via Tether, there is a minimum redemption of $100,000 worth—small detail. Also, I still haven’t found anyone who has actually redeemed their tethers.

Cryptopia’s data—held to ransom?

Cryptopia filed for liquidation on May 14. Liquidator Grant Thornton New Zealand is now scrambling to save the exchange’s data, held on servers hosted by PhoenixNAP in Arizona. The tech services wants $1.9 million to hand over the data.

Grant Thornton is worried Phoenix will erase the SQL database containing critical details of who owned what on the exchange. It filed for Chapter 15 and provisional relief in the Bankruptcy Court of the Southern District of New York. (Here is the motion.)

According to the motion, Cryptopia paid Phoenix for services through April. But when it offered to pay for May, Phoenix ended the service contract and “sought to extract” $1.9 million from the exchange. Grant Thornton says only $137,000 was due for the month of May. Phoenix also denied the liquidators access to the data.

On May 24, the court granted motion. (Here is the order.) Phoenix has to preserve the data for now, but Cryptopia has to pay $274,408 for May and June as security in the temporary restraining order. 

Meanwhile, Cryptopia liquidators’ first report is out. The New Zealand exchange owes 69 unsecured creditors $1.37 million (these are just the ones who have put in claims thus far) and secured creditors over $912,000, with an expected deficit of $1.63 million.

Turns out January 14, the day Cryptopia suffered its fatal hack was the exact same day Quadriga announced the death of its CEO Gerald Cotten, who, uh, had been dead since December 9. The two defunct exchanges had a few other things in common, which I outline in my first story for Decrypt.

Poloniex 

Living in Cambridge, I found it strange that nobody in the local blockchain community knew anyone who worked at Poloniex, based in Somerville, the next town over. I was told Polo staff kept a low profile for security reasons. But I also wonder if they were trying to avoid pissed off customers, whose inquiries they ignored for months.

When Circle acquired Polo in February 2018, it inherited 140,000 support tickets. Now, more than a year later, Circle says it’s all caught up. Polo’s customer support has been “completely transformed” and 95% of inquiries are now handled within 12 hours.

Coinbase

Yet another executive has left Coinbase, president and COO Asiff Hirji. This is the third C-level executive to leave the San Francisco crypto exchange this year.

Recently, Coinbase said it was offering a crypto debit card in the UK—a Visa with a direct link to your Coinbase wallet that lets you spend crypto anywhere Visa is accepted. Financial Time’s Izabella Kaminska thinks that could open a back door for dirty money.

Coinbase plans to add margin trading. Leveraged trading lets you supersize your trading power, because you are borrowing from the exchange, but it also supersizes your risk.

It is easy to understand why Coinbase would want to get a piece of the margin trading business. BitMEX has been reeling in the profits with its bitcoin derivative products. The company’s co-founder is now a billionaire who has so much money, he is giving it away.

Binance is also talking about putting margin trading on the menu.  

Elsewhere in cryptoland 

Kik, the messaging app that raised $100 million selling its kin token in 2017, thinks decades old securities laws need revamping. It wants to create a new Howey test.

The Canadian startup launched DefendCrypto.org, a crowdfunding effort to fight the SEC. It’s contributed $5 million in crypto, including its own kin token, toward the effort.

Ted Livingston, Kik’s CEO says there was no promise kin would go up in value, like a stock. But that is not what at all what he implied during a presale pitch.

Craig Wright, the self-proclaimed inventor of bitcoin, created a hoopla when he filed registrations for the bitcoin code and Satoshi white paper. Disagreements over the significance of the registration have spilled out into his Wikipedia page. Drive-by editors even tried to change Wright’s name to “Craig Steven Fart face.”

Taotao, a new crypto exchange is launching in Japan. It is fully licensed by the Financial Services Agency, the country’s financial watchdog, and it is 40% owned by Yahoo Japan.

As long as the price of bitcoin keeps going up, that is all that matters to bitcoiners. David Gerard delves into the origin of the phrase “Number go up.”

Geoff Goldberg, well-known for his battles against the relentless XRP armies, has been mass reported for calling out the bots that run rampant on twitter. No good deed goes unpunished, apparently. Twitter has effectively silenced him for seven days.

Finally, the Associated Press has a new entry on crypto—sorry, cryptocurrency.

# # #

Related stories:
Social media startup Kik is kicking back—at the SEC
Turns out, you can make money on horse manure, and tethers are worth just that
“QuadrigaCX traders lost money on Cryptopia on the same day in January”—my first story for Decrypt

 

 

Turns out, you can make money on horse manure, and tethers are worth just that

Screen Shot 2019-05-23 at 9.22.35 AM

Did you know, there is an actual business for horse manure?  

“It’s wild,” one horse farmer told Stable Management. “You can take this stuff that nobody wants and turn it into something of value.”  

You can do something similar in the crypto word. Shitexpress was a service that delivered horse poop anywhere in the world for bitcoin. Now, instead of sending actually poop, you can send tethers, a stablecoin issued by a company of the same name, Tether Limited.  

Tethers are a major source of liquidity in crypto markets. In lieu of the US dollar, you can use them to enter and exit positions in times of volatility. As such, tethers are responsible for the health and wellness of dozens of crypto exchanges, including Binance, Huobi, Bittrex, OKEx, Poloniex and others, that don’t have direct banking.

Inner workings

When Tether first entered the world in 2015, tethers were promised as an I.O.U. For years, Tether assured us that every tether was worth $1—as in, one actual US dollar that Tether had on hand that you could redeem your tethers for.  

Tether and its sister company Bitfinex, one of the largest crypto trading platforms by volume, are now being sued by the New York Attorney General. As court documents reveal more of the companies’ inner workings, people are asking: What are tethers worth? Is one tether worth a dollar? Less than a dollar? What can I get for my tethers?

For a while, the thinking was, well, maybe one tether is worth 74 cents, because in his first affidavit, filed on April 30, Stuart Hoegner, Bitfinex and Tether’s general counsel, said tethers were only 74% backed. In other words, Tether was operating a fractional reserve, kind of like a bank, but sans regulatory oversight or deposit insurance.

Tether updated its terms of service on February 26, to let you know tethers weren’t fully backed, but if you weren’t paying close attention—i.e., checking the Tether website every single day—you may have missed it. Tether says it can amend, change, or update its terms of service “at any time and without prior notice to you.”

Now, it’s looking like one tether is worth whatever someone gives you for it. If someone gives you bitcoin for a pile of tethers, hurray for you, that is the value of your tethers. If the person who got your tethers can pass them off to someone else for bitcoin, or another crypto of value, then yay for them! It’s called the greater fool theory, and, so far, it seems to be working—Tether is still trading on par with the dollar.   

But if you take those tethers to Tether, the company that, so far, has shoveled $3 billion worth of them onto the markets, and say, “Hey, can I redeem these for dollars, like you have been promising me all these years?,” they will most certainly tell you, “Sorry, no.”

Are you verified?

You can only redeem tethers under certain conditions, such as you bought loads of them directly from Tether—and you are not a US citizen.

In Hoegner’s recent affirmation, filed on May 21, he says you have to be a “verified” Tether customer to redeem tethers. 

“Only verified Tether customers are entitled to redeem tether from Tether for fiat on a 1:1 basis. There is no right of redemption from Tether on a 1:1 basis for any holders of tether who obtained the tokens on a secondary market platform and who are not verified Tether customers; on the contrary, such holders of tether have no relationship with Tether and are expressly precluded from redeeming tether on a 1:1 basis for Tether.”

In that paragraph, Hoegner reminds us three times—just to make sure we understand his point—that whoever you are and however you ended up with your tethers, the company is under no obligation to give you cash back for those tethers.

Per Tether’s terms of service, only those who bought tethers directly from Tether Limited—aka “validated users”—can redeem tethers. Anyone who got tethers on the “secondary market,” meaning, an exchange, is not able to redeem those tethers.

As court docs reveal, from November 2017 to December 2018, you could only buy tethers for cash directly from Bitfinex. Per Tether’s website, as of November 27, 2018, you could once again buy tethers directly from Tether. However, you have to buy a minimum of $100,0000 worth. According to Tether’s definition, Bitfinex is a secondary market.

Also, if you want to redeem tethers on Tether, you have to redeem a minimum of $100,000 worth at a time, and you can’t redeem more than once a week.

Further, if you live in the US, you have zero chance of ever redeeming your tethers for cash. Hoegner says that as of November 23, 2017, Tether ceased servicing customers in the US, and at this time, “no longer provides issues or redemption to any US customers.”

To summarize, if you are a US citizen holding a bag of tethers, Tether will give you nothing for them. If you acquired tether on Bitfinex or some other exchange, Tether owes you nothing. And if you don’t like that, too bad, because Tether also says in its terms that when you buy tethers, you waive any rights to “trial by jury or proceeding of any kind whatsoever.”

Wait, this doesn’t look like a dollar!

If you are one of the lucky few who purchased $100,000 or more worth of tethers via Tether’s website—and you are not a US citizen—and would like to redeem 100,000 or more of them, you may or may not get actual dollars back any time soon.

In its terms of service, Tether says it “reserves the right to delay redemption or withdrawal” of tether in the event of illiquidity—meaning, if they don’t happen to have cash on hand today. The company also says that it reserves the right to pay you “in-kind redemption of securities and other assets” held in its reserves.

Screen Shot 2019-05-27 at 12.06.21 PMBasically, that equates to, you could get shares of iFinex (Bitfinex and Tether’s parent company) or LEO tokens (a new token Bitfinex recently created) or whatever is in the soup bowl that day. And you may end up with something that has as much real world value as horse manure—just not as good for the roses.

Update (May 27): This story has been updated to reflect that if you buy or redeem tethers from Tether, you have to buy or redeem a minimum of $100,000 worth.

 

 

# # #

New York Supreme Court: Bitfinex may not touch Tether’s reserves for 90 days

Screen Shot 2019-05-16 at 8.30.44 PMBitfinex will not be able to dip into Tether’s reserves for 90 days, except to maintain normal business activities, according to a New York judge. The crypto exchange must also “promptly” hand over documents to the New York Attorney General (NYAG).

