Lessons from a Bitcoin bungler

Lessons from  a Bitcoin bungler

Here’s a cautionary tale for anyone thinking of climbing aboard the Bitcoin bandwagon. You could lose your entire investment in a moment of carelessness. Then again, you would have to be as daft and forgetful as me.

Here’s how it happened. Back in the spring I acquired some bitcoins - well about half a bitcoin - to carry out an experiment on behalf of Radio 4’s p.m. program. I wanted to see how easy it was to use the virtual currency to buy something real - in this case a pizza.

My mission succeeded, although I found it quite a tricky and cumbersome process. I first needed to set up a Bitcoin wallet on a mobile phone, then acquire some currency, paying for it on an exchange using a mobile money app. But having succeeded in getting my lunch delivered, I decided to top up my bitcoin balance again, so that I still had 0.5 bitcoins in my mobile wallet.

A few months later I went to a conference about the currency, where I tried out the world’s first Bitcoin ATM, putting in 10 pounds and topping up my account to 0.7 bitcoins. So now I had about 43 pounds at that day’s exchange rate. At the conference I winced sympathetically when an early adopter explained how he’d lost 7,000 bitcoins (then $200,000 or Rs 1,24,77,800) because he hadn’t backed up his private key to his computer.

For months, I thought little about the small investment sitting in an app on my phone. Then I looked at the Bitcoin exchange rate - now pushing toward $900 in the latest extraordinary bubble - and realized it had turned into a rather big investment. But then I remembered what I’d done with the phone containing the currency. Wanting to make sure it was somewhere I could get easier access, I’d transferred almost my entire bitcoin holding to a new wallet on another phone that I was testing back in the summer.

Then, a few weeks ago, I offered this phone - supplied by the manufacturer - as a prize in a charity fundraising effort. And before handing it over to the winner I had of course restored it to factory settings, wiping all of my personal data and apps, including my Bitcoin wallet.

So my bitcoin holding - now worth upwards of 400 pounds - had vanished into thin air. The record of the transaction sending 0.7 bitcoins to the wiped phone was still on the original handset, and when I tapped on the app up came a message: “If you lose your device you lose your bitcoins. This means you need to back up your private keys!”

Of course, I had not done that. so my money had disappeared into the void - and as Bitcoin is by its nature an unregulated currency with no central bank or ombudsmen, there was nobody to whom I could appeal for advice or recompense.

A salutary tale then - but for me a worthwhile lesson in understanding the mechanics of a virtual currency. And I’ve two sources of comfort - first of all, the man at that conference who lost 7,000 bitcoins is now down about $6 million (Rs 37,43,34,000)  by today’s exchange rate. Second, there is every possibility that we will see that exchange rate plunge again in the coming weeks - so our respective Bitcoin bungles might not matter so much in the long run.

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