In early 2009, after the market crash of the previous year, some very smart anonymous person launched bitcoin. A currency with no regulatory body, it's all stored in a digital wallet and was initially used on dark web marketplaces to buy drugs and guns and whatever other dodgy stuff people wanted to anonymously get their hands on. Now, if you want to, you can also use it offline, in certain strip clubs, pubs, video game shops and, weirdly, garden centres.
In late 2017, the value of the cryptocurrency surged – from below £1,000 for one bitcoin to nearly £20,000. That meant anyone who had bitcoin sitting in their digital wallet was now considerably wealthier than they were before. If, that is, they could access their digital wallet.
For the many people who'd flirted with bitcoin and the dark web maybe four years previously, and absolutely forgotten their password in the time between then and the bitcoin boom, there was a problem. With bitcoin, there's no way to do that "forgotten password" thing and enter your first pet's name to get everything back. Once it's gone, it's gone. Some people tried using hypnosis to jog their memory, but it didn't help: around a quarter of all bitcoin is reportedly now lost in digital purgatory.
I spoke to some of the very smart people who bought bitcoin before the surge about how much their lost passwords cost them.
VICE: So you bought bitcoin but lost your password?
Ruairi: Yeah, I bought €80 worth of bitcoin in late 2015. I made a password with a long string of numbers, symbols and letters, and a recovery password with the same. Being very clever, I wrote both on the same piece of paper, which I lost.
Did you buy it because you thought you’d be rich one day?
No, it was curiosity about bitcoin and markets on the dark web mostly.
How much would that sum be worth now?
Well, it was around .2 bitcoin, so around $2,000 (£1,429), I guess. It was much higher a few months back.
Are you OK?
At the time it wasn’t a big deal, but watching bitcoin skyrocket in value over the last year is kind of heartbreaking. A few grand would definitely make my life a lot easier.
Have you tried getting back into your account since?
I looked into that in 2016, when I realised I'd lost it. It was complicated and confusing and I couldn't figure it out. By the time the price had gone up, my old laptop with the wallet had broken, so I don't have any trace of it left.
So it's really all gone?
I think so. I don't think I'm cut out for crypto trading.
Well, sorry to open old wounds.
I've made my peace with it at this point. If I'd never lost the password I'd have cashed out at £100 and eventually wasted it all on Pret sandwiches anyway.
How did it happen, Luke?
Luke: About three years ago I bought 1 full bitcoin, which cost cost me around $200 (£142). It was my first time attempting to make a purchase, but over two years I spent between 15k and 20k on bitcoin.
What made you want to buy bitcoin?
I was interested in using the dark net markets. I was young, going through that phase of wanting to try everything.
And your password?
I wrote it down, along with my email, on a piece of paper, because it was long and random. I knew I’d never remember it. I think it fell out of my pocket that night while I was at a zombie paintball hayride thing.
So were you heartbroken?
I spent a while trying to convince my then-girlfriend to drive me back to look for it. But yeah, I was devastated. At the time I was shortsighted on how much bitcoin would blow up.
How much would it be worth now?
Around $20,000 (£14,287) when it first blew up a few months ago. Maybe $10,000 (£7,143) now.
Did you try to find a way back into it?
I tried for days, but it’s not possible, because I also lost the password for the email address I used in the account. I wrote it down on the same paper.
Why did you just write it down?
It was a stupid beginner's mistake. A complete oversight. I didn’t think I would lose something so important.
What would you have done with the money?
The smart thing to do would be to save and invest it and keep working. With that much money I could take a three-month trip and see most of America, and still have some left over. I’d probably party and sleep on a few beaches. Who knows, though, maybe put more of it into bitcoin?
That sounds fun.
I’m at work right now, thinking about how the difference of not needing to be here is just one password...
Well, sorry to dredge that all back up. Thanks, Luke!
When did you first buy bitcoin?
Axel: It was about five years ago. I bought close to one bitcoin, which I think was somewhere between $100 to $200 at the time. I wanted enough to buy something fun on the Silk Road or the Silk Road 2.0, when that was still a thing. I was 15 or 16 and thought buying illegal drugs online was the wildest thing I could do.
So what happened to your password?
I immediately lost that, within a week or two, and there wasn’t a way to get it back. Shortly after that, Silk Road was shut down by the FBI and I figured it was for the best.
What happened when you found out how much it could be worth?
When the news came out that bitcoin had skyrocketed to $16k, $17k, I lost my fucking mind. I realised I had my whole college tuition just sitting out there somewhere in the internet.
Did you try any of the methods to get it back?
I’m quite skeptical about them. Honestly, it sounds like bullshit to me. I don’t even know the wallet address at this point, and I bought everything under the radar with a proxy IP. How could anyone possibly find it?
Do you always write passwords down?
Well, no. I never had a password that was something I couldn’t remember or figure out on my own. Plus, I think I was quite conscious or afraid of hackers able to steal my money that I had been planning to use for nefarious activities anyway. I remember when I set it up, the software stressed how important it was to keep track of the wallet password.
So how do you feel now?
I mean, I went five years without even thinking about it, and now that the value has gone up tremendously it doesn’t change the fact that it’s certainly out of my hands at this point. And I assume part of why it’s so valuable now is because there’s a chunk of bitcoin out there that is unusable. I can’t afford to be so worried about shit I can’t change.
What did you learn from it?
Currently, I look at the situation as a bit of a cautionary tale. I was just a kid who didn’t really know what he was doing. Ultimate life lesson: don’t be a dumbass. I’m still working on that, though.
Good lesson. Thanks, Axel.