On May 16, New York Supreme court judge Joel M. Cohen granted Bitfinex’s motion to modify a preliminary injunction obtained by the NYAG. The judge called the original ruling vague, over broad, and not preliminary, meaning it lacked a specified time limit. He also held that the Martin Act—New York’s powerful anti-fraud law—“does not provide a roving mandate to regulate commercial activity.”

Decision and order

NYAG’s original petition consisted of two parts: a directive to Bitfinex and Tether to “produce evidence,” and a preliminary injunction to ensure that the respondents maintain a status quo while the NYAG’s investigation is ongoing.

In his 18-page decision and order, the judge granted the directive—Bitfinex and Tether still have to surrender documents—and agreed to modify the preliminary injunction, so as not to restrict the companies’ “ordinary business activities” any more than necessary.

The modified injunction spells out the following:

Tether cannot loan, extend credit or transfer assets—outside of its ordinary course of business—that would result in Bitfinex having claims on its reserves.  

(In an earlier letter to the court, iFinex, the parent company of Bitfinex and Tether, claims that Tether’s business model depends on it “making investments and asset purchases with the proceeds it derives from selling tethers.” Presumably, since this is an ordinary part of the company’s business, Tether can continue to invest its reserves, though it is not clear how it is investing the funds.)

Tether and Bitfinex cannot distribute or dividend any funds from Tether’s reserves to executives, employees, or agents of Bitfinex—except for payroll and normal payments to contractors and vendors.  

The companies are barred from destroying or altering any documents and communications, including material called for by the NYAG’s 2018 investigative subpoenas.  

If the NYAG wants to extend the 90-day injunction, two weeks before the injunction expires, it must submit a letter to the court. Bitfinex will then have seven days to submit a response. Based on that, the judge will decide whether to hold a hearing.

Victory, for now…

In a post on its website, Bitfinex revels in its victory. The exchange claims the NYAG sought the April 24 order “in bad faith” and vows to “vigorously defend” against the agency’s actions. Bitfinex adds that it remains committed to protecting its customers, its business, and its community against the NYAG’s “meritless claims.”

Most tether holders (the NYAG calls them “investors”) entered into their contracts under the assumption that tethers were fully backed. Each tether was supposedly worth $1—until late February, when Tether changed its terms without actually telling anyone.

Around the same time, Tether made a questionable loan to Bitfinex for $900 million. (Both companies are run by the same individuals, and the same people signed the agreement on either side.) Bitfinex has already dissipated $750 million of those funds. The remaining $150 million appear to be safe—at least for now.

To note, the investigation into whether Bitfinex violated the Martin Act is still ongoing. As a result of today’s ruling, Bitfinex still has to hand over documents and communications about its “business operations, relationships, customers, tax filings, and more.” The NYAG has been requesting those documents since November.

A transcript of the hearing is available here, courtesy of The Block. 

Update (May 19): I updated this story to clarify that there were two parts to NYAG’s original order. Additionally, I noted that Tether can still invest its reserves.

Update (May 21): I added a link to the full transcript of the hearing.

# # #

Related stories:
Bitfinex to NYAG: You have no authority! We did nothing wrong!
NYAG: Bitfinex needs to submit docs and stop dipping into Tether’s reserves
The curious case of Tether: a complete timeline of events

 

News: Money laundering in real time, Binance has you covered, maybe, and Bitfinex ready to IEO with LEO

A lot is going on in cryptoland right now—most of it involves investigations, a New York Attorney General (NYAG) lawsuit and missing funds, but I don’t want to sound negative.

The destiny of all crypto exchanges is to be hacked, apparently. Last year, thieves stole $950 million worth of cryptocurrency from exchanges. So, in many ways, it’s not surprising to hear that Binance, the largest crypto exchange by volume, got hacked a second time.

Binance, all funds SAFU

Thieves looted more than 7,000 BTC from Binance in a single transaction. The hackers, however, are not free yet! They still need to move that $41 million worth of BTC into fiat,  a feat that typically requires layering funds into smaller and smaller amounts (generally using a script of some sort), moving it through coin mixers, and then funneling it through various exchanges until they can exit into cash. 

Thanks to blockchain, we can watch this money laundering happen real time. The first transaction out of Binance consisted of of 44 outputs. The hackers have since consolidated the bitcoin into seven addresses of mostly amounts. Now we wait.

After the hack, Binance suspended all deposits and withdrawals for seven days. Traders on the platform can’t dump their bitcoin—or their tether. If bitcoin were to crash, they would be trapped. Fortunately, bitcoin is not crashing—it’s pumping. As I write, bitcoin is now at $6,800, having shot up $1,000 within a week.

According to one expert, the boost is partially due to “a rare alignment of celestial bodies forged in an ancient supernova”—thus, number go up. Makes total sense to me.

Binance says it has an insurance policy—its SAFU fund—to cover losses on the exchange. Nobody knows for certain what is in that fund, because there has never been an outside audit, but Binance’s CEO CZ says they have enough bitcoin to cover the losses. Phew!

In a recent blog post, CZ also said the exchange is revamping its security measures, including its 2FA, API and withdrawal validation processes. Also, withdrawals and deposits should resume “early next week.”

Bitfinex’s legal woes

If you need to get up to speed with the Bitfinex and Tether saga, I covered the NYAG lawsuit in my previous newsletter. Robert-Jan den Haan also wrote a complete timeline of Bitfinex’s history with its third-party payment processor Crypto Capital.

We have podcasts, too. I discuss the Bitfinex drama with Sasha Hodder on HodlCast, and Robert talks about it with Laura Shin on her Unconfirmed podcast.

In response to the NYAG’s court order, Bitfinex submitted a motion to vacate. The NYAG filed an opposition, and Bitfinex responded. At a hearing on May 6, New York Supreme Court judge Joel M. Cohen called the preliminary injunction “amorphous and endless.” The prelim will stand, but he is giving both parties a week to sort it out.

Bitcoin was selling at a 6% premium on Bitfinex—a sign that traders are willing to pay more to get rid of their tether and get their funds off the exchange. The price of bitcoin on the exchange was so off-kilter that CoinMarketCap, a website that aggregates bitcoin pricing from top exchanges, stopped pulling from Bitfinex.

The Bitfinex premium disappeared when Binance halted withdrawals on its platform, Larry Cermak doubts it has anything to do with Binance though. He thinks it’s because Bitfinex started processing cash withdrawals again.

Twitter user “Bitfinex’ed,” disagrees. When bitcoins and tethers are stuck on Binance,  that effectively reduces the supply and makes it that much easier to pump the market, he told me. He think prices will crash when Binance reopens withdrawals.

“I am lion, hear me roar”

Screen Shot 2019-05-10 at 9.39.37 PMBitfinex has a $851 million shortfall due to issues with Crypto Capital. How is it going to fix that? Here is an idea: Why not just print more money?

The exchange’s latest plan is a token sale, or exchange traded offering (ETO), on its own platform. It will be selling a new token LEO—as in lion.

Earlier this week, iFinex, the parent company of Bitfinex, released a white paper outlining the business proposition behind the token offering. Each LEO is worth 1 USDT, which is worth $1 USD. This is not the first time Bitfinex has issued a new token to pull itself out of a financial mess. (It created a BFX token after it was hacked in 2016.)

Bitfinex shareholder Dong Zhao told CoinDesk that iFinex has received hard and soft commitments of $1 billion for the token sale. Perfect. That should definitely eleviate all of Bitfinex’s money problems.

QuadrigaCX

Ernst & Young, the trustee for failed Canadian crypto exchange QuadrigaCX, released a preliminary report describing the company’s assets and liabilities. In a nut, Quadriga has US$21 million in assets, but owes creditors US$160 million.

Elsewhere

Recently, Negocie Coins, a crypto exchange that you probably have never heard of, rose to number three on CoinMarketCap’s top exchange’s list sorted by volume. How is this even possible? Clay Collins, founder of market data company Nomics, made a video, explaining how crypto exchanges use ticker stuffing and volume spamming to game the system.

FinCEN has released a new “interpretive  guidance” for money services businesses using cryptocurrency. If you are not sure if you are a money transmitter, David Gerard breaks it down for you. Sasha Hodder also covers the new guidance in Bitcoin Magazine. And there were several tweet storms—here, here, and here.

The FinCEN document has far reaching implications, such as, it appears Lightning Network (LN) operators qualify as money transmitters. Emin Gün Sirer says he is not surprised “given how similar LN is to hawala networks, and given the role hawala networks played in financing terrorism pre-9/11.”

The US banking committee is concerned about Facebook’s attempt at a cryptocurrency—Facebook coin—and how the social media giant is treating people’s’ financial information. It’s published an open letter with questions for Facebook.

Redditor u/BioBiro, who needed to acquire bitcoin for a totally legal purchase, complains about the rigamarole he had to go through. Among other things, “Now there’s two pictures of me and my driving license on their server for the rest of time, I guess.”

Consensus, CoinDesk’s big money maker conference, kicks off in New York next week. Last year it had 8,500 attendees, pulling in ~$17 million in ticket sales—and that’s before sponsorships. Arthur Hayes, CEO of bitcoin derivative exchange BitMEX, was one of several who rolled up to New York Hilton Midtown in a lambo.

# # #

My work is reader supported. If you’ve read this far, please consider becoming a patron

Bitfinex to NYAG: You have no authority! We did nothing wrong!

Screen Shot 2019-05-06 at 5.42.29 PMBitfinex has filed yet another rebuke to the New York Attorney General’s ex parte court order.

The April 24 order basically tells Bitfinex to submit documents and stop dipping into Tether’s reserves, which it has done, so far, to the tune of $750 million.

Bitfinex filed a motion to vacate or modify the order on May 3. On Friday, the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) opposed the motion. And on Sunday, Bitfinex filed a response to the opposition. The reply memorandum in further support of the motion to vacate or modify the order was filed by law firms Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP and Steptoe & Johnson LLP.

