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The Anatomy Of A Fake Cryptocurrency Trade: How Exchanges Create Phony Transactions

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Take a close look at trading activity on BKEX—a cryptocurrency exchange founded in 2018 and registered in the British Virgin Islands—and you’ll see something odd. Compare its transactions side-by-side with those of Binance, one of the largest crypto exchanges in the world, and you’ll notice BKEX’s trading history is a replica, printing the same numbers delayed by a few seconds.

According to CoinMarketCap, BKEX has $1.1 billion in daily volume, making it the 20th-largest exchange on the planet. Yet it seems to be simply copying Binance’s trade history and passing it off as its own, in perhaps the laziest attempt in history to fool people into thinking it’s a lively place to trade digital assets.   

A new report by Alameda Research, a 20-person crypto trading firm with offices in Hong Kong and Berkeley, California, reveals a clever set of tricks used by crypto exchanges to fabricate volume.

In the wake of other reports on phony trades, including one by digital asset manager Bitwise indicating that 95% of all transactions are bogus, Alameda felt it could create better research by leveraging its trading data and experience.

READ MORE | Is Forex A Scam Or Money Goals?

The startup was cofounded in 2017 by Sam Bankman-Fried, 27, an MIT alum and former trader at high frequency trading outfit Jane Street. Gary Wang, 26, a fellow MIT grad and former Google software developer, is his cofounder. The firm has $100 million in assets, and over the past month it has traded $1 billion a day on average, making it one of the largest crypto trading firms in the world. 

Exchanges make money by charging users to trade, and they have many reasons to artificially inflate volume. More activity means a higher rank on the still-popular website CoinMarketCap, which can attract new users.

Exchanges also charge fees to new cryptocurrency projects that want to get listed in their marketplace, and the perception of popularity helps them command higher rates. Since an exchange’s place of business is just a website or an app, and many located outside the U.S. are unregulated, it can publish any numbers it wants and call them trades.

Meanwhile, CoinMarketCap continues to insufficiently vet exchanges’ transaction volume, often taking companies at their word and publishing dubious numbers. 

According to Alameda’s research, another method exchanges use to juice their statistics is sneaking in large, fake transactions amid a flurry of smaller ones. CoinEgg, a Hong Kong-registered exchange that trades $1.1 billion a day reported by CoinMarketCap, recently employed this tactic with litecoin (LTC) trades.

During a period when Alameda observed 15 different offers to buy and sell litecoin in a maximum quantity of 134 LTC, several trades printed as large as 2,000 LTC, as if a buyer appeared out of thin air. 

Trading marketplaces typically publish their “order book,” showing a list of bid prices at which people are willing to buy an asset, plus a separate set of offer prices where people are willing to sell.

READ MORE | How Cryptocurrency Scams Work

For instance, Bill might be willing to buy bitcoin at $10,000, while Mary wants to sell at no less than $10,050. For a trade to happen, a new buyer must be willing to pay the $10,050 that Mary is offering, and the vast majority of trades that clear will align with orders that previously showed up in the order book, unless two users place offsetting orders at the same exact time. 

Yet on some exchanges, trades get executed at prices and sizes that fall outside anything sitting on the order book. On Digifinex, a Singapore-based crypto trading venue, Alameda observed bids and asks for bitcoin between $8,296 and $8,298, but several trades printed at $8,290 and $8,293, prices lower than what anyone was willing to sell at.

On LAToken, a Moscow digital exchange, Alameda saw bids and offers with a maximum size of 1.6 bitcoin in the order book. Implausibly, several trades sailed through at sizes up to 20 bitcoin. LAToken founder Valentin Preobrazhenskiy says his platform only has a “tiny share” of 20-bitcoin orders and that exchanges use inflated volumes as a marketing tool.

“The situation would change when large exchange-ranking sites would add a section for trading volumes based on trades reported to regulators,” he says. On Singapore-based ABCC, the best bid and offers Alameda saw were for sizes less than one ether, yet several transactions materialized with sizes of up to 11 ether. 

Among trading venues, there’s also the well-worn method of simply printing transactions that fall in the middle of the bid and ask prices, which Alameda’s research spotted in IDAX and Coineal. In total, Alameda’s report gives examples of fishy trading patterns on 60 different crypto exchanges. Aside from LAToken, none of the exchanges named above responded immediately to Forbes’ request for comment. 

