Opinion – Cryptocurrency: For Better and Worst

The phenomenon of cryptocurrency is on its way to transforming the global monetary system. That’s not going to happen right away, or next year, or any specific time in the foreseeable future, but it’s here to stay. You might compare it to the advent of coins made of precious metals as the way to buy and sell products a few thousand years ago rather than simply trade one product for another. Or perhaps to understand its enormity, consider the rise of paper currency in place of coins or perhaps the advent of accounts to and from which money flows by paper checks.

At last, the Treasury Department has taken the initiative by decreeing that the Internal Revenue Service has to know about any movement of cryptocurrency above $10,000. The whole point is to make it more difficult to avoid taxes by investing in cryptocurrency, but enforcement will be difficult considering that so many transactions are outside the U.S. Who’s to know what’s going on?

Now, with the rise of the internet, cryptocurrency is so easily used as a medium of payment, of buying and selling, even of saving money, that it’s tempting to ask why all of us are not getting into it. The answer is that cheating, scamming, theft of life savings, and wholesale fraud on a massive scale are all too easy. Cryptocurrency at this stage is for those who know what they’re doing, definitely not for the rest of us.

The Federal Trade Commission lays out the potential for scamming in terms that should scare most people away. “If you’re thinking about paying with cryptocurrency,” the FTC warns, “know that it’s different from paying with a credit card or other traditional payment methods.” For one thing, says the FTC, “Cryptocurrency payments do not come with legal protection.” In other words, “If you need to dispute a purchase, your credit card company has a process to help you get your money back. Cryptocurrencies typically do not.”

Considering the terrific risks, controversy over regulating cryptocurrency is inevitable. Just about every U.S. agency with anything to do with money is involved in cryptocurrency, creating an atmosphere of tremendous confusion. A great question is whether much more centralized supervision is needed to regulate this new way of doing business or whether less regulation would enable the cryptocurrency revolution to grow and spread for the benefit of billions.

Right now it’s much too early to be sure how to harness the use of cryptocurrency so that fair play, free of scamming, is possible, but Hester Peirce, at the Securities and Exchange Commission, told MarketWatch she believes the U.S. “is certainly falling behind the curve” in legislating what to do. “We’ve seen other countries take a more productive approach to regulating cryptocurrency,” she said. “Our approach has been to say no and tell people wait…we need to build a framework that is appropriate for this industry.”

Conflicts among agencies are unavoidable as long as they all are imposing their own rules and regulations. Besides the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Treasury Department, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, and the Federal Reserve Bank are all caught up in cryptocurrency issues.

The SEC, however, is definitely not against cryptocurrency if regulated properly. Indeed, decentralization of the system of cryptocurrency makes it more viable as a means to do business. The question is how to make sure this strange new form of finance actually works for everyone.

Cryptocurrencies by now are flooding the world with numerous entities getting into the act. “It’s gotten so big, it now is worth more than all of the U.S. dollars in circulation globally,” Eric Lipton, investigating for The New York Times, told CBS. “It’s no longer even conceivable for U.S. regulators to say, we’re going to ban cryptocurrency in the United States.”

But the risks are huge. Cybercrime on a massive scale is a constant menace. Bloomberg has reported that government agencies are zeroing in on Binance, the industry’s leader, after another report that bitcoin worth nearly $3 billion was being traded illicitly. Along with this type of activity are ransomware attacks in which operatives demand millions for restoring huge accounts, corporate secrets, and message traffic torn away from major companies.

In the U.S., an attack on the Colonial Pipeline, responsible for shipping nearly half the fuel for the eastern United States, had to shut down for several days before reportedly paying $5 million in ransom to a criminal gang in Eastern Europe called Dark Side. Such scamming is made possible by the mysterious flow of cyber currency through an internet system that’s enriching criminals who see cryptocurrency as a great way to steal millions from corporations as well as private individuals.

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