In the memo, Bitfinex argues that “nothing in the Attorney General’s opposition papers justifies the ex parte order having been issued in the first place.” It lists a bunch of reasons for this—essentially, a lot of “buts,” which equate to Bitfinex saying, “It wasn’t me, you can’t prove it, and anyway, nobody was harmed by the thing I totally didn’t do.”

Here is a summary—also, I am not a lawyer. 

But, tethers are not a securities!

The OAG claims Bitfinex violated the Martin Act, New York’s anti-fraud law, which grants the agency expansive powers to conduct investigations of securities fraud.

Bitfinex argues that the OAG did not even try to explain how tethers (the dollar-backed coins issued by Bitfinex’s affiliate Tether) qualify as securities or commodities in the first place. In its opposition, this is what the OAG did say, in a footnote:

“The Motion to Vacate wrongly suggests that an eventual Martin Act claim stands or falls on whether ‘tethers’ are securities or commodities. It does not. The Bitfinex trading platform transacts in both securities and commodities (like bitcoin), and is of course at the core of the fraudulent conduct set forth in OAG’s application.”

This looks like an attempt by Bitfinex to pull the OAG into the weeds, and the OAG is not going there. The fact that Bitfinex does trade in securities and commodities (the CFTC considers bitcoin a commodity, and the SEC considers most ICO tokens to be securities) is enough to bring Bitfinex under the OAG’s purview. ‘Nuff said. 

But, this is so disruptive!

The ex parte order is “hugely disruptive,” says Bitfinex, because it freezes $2.1 billion of Tether reserves—what’s currently left to back the 2.8 billion tethers in circulation—prohibiting any investment of any kind, for the indefinite future. 

In other words, Bitfinex feels like it can do whatever it wants with the cash that tether holders gave it for safe keeping. Tether works like an I.O.U., which means Bitfinex is supposed to hold onto that money for redemptions only.  

The big reason Bitfinex wants to bend the rules here is that it is desperate for cash to stay in operation. If it can’t get that cash from somewhere, the exchange is potentially in danger of running aground, or getting into even more trouble with regulators. At this point, Bitfinex is even trying to raise $1 billion in a token offering. 

But, we didn’t do anything wrong!

Bitfinex argues it has not committed fraud. It has taken hundreds of millions out of Tether’s reserves, but that is okay, because it updated Tether’s terms of service to make it clear that reserves could include loans to affiliates. What’s more, Bitfinex says it updated the terms before it drew a line of credit from Tether for $900 million.

(It has so far dissipated $750 million of that loan—which was signed by the same people on either side of the transaction—with access to another $150 million.)

In its memo, Bitfinex says:

“This disclosure gave anyone holding or considering buying tether the opportunity to take their money elsewhere if they chose, defeating any allegations of fraud.” 

In fact, Tether did update its terms of service on its website on February 26, 2019, but it did so silently. It was not until two weeks later, when someone inadvertently stumbled upon the change, that the news became public. In contrast, a bank would totally be expected to reveal such a move—at the very least, to its regulators.  

The OAG also claims that in mid-2018, Bitfinex failed to disclose the loss of $851 million related to Crypto Capital, an intermediary that the exchange was using to wire money to its customers. Bitfinex argues that, as a private company, it had “no duty to disclose its internal financial matters to customers.”

If Bitfinex were to go belly up all of a sudden, traders could potentially be out of their funds, but apparently, that is none of their business. Also, Bitfinex went beyond not disclosing the loss. It even lied about it, telling its customers that rumors of its insolvency were a “targeted campaign based on nothing but fiction.”  

The OAG’s opposition to Bitfinex’s move to vacate, literally has an entire section (see “Background”) that basically says, “We’ve caught these guys lying repeatedly, here are the lies,” which Bitfinex does not even address in its memo.

But, nobody has been harmed!

The OAG’s job is to protect the public, but Bitfinex says “there has been no harm to tether holders supposedly being defrauded, much less harm that is either ongoing or irreparable.” Particularly now, it says, after it made the details of its credit transaction—the one where it borrowed $900 million from Tether—fully public.  

“Holders of tether are doing so with eyes wide open,” Bitfinex says. “They may redeem at any time, and Tether has ample assets to honor those requests.”

Ample assets, that is, as long as everybody doesn’t ask for their money back all at once. Bitfinex’s general counsel Stuart Hoegner already stated in his affidavit, which accompanied the company’s move to vacate, that tethers are only 74% backed.  

Tether’s operation fits the definition of a fractional reserve system, which is what banks do, which is why banks have a lot of rules and also backing and deposit insurance.  

But, “the balance of equities favors Bitfinex and Tether!”

Bitfinex and Tether would be fine, if the OAG would just go away. The agency is doing more harm than good, Bitfinex argues. 

The exchange argues that a preliminary injunction would not protect anyone, but would instead cause “great disruption” to Bitfinex and Tether—”ultimately to the detriment of market participants on whose behalf the attorney general purports to be acting.”

It maintains that it needs access to Tether’s holdings because it needs the “liquidity for normal operations.” That is, Bitfinex admits it does not have enough cash on hand, without dipping into the reserves.

But, what’s good for Bitfinex is good for Tether. “For its part, Tether has a keen interest in ensuring that Bitfinex, as a dominant platform for Tether’s products and known affiliate, can operate as normal,” the company says. 

Besides, the OAG has no business “attempting to dictate how two private companies may deal with one another and deploy their funds,” says Bitfinex.

It maintains the OAG’s actions have actually done harm. In the weeks leading up the order, the crypto market was rallying after an extended downturn. In its court document, Bitfinex writes: 

“This rally was halted by this case, which resulted in an approximate loss of $10 billion across dozens of cryptocurrencies in one hour of the April 24, 2019 order becoming public.”

Not only that, but Bitfinex itself was harmed by the publicity brought on by the OAG’s lawsuit. The exchange says the balance of it cold wallets “have fallen sharply, an indication that customers have been drawing down their holdings.”

It is likely that Bitfinex is going to have to surrender the documents the OAG is asking for at some point—and that may be what it is trying to avoid. Its attempts to vacate the OAG’s order appears to be an effort to buy time, while it scrambles to figure out how to come up with the nearly $1 billion it needs to stay afloat—a token sale may be just the thing.

Update:

On May 6, New York Supreme Court judge Joel M. Cohen ruled that the OAG’s ex parte order should remain in effect, at least in part. However, he thinks the injunction is “amorphous and endless.” He gives the two parties a week to work out a compromise and submit new proposals for what the scope of the injunction should be.

On May 13, iFinex, the parent company of Bitfinex and Tether, submitted this letter and this proposed order to the court. Among other things, iFinex is asking for a 45-day limit on the injunction and to replace three paragraphs—one of which would allow Tether employees to get paid using Tether’s reserves.

For its part, the OAG submitted this letter and this proposed order. The OAG is not opposed to Tether’s employees being paid, but it wants Tether to to pay its employees using transaction fees—not reserves.

# # #

What happened next?
NY Supreme Court Judge: Bitfinex may not touch Tether’s reserves for 90 days

Related stories:
NYAG: Bitfinex needs to submit docs and stop dipping into Tether’s reserves
The curious case of Tether: a complete timeline of events

Was this material helpful to you? You can support my work by becoming a subscriber on Patreon for as little as $5 a month. It only takes a minute!

 

NYAG: Bitfinex needs to submit docs and stop dipping into Tether’s reserves

Screen Shot 2019-05-05 at 1.09.10 PMBitfinex was not happy with the New York Attorney General’s April 24 ex parte court order, which demanded that the crypto exchange stop dipping into Tether’s cash reserves and hand over documents that were requested in November 2018. It struck back with a strongly worded motion to vacate, or overturn the order.

On May 3, the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) submitted an opposition to that motion. The agency argues that Bitfinex violated the Martin Act, New York’s anti-fraud law, widely considered the most severe blue sky law in the country.

Legally, Tether and Bitfinex are separate entities, but they are managed by the same individuals. To note, the OAG’s order does not prohibit Bitfinex from operating. Nor does it prohibit Tether from issuing or redeeming tethers (USDT) for U.S. dollars.

The order simply prohibits Bitfinex from helping itself to anymore of Tether’s funds. This, of course, poses a problem for Bitfinex, because it desperately needs cash to stay afloat. (It’s latest effort to fill the gap is a token sale, but that is another matter.)

There are currently 2.8 billion USDT in circulation, and each of them is supposed to be backed 1:1 with the dollar, but as of now, they are only 74% backed.

The alleged fraud

The OAG began investigating Bitfinex late last year. If there is any question as to how Bitfinex allegedly committed fraud and misled its customers, the OAG spells that out clearly in its memorandum. I’m paraphrasing some this. 

Bitfinex failed to disclose to its clients that it had lost $851 million of “wrongfully commingled” client and corporate funds to Crypto Capital, an overseas entity, which it used as an intermediary to wire US dollars to traders on its platform.

Bitfinex knew in mid-to-late 2018 that Crypto Capital’s inability—or unwillingness—to return the funds meant it would have problems filling out client requests to withdraw cash off the exchange. Nevertheless, it told the public that rumors of insolvency were a “targeted campaign based on nothing but fiction.”  

In November 2018, Bitfinex tried to cover up the loss by moving (at least) $625 million from Tether’s legitimate bank account into Bitfinex’s account. In return, Bitfinex “credited” $625 million to Tether’s accounts with Crypto Capital. OAG says the credit was “illusory,” because the money at Crypto Capital was lost or inaccessible.

(In its motion to vacate, the OAG notes that Bitfinex contradicted itself by saying the “credit” Bitfinex gave to Tether was $675 million—a $50 million discrepancy.)

Bitfinex later shifted to a new strategy. It engaged in “an undisclosed and conflicted transaction” to let Bitfinex dip even further into Tether’s reserves. The exchange took out a $900 million loan from Tether, secured by shares of iFinex—the parent company of both Tether and Bitfinex. OAG says there is little reason to believe the iFinex shares have any real value, especially in the event iFinex itself defaults.

