The $65 million Bitfinex hack shows that it is impossible to tell a good bitcoin company from a bad one

Future of Finance
Future of Finance

Bitcoin suffered yet another blow last week when Bitfinex, one of the cryptocurrency’s largest exchanges, suffered a hack that cost its users about $65 million. Every one of its investors saw their funds suddenly drop by 36%, as the company decided to “socialize” the losses.

The source of the security breach remains unconfirmed, as Bitfinex continues to work with “authorities” (it’s not clear which ones) to pinpoint what happened. But the details of the hack aren’t its only mystery. Burnt traders are now struggling to figure out something even more basic—who exactly is behind Bitfinex and where are those people located?

The exchange was handling $407.2 million in monthly trade volume before the hack, but there is precious little information about Bitfinex’s origins and founders.

This differs from exchanges of comparable size. Kraken, a US-based exchange, lists all of its team’s major members on its website, with photos and short bios. Coinbase, the first regulated bitcoin exchange in the US, maintains a community page for its users and has offered its founders up for interviews. Bitfinex has done none of these things. There are no “About Us” pages to peruse, or trade-press profiles of founders.

This has caused confusion and frustration among Bitfinex traders whose funds disappeared, who want to put a human face on the company. When the exchange Mt. Gox went insolvent in early 2014, some investors flew to Tokyo to confront its management. But if aggrieved investors were to fly to Hong Kong to knock on Bitfinex’s door, they would be hard-pressed to find someone to harangue.

Almost all of the company’s public relations after the hack have been led by Zane Tackett, a “community manager” for Bitfinex currently based in California. When traders press for more information about the company and its investigations, they often complain on Reddit about getting unsatisfactory answers.

“WHO is in control of the wallets and moving coins right now?” writes one commenter on Reddit. “If he [Tackett] doesn’t know the answers to these questions, what makes him so sure you [sic] he is not working for crooks? Is he passing on our concerns to management, and comfortable with their explanation? Or is it a 1-way dialogue?”

The company claims to be “based” in Hong Kong, but it appears to have no central office. According to a CFTC document issued after the company was fined, Bitfinex registered in the notoriously opaque British Virgin Islands under the name BFNXA, which owns a Hong Kong subsidiary. The address listed for “Bitfinex Limited” in the Hong Kong’s company registrar is in fact the office for Proxy Management Consultants Ltd—a firm that helps companies incorporate locally.

Members of the bitcoin community in Hong Kong tell Quartz that Bitfinex’s employees are spread across different countries. LinkedIn, for example lists J.L. van der Velde as Bitfinex’s Taiwan-based CEO and Raphaelle Nicole as its France-based founder. Other employees reportedly live in London, California, and Hong Kong. None of them have come forward personally and publicly to take responsibility for the hacks or explain what might have caused them (nor did any respond to Quartz’s requests for comment on this piece).

According to Larry Salibra, co-founder of the Bitcoin Association of Hong Kong, Bitfinex’s leadership team is at best press-shy, and at worst shadowy. Over the course of years, the company’s founders seldom appeared at local events or meetups. This evasiveness should have signaled to investors that something was amiss, says Salibra.

“Typically when you run a business you want to build a corporate brand, especially in technology or things when there’s risk,” says Salibra. “When a co-founder of a company, especially a financial one, isn’t interested in associating his personal brand with the company brand, it immediately raises red flags,” says Salibra.

To the average consumer, it might seem unusual to dump money into an exchange without knowing a little bit about who runs it. But not everyone agrees.

Joseph Wang, a bitcoin researcher in Hong Kong who lost “thousands” of dollars from the Bitfinex hack, says that he met Bitfinex’s CEO and does not suspect any intentional wrongdoing. “I don’t get the sense that he’s shy because he’s hiding something,” Wang says. “I think he’s shy just because he’s shy.”

In Wang’s view, the company’s paper trail of incorporations, licenses, and bank accounts—which pass through Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the British Virgin Islands—are “standard for any international fund.” The company’s perpetual evasiveness, meanwhile, is not necessarily a sign that its founders are crooks, he says.

How can a bitcoin investor distinguish between a bona-fide, secure exchange and one that can be breached or is a scam? It’s near impossible.

For one thing, in the nascent stages of this cryptocurrency, hacks like these will likely continue, as exchanges figure out how to make security airtight. And even though almost all US-dollar trading is done through venture capital-backed firms (which ensure some degree of accountability), some holdouts, like the anonymously operated BTC-E, still command a sizable slice of trading volume. For cryptocurrency traders, there’s only one golden rule: caveat emptor, or buyer beware.

“If you’re in the bitcoin world then you have to figure out who’s honest and who’s not,” says Wang. “And even when you meet honest people, honest people mess up. As far as I can tell, Bitfinex just messed up. If you don’t want to actually roll your own parachute, then don’t do anything involved with bitcoin”

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