Exchange hacks, collapses, and exit scams are a dime a dozen—sometimes it feels like no one has innovated on the art form since Mt. Gox went belly-up in 2014. But fear not! The latest exchange to disappear with tens of millions in customer funds is Canada’s QuadrigaCX, which announced yesterday that it would close and enter a bankruptcy-like restructuring. But this isn’t just another case of run-of-the-mill ineptitude or dishonesty—it’s the final flourish to a gripping, months-long soap-opera involving court battles, missing keys, and a mysterious death.
Much like bigger players including Bitfinex, Quadriga’s trouble seems largely down to banking problems. In January of 2018, the bank CIBC froze more than $25.7 million Canadian dollars ($26 million USD) worth of the exchange’s funds, alleging that QuadrigaCX might not actually own the money.
The confusion over ownership, as described in court documents, stemmed from an extremely arcane payment routing system, allegations that QuadrigaCX was not properly crediting customers’ online accounts, and the stunning claim that the head of one of Quadriga’s payment partners transferred CAD $2.3 million into personal accounts. Nearly a year later, in November of 2018, a court ruled the funds could be siezed, with distribution of the money left up to the court system instead of the bank.
During the period of the funds freeze, QuadrigaCX users, unsurprisingly, reported sustained problems withdrawing both cash and cryptocurrency from the exchange. But then things started looking up. In mid-December, Quadriga claimed that a court had ordered the return of some of the frozen funds, and in a December 19 statement, the exchange declared that “we are going to have more than enough to completely clear the pending withdrawals list as well as the missing withdrawals.” (This and all other statements from QuadrigaCX have been wiped along with the rest of its website, but various cached versions are available).
It’s also worth noting (because this doesn’t qo without saying in crypto) that Gerald Cotten was a verifiably real person, having given court testimony during the 2018 proceedings.
Then things got truly strange.
QuadrigaCX customers continued reporting difficulty withdrawing funds, and BREAKER hasn’t found clear confirmation of Quadriga’s claim that it had regained access to frozen bank funds. Then on January 14, the exchange announced that its founder and CEO, Gerry Cotten, had passed away. The statement described Cotten’s death from complications of Crohn’s disease while in India “opening an orphanage.” Cotten’s death allegedly occurred on December 9, though it wasn’t announced until January.
That announcement also contained the claim that, after Quadriga’s frozen funds were released by CIBC to Quadriga’s payment processor, they were then frozen again.
More very bad news followed. The exchange yesterday replaced its website with a single-page statement declaring it has lost access to cold wallets holding large amounts of cryptocurrency, and cannot find a processor to accept the funds it says courts have ordered returned to it. Though the exchange hasn’t explicitly stated that Cotten’s death resulted in lost cold-wallet access, many have drawn that conclusion. The exchange also now says it will enter a bankruptcy-like restructuring under Canada’s insolvency process.
This sequence of events sparked immediate speculation among exchange users that Cotten’s death could have been faked. One Reddit poster asked “has anyone actually seen the body?,” describing the report of Cotten’s sudden death, and subsequent loss of crypto wallets, as “a little hard to believe.” Users have also demanded disclosure of cold-wallet addresses, which would at least allow for public confirmation of their balances. In a filing reported by CoinDesk, QuadrigaCX said it owes its customers as much as CAD $190 million, and also reportedly provided a death certification for Cotten.
The nature of crypto means those funds could have been transferred and/or concealed rather than simply “lost.” But it’s important to note that QuadrigaCX at least appears to be going through proper legal channels, including appointing the reputable accounting firm Ernst & Young to act as a “monitor” in hearings set to begin February 5. It’s also worth noting (because this doesn’t go without saying in crypto) that Gerald Cotten was a verifiably real person, having given court testimony during the 2018 proceedings.
More time in court should provide clarity around Cotten’s death and what really happened to QuadrigaCX’s various pots of crypto and fiat currency. But it seems reasonable to guess that customers won’t be getting much of their money back—proving once again that, no matter how great they may be at generating high drama, crypto exchanges are extremely bad places to keep your cash.