FastBreak: How Should We Fight Crypto Scammers?
10.18.2018

Welcome to FastBreak, a new recurring feature at BREAKER. We’ll be regularly gathering quick reactions on burning crypto questions from a diverse group of leaders and experts.

2018 has, among other things, been defined by the collapse of crypto schemes like Bitconnect, and the disappearance of millions of dollars worth of ICO “investments.” As regulators finally start taking action, we gathered a panel of true luminaries to comment on the changing landscape.

Ricardo Spagni, perhaps better known as FluffyPony, is the lead developer of the privacy coin Monero, and a frequent critic of shoddy blockchain projects.

@bccponzi, a.k.a. Madoff Wasn’t on the Blockchain, was one of the most persistent critics of Bitconnect, and remains an anonymous thorn in the side of other pyramid schemes and scams.

Larry Cermak is an analyst and investigator formerly with Diar, and now part of the team at The Block. He has highlighted shady dealings by a variety of legitimate-seeming blockchain startups.

David Golumbia is the author of The Politics of Bitcoin: Software as Right-Wing Extremism, and has frequently argued that blockchain fundamentally breeds scams.

Confirm or reject: The victims of crypto scams have nobody to blame but themselves.

Spagni: Reject. I think the victims of crypto scams, sure, they have themselves to blame in part, but they’re victims of irrational hype in an industry and a technology which is extremely difficult to understand.

Cermak: Reject. While everybody should be doing their own research, the scammers that are clearly targeting unsophisticated investors are predatory. They are the ones who we should strive to eliminate.

@bccponzi: Confirm, but that’s also why I believe some kind of regulation is needed. Crypto currently is a scammers paradise.

Golumbia: Reject. Like all scamsters, crypto scamsters do their best to deceive their marks about their operations. While some of the victims deserve blame, many have read only the (voluminous) marketing literature and have no idea what they are getting into.

Which is the greater risk: a) Scammers sucking all the enthusiasm out of blockchain, or b) regulators squashing genuine innovation?

Cermak: I think the greater risk is clearly the scammers for now. The regulators haven’t been involved enough to squash anything other than the most obvious scams; and even that is taking too long. They should be more active in the space.

Spagni: Scammers. We’ve demonstrated that we suck at self-regulation. We’re terrible at it. The more we let scammers persist, the more they continue to run the course with snake oil and outright falsehoods, the more regulators will eventually feel obligated to step in. There’s kind of a double-edged sword there: If you let scammers run, you get both scammers and regulators.

@bccponzi: Regulators are a greater risk for crypto. But that’s because of the massive scams and frauds that are currently happening.

Golumbia: I don’t consider either one of these to be risks. Blockchain largely just is a scam, so the more “enthusiasm” that is sucked out of the system, the better. The idea that regulators squash innovation is ludicrous on its face, and a typical theme promoted by corporate interests: regulators are typically either captured by industry, or playing catch-up with deceptive and fraudulent practices in industries of every sort.

How many years—or months?—can an ICO-backed company operate with no product or revenue before it’s officially a scam?

Cermak: I think this depends greatly based on the specific company. But generally, a year would be very suspicious. Two years, it’s most likely a scam.

Spagni: I think it very much depends on what their pitch was at the beginning. If they’ve made promises to deliver in a certain period of time and they haven’t met those, then that is a big red flag. Because either they’ve made nonsensical promises, or they’re too incompetent to deliver. It’s extremely telling when an ICO promises to deliver a brand new protocol, that’s going to revolutionize the industry, in six months.

@bccponzi: Something is a scam when a company’s intention from the beginning was to mislead investors and ‘steal’ from them. You can’t put a time frame on it, as it depends on too many variables.

Golumbia: A lot hinges on your word “officially.” “Officially” sounds like regulators or law enforcement has gotten involved, and that’s a good measure. However, unofficially, “an ICO-backed company operating with no product or revenue” is a scam to begin with.

When they [use] one of those stupid little comparison charts with the sticks and the crosses, then you know it’s a scam.

Fill in the blank: The easiest way for a non-expert to spot a scam is _____.

Cermak: To closely inspect the team behind the project.

Spagni: When they make grandiose claims about what their product will be able to do—claims about its performance, its security, its robustness. And especially when they compare it to other technologies in one of those stupid little comparison charts with the sticks and the crosses. Then you know it’s a scam.

@bccponzi: When something looks too good to be true, it usually is too good to be true.

Golumbia: That the thing involves cryptocurrency. There’s no need for non-experts to try to identify scams; just avoid the sector altogether, especially if we are talking about investing one’s assets.

What’s one thing the community of trusted crypto leaders and observers can do to help keep more people away from scamsor just bad ICOs?

Cermak: Trusted crypto leaders should stop accepting paid advisory roles in exchange for endorsing the product. This really skews the reliability that they have. They should also do a better job of educating people to spot the scams themselves.

Spagni: I think the big thing that we’ve really failed at is education. This is a deeply technical space, and a lot of people who have entered the space are not technical. In fact a lot of the people building products are not technical. And we have failed by not educating people as to the complexity surrounding decentralized security software.

If you take a look at something like bitcoin, it’s this unique combination of cryptography, game theory, incentives, economics, all these social things. You can’t just go, well, I learned a little Visual Basic in high school, and now I’m going to write my own blockchain application. And unfortunately, people do think that. It’s nonsense being perpetuated by projects like Ethereum, which say, if you know a little bit of JavaScript, you can write a smart contract. Which is completely untrue.

@bccponzi: In the age of lots of ‘fake news,’ it’s getting harder, as we’ve seen with Bitconnect. Even if reputable sources warn people about scams, it gets labeled as FUD or fake news more often than not.

Golumbia: The most important, but not at all the only thing, would be to start using the same rules for crypto journalism that apply to other forms of financial journalism: no writing about instruments that the journalist, analyst, or publication has a financial stake in, no trading in the instruments at all, and full disclosure of every stake the person has, which would include not just tokens but software and companies. This should apply to the social media activity of crypto “leaders,” as well as their journalism and other writing. I consider that as likely as the sun turning blue, but I guess it could happen.