The search for new ways to raise money has paved the way for the rise of the so-called Initial Coin Offerings, or ICOs.
More than $2 billion have been raised in about 148 ICOs this year alone, according to data from Coinschedule. And that’s not surprising, given the number of new companies—in every sector imaginable—that have been trying to initiate token sales nearly every day for the past 12 months.
Buying into the ICO craze, however, comes with risks, which are significantly higher than buying stocks. In China, the central bank has already banned fundraising activities that use digital token sales and ordered companies that have already raised money via ICOs to refund their investors.
“Ninety-nine percent of ICOs are a scam so this [clampdown] is needed to filter the crooks out,” tweeted venture capitalist Chamath Palihapitiya.
New language, same game
Despite it’s popularity, experts and venture capitalists have yet to proclaim ICOs as the panacea for a start-up’s fundraising problem. Why? Because many of them are scams.
Ray Dillinger, who did the code review and security audit for the blockchain portion of the Bitcoin source code and had been in close contact with Satoshi Nakamoto, wrote in a blog post that this isn’t the first time that these copycats existed, and it won’t be the last. Digital cash systems had tried to launch even before 1995, he said, and the fact that these launches didn’t make it to the mainstream audience will speak of their success, or lack thereof.
“Sadly, many of the people who launched these alternates don’t know what they’re doing. Even more sadly, most of them do know what they’re doing, and at least three quarters know that what they’re doing is ripping people off. They strive to do it as well as they possibly can, usually by means that I can’t really distinguish from blatant stock price manipulation and insider trading,” he wrote, noting that the people behind the early version of digital cash systems went to jail because they abused their position of being trusted.
In security context, the term “trusted” is seen a weakness because it means that “something or someone has the power to break your security by acting in bad faith.” Before Bitcoin, Dillinger said digital cash systems have only managed to limit the damage a “trusted” role can do, but Satoshi has developed a system without a “trusted” role. At all.
“The Trustless nature of Bitcoin was the main thing that convinced me Satoshi wasn’t scamming. He built a highway with no toll bridge. People could use Bitcoin without creating any obligation to pay him anything ever. He wasn’t selling coins, he was giving them away for solving hashes. He reserved nothing for himself,” Dillinger said.
Now, a new breed of people are playing the same digital cash game, but with a new language: ICOs.
“They have created code with Trusted roles intended specifically to make the kind of toll bridges that Satoshi convinced me he wasn’t a scammer by leaving out. They’ve even taken to selling all the coins, just like e-gold or a bunch of other digital-cash launches from previous decades that wound up with people going to jail—except now they’re calling them ICO’s,” Dillinger said.
There’s no denying that there may be some good ideas caught up in the flood of these flakes who don’t have real business plans and will most likely crash and burn when the whole thing ends in prosecutions. But why not do it legally and through the appropriate authorities?
For those still interested in taking part in ICOs, Dillinger has one piece of advice: practice due diligence.
“I believe that blockchain technology, once the current state of confusion is over, will contribute vastly more to the world than all the scams put together have taken or destroyed,” he wrote. “But good lord, what we started. I hate to even imagine how many billions of dollars of scams and failures and thefts have been perpetrated by abusing people’s faith in and enthusiasm for that technology by now. And I have no idea how we could possibly have prevented it.”