In March 2019, $900 million represented almost half Tether’s available reserves at the time, but Bitfinex and Tether did not disclose this to its customers. In fact, up until February 2019, Tether telling its customers that USDT was fully backed. Bitfinex told the OAG that it has already dissipated $750 million of Tether’s funds.

Bitfinex demonstrates “a pattern of undisclosed, conflicted, and deceptive conduct” that its customers would “find material, and indeed, essential to buying tethers and trading assets, like bitcoin, on the Bitfinex platform,” the OAG said.

In its motion to vacate, Bitfinex argues that the Martin Act stands or falls on whether tethers are securities or commodities. It does not, the OAG says. In fact:

“The Bitfinex trading platform transacts in both securities and commodities (like bitcoin) and is of course at the core of the fraudulent conduct set forth in the OAG’s application.”

Related events

The OAG points to other events that underscore the need to maintain the status quo.

Since the original order, two individuals, Reginald Fowler and Ravid Yosef, were charged with bank fraud in connection with their operation of a “shadow bank.” Fowler was arrested on April 30, while Yosef is still at large.

The operation processed hundreds of millions of dollars of unregulated transactions on behalf of numerous cryptocurrency exchanges and associated entities—“several of which,” the OAG says, are at the center of its own investigation. 

This appears to indicate the OAG’s is looking into other exchanges, which makes sense, given it sent out a questionnaire to more than a dozen cryptocurrency exchanges in April 2018, requesting they disclose key information about their operations.

While the OAG does not specifically state that the “shadow bank” is Crypto Capital, it points to the Memorandum in Support of Detention of Fowler, which said that companies associated with Fowler “failed to return $851 million to a client of the Defendant’s shadow bank.” 

The OAG’s investigation is still ongoing.

# # # 

 

News: More Bitfinex drama, Crypto Capital, a dodgy football businessman and a relationship coach

There is so much going on now with Bitfinex. My eyes are burning and my head hurts from reading piles of court docs. Here is a rundown of all the latest—and then some.

The New York Attorney General (NYAG) is suing Bitfinex and Tether, saying tethers (USDT) are not fully backed—after $850 million funneled through third-party payment processor Crypto Capital has gone missing.  

Screen Shot 2019-05-04 at 2.10.08 PMIt’s still not clear where all that money went. Bitfinex says the funds were “seized and safeguarded” by government authorities in Portugal, Poland and the U.S. The NYAG says the money was lost. It wants Bitfinex to stop dipping into Tether’s reserves and to handover a mountain of documents.

In response to the NYAG’s ex parte order, Tether general counsel Stuart Hoegner filed an affidavit accompanied by a motion to vacate from outside counsel Zoe Phillips of Morgan Lewis. Hoegner admits $2.8 billion worth of tethers are only 74% backed, but claims “Tether is not at risk.” Morgan says New York has no jurisdiction over Tether or Bitfinex. Meanwhile, the NYAG has filed an opposition. It wants Bitfinex to stop messing around.

Football businessman Reggie Fowler and “co-conspirator” Ravid Yosef were charged with running a “shadow banking” service for crypto exchanges. This all loops back to Crypto Capital, which Bitfinex and Tether were using to solve their banking woes.    

In an odd twist, the cryptocurrency saga is crossing over into the sports world. Fowler was the original main investor in the Alliance of American Football (AAF), an attempt to create a new football league. The league filed for bankruptcy last month—after Fowler was unable to deliver, because the DoJ had frozen his bank accounts last fall.  

The US government thinks Fowler is a flight risk and wants him held without bail. The FBI has also found a “Master US Workbook,” detailing the operations of a massive “cryptocurrency scheme.” They found it with email subpoenas, which sounds like it was being kept on a Google Drive?

Yosef is still at large. She appears to have split her time between Tel Aviv and Los Angeles. This is her LinkedIn profile. She works as a relationship coach and looks to be the sister of Crypto Capital’s Oz Yosef (aka “Ozzie Joseph”), who was likely the “Oz” chatting with “Merlin” documented in NYAG’s suit against Bitfinex.  

All eyes are on Tether right now. Bloomberg reveals the Commodity and Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) has been investigating whether Tether actually had a stockpile of cash to support the currency. The DoJ is also looking into issues raised by the NYAG.

Meanwhile, bitcoin is selling for a $300 to $400 premium on Bitfinex — a sign that traders are willing to pay more for bitcoin, so they can dump their tethers and get their funds off the exchange. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen this sort of thing. Bitcoin sold at a premium on Mt. Gox and QuadrigaCX before those exchanges collapsed.

Bitfinex is still in the ring, but it needs cash. The exchange is now trying to cover its Tether shortfalls by raising money via—of all things—a token sale. It plans to raise $1 billion in an initial exchange offering (IEO) by selling its LEO token. CoinDesk wrote a story on it, and even linked to my Tether timeline.

Did a sex-trafficking site sparked the Crypto Capital investigation? Also, Decrypt’s Tim Copeland takes a look at the payment processor’s dark past.

Tether wants to move tethers from Omni to the Tron blockchain. Tron planned to offer a 20% incentive to Omni USDT holders to convert to Tron USDT on Huobi and OkEx exchanges. But given the “recent news” about Bitfinex and Tether, it is delaying the rewards program.  

Kara Haas has an article on AccountingWeb and a Twitter thread on the potential accounting implications of Tether’s definition of “reserves.”

Coinbase is bidding adieu to yet another executive. Earn.com founder Balaji Srinivasan, who served as the exchange’s CTO for a year, is leaving. It looks like his departure comes after he served the minimum agreed period with Coinbase. 

Elsewhere, BreakerMag is shutting down. The crypto publication had a lot of good stories in its short life, including this unforgettable one by Laurie Penny, who survived a bitcoin cruise to tell about it. David Gerard wrote an obituary for the magazine.

The Los Angeles Ballet is suing MovieCoin, accusing the film finance startup of trying to pay a $200,000 pledge in worthless tokens—you can’t run a ballet on shit coins.

Police in Germany and Finland have shut down two dark markets, Wall Street Market and Valhalla. And a mystery Git ransomware is wiping Git repository commits and replacing them with a ransom note demanding Bitcoin, as this Redditor details.

# # #

 

US Government wants man at center of massive ‘cryptocurrency scheme’ held without bail

The U.S. government wants a football businessman linked to an investigation into $850 million of missing Tether and Bitfinex funds to be held without bail.

According to a memorandum in support of detention filed with the District Court of Arizona on May 1, Reginald Fowler poses a serious flight risk due to his overseas connections and access to hundreds of millions of dollars.

The court doc also presents startling new twists in an already tangled plot—a “Master US Workbook,” which details the financial operations of the “cryptocurrency scheme,” fake bond certificates worth billions of dollars, and a counterfeit money operation.

Reggie Fowler

Screen Shot 2019-05-02 at 1.33.58 PMFowler, 60, is a football businessman. He was a former co-owner of the Minnesota Vikings and the original main investor in the Alliance of American Football (AAF)—an attempt to form a new football league. The AAF collapsed when Fowler withdrew funding—after the Department of Justice froze his bank accounts in late 2018.

I did a search on Pacer and got a number of hits showing Fowler has been in and out of courts for years. In fact, in 2005, ESPN reported that he had been sued 36 times.

Most recently, Fowler was charged with bank fraud and operating an unlicensed money services business (MSB). These crimes relate to his alleged involvement in a “shadow bank” on behalf of cryptocurrency exchanges, in which hundreds of millions of dollars passed through accounts that he controlled in jurisdictions around the world. 

Fowler operated Global Trading Solutions LLC in the US, which provided services for Global Trade Solutions AG, the Zug, Switzerland-based parent company of Crypto Capital Corp, a third-party payment processor. At one time or another, Crypto Capital serviced QuadrigaCX, Bitfinex, Kraken, Binance, and BitMEX—some of the top crypto exchanges.

In October and November 2018, five US bank accounts were frozen—three of them were Fowler’s personal accounts and two were held under Global Trading Solutions. On April 11, Fowler was indicted in the Southern District of New York. And on April 30, he was arrested in Chandler, Arizona, where he lives. 

Fowler is looking at spending the rest of his life in prison—the bank fraud counts alone carry a maximum sentence of 30 years. 

The cryptocurrency scheme was not limited to the US. Fowler set up bank accounts around the world and coordinated the scheme with co-conspirators in Israel, Switzerland, and Canada. The scheme involves a “staggering amount of money,” and the government believes that Fowler still has access to overseas bank accounts.  

Master US Workbook

Even more revealing, via email search warrants, the government has obtained a document entitled “Master US Workbook,” which details the operations of the scheme. The workbook lists 60 bank accounts. It shows the scheme received over $740 million in 2018 alone. As of January 2019, the combined bank balance was $345 million. Approximately $50 million is held in US accounts. The rest is located overseas. 

Apparently, Fowler had “shown a willingness to help himself to these funds in the past.” In mid-2018, he sent $60 million from scheme accounts to his personal bank accounts. Scheme members set up a “10% fund” from client deposits, available for his personal use. The government does not know the location of those accounts.

After Fowler’s bank accounts were seized in October 2018, he agreed to cooperate with FBI agents and keep the investigation confidential, which he did not do. When agents sent him emails, he would share those with other scheme members.  

Other illegal activity

Fowler appears to have been involved with other illegal activities, such as wire fraud related to the 10% fund. He also tried to take out loans by presenting banks with fraudulent bond certificates worth billions of dollars. 

Even more shocking, FBI agents also found evidence that Fowler was involved in a counterfeit money operation. They found $14,000 in fake bills consisting of sheets of $100 bills in a filing cabinet in his Chandler, Arizona office.

After examining the sheets, a special agent for the US Secret Service “determined that they were undergoing a process common in counterfeiting schemes to turn paper bills into passable currency. In fact, the FBI also recovered black carbon paper from the office, which is often used as part of this process for making believable counterfeit bills.”

# # #

 

New York Attorney General: Bitfinex is hiding $850 million in losses

Screen Shot 2019-04-26 at 7.04.55 AMAccording to an April 24 court filing, New York State Attorney General Letitia James has alleged that crypto exchange Bitfinex lost $850 million and then tried to pull the wool over people’s eyes by dipping into Tether’s reserves.  