The methodology behind Alameda’s research was to test each exchange on six different criteria. First, they manually looked at an exchange’s order book and observed where trades printed. If more than 10% of transactions didn’t appear on the order book, it failed on this dimension. Another test involved observing the percent of an exchange’s trades that took place at the best available bids or offers. 

A third criterion was to analyze how much Alameda itself traded on a given exchange, since the startup deals in “virtually every cryptocurrency,” considers its algorithms “exchange-agnostic” and estimates that it trades 5% of all global crypto volume.

“If we trade more than .5% of an exchange’s reported volume, we consider that exchange to pass according to this criterion,” the report  reads. For more details on its methodology, see the full report.

Beyond exchanges’ bad behavior, the report has other provocative insights. It claims that crypto—including both “spot” trades of actual digital assets and derivatives, like bitcoin futures—trades $38 billion in real volume a day, and 87% of that happens on Asian exchanges, with just 9% happening on U.S. venues. The strict regulatory environment in the U.S. is likely a contributing factor in Asia’s dominance, Alameda says. 

Compared with Bitwise, which released a follow-up fake volume reportin May 2019, Alameda thinks more crypto volume is real. For large exchanges like OKEx and Huobi, which were founded in China, Alameda estimates about 70% of their transactions are authentic.

Bitwise is much more skeptical, as is the Blockchain Transparency Institute, which has estimated that more than 60% of Huobi’s volume is fake and more than 90% of OKEx’s volume is fabricated. 

A Huobi spokesperson says it doesn’t engage in wash trading, but that it has observed some market-makers doing so on its platform, and it takes steps to stamp them out.

An OKEx spokesperson says the company isn’t involved in and doesn’t tolerate wash trading, adding, “Recently we have joined the Data Accountability & Transparency Alliance (DATA) led by CoinMarketCap, as a commitment to reveal as much data as possible.”

-Jeff Kauflin; Forbes Staff

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Apple Is Donating 9 Million Masks To Combat The Coronavirus

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Topline: Apple will donate 9 million N95 protective masks to combat the coronavirus, Vice President Mike Pence said on Tuesday, making Apple one of several California tech companies pitching in as hospitals across the country report a shortage of protective gear.

  • Pence thanked Apple for agreeing to donate 9 million N95 respirator masks to healthcare facilities across the country during a press briefing on Tuesday.
  • Pence’s remarks come after Apple CEO Tim Cook tweeted over the weekend the company was “working to help source supplies for healthcare providers fighting COVID-19” and “donating millions of masks for health professionals in the US and Europe,” but did not offer more specifics.
  • N95 respirators are masks that form a protective seal around a wearer’s mouth, filtering  out at least 95% of particles in the air, according to the Centers for Disease Control, which makes them necessary to protect healthcare workers from being exposed to the disease from patients.
  • Facebook has also said it is donating its stockpile of 720,000 masks purchased during the California wildfires last year, which degraded the air quality in the San Francisco Bay Area.
  • Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Forbes asking if all of the donated masks were stockpiled because of the wildfires or if the company got them from somewhere else.

Chief critic: Teddy Schleifer, a reporter at Recode, wrote that health systems shouldn’t rely on the generosity of big tech companies to make up for the failures of the federal government. 

“But there is a risk in relying on corporate philanthropy—rather than the government—in solving this problem. For starters, it depends on the voluntary generosity of these companies to deal with an unprecedented emergency, an altruism that could vanish at any time,” he wrote.

Crucial quote: “And I spoke today, and the president spoke last week, with Tim Cook of Apple. And at this moment in time Apple went to their store houses and is donating 9 million N95 masks to healthcare facilities all across the country and to the national stockpile,” Pence said.

Key background: Apple is one of several California tech companies to give away N95 masks. In addition to Facebook, Salesforce, Tesla and IBM have also announced mask donations.

