Quadriga Mystery Deepens After Auditors Find Bankrupt Exchange's 'Cold Storage' Wallets Were Drained

Quadriga's house of cards has finally collapsed.

For nearly three months now, customers of the Canadian exchange that declared bankruptcy in January have been questioning the company's official narrative - outlined in a series of court filings - that it had suddenly lost access to more than $150 million in customer deposits due to the sudden death of its founder, Gerald Cotten. And as it turns out, everybody who thought the company was hiding something by refusing to disclose the public keys to the "cold storage" wallets purportedly holding the lost crypto fortune, has now been proven right. 

Quadriga

Because, as Bloomberg reported Friday night, an auditor hired by the company has determined that the company's wallets have been empty since April - eight months before Cotten died suddenly from Crohn-disease-related complications.

When Quadriga Fintech Solutions Corp. founder Gerald Cotten died, account holders feared the encrypted access keys needed to recover C$190 million ($143 million) of cryptocurrencies held by the exchange in offline storage could be lost forever.

It looks now like the storage Quadriga is known to have used - dubbed cold wallets - has been empty since April.

While exactly what happened to the coins isn't yet known, the revelation is the clearest indication yet that the exchange's 115,000 customers - some of whom lost their life savings in the collapse - likely won't see a dime of that money returned. And Cotten, who ran the exchange entirely from his laptop and was purportedly the only person with access to customer deposits, is now (on paper, at least) dead. Though it's worth noting that the evidence for his death - as far as the Canadian courts are concerned - exists solely in signed affidavits attesting that he died in Jaipur, India in December.

This marks the latest twist for a Vancouver-based digital exchange that shuttered operations at the end of January, leaving 115,000 customers out-of-pocket for about C$260 million in cash and cryptocurrencies. The firm has been under court-approved creditor protection since Feb. 5 and Ernst & Young has been sorting through Quadriga’s dealings as a monitor under the process. The monitor’s latest report, released Friday, shows troublesome news.

Quadriga was primarily run by Cotten, using his laptop, and his widow has described his normal procedures for transactions as moving "the majority of the coins to cold storage as a way to protect the coins from hacking or virtual theft," according to the March 1 report.

After attempts by amateur sleuths to identify the cold wallet addresses on the blockchain turned up a history of suspicious transactions, auditors at Ernst & Young managed to identify them, and confirmed that five of the wallets haven't held any crypto since April, and a sixth was used to transfer funds to the Quadriga hot wallet on Dec. 3 - just days before Cotten's untimely death.

Ernst & Young identified six cold wallet addresses used by Quadriga to store Bitcoin in the past. Five of those wallets haven’t had any balances since April 2018, and a sixth "appears to have been used to receive Bitcoin from another cryptocurrency exchange account and subsequently transfer Bitcoin to the Quadriga hot wallet" on Dec. 3. The only activity since was an inadvertent transfer of Bitcoin into that sixth wallet last month, which was disclosed earlier.

Crypto investors and exchanges often keep their holdings in cold wallets - typically, physical devices disconnected from the web that can be plugged into a computer when needed since internet-connected hot wallets can be vulnerable to hackers.

Now, Ernst & Young is trying to get a complete record of Quadriga's transactions from 14 exchanges that Quadriga interacted with, and from AWS, which handled the exchange's web hosting services. But what exactly happened to the coins isn't yet known.

Ernst & Young identified another three cold wallet addresses potentially used by Quadriga and started doing a similar analysis - though even those ones contain no cryptocurrency.

Another 14 user accounts created outside the normal process were also identified, with deposits artificially created and used for trading. The monitor has reached out to 14 exchanges and received responses so far from four. It didn’t name the exchanges.

Quadriga’s platform data is stored on the cloud with Amazon.com’s Amazon Web Services, or AWS. While Jennifer Robertson, Cotten’s widow, has asked for access to the data, she has been denied because it was in his name rather than registered under the company. Ernst & Young has requested the court grant an order authorizing access.

Meanwhile, Cotten - the one person who could be held accountable - is either dead, or off on an island somewhere, enjoying his ill-gotten gains.