Ponzi-Scheme Charge Is Good News for Bitcoin

Kirsten Salyer writes about consumer culture for Bloomberg View and is the site's engagement editor. She has also written for Condé Nast Traveler, Texas Monthly and Houston Community Newspapers. She has a bachelor's degree in journalism and international studies from Northwestern University.
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Bitcoin: all grown up and part of Ponzi schemes. The crypto-currency's anonymous creator must be so proud.

A federal judge ruled yesterday that Bitcoin investments "meet the definition of investment contract, and as such, are securities." Nice try, Trendon Shavers.

The Securities and Exchange Commission sued Shavers, the Texas owner of Bitcoin Savings and Trust, on July 23 over claims he operated a Bitcoin Ponzi scheme. Shavers, who raised at least 700,000 Bitcoin since September 2011, improperly used currency from new investors to cover investor withdrawals, promised investors as much as 7 percent interest weekly and misappropriated funds for personal use, according to the complaint.

In his defense, Shavers argued that the Bitcoin investments were not securities because Bitcoin is not money, and is not part of anything regulated by the U.S. Hold the phone: Someone who staked his livelihood in the popular online-only currency is claiming it's not money? Heresy.

The judge's decision, and the lawsuit itself, are actually good news for the future of Bitcoin. In case you missed it, Bitcoin has been growing in popularity. The Winklevoss twins of Facebook Fame drew attention to the currency when they announced plans to create an exchange-traded Bitcoin fund last month, and there's even a new Bitcoin charity.

But the unregulated, anonymous currency also has been making financial regulators -- and investors -- nervous. Legal safeguards can help make Bitcoin more attractive to a larger group of users. It's tech-chic that Bitcoin investments are new and trendy and different. It's comforting that they are also apparently protected under federal securities laws.

"Fraudsters are not beyond the reach of the SEC just because they use Bitcoin or another virtual currency to mislead investors and violate the federal securities laws," said Andrew M. Calamari, Director of the SEC's New York Regional Office in the release.

Judge Amos L. Mazzant breaks it down:

"It is clear that Bitcoin can be used as money. It can be used to purchase goods or services, and as Shavers stated, used to pay for individual living expenses. ... Therefore, Bitcoin is a currency or form of money, and investors wishing to invest in BTCST provided an investment of money."

So there: Bitcoin is money. And with that, the story rightly shifts from a case of the big, bad Bitcoin to just another guy who allegedly tried to cheat his investors out of their cash.

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