Crypto currencies, speciﬁcally BitCoin, are touted as the next big thing in ﬁnancial
services. A secured, encrypted, technologically advanced platform that can support
monetary transactions across the globe is a dream come true for a lot of ﬁnancial
services innovators hoping for a borderless ﬁnancial world. This wave of innovation,
while still nascent, bears a lot of advantages.
It’s important to note, though, that not everything is green in the realm of BitCoin. While
some disadvantages are obvious – exchange rate volatility and lack of sufﬁcient market
making are two obvious ones – some are less obvious, and are sometimes mistakenly
presented as advantages by newbies to the industry. Speciﬁcally, I am referring to fraud
using or on the BitCoin platform, and misconceptions about its feasibility – while some
may think it is much safer than other means of payment, that is absolutely not the case.
With BitCoin’s no-recourse movement of funds, transactions are subject to two types of
fraud: supply side fraud, and social engineering. Their prevalence might hinder mass
adoption of crypto currencies and must be addresses by the ecosystem before those
can be used the proverbial “normals”, the majority of consumers.
When a consumer purchases online using a credit card, the merchant charging the card
isn’t protected from fraud the same way they would be if charging the card in the ofﬂine
world. No issuer, acquirer or card network provides any fraud protection and merchants
can easily be victims of stolen cards or “friendly fraud”, a term describing customers
making actual purchases then charging back alleging fraud, while keeping the goods.
Defending oneself from chargebacks is difﬁcult for merchants and fraud constitutes a major line item in retailers’ ﬁnancial statements. However chargebacks serve a purpose: they
protect consumers from fraudulent merchants, failure to provide service and other
issues. With no ability to reverse transactions, no consumer protection is possible,
hence more and more fraud is perpetrated by those who pretend to be merchants. As
merchants, they can sell a service or product while charging in advance, and never ship
the product (or never own it in the ﬁrst place). Consumers who pay ﬁnd themselves out
of their money and the product they were offered, with no ability to reverse a payment.
Thus, demand side fraud becomes much more appealing to fraudsters.
This lack of protection hurts consumer trust. It also ampliﬁes the damage from each
fraud case. A single fraudster using a stolen credit card may shop for $1000 in stolen
goods; a single fraudulent shop can easily scam dozens and hundreds of consumers.
The other thing to consider is social engineering. Fraud wasn’t invented in the 20th
century nor is it dependent on credit cards. There is a reason why Western Union or
MoneyGram was and still is a favorite for 419-type (“Nigerian”) scams; it, too, has no
option to reverse a payment. Every complex system is as strong as its weakest link, and
BitCoin is no different; the human element is its biggest failure point. As the SEC brings
to trial a man accused of running a BitCoin ponzi scheme, it becomes obvious that no
encryption beats greed and no sophisticated technology beats lack of good judgement.
In that sense, BitCoin isn’t different than any other means of payment, for better or for
worse. It is just not any safer.
Crypto-currencies hold a big promise for a more sophisticated ﬁnancial infrastructure,
but the discussion about them is still limited to a small group of techies. As the world of
those currencies expands to meet the average user, questions regarding consumer
protection and social engineering must be dealt with, otherwise BitCoin will fail to be
adopted. We cannot just trust the users to be sophisticated, as we have all consistently
demonstrated that as a crowd, we are not sophisticated at all. In a sense, the same lack
of a governing 3rd party guaranteeing at least some protection or recourse, justiﬁably
hailed as the platform’s greatest advantage, is also one of its biggest disadvantages.
That, too, needs to be a part of an informed discussion.