News peg: Doctors and nurses are sounding the alarm that they don’t have enough masks to protect healthcare workers. Not only does inadequate protective gear put important frontline health workers at risk, public health experts say, any situation endangering medical personnel may only further depletes the U.S. health system which already doesn’t have enough capacity to handle a surge in cases. State officials in New York and Illinois have criticized President Donald Trump for not stepping in to force companies to manufacture masks or allocate masks from private companies to ensure that states don’t outbid each other for the same supplies.

Rachel Sandler, Forbes Staff, Breaking News

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Video Games Are Being Played At Record Levels As The Coronavirus Keeps People Indoors

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Topline: With school closures, mandatory work-from-home policies and lockdowns taking place in the U.S. as a result of the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, gaming has seen higher engagement, especially over this past weekend.

  • Steam, the most popular digital PC gaming marketplace, reached new heights Sunday, drawing a record 20,313,451 concurrent users to the 16-year-old service, according to third-party database SteamDB.
  • Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, released by Steam-owner Valve in 2012, seems to be the top beneficiary of the increased engagement, breaking it’s all-time peak on Sunday with 1,023,2290 concurrent players, topping its previous peak last month by a million, which itself beat the record set in April 2016.
  • Like other esports, CS:GO has had to cancel events due to the virus, particularly the Intel Extreme Masters in Katowice earlier this month, though its peak viewership reached over a million, making it one of the most watched tournaments in the esports’ history.
  • Activision Blizzard’s new free-to-play battle royale spinoff Call of Duty: Warzone, launched March 10 on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4, is also likely benefiting, drawing in a staggering 15 million in three days, besting the record 10 million in three days by last year’s battle royale sensation Apex Legends.
  • These new heights follows similar effects of the virus on China and Italy: Telecom Italia’s CEO told Bloomberg it saw a 70% increase in traffic over its landline network, with Fortnite playing a significant part, while Chinese live-streaming service Douyu experienced increased viewership of the country’s most popular games, according to market analyst Niko Partners.
  • While gaming was considered “recession proof” during the 2008 market crash, stocks aren’t immune to the current historic drops: software developers like Activision Blizzard are facing a 9% decrease in price year-to-date, while hardware companies that rely on Chinese manufacturing like Nintendo are seeing bigger drops of 24%.

What To Watch For: If these records keep rising as the closings and lockdowns continue. Arriving this week is Nintendo’s long-awaited Animal Crossing: New Horizons for the Switch console, a relaxing “life-simulator” that’s set to have a big day with many fans not-so-jokingly asking Nintendo to launch early.

Surprising Fact: Plague Inc., a game that tasks players in creating a virus that wipes out humanity, surged in popularity late January, becoming the top-paid game on the Chinese app store at one point, but the game has now been removed in China at the direction of the government.

Further Reading: So You’re Suddenly Working From Home And Want To Try Gaming? Here’s How To Get Started.

Matt Perez, Forbes Staff, Innovation


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Amazon Hoping To Hire 100,000 New Employees To Deal With Coronavirus Demand

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Topline: Amazon announced Monday that it would be opening 100,000 new full-time and part-time positions to deal with increased buying demand as people practice social distancing during the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic.

  • The company will also increase pay by $2 in the U.S. from its current $15 an hour, £2 in the UK and €2 in Europe for those working in fulfillment centers, transportation services, stores or people making deliveries, amounting to a total of $350 million.
  • Amazon last Friday shared that the increase in online commerce has unsurprisingly resulted in shortages for household essentials and delays in shipment times.
  • Monday’s statement also noted that “We continue to consult with medical and health experts, and take all recommended precautions in our buildings and stores to keep people healthy. We’ve taken measures to promote social distancing in the workplace and taken on enhanced and frequent cleaning, to name just a few.”
  • Last week, Amazon told all of its employees to consider working from home if they could, according to CNBC; for its fulfillment centers and delivery services, it also launched a $25 million relief fund that lets workers diagnosed with the coronavirus apply for  grants equal to two weeks pay, as well as unlimited unpaid time off for all hourly employees until the end of March.
  • Amazon currently employs 250,000 people at 110 fulfillment centers.

News Peg: According to Johns Hopkins, 181,200 people have been infected with the coronavirus, with 7,115 deaths reported. School closures, lockdowns and curfews have been put in place to promote social distancing, with the White House today recommending to avoid groups of more than 10 people.

Matt Perez, Forbes Staff, Games

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