Tether issues a dollar-pegged stable coin of the same name. According to the Office of the Attorney General (OAG), Bitfinex has so far siphoned $700 million from Tether funds, meaning that tethers are not fully backed. Given that tether is an essential source of liquidity in the crypto markets—currently, there are 2.8 billion tethers in circulation—this is not good news for bitcoin. 

I’ve updated my Bitfinex/Tether timeline to bring you up to speed on the full history of these companies’ past shenanigans. Bitfinex and Tether are operated by the same individuals, and their parent company is Hong-Kong based iFinex. I recommend reading  the entire 23-page court document. It reveals a lot about what has been going on under the covers at Tether/Bitfinex. I’ll try and summarize.

What happened

Bitfinex was allowing people from New York to trade on its platform. This is not supposed to happen. Effective August 8, 2015, any virtual currency company that wants to do business in New York State needs to have a BitLicense. This led the OAG to launch an investigation into Bitfinex and Tether in 2018.

Banking has been an ongoing struggle for Bitfinex since April 2017, when it was cut off by correspondent bank Wells Fargo and its main banks in Taiwan. At different periods, Bitfinex has turned to Puerto Rico’s Noble Bank, Bahamas’ Deltec Bank, and more recently, HSBC, through a private account with Global Trading Solutions LLC.   

Meanwhile, Bitfinex and Tether have had to rely on third-party payment processors to handle customer fiat deposits and withdrawals—a fact that the companies have never been completely up front about.

Since 2014, Bitfinex has sent $1 billion through Panama-based Crypto Capital Corp. Bitfinex also told the OAG that it had used a number of other third-party payment processors, including “various companies owned by Bitfinex/Tether executives,” as well as other “friends of Bitfinex” — meaning human-being friends of Bitfinex employees willing to use their bank accounts to transfer money to Bitfinex clients.

This is basically Bitfinex setting up shell companies and playing cat and mouse with the banks—and it sounds an awful lot like what Canadian crypto exchange QuadrigaCX was doing before it went belly up in January. (Quadriga also used Crypto Capital, but the payment processor is not holding any Quadriga funds.)

By mid-2018 Bitfinex customers were complaining they were unable to withdraw fiat from the exchange. This is apparently because Crypto Capital, which held “all or almost all” of Bitfinex funds, failed to process customer withdrawal requests. Crypto Capital told Bitfinex that the reason the $851 million could not be returned was because the funds were seized by government authorities in Portugal, Poland and the U.S.

Bitfinex did not believe this explanation. “Based on statements made by counsel for Respondents to AG attorneys… Respondents do not believe Crypto Capital’s representations that the funds have been seized,” the court document states.

(This is not in the court docs, but this is the letter Crypto Capital shared with its customers in December 2018. Global Trade Solutions AGnot the same company as Global Trading Solutions LLC—is the parent company of Crypto Capital.)

In communication logs from April 2018 to early 2019 shared with the OAG, a senior Bitfinex executive “Merlin” repeatedly beseeched an individual at Crypto Capital, “Oz,” to return funds. Merlin writes: “Please understand, all this could be extremely dangerous for everybody, the entire crypto community. BTC could tank to below $1K if we don’t act quickly.” A Crypto Capital customer that asked not to be named told me that Merlin is Bitfinex CFO Giancarlo Devasini

Borrowing money from Tether

Rather then admit it was insolvent, Bitfinex/Tether tried to cover up the problem. According to the court docs, in November 2018, Tether transferred $625 million in an account at Deltec in the Bahamas to Bitfinex. In return, Bitfinex caused $625 million to be transferred from an account at Crypto Capital to Tether’s Crypto Capital account.

Essentially, Bitfinex tries to create the money by doing a one-for-one transfer of real money at Deltec for funds that don’t actually exist at Crypto Capital. Once they realized that this was probably a terrible idea, they re-papered the transfer as a loan.

Bitfinex then borrowed $900 million from its Tether bank accounts. The loan is secured with shares in iFinex stock. In case you didn’t quite follow that, Bitfinex and Tether are basically the same company, so you can think of this as Bitfinex borrowing money from itself—and then backing the loan with shares of itself.

According to the OAG, “The transaction documents were signed on behalf of Bitfinex and Tether by the same two individuals.”

OAG is fed up with the nonsense. It has obtained a court order against iFinex. Under the court order, Bitfinex and Tether are to cease making any claim to the dollar reserves held by Tether. iFinex is also required to turn over documents and information, as the OAG continues its probe.

The court has also ordered that iFinex identify all New York and US customers of Bitfinex whose funds were provided to Crypto Capital and the amount of any outstanding funds—and provide a weekly report evidencing any issuance or redemption of tethers. 

Bitfinex responds

Bitfinex has issued a response (archive), stating that the OAG court filings “were written in bad faith and are riddled with false assertions.” It claims the $850 million are not lost but have been “seized and safeguarded.” 

The exchange continues to deny any problem. It writes:

“Both Bitfinex and Tether are financially strong—full stop. And both Bitfinex and Tether are committed to fighting this gross overreach by the New York Attorney General’s office against companies that are good corporate citizens and strong supporters of law enforcement.”  

What does this mean?

It means Bitfinex is in real trouble. The New York’s Attorney General is one of the most powerful in the nation. That should worry Bitfinex.  

New York law allows the attorney general to seek restitution and damages. On top of that, there is also the Martin Act, a 1921 statute designed to protect investors. The Act vests the attorney general with wide-ranging enforcement powers. Under the Act, the attorney general can issue subpoenas to compel attendance of witnesses and production of documents. Those called in for questioning do not have a right to counsel.

The attorney general‘s decision to conduct an investigation is not reviewable by courts. As Stephen Palley, partner at Anderson Kill, points out, the iFinex action arises out of a Martin Act investigation and “Violations of the Martin Act can be civil and criminal.”

Finally, if $850 million is really missing, not just stuck somewhere, bitcoin is in real trouble, too. Tether could lose its peg and drop substantially below $1. Remarkably, tether’s peg seems to be holding steady now.  

Since the news broke, the price of bitcoin has dropped several hundred dollars. A valiant effort is being made to pump the price back up, and it’s working, sort of—for now.  

Screen Shot 2019-04-26 at 6.54.29 AM

 

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.

News: ETC hacker returns some of the money, Constantinople will have to wait, and a new twist in the QuadrigaCX saga

Stealing money is not easy. So why go to all the effort if you’re not serious? Screen Shot 2019-01-20 at 12.41.31 AM.png

Earlier this month, Ethereum Classic fell victim to a 51% attack when someone got hold of the majority of the network’s computing power and used it to double spend coins, stealing $1 million in funds. Now the hacker has returned some of the money. 

Gate.io, which originally lost $271,000 worth of ETC said the hacker returned $100,000 worth. And YoBit reported it got back $61,000 of $65,000 worth of stolen ETC. 

“We still don’t know the reason [for the return],” Gate.io said in a blog post on January 10. “If the attacker didn’t run it for profit, he might be a white hacker who wanted to remind people the risks in blockchain consensus and hashing power security.”

If you are a crypto exchange, you’re probably not seeing the profits you did back in the crypto heydays of 2017 and early 2018. So how do you make up for that? One option is to start listing lots of questionable coins. Another is to set the stage for the long-hoped-for influx of institution money.

Along those lines, Bittrex announced an over-the-counter (OTC) desk on January 14. The service handles trades of $250,000 or greater for the nearly 200 coins already offered by the exchange. In doing so, Bittrex joins other U.S.-based exchanges in launching OTC trading desks, including Coinbase and Poloniex.

Ethereum’s Constantinople upgrade has been delayed yet again. Shortly before the scheduled January 17 release, smart contract audit firm ChainSecurity found vulnerabilities in one of five ethereum improvement proposals (EIP). ChainSecurity describes the vulnerability in detail here. Ethereum core developers are now weighing late February as a time to move ahead with the upgrade—sans the buggy EIP.

A new twist has emerged in the saga of QuadrigaCX, one of the largest crypto exchanges in Canada. The saga began in January 2018 when the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce froze about $22 million in US dollars in an account opened by Quadriga’s payment processor. The majority of the frozen funds were released in December, but customers still aren’t getting their money.

Now, after waiting more than a month to post the news, Quadriga says that its CEO and founder Gerald Cotten is dead. Usually, when the CEO of a company dies, that is something you want to tell people right away.   

The announcement (archive) on the company’s website appears to come from Cotten’s wife, Jennifer Robertson, who explains that Cotten went to India to build an orphanage for needy children. While there, he died of complications to Crohn’s disease.  

“Gerry cared deeply about honesty and transparency — values he lived by in both his professional and personal life. He was hardworking and passionate, with an unwavering commitment to his customers, employees, and family,” Robertson wrote. [Emphasis mine.]

Several of Quadriga’s customers went to Reddit asking for proof of Cotten’s death. Some wondered how Cotten found time to travel to India when his company was in the midst of major litigation. 

Binance, one of the world’s largest crypto exchanges by trading volume, has launched a  fiat-to-crypto exchange in Jersey. A tiny 5-by-9-mile island in the English Channel, Jersey is one of the world’s wealthiest offshore tax shelters.

In October, Binance also set up a fiat-to-crypto exchange in Uganda. And it is planning to set up more of these entities in countries like Singapore, Malta, South Korea, Liechtenstein, Argentina, Russia, Turkey, and Bermuda.

Tron’s accelerator developer contest is looking like a big scam. The event was supposed to offer $1 million in prizes, with the first prize being $200,000. After the competition ended on January 4, developers took to Twitter and Reddit to complain that something “fishy” was going on. Apparently, Tron changed the prize amounts, and the main prize went to some vague company nobody has ever heard of.  

Brave browser, the project run by JavaScript creator and former Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich, claims that is is no longer fundraising on behalf of others, after releasing version 0.58.21 of the browser. David Gerard wrote an update and posted some pics of the new interface. If you get a chance, tip Gerard some BAT via his YouTube channel, so he can continue to test out the platform.  

