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The Bitcoin Ponzi scheme: unveiling the truth

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The Bitcoin Ponzi scheme: unveiling the truth

Explore the Bitcoin Ponzi scheme debate. Check the criticisms, Ponzi explanation, and why Bitcoin isn’t one.

Actor Ben McKenzie is mainly known for his roles in The O.C., Southland, and Gotham, where he plays Jim Gordon, an unyielding cop plowing a lone moral furrow in a city beset with crime and violence.

However, lately, McKenzie has borrowed a leaf from his Jim Gordon character and has embarked on a crusade of his own, this time not against the Joker or the Maroni crime family but against crypto.

McKenzie is a vocal critic of the crypto industry. He even wrote a book, “Easy Money: Cryptocurrency, Casino Capitalism, and the Golden Age of Fraud,” which dives into the dangers of cryptocurrency.

The actor argues that cryptocurrency lacks inherent value and is ripe for manipulation. In 2023, he appeared before the U.S. Senate Banking Committee, calling crypto the “largest Ponzi scheme in history.” McKenzie compared the crypto industry to disgraced financier Bernie Madoff, who defrauded investors out of billions of dollars between the early 1990s and late 2008 when his scheme finally unraveled. 

Is McKenzie right? Is crypto a Ponzi scheme? Are hapless investors being taken for a ride by shady cryptocurrency operators? Let’s find out. 

What is a Ponzi scheme?

First, we need to know what a Ponzi scheme is. a type of scam where the money from new investors is used to pay off earlier investors, instead of earning profits through legitimate investments. These schemes promise high returns to attract people.

They are essentially a house of cards that keeps going as long as there’s a steady flow of new money to cover payouts to earlier investors. However, they inevitably collapse when it becomes difficult to recruit new investors.

Named after Charles Ponzi, an Italian businessman who became famous for such a scam in the 1920s, Ponzi schemes are similar to pyramid schemes. Both depend on a constant influx of new investors to keep going, using the new money to pay promised returns to earlier investors. 

The main differences are that Ponzis center around promising high returns on investments while pyramids offer participants commissions based on the number of people they recruit. They may have underlying products or services, but their focus is usually on recruitment.

Neither scheme doesn’t make legitimate profits and is inherently unsustainable, eventually collapsing when it becomes difficult to recruit new investors. Crypto has been likened to both.

Is Bitcoin a Ponzi scheme?

Going by the definition above, you’d probably feel like there are similarities between crypto and Ponzi schemes. It’s probably why Bitcoin (BTC), the largest digital asset by market capitalization, has been at the center of assertions that it resembles a Ponzi scheme. 

Critics argue that Bitcoin’s value depends entirely on people continuing to invest in it. They believe that if the rate of investment slows down, Bitcoin’s market might fall apart. This view raises doubts about whether Bitcoin has any practical use beyond being an object of speculation, questioning its effectiveness as a way to buy things or as a reliable way to keep money. 

Bitcoin and Ponzi allegations

In a past blog post, software engineer and crypto critic Stephen Diehl tried to shed light on what he believes is the Bitcoin Ponzi scheme. Diehl deconstructed Bitcoin’s fundamental value proposition in his assessment, arguing that it lacks any tangible asset or economic use.

He argued that the idea of Bitcoin being a Ponzi scheme is based on the belief that its value comes only from speculation rather than any real usefulness. He thinks that Bitcoin’s worth is kept up by a cycle of speculation, with investors hoping that new people will join and push the prices up.

Diehl also highlighted the unsustainable nature of Bitcoin’s value proposition. He argued that the crypto market operates on the basis of irrational sentiments, with investors chasing returns without any fundamental understanding of the coin’s underlying mechanisms.

Furthermore, the software engineer criticized the broader cryptocurrency ecosystem, suggesting that other tokens follow a similar pattern of speculative trading and wealth redistribution. He contended that these tokens offer little beyond the promise of quick riches, echoing the age-old allure of “money for nothing out of nothing.”

In Diehl’s opinion, Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies stray far from traditional investing principles, relying on complex technology and market excitement to keep their high prices. He cautions against the widespread lack of understanding that supports the Bitcoin scam, advising investors to be wary of attractive but baseless promises.

