One of the great things about Bitcoin is the power it gives you over your money. Want to take $20,000 worth out of cold storage and spend it frivolously? You can do that, and it won’t come with the types of fees associated with closing a 401K early.
If you control your private keys, you control your money. You can send it to anyone in the world and there is no one that can stop you. That is a big selling point of bitcoin and most cryptocurrencies.
But there might be a downside to that: what if someone forces you to send them your bitcoin?
There have been some high-profile cases of physical bitcoin robberies. According to Coindesk, ten police officers were arrested in India after they allegedly kidnapped and extorted bitcoins worth $1.3 million from local residents.
In February, CoinTelegraph reported on a man being “mutilated” and then mugged of nearly $1 million worth of Bitcoins in Moscow. The day before, the South China Morning Post reported on another bitcoin seven figure (in US dollars) Bitcoin robbery in Taiwan.
In January, Express.co.uk reported on a bitcoin mugging in Oxfordshire, though they did not mention for how much.
In November of last year, Bitsonline reported on an attempted robbery in which four men allegedly attacked an employee of a bitcoin exchange. The bitcoin robbery failed, and the assailants were arrested. But the victim was still physically assaulted.
Those examples are just what have been reported in the last few months. Google search results for “Bitcoin mugging” bring up over 50,000 results. There are reports of muggings for digital currencies from 2016 and 2015 but judging by news reports it seems to be growing in popularity.
Of course, anyone can be mugged for any kind of money. This happens with cash all the time, it happens with credit cards all the time. But there are two differences with Bitcoin that make it a concern: accessibility and permanence.
Bitcoin isn’t accessible as cash. Cash will always be the easiest form of money to mug someone for. But Bitcoin is easier to access than a 401k, a pension, stocks, CDs and anything we normally associate with retirements.
But a lot of people are buying bitcoin in the hopes that it will one day increase in value and provide a nice nest egg for retirement. And if they are mugged for that bitcoin, they won’t just be losing what is in their wallet, they could lose everything they have worked for.
If you have your savings in bonds or stocks or any of those traditional investments, and you are being mugged, then their inaccessibility becomes a feature rather than a problem. It can take days or weeks to close 401ks. Checks must be mailed, people must be called. It is a long and arduous process. Potential muggers would have to kidnap their victims, hold them for days and then hope that no one notices they are missing before the funds are successfully transferred.
With Bitcoin, all they would have to do is force you to transfer your bitcoins or give up your private keys and then your bitcoins are gone forever, with little chance at recovery.
If thieves steal your credit cards, you can call the company and have them shut down the cards. They can potentially reverse any transactions. It might not be easy, but chances are you’ll get through the ordeal having only lost whatever cash you were holding.
Bitcoin robberies are potentially more impactful and more permanent than getting robbed for any traditional currency.
Is There a Solution?
A few potential solutions come to mind. First would be to separate bitcoin holdings into multiple wallets. That way, mugging victims could hand over one of these accounts while limiting their losses. Of course, that depends on the criminals believing that is all the victim holds, but that is true regardless of if the person holds their bitcoins in more than one account.
A potentially more useful solution would be smart contracts. If you want to use bitcoin as a retirement plan, it may be possible to lock them up until a predetermined time or block height. This is called Timelock. The problem with it is also its advantage. Bitcoins are irreversibly locked until either a certain date or until the blockchain hits a certain block. This means that a mugging victim would be unable to provide criminals with their bitcoins even if they wanted to. Unfortunately, this would also mean that the bitcoins are inaccessible in the case of a medical emergency or any other reason. 401ks may impose heavy fines if you cash out early but at least they can be cashed out.
Coinbase has a vault feature and it could potentially be used to head off any muggings. Getting coins out of the vault can take up to two days, plenty of time to prevent any muggings outside of an extremely coordinated, risky and lengthy kidnapping. Unfortunately, using Coinbase Vault means you must trust Coinbase itself.
While Coinbase is a well-respected and trusted exchange, one of Bitcoin’s advantages is not having to trust any other third party. Trusting Coinbase for a retirement plan with decades of planned maturity is a stretch. Even if you believe they will be around in 2030, 2040, or 2050, is that something you want to stake your future on? At that point, you might as well be using a bank.
Of course, the best solution is to simply not be mugged in the first place. And that’s where the recent spate of muggings could affect more than just the victims, it could affect the whole ecosystem.
How it Affects All of Us.
In late 2013, I was writing about general technology. Then, the Mt. Gox fiasco happened, and I was tasked with writing about it. Knowing very little about Bitcoin at that time, I did what a lot of people my age do and turned to podcasts. I found Andreas Antonopoulos’ appearance on the Joe Rogan show and listened to them straight through. A few weeks later I applied for a job at what was then a brand-new site, CoinTelegraph.
The point being, without a bitcoin advocate, I would have never gotten involved. Or at least, I wouldn’t have gotten involved into the level that I have. Thousands of others purchased bitcoin based on speeches or videos from bitcoin advocates that they saw.
Bitcoin doesn’t have a big advertising campaign. Outside of a few community funded projects and the BitPay one-off college football bowl game, it depends on word of mouth. Bitcoin people, both online and in person, are known for being vehement in their support of the digital coin.
This word of mouth advertising is how Bitcoin has grown exponentially since its launch in 2009. Part of that inevitably involves bragging about how much money you made by investing in it. Even if people don’t brag about how much money they made, simply being involved in bitcoin implies you have been holding for some time. That’s enough for most people to assume you have large holdings and desperate criminals might see that as an opportunity.
A recent Barclays Report (reported on by Bloomberg) compared Bitcoin’s growth to an infectious disease. While I strongly disagree with their conclusion that “peak prices have passed” (I think it is more accurate to say peak prices have passed for this cycle) I do agree with assertion that word of mouth is very important to Bitcoin’s growth.
That word of mouth advertising is effective when it’s one person talking to their friends and family, but it is significantly more effective when it’s a charismatic person talking to thousands or hundreds of thousands of people. Without that, Bitcoin’s growth could be slowed significantly.
One bitcoin investor who would only speak on the condition of anonymity, told me that he has had to change his daily routine and even hire security for public events. That isn’t going to encourage the next wave of bitcoin faithful to advocate for the coin publicly.
This isn’t an article with a lot of solutions. Perhaps the solution is just effective law enforcement. Most of the perpetrators have been caught. Bitcoin is traceable, so it makes it hard to cash out without drawing attention. If criminals realize that their attempts will likely fail, they are less likely to happen. But that is a big if. There is always a chance that criminals will become more effective and laundering their stolen bitcoins.
I hope that by pointing out the problem, someone else will come up with a solution. Because Bitcoin needs its advocates. Bitcoin needs whoever will be the next generation of bitcoin advocates. It needs public personas who aren’t scared they are going to be mugged leaving a convention. It needs word of mouth advertising if it wants to overcome or compete with the fiat financial system in any significant way.
Bitcoin muggings don’t just put its victims at risk, they put the viral advantage of bitcoin at risk.