Also, Brave browser has started allowing developers and testers to view ads. You can’t earn BAT for viewing the ads yet, but all that is coming. Eventually, Brave says, “users will then be able to earn 70% of the revenue share coming from those ads.”

The business model has gotten a ton of criticism. Essentially, the browser strips all ads and add trackers — which is how most publishing sites make their money — and then substitutes its own Brave-approved ads.

There’s been some important developments in the Tezos class-action litigation. Next up, likely the court will rule on whether the Tezos initial coin offering—which raised a record-setting $232 million in mid-2017—was an unregistered securities offering.

A ransomware threat known as Ryuk has pulled in $3.7 million in bitcoin over five months.

The Winklevoss Twins still think Bitcoin will be worth more than gold, maybe in the hopes they will be billionaires again. “The only thing gold has over bitcoin is a 3,000 year head start,” Cameron told Fortune.  

Brock Pierce, who got into cryptocurrency in the early days, and his wife Crystal Rose Pierce are expecting a child in March. They are naming the baby Crypto Pierce.

About 5% of daily Bitcoin transactions involve tether (USDT), according to a Medium post by Omni, the platform that tether operates on.  

Despite competition from a slew of new stablecoins, tether still dominates the stablecoin market, according to the latest report from CryptoCompare.

In case you missed it, I published a complete Tether timeline. I’m continuing to to update the story based on whatever new info I stumble upon. So keep checking back—and if you have information to add, send me details!

 

The curious case of Tether: a complete timeline of events

Stablecoins—virtual currencies pegged to another asset, usually, the U.S. dollar—screen shot 2019-01-15 at 2.22.13 pmbring liquidity to crypto exchanges, especially those that lack ties to traditional banking. To put it more simply, if you are a crypto exchange and you don’t have access to real dollars, stablecoins are the next best thing.

Today, there are lots of stablecoins to choose from. But by far the most popular and widely traded is tether (USDT), issued by a company of the same name. Of the three stablecoin models, Tether follows the I.O.U. model, where virtual coins are supposed to represent actual money and be redeemable at any time. It all sounds well and good, but for one thing: How do we know that tether is fully backed? 

[Update: This story was originally published in January 2019. As of May 2020, there are nearly $9 billion worth of tether circulating in the bitcoin ecosystem.]

Currently, there are 1.9 billion tether in circulation. That means, there should be a corresponding $1.9 billion tucked away in one or more bank accounts somewhere. Bitfinex, the crypto exchange closely linked to Tether, claims the money exists, but has yet to provide an official audit to support those claims. (We have seen snapshots of bank account balances at certain points in time, but these are not real audits.) 

More troubling still, the issuance of tether correlates with the rapid run up in price of bitcoin from April 2017 to December 2018 when bitcoin peaked at nearly $20,000. If authorities were to step in and freeze the bank accounts underlying tether, it is hard to guess what impact that could have on crypto markets at large. 

A timeline of events reveals a full picture of the controversy surrounding Tether and Bitfinex, and provides a reference for anyone interested in researching the topic. 

[An version of this timeline originally appeared in Bitcoin Magazine in February 2018. What follows is a more detailed and up-to-date version.]

Timeline

2012 — iFinex Inc., the company that is to become the parent company for Bitfinex and Tether, is founded in Hong Kong.

2013 — Bitfinex incorporates in Hong Kong. The exchange is run by CSO Phil Potter, CEO Jan Ludovicus van der Velde and CFO Giancarlo Devasini. Potter used to work at Morgan Stanley in New York in the 1990s, but lost the job after bragging about his opulent lifestyle to the New York Times. And in 1996, Devasini was caught pirating and selling a substantial volume of Microsoft Software

July 9, 2014 Brock Pierce, Bitcoin Foundation director and former Disney child actor, launches Realcoin, a dollar-backed stablecoin. Realcoin is built on a Bitcoin second-layer protocol called Mastercoin (now Omni). Pierce was one of the founding members of the Mastercoin Foundation before resigning in July 2014. He founded Realcoin along with Mastercoin CTO Craig Sellars and ad-industry entrepreneur Reeve Collins

September 5, 2014 Appleby, an offshore law firm, helps Bitfinex operators Phil Potter and Giancarlo Devasini set up Tether Holdings Limited in the British Virgin Islands.

September 8, 2014 — Tether Limited registers in Hong Kong.  

October 6, 2014 — The first tethers are issued, according to the Omni block explorer.

November 20, 2014 — Realcoin rebrands as “Tether” and officially launches in private beta. The company hides its full relationship with Bitfinex. A press release (archive) lists Bitfinex as a “partner.” In explaining the name change, project co-founder Reeve Collins tells CoinDesk the firm wanted to avoid association with altcoins. 

February 25, 2015 Tether begins trading, according to data from CoinMarketCap.

May 18, 2015 — Tether issues 200,000 tethers, bringing the total supply to 450,000.

May 22, 2015 Bitfinex is hit with its first hack. The exchange claims it lost 1,500 bitcoin (worth $400,000 at the time) when its hot wallets are breached. The amount represents 0.05 percent of the company’s total holdings. Bitfinex says it will absorb the losses.  

December 1, 2015 — Tether issues 500,000 USDT, bringing the total supply to roughly 950,000. (The price of bitcoin has remained stable throughout most of 2015, but climbs from $250 in October to about $460 in December.)

June 2, 2016 The U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission fines Bitfinex $75,000 for offering illegal off-exchange financed retail commodity transactions in bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies and for failing to register as a Futures Commission Merchant as required by the Commodity Exchange Act. In response, Bitfinex moves its crypto funds from an omnibus account into multisig wallets protected by BitGo.

August 2, 2016 —Bitfinex claims it has been hacked again, when 120,000 bitcoin, worth about $72 million, vanish. This is one of the largest hacks in bitcoin’s history, second only to Mt. Gox. Bitfinex never reveals the full details of the breach.

(Chapter 8 of David Gerard’s book “Attack of the 50-Foot Blockchain” offers an in-depth explanation of the hack.)  

August 6, 2016  This time, Bitfinex is unable to absorb the losses. The exchange announces a 36% haircut for almost all of its customers. It even takes funds from those who were not holding any bitcoin at the time of the hack. In return, customers receive an I.O.U. in the form of BFX tokens, initially valued at $1 each.

August 10, 2016 — Zane Tacket, Bitfinex community director, writes on Reddit (archive) that Bitfinex is offering a bounty of 5% (worth up to $3.6 million) for any information leading to recovery of the stolen funds. Also on this day, Bitfinex resumes trading and withdrawals on its platform after having been shut down for a week after the heist.  

August 17, 2016 Bitfinex announces it is engaging Ledger Labs, the blockchain forensic firm founded by Ethereum creator Vitalik Buterin, to investigate its recent breach. Bitfinex hires Ledger to do a computer security audit, but it leads customers into believing Ledger is going to perform a financial audit as well. A financial audit is key to knowing whether Bitfinex was even solvent at the time of the hack.   

In a blog post (archive) Bitfinex writes:

“We are also in the process of engaging Ledger Labs to perform an audit of our complete balance sheet for both cryptocurrency and fiat assets and liabilities.”  

A footnote added to the blog post on April 5, 2017 makes a correction:

“Ledger Labs has not been engaged to perform a financial audit of Bitfinex. When in initial discussions with Ledger Labs in August 2016, we had initially understood that they could offer this service to us…. We are in the process of engaging a reputable, third party accounting firm to audit our balance sheet, but this continues to take longer than anticipated and than we would want. We apologize for any confusion in this matter.”

October 12, 2016 — Bitfinex tries to reach out to the hacker by offering secure communication channels. In a blog post (archive), titled “Message to the individual responsible for the Bitfinex security incident of August 2, 2016,” Bitfinex writes “We would like to have the opportunity to securely communicate with you. It might be possible to reach a mutually agreeable arrangement in exchange for an enormous bug bounty.” It is not clear why a hacker would be interested in such an offer. 

October 13, 2016 — Bitfinex announces (archive) that its largest BFX token holders have agreed to exchange over 20 million BFX tokens for equity shares of iFinex. You can hardly blame Bitfinex customers for taking the bait. Many have already watched BFX tokens drop far below $1. One Redditor even reported the price dropping to $0.30.

As a way to incentivize BFX holders to convert, Bitfinex creates yet another new token: a tradable Recovery Rights Token (RRT). According to the exchange, if any of the stolen bitcoins are recovered, any excess of funds after all BFX tokens have been redeemed will be distributed to RRT token holders.

The incentive looks like this: If you convert your BFX to iFinex shares before October 7, you get one RRT for each BFX token converted. Convert between October 8 and November 1, and you get half an RRT for each BFX token converted. After that, you get 1/4 of an RRT per BFX token converted. No further RTTs are given after November 30.

December 31, 2016 — In the year 2016, Tether issued 6 million USDT, six times what it issued the prior year. 

March 31, 2017 Wells Fargo cuts off services to Bitfinex and Tether, according to court documents in a lawsuit that Bitfinex later files against the bank. Bitfinex is not a direct customer of Wells Fargo, but rather a customer of four Taiwan-based banks that use Wells Fargo as an intermediate to facilitate wire transfers.  

April 3, 2017 — In a blog post (archive), Bitfinex announces plans to redeem any outstanding BFX tokens. “After these redemptions, no BFX tokens will remain outstanding; they will all be destroyed,” the exchange says.

Meanwhile, Potter reveals in an audio that all of the remaining BFX tokens have been converted to tethers. Effectively, this means that none of the victims of the Bitfinex hack in August 2016 got back any of their original funds. Instead, they were all compensated with BFX tokens, RRT tokens and tethers in a trail of tokens that is difficult to follow. 

April 5, 2017 — Two days after announcing it has “paid off” all its debt to customers, Bitfinex files a lawsuit against Wells Fargo for interrupting its wire transfers. Tether is listed as a plaintiff. In addition to an injunction order, Bitfinex seeks more than $75,000 in damages. (See here for a complete list of documents associated with the lawsuit.)