Examples of Ponzi schemes in crypto

Indeed, crypto’s decentralized nature has provided a platform for potential scams, where fake tokens promise high returns only to vanish with investors’ funds. 

Some infamous examples of crypto Ponzi schemes include OneCoin and Bitconnect. In OneCoin alone, investors reportedly lost more than $4 billion, lured by promises of massive returns on a fake cryptocurrency. 

Bitconnect, on the other hand, which at its peak reached a valuation of $3.5 billion, offered a high-yield lending program, encouraging investors to buy its Bitconnect Coin (BCC) and lock into the program for a set period.

However, it turned out that the program was a Ponzi scheme, with early investors getting paid from funds generated by new investors. The program shut down in 2018, with its founder, Satish Kumbhani, indicted by the U.S. government for his role in the scheme.

Why Bitcoin is not a Ponzi scheme

Despite these examples, it’s important to tell the difference between scams and genuine cryptocurrency projects. 

One compelling argument against claims of Bitcoin being a Ponzi scheme centers on its finite supply. Bitcoin is different because it has a maximum limit of 21 million coins, unlike Ponzi schemes that need continuous new investment. Supporters argue that this limit changes how Bitcoin works, basing its value on scarcity and demand rather than just bringing in new people.

Another defense against the Ponzi accusation is Bitcoin’s decentralized network. Operating on a blockchain system, BTC transactions are verified and recorded by a dispersed network of computers or nodes, eliminating the need for centralized control. 

This starkly contrasts with how Ponzi scheme organizers operate, since they typically exert centralized control over investor funds, manipulating them to sustain the scheme.

 Bitcoin enthusiasts claim the cryptocurrency holds intrinsic value, even during market downturns. In their opinion, investors can trade their Bitcoin for other assets or traditional currencies whenever they find a willing partner. 

Furthermore, the transparency of blockchain technology ensures that every transaction on the Bitcoin network is visible to anyone, anytime. It is completely opposite to the secrecy Ponzi schemes rely on to deceive investors and authorities alike.

Now, let’s talk about volatility. While Ponzis and pyramids promise consistent returns that are often too good to be true, Bitcoin’s market swings are anything but predictable. 

Consider the roller coaster ride of gains and losses that day traders experience, sometimes within a matter of hours. Such erratic movement doesn’t fit the bill for the steady facade of a Ponzi scheme.

Risks and considerations

As much as many may view cryptocurrency as a thrilling investment opportunity, it’s not without risks. 

First, not all cryptocurrencies and trading platforms offer the same level of security. Some newer coins could be especially risky and prone to the Ponzi scams we are discussing here. Plus, there’s no safety net if your crypto gets lost or stolen, so be sure to research thoroughly before diving in.

A previous report from the annual Financial Cryptography and Data Security conference, identified these risks. Per the report, the threat of scams looms large within the crypto community. Scammers employ a variety of tactics, from spamming forums and social media platforms with fake links to creating multiple usernames to bolster their schemes.

The research also revealed alarming trends, with scams often originating from the same source, using different aliases to mask their true intentions. 

The lifespan of these scams varies, with some fizzling out in a mere day while others persist for years. According to the report, forum moderators play a crucial role in shutting down obvious frauds, but the level of activity within scam threads can influence how long they run. 

There’s a concerning trend: increased interaction between scammers and potential victims tends to prolong the lies and the illusion of legitimacy. However, direct engagement between them can also help put a quick stop to the schemes. This is because victims are more likely to uncover the truth, sound the alarm and thwart the fraudsters’ plans.

Moreover, reputation plays a main role in determining the potential success of a Ponzi scheme. A scammer’s credibility — or lack thereof — can significantly impact the number of victims they trap.

Conclusion

Ultimately, whether Bitcoin functions similarly to a Ponzi scheme remains a matter of perspective. While proponents highlight its unique features, such as finite supply and decentralized governance, skeptics point to its speculative nature and regulatory challenges. 

As with any investment opportunity, individuals must conduct thorough research and exercise caution before entering the volatile cryptocurrency world. Being aware of the risks and understanding the nuances of the debate can help investors make informed decisions about the role of Bitcoin in their portfolios.

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