Back in its 2013 heyday, when bitcoin soared from below $100 to over $1000 in the span of a few months (in no small part thanks to the collapse of the Cyprus banking system) there was only one real Bitcoin exchange: Magic: The Gathering Online Exchange, or Mt. Gox as it was better known, which had become the world's largest hub for trading the digital currency. And then, as mysteriously as it had appeared, Mt. Gox went dark, and filed for bankruptcy after nearly half a billion dollars worth of bitcoin "disappeared."
For a case study of a blistering rise and an absolutely epic fall of an exchange that i) was named after Magic: the Gathering and ii) transacted in a digital currency which many have speculated was conceived by the NSA nearly two decades ago and was used as a honeypot to trap the gullible, look no further than Mt.Gox which after halting withdrawals for the second (and final time) has finally done the honorable thing, and filed for bankruptcy. As the WSJ reports, "Bitcoin exchange Mt. Gox said Friday it was filing for bankruptcy protection after losing almost 750,000 of its customers' bitcoins, marking the collapse of a marketplace that once dominated trading in the virtual currency. The company said it also lost around 100,000 of its own bitcoins. Together, the lost bitcoins would be worth approximately $473 million at market prices charted by the CoinDesk bitcoin index, although the price of Mt. Gox bitcoin had fallen well below that index after it stopped bitcoin withdrawals in early February."
The punchline: speaking to reporters at Tokyo District Court Friday after the bankruptcy filing, Mt. Gox owner Mark Karpelès said technical issues had opened the way for fraudulent withdrawals, and he apologized to customers.
"There was some weakness in the system, and the bitcoins have disappeared. I apologize for causing trouble."
In other words, oops sorry, several hundred million in Bitcoin is unaccounted for but blame the "system weakness." This promptly led to various artistic interpretations on the Mt. Gox logo, such as this one:
Some were confused if Karpeles was going to get away with nothing more than an excuse, even if - as many speculated - he had personally fabricated exchange data entries and embezzled millions of dollars for his own account.
As a reminder, when it filed for bankruptcy in February 2014, Mt. Gox said 750,000 customer bitcoins and another 100,000 belonging to the exchange were stolen due to a software security flaw. The lost funds represented the equivalent of $480 million at the time of the bankruptcy filing. Mt. Gox also said more than $27 million was missing from its Japanese bank accounts. Karpeles, who had blamed hackers for the loss, later said he had recovered 200,000 of the lost bitcoins.
Earlier today we got the answer when nearly 18 months after his infamous apology, Mark Karpeles was arrested in Tokyo. FT reports that Japanese police have arrested Mark Karpelès, the head of the bankrupt Japan-based bitcoin exchange Mt Gox. The arrest charge is that he made an illegal entry to the system in February 2013 and increased the balance of his account by $1 million.
And yet, a year and a half after the exchange insolvency, nobody truly knows what happened:
The alleged crimes involved are hard to pin down, say police sources, because of the absence of a specific laws governing the virtual currency. Police have acknowledged privately that there technical elements of the alleged disappearance of nearly $500m that “are still not properly understood”.
Asked by Mt Gox to look into the matter in March Last year, the Tokyo Metropolitan Police were not able to begin their investigation until three months later. Even then, say people close to the investigation, the two police departments in charge — the cyber crime unit and the white-collar crime unit — did not properly share information.
The year long investigation, say legal experts, has culminated in an arrest that will allow police to hold Mr Karpelès without charge for 23 days. If he continues to deny any wrongdoing during that time, police may alter the charge, and hold him for another 23 days.
While Karpeles may very well be guilty of embezzlement and massive fraud against his clients, could it be the still undetermined "crimes" relating to a virtual currency will become just the excuse to keep unsavory suspects detained and/or under arrest for an indefinite period of time? Because being held for up to 46 days without any charge seems a little Guantanamoish.
As the FT adds, "the case has exposed both the complexities of crime relating to the bitcoin virtual currency, and the profound difficulties encountered by the Japanese police as they have attempted to investigate the Mt Gox."
Seemingly the complexity was not as big as that encountered by US regulators and police who 7 years after the greatest criminal systemic collapse, and after the statute of limitations has now expired, have yet to arrest anyone for a multi-trillion systemic crime far greater than Karpeles' $500 million embezzlement.
As for the former Mt. Gox head, today's arrest will hardly come as a surprise as it was expected for over two weeks: Japanese journalists had been encamped outside his Tokyo home for several days. Footage of him being led from his home to a police car showed Mr Karpelès wearing a T-shirt and a baseball cap.
Mr Karpelès could, if found guilty, face up to five years in prison or a fine of as much as Y500,000 which at today's exchange rate is just over $4000.
So let's do the math: steal $500 million which only you know where it is, spend 5 years in prison, and be fined $5000. Sounds like a pretty good deal...
Anyone curious for more, there was an AMA this morning with a person representing to be Ashley Barr, the first Mt. Gox employee which gives more insight into Karpeles various pathologies. It can be found here.