Bitcoins offer real risks for a virtual currency for most investors

I was talking to someone about bitcoin and mistakenly called it “bitcon.”

“Oh, what a Freudian slip,” the person said.

I wasn’t trying to comment about the legitimacy of the digital currency. Bitcoins can be used to buy products and services. You can also invest in them.

The value of a bitcoin isn’t based on a currency you know such as the dollar or euro. But you buy bitcoins by transferring real money to a person or an exchange. It’s basically lines of computer code that become online cash. Bitcoins can be stored on a person’s computer or held by a third party in a virtual wallet. Their value can rise or fall substantially and quickly.

Regulators across the country are warning investors about the volatility of bitcoin both as a currency and investment. I hope their warnings will be taken seriously, particularly in light of the recent events surrounding one of the major bitcoin exchanges.

With no initial explanation, Tokyo-based Mt. Gox left customers unable to access their bitcoin accounts. In a tersely written message on its website, www.mtgox.com, the company said the move was to “protect the site and our users.” A subsequent note ­— three sentences long — from the company’s chief executive also didn’t shed light on what’s happened to the company or the bitcoins it held for customers, only that it has had “recent issues.”

The company has since filed for bankruptcy protection saying technical issues resulted in fraudulent withdrawals and as a result it has lost 850,000 bitcoins, including 100,000 of its own, worth more than $400 million.

Throughout the shutdown, Mt. Gox hasn’t been upfront with its customers. And therein lies the problem. The company didn’t have to answer to any authority or regulator, so it didn’t have to tell folks what was happening with their money.

In fact, digital currency made the North American Securities Administrators Association’s list of new investor threats. “The value of bitcoins and other digital currencies is highly volatile and the concept behind the currency is difficult to understand even for sophisticated financial experts,” NASAA said in its alert.

“State securities regulators are concerned that the popularity of digital currency can provide con artists with fertile soil to grow a new generation of scams,” said association spokesman Bob Webster. “Investors need to be aware that investments based on virtual money present real risks, including the possibility of being bitconned.”

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., sent a letter to federal regulators calling for a ban on bitcoins because they are unregulated and, in some famous instances, have been tied to illegal activity.

In a warning last week to investors, Joseph Borg, director of the Alabama Securities Commission said, “The risk of using bBitcoin may be off the charts! When using bitcoin for investing, it is difficult to seek any protection or recourse for losses due to fraudulent schemes.” Echoing other regulators, here’s a rundown of Borg’s specific concerns with bitcoin:

It’s a high-risk commodity because of the volatility in its price.

It’s not backed by any central banks worldwide and has no tangible value.

It’s an experimental concept.

It’s unregulated and does not provide protection for consumers.

Consumer disclosure rules and regulations are limited or nonexistent.

Joe Rotunda, director of the enforcement division for the Texas State Securities Board and a member of NASAA’s enforcement section, is the association’s point person on bitcoin. He’s concerned that some people, hoping to strike it rich by investing in the next big technological advance, will overlook the risk in this new payment form.

Consider its volatility. Rotunda points out that a bitcoin was valued at less than $14 in January 2013 and jumped to $1,200 in November 2013. Most recently it dropped to about $400 following the news about Mt. Gox.

“My biggest concern about Bitcoin is that it’s trendy and there’s a lot of buzz about it,” he said in an interview. “But you can’t get caught up in the buzz and trendiness of it and lose sight of the inherent risk. This is the type of risk that can wipe out someone’s retirement account in a matter of minutes. That’s the flip side of this coin.”

There are some benefits to digital currency. It could reduce the cost of financial transactions, especially from country to country. It could give people living in areas without financial institutions or stable currency a safer way to transact business.

Perhaps with more protections, bitcoin or some other digital currency could take off and provide handsome returns. But right now, it’s too risky for most investors.

Michelle Singletary: michelle.singletary@washpost.com.

Washington Post Writers Group

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