Utah leaders warn of investment scams pushing bitcoins

FILE - In this Monday, April 7, 2014, file photo, a bitcoin logo is displayed at the Inside Bitcoins conference and trade show in New York. The bitcoin miner NiceHash says it is investigating a security breach and the theft of the contents of the NiceHash "bitcoin wallet." The company said Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017 in a statement posted on its website that it had stopped operations and was working to verify how many bitcoins were taken. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File)

Be wary of bitcoins and other crypto-currencies, Utah’s consumer protection officials warned Friday.

They’re surrounded by scams waiting to happen — and Utahns are especially susceptible to being fleeced, said state Division of Securities Director Keith Woodwell.

His agency is investigating Ponzi schemes and other frauds linked to crypt-currencies, he said, suspicious that scam artists are targeting retirement accounts.

“Investors should be extremely wary of promoters who promise high returns through bitcoin arbitrage or trading strategies,” Woodwell said. They also should think twice about being offered a chance to get in on an “initial coin offering (ICO)” in which investors receive new crypto-currencies in exchange for an investment of actual money.

“Utah’s reputation as a technically savvy and connected state makes our population ripe for crypto-currency fraud,” he added. “While it’s a compliment to our population for being plugged into what’s trending, internet hype can lead to rash decisions.”

A big part of the problem, said state Department of Commerce Executive Director Francine Giani, is that most people don’t quite grasp the concept of crypto-currencies.

She described them — bitcoin, ethereum and litecoin are industry leaders — as mediums of exchange created and stored electronically on a public database known as the blockchain.

“Unlike traditional currency, these alternatives have no physical form and typically are not backed by tangible assets,” Giani said. “These investments are not insured or controlled by a central bank or other governmental authority and cannot always be exchanged for other commodities.”

That leaves crypto-currency investments vulnerable to computer hacking and subject to wild fluctuations in prices.

Woodwell urged Utahns to avoid unsolicited sales pitches, guarantees of investment returns that seem too good to be true, and pressure to complete deals immediately.

Those are tactics frequently used by unlicensed promoters, he added, encouraging investors to check the backgrounds of individuals and firms at https://securities.utah.gov/investors/index.html.