April 10, 2017 A pseudonymous character known as “Bitfinex’eddebuts online. In a relentless series of tweets, he begins accusing Bitfinex of creating tethers out of thin air to pay off debts. At this point, the number of USDT in circulation is 55 million, and the price of bitcoin has begun a steep ascent that will continue to the end of the year.

April 11, 2017 — Bitfinex withdraws the lawsuit against Wells Fargo. In an audio, Potter admits the lawsuit was frivolous, stating the company was only hoping to “buy time.”

April 17, 2017 — Following a notice about wire delays, Bitfinex announces (archive) it has been shut off by its four main Taiwanese banks: Hwatai Commercial Bank, KGI Bank, First Commercial Bank, and Taishin Bank. Bitfinex is now left to move between a series of banks in other countries without telling its customers where it is keeping its reserves.

In an audio, Bitfinex CSO Phil Potter tries to calm customers by telling them that Bitfinex effectively deals with this sort of thing by setting up shell accounts and tricking banks.

“We’ve had banking hiccups in the past, we’ve just always been able to route around it or deal with it, open up new accounts, or what have you…shift to a new corporate entity, lots of cat and mouse tricks.” 

Around this time, Bitfinex also begins to rely increasingly upon Crypto Capital, a third-party payment processor based in Panama. 

April 24, 2017 — Tether’s dollar peg is maintained via market making and instilling confidence in the value of the coin. Amidst reports that Bitfinex had been cut off from Wells Fargo and shut off from Taiwanese banks, USDT temporarily dips to $0.91.  

May 5, 2017 After finally clarifying (archive) to customers that it only engaged Ledger Labs for a security audit—not a financial audit—Bitfinex hires accounting firm Friedman LLP to complete a comprehensive balance sheet audit. “A third-party audit is important to all Bitfinex stakeholders, and we’re thrilled that Friedman will be helping us achieve this goal,” Bitfinex writes in a blog post (archive).

August 5, 2017 — Bitfinex’ed publishes his first blog post “Meet ‘Spoofy.’ How a Single Entity Dominates the Price of Bitcoin.” The post explains how an illegal form of market manipulation known as spoofing works. In it, a video shows a Bitfinex trader putting up a large order of bitcoin just long enough to push up the price of bitcoin.  

This is not the first time a crypto exchange has manipulated the price of bitcoin. Mt. Gox, the now-defunct Tokyo exchange that handled 70% of all bitcoin transactions before it collapsed in 2014, also manipulated its markets. Former Mt. Gox CEO Mark Karpeles admitted in court to operating a “Willy Bot.” An academic paper titled “The Willy Report” shows how the bots were responsible for much of bitcoin’s 2013 price rise.

September 28, 2017 — Friedman LLP issues a report alleging that Tether’s US dollar balances ($443 million) match the amount of tethers in circulation at the time. Falling short of an audit, the report does not disclose the names or the locations of banks. 

According to the report, “FLLP did not evaluate the terms of the above bank accounts and makes no representations about the Client’s ability to access funds from the accounts or whether the funds are committed for purposes other than Tether token redemptions.”

August 7, 2017 — In a  blog post (archive), Bitfinex announces that over the next 90 days, it will gradually discontinue services to its U.S. customers. Effective almost immediately, U.S. citizens are no longer able to trade Ethereum-based ERC20 tokens, which are commonly associated with initial coin offerings (ICOs).

The news follows regulatory crackdowns in the U.S. (The previous month, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission issued an investigative report that deemed that tokens issued by the DAO—an investor-directed fund built on top of Ethereum that crashed spectacularly—were securities.) 

November 7, 2017 Leaked documents dubbed “The Paradise Papers” reveal Bitfinex and Tether are run by the same individuals. Up until now, Tether and Bitfinex insisted the two operations were separate, though they were widely suspected to be the same.

November 19, 2017 Tether is hacked when 31 million tether are moved from the Tether treasury wallet into an unauthorized Bitcoin address. Tether initiates a hard fork to prevent those funds from being spent.

After this hack, Tether notes on its website (archive) that redemption of USDT for real dollars is no longer possible via the Tether website. (It is worth noting that there is no record of anyone having redeemed their USDT for dollars at any point before this either.)

Tether writes:

“Until we are able to migrate to the new platform, the purchase or sale of Tether will not be possible directly through tether.to. For the time being, though, we invite you to use the services of any one of a dozen global exchanges to acquire or dispose of Tethers for either USD or other cryptocurrencies. Such exchanges and other qualified corporate customers can contact Tether directly to arrange for creation and redemption. Sadly, however, we cannot create or redeem tether for any U.S.-based customers at this time.”

November 30, 2017 — Bitfinex hires 5W, a scrappy New-York public relations firm led by Ronn Torossian. 5W promptly issues a press release saying that an “audit” from Friedman LLP is forthcoming. The agency also tells journalists they can view Bitfinex’s bank accounts if they sign an non-disclosure agreement first. No journalist takes the bait.

December 4, 2017 Bitfinex hires law firm Steptoe & Johnson and threatens legal action against critics. The exchange does not specify who exactly those critics are, but the obvious target is Bitfinex’ed, the cynical blogger, who continues to accuse Bitfinex of manipulating markets and printing more tether than it can redeem.

December 6, 2017 The U.S. Commodity and Futures Trading Commission subpoenas Bitfinex and Tether, Bloomberg reports. The actual documents are not made public.   

December 16, 2017 — The price of bitcoin reaches an all-time high of nearly $20,000, marking the end of a spectacular run-up. A year prior, one bitcoin was only $780.

December 21, 2017 Without making any formal announcement, Bitfinex appears to suddenly close all new account registrations. Those trying to register for a new account are asked for a mysterious referral code, but no referral code seems to exist.

December 31, 2017 — In the year 2017, Tether issued roughly 1.4 billion USDT.

January 3, 2018— A change to Tether’s legal terms of service (archive) states: “Beginning on January 1, 2018, Tether Tokens will no longer be issued to U.S. Persons.”

January 12, 2018 After a month of being closed to new registrations, Bitfinex announces it is reopening its doors, but now requires new customers to deposit $10,000 in fiat or crypto before they can trade. Bitfinex does not officially say this, but customers also can no longer make fiat withdrawals of less than $10,000 either. 

January 27, 2018 — Tether parts ways with accounting firm Friedman LLP. There is no official announcement—Friedman simply deletes all mention of Bitfinex from its web site, including past press releases.

A Tether spokesperson tells CoinDesk: “Given the excruciatingly detailed procedures Friedman was undertaking for the relatively simple balance sheet of Tether, it became clear that an audit would be unattainable in a reasonable time frame.”  

January 31, 2018 — As the price of bitcoin plummets, tether issuance takes on a rapid, frenzied pace. In January, Tether issues 850 million USDT, more than any single month prior. Of this, roughly 250 million were created during a mid-month bitcoin price crash.

February 2018 — an ex-NFL owner named Reginald Fowler registers a company called Global Trading Solutions LLC. He goes on to set up bank accounts under the company’s name at HSBC. (Pay attention to these names. They are about to become very important.)

March 28, 2018 — Bitfinex weighs a move to Switzerland. Bitfinex CEO Jean-Louis van der Velde tells Swiss news outlet Handelszeitung, “We are looking for a new home for Bitfinex and the parent company iFinex, where we want to merge the operations previously spread over several locations.”

February 20, 2018 — Dutch bank ING confirms Bitfinex has an account there. Two members of parliament in the Netherlands lodge questions for the finance minister after Dutch news site Follow The Money first disclosed the relationship on February 14.

May 23, 2018 — Phil Potter steps down from his role as Bitfinex chief strategy officer. “As Bitfinex pivots away from the U.S., I felt that, as a U.S. person, it was time for me to rethink my position as a member of the executive team,” he says in a statement.

May 24, 2018 — Bloomberg confirms previous speculations that Bitfinex has been banking at Puerto Rico’s Noble Bank since 2017. Tether founder Brock Pierce is a cofounder of Noble Bank, along with John Betts, a former Wall Street executive.

These individuals had past dealings. In 2014, Betts led a group called Sunlot Holdings to try and acquire the failed Mt. Gox exchange. Pierce, along with former FBI director Louis Freeh were also involved in that effort. (Freeh’s name will appear again on this timeline.)

May 24, 2018 — The U.S. Justice Department launches a criminal probe into bitcoin markets. The focus is on practices like spoofing and wash trading, where a trader simultaneously buys and sells assets to increase trading volume. The criminal probe will bring in other agencies, including the CFTC.

June 1, 2018 — Looking to reassure its customers, Bitfinex hires Freeh Sporkin & Sullivan (FSS), a law firm co-founded by Louis Freeh (yes, the same Freeh who held an advisory role at Sunlot Holdings) to confirm that Tether has $2.55 billion in its banks, enough to cover the USDT in circulation at the time.

FSS is not an accounting firm and this is in no way an official audit. Furthermore, there may be a conflict of interest here. Eugene Sullivan, senior partner at FSS, is also an advisor to Noble Bank, where Bitfinex/Tether does its banking.

“The bottom line is an audit cannot be obtained,” Stuart Hoegner, Bitfinex and Tether’s general counsel, tells Bloomberg. “The big four firms are anathema to that level of risk…. We’ve gone for what we think is the next best thing.”

June 25, 2018 — Bolstering suspicions that tether is being used to prop up the price of bitcoin, two researchers—John Griffin and Amin Shams—at the University of Austin, Texas, release a paper titled “Is Bitcoin Really Un-Tethered?” The two write:

“Using algorithms to analyze the blockchain data, we find that purchases with tether are timed following market downturns and result in sizable increases in bitcoin prices.” 

June 27, 2018 — Several Bitfinex customers report delayed and rejected wire deposits. A representative of Bitfinex named “Garbis” takes to Reddit (archive) to explain that the situation was caused by a change in banking relations.

October 1, 2018 — Reports circulate that Noble Bank is up for sale, as a result of having lost several of its big customers, including Bitfinex and Tether. (I don’t know this for sure, but my guess is that Noble’s custodial bank in New York likely told Noble to end its relationship with Bitfinex.)  

October 6, 2018 — According to a report in The Block, Bitfinex appears to be banking at HSBC—a bank that has previously been fined $1.9 billion in 2012 for money laundering—under the shell account “Global Trading Solutions.”  

October 7, 2018 — Bitfinex pushes back on claims that it is insolvent. “Bitfinex is not insolvent, and a constant stream of Medium articles claiming otherwise is not going to change this,” Bitfinex writes in a blog post (archive). As proof, it publishes three bitcoin cold wallet addresses that collectively hold about $1.5 billion in assets.

October 10, 2018 — Four days after reports comes out that Bitfinex is banking at HSBC, Bitfinex temporarily suspends all cash deposits, suggesting that the exchange is once again on the hunt for a new reserve bank.  

October 14, 2018 — Amid concerns over Tether’s solvency and the company’s ability to establish banking relationships, tether’s peg slips again, this time to $0.92, according to CoinMarketCap, which aggregates prices from major exchanges. On a single crypto exchange Kraken, tether momentarily slips to $0.85.  

October 16, 2018 — Tether appears to be holding reserves at Bahamas’ Deltec Bank. According to earlier rumors, the bank account was set up by Daniel Kelman, a crypto lawyer who was actively involved in trying to free the remaining Mt. Gox funds.

Further, Bitfinex appears to be banking through the Bank of Communications under “Prosperity Revenue Merchandising,” a shell company created June 5, 2018. The Hong Kong bank is owned in part by HSBC and uses Citibank as an intermediate to send deposits to Deltec in the Bahamas.

October 24, 2018 — In a blog post (archive), Tether announces it has “redeemed a significant amount of USDT” and will now burn 500 million USDT, representing those redemptions. According to the firm, the remaining 446 million USDT in its treasury will be used as a “preparatory measures for future USDT issuances.”

November 1, 2018 — Tether confirms it is banking with the Deltec in the Bahamas and provides an attestation letter from the bank that the account holds $1.8 billion, enough to cover the amount of tether in circulation at the time. The attestation has a mysterious squiggly signature at the bottom with no name attached to it. 

November 30, 2018 — Recall that in May 2017, the U.S. Department of Justice together with the U.S. Commodity and Exchange Commission (CFTC) began looking into illegal manipulation of bitcoin prices. And then in December 2017, the CFTC subpoenaed both Tether and Bitfinex. Now federal prosecutors have supposedly “homed in on suspicions that a tangled web involving Bitcoin, Tether and crypto exchange Bitfinex might have been used to illegally move prices,” according to Bloomberg

November 27, 2018 — In a blog post (archive), Tether says its customers can once again redeem tether for actual dollars. But again, there are no reports or evidence of anyone having been able to redeem tether ever. 

December, 18, 2018 — Bloomberg reports it has seen Tether bank statements from accounts at Puerto Rico’s Noble Bank and the Bank of Montreal, taken over four separate months. The article suggests that Tether held sufficient dollars to back the tether tokens on the market. But again this is not a real audit. What stands out is that $61 million in the Bank of Montreal is listed under Stuart Hoegner, the firm’s general counsel.

December 31, 2018 — In the year 2018, Tether issued more than 1 billion tether.

January 16, 2019 — Bitfinex opens a data center in Switzerland, according to Swiss news outlet Handelszeitung. The report states that previously, Bitfinex was relying on Amazon cloud servers.

February 25, 2019 — In a blog post (archive), Bitfinex claims the U.S. government has located 27.7 BTC (worth about $100,000) taken from Bitfinex in the August 2016 hack and returned the funds to Bitfinex. The exchange says it has converted those bitcoin into USD and distributed the money to its RRT token holders. What is odd here is that the U.S. Department of Justice hasn’t issued any statement about recovered bitcoin. And Bitfinex doesn’t share a transaction record to show it actually received the recovered funds. 

February 26, 2019 — Tether admits, for the first time, that it is operating a fractional reserve. An update on the company’s website reads:

“Every tether is always 100% backed by our reserves, which include traditional currency and cash equivalents and, from time to time, may include other assets and receivables from loans made by Tether to third parties, which may include affiliated entities (collectively, “reserves”). Every tether is also 1-to-1 pegged to the dollar, so 1 USD₮ is always valued by Tether at 1 USD.”

Here is what the text read before:

“Every tether is always backed 1-to-1, by traditional currency held in our reserves. So 1 USD₮ is always equivalent to 1 USD.”

The change is also updated in Tether’s legal section

April 9, 2019 — The $10,000 minimum equity requirement to start trading has been lifted. “We simply could not ignore the increasing level of requests for access to trade on Bitfinex from a wider cohort than our traditional customer base,” CEO Jean-Louis van der Velde says in a blog post (archive). Meanwhile, customers continue to complain that they are unable to get cash off of the exchange. And now some are saying they are having trouble getting their crypto off the exchange as well. 

April 11, 2019 — Bitfinex enables margin trading on tether. Margin pairs include BTC/USDT and ETH/USDT. 

On this same day, Reginald Fowler, an Arizona man, and Ravid Yosef, who lives in Los Angeles and Tel Aviv, are indicted in the US for charges related to bank fraud. The two were allegedly part of a scheme that involved setting up bank accounts under false pretenses to move money on behalf of series of cryptocurrency exchanges. (CoinDesk

April 17, 2019 — Tether goes live on the Tron network as a TRC-20 token, a standard used by the Tron blockchain for implementing tokens, similar to and compatible with Ethereum’s ERC-20 standard. You can view the issuance on Tronscan.

April 24, 2019 — The New York Attorney General’s (NYAG) office sues iFinex, the parent company of Bitfinex and Tether, saying that the company has been commingling client and corporate funds to cover up $850 million in missing funds. 

From 2014 to 2018, Bitfinex placed over $1 billion with Crypto Capital because it was unable to find a reputable bank to work with it. Crypto Capital then either lost, stole, or absconded with $850 million.

In order to fill the gap, Bitfinex dipped into Tether’s reserves for hundreds of millions of dollars. According to the NYAG, “Despite the sheer amount of money it handed over, Bitfinex never signed a contract or other agreement with Crypto Capital.” 

April 26, 2019 — In a response to OAG’s allegations, Bitfinex says the $850 million has not been lost, but rather “seized and safeguarded.” Meanwhile, according to CoinDesk, Zhao Dong, a Bitfinex shareholder, claims that Bitfinex CFO Giancarlo Devasini told him that the exchange just needs a few weeks to unfreeze the funds.

April 30, 2019 — In response to the NYAG’s ex parte order, Tether general counsel Stuart Hoegner files an affidavit accompanied by a motion to vacate from outside counsel Zoe Phillips of Morgan Lewis. Hoegner admits 2.8 billion worth are only 74% backed. Morgan says New York has no jurisdiction over Tether or Bitfinex’s actions. 

On this same day, Reginald Fowler is arrested in Chandler, Arizona.

May 2, 2019 — The U.S. Government wants Fowler held without bail due to flight risk. 

May 3, 2019 — The NYAG files an opposition to Bitfinex’s motion to vacate. Bitfinex follows two days later with a response to the opposition. In the memo, Bitfinex argues that “nothing in the Attorney General’s opposition papers justifies the ex parte order having been issued in the first place.” 

May 8, 2019 — iFinex has a new plan to raise $1 billion: a token sale. The company releases a white paper for a new LEO token. Each token is worth 1 USDT.

On this same day, Reginald Fowler, the man linked to $850 million in missing Bitfinex funds, is out on $5 million bail. He is required to give up his passport. Bail is posted in the Southern District of New York, where he is to appear for arraignment on May 15. His travel is restricted to parts of New York and Arizona. 

May 6, 2019 — New York Supreme Court judge Joel M. Cohen rules that the OAG’s ex parte order should remain in effect, at least in part. However, he thinks the injunction is “amorphous and endless.” He gives the two parties a week to work out a compromise and submit new proposals for what the scope of the injunction should be.

May 13, 2019 — Attorneys for the OAG and iFinex failed to come to a consensus on what Tether should be allowed to do with its holdings. They both submit separate proposals. iFinex is asking for a 45-day limit on the injunction and it wants Tether employees to get paid using Tether’s reserves. The OAG is not opposed to Tether’s employees being paid, but it wants Tether to to pay its employees using transaction fees—not reserves.

May 16, 2019 — Judge Cohen grants Bitfinex’s motion to modify a preliminary injunction. The preliminary injunction is limited to 90 days, and Tether is allowed to use its reserves to pay its employees. The judge holds that the Martin Act “does not provide a roving mandate to regulate commercial activity.” Bitfinex and Tether still have to handover documents that the OAG requested in its November 2018 investigative subpoena

May 21, 2019 — Bitfinex files a motion to dismiss the proceeding brought by the NYAG on the grounds that Bitfinex/Tether do not do business in NY, the Martin Act does not apply to its business and the Martin Act cannot be used to compel a foreign corporation to produce documents stored overseas. Bitfinex and Tether also sought an immediate stay of the NYAG’s document demands.

May 22, 2019 — Judge Joel M. Cohen of the New York Supreme Court grants Bitfinex’s motion for an immediate stay of the document demands. He issues an order requiring the companies to produce only documents relevant to the limited issue of whether there is personal jurisdiction over the companies in New York but staying the document order in all other respects. The NYAG has until July 8 to file a response. And the judge schedules a hearing on the motion to dismiss for July 29.

July 8, 2019 — The NYAG has filed its response

July 22, 2019 — iFinex files court docs arguing once again that Bitfinex/Tether are not doing any business in New York and tether is not a security. (Here is Bitfinex counsel Stuart Hoegner’s affidavit and an accompanying memorandum of law submitted by the company’s outside counsel). It all boils down to “yeah, but, no, but yeah.” 

# # #

I put a lot of work into maintaining this timeline. If you are an investigator or a reporter who has benefited from this work—or just another obsessed Bitfinex follower—please consider making a small donation via Patreon.