Bitcoin Fever: 2013 – The Year of a $110 Million Online Heist

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Aside from “twerking” the only word that has made both the Oxford and Collins “word of the year” list is “Bitcoin”… and this is little wonder to anyone who has been following the story. In 2013 Bitcoin has caused nothing but greed, debate and bafflement in the online world. It has leapt in value, been accepted in an ever increasing array of stores… and at the start of December was at the heart of the biggest online robbery of all time. Have you been caught up in Bitcoin fever yet?

      Play - The Hit Co.


Coin fever,
From Bitcoins gold mined on the internet,
They’ve caused a sweat,
Have you caught coin fever?
Will online gold turn into a pile of tin?
Should you get in?
Prices jumped to thousands from nothing,
Robbers circle this virtual bling:
Online banks and brokers get caught up,
Coins are siphoned, market places shut up shop,
Bitcoins hold value, but it’s the Wild West:
Should you invest?
Fever drove the world to a Bitcoin craze,
No one’s safe in this confusing haze,
Drug dealers and shoppers chase all kinds of stashes,
It’s traded for millions: Forex for the masses,
Bitcoins hold value, but it’s the Wild West:
Should you invest?
Well that’s up to you
Up to you
There’s a baffled queue
No one has a clue
If only we knew
Only we knew

The rise of Bitcoin in 2013 has been meteoric. This virtual currency based in hardcore mathematics offers the glittering promise of financial liberation from banks. It whispers of vast investment opportunities for serious individuals, and glorious anonymity for those who seek it. Yet whatever your personal viewpoint, this is more than just a new form of currency because it signifies another crucial step in the march into life online. And nothing reveals this more than the virtual “great train robbery” at Sheep Marketplace… where for the first time balaclavas and crowbars were truly replaced by savvy computer science.

It all started on October 2nd this year when the original Silk Road Market Place was shut down by the FBI and thousands of (nefarious) online customers and vendors were forced to track down a viable alternative. Enter the fledgling Sheep Marketplace, with its slicker interface, decent search function and barely any downtime during the Silk Road seizure it seemed the perfect choice over more established sites such as Black Market Reloaded.

From there things took off quickly, and this site saw some of its more illicit listings (read drugs) increase by over 400% in just two weeks following the Silk Road closure. However, this black market heyday wasn’t destined to last, because after operating a reasonably glitch free service until the start of December… Sheep Market suddenly shut up shop vanishing around $110 million in Bitcoins in the process.

Reddit Rabbit Holes and the Rise of the New Wild West

A posse was quickly formed, a virtual hunt for the bandits sprang into life – and a couple of savvy Reddit were apparently just a couple of steps behind the thieves. Meanwhile, rewards were offered for information; scammed victims posted their hard luck stories online… and desperate shoppers and vendors hunted for a new deep web market place to conduct their dealings.

Pages and topics were rapidly devoted to compiling the latest contact information for the multitudes of displaced sellers. These almost felt like wartime missing person bulletin boards from the 40s, such was the urgency. Yet the underlying message is very clear: when dealing in the black market, theft, fraud and unforeseen circumstances are a way of life and have to be factored into the risk of doing business.

The whole story had the essence of the old west meets cyberspace; complete with miners, robbers, lawmen operating outside the law, gangsters, legitimate business folk, investors, black market racketeers, traders… and people just trying to make a living. 200 years ago, people were blowing bank doors open to rob gold, 100 years ago they were doing the same thing to rob cash. Now there are computer hackers… and online currencies. It is any wonder Bitcoin fever is sweeping the globe?

Robbed by Vendor EBOOK101: Cash, Cash… Who’s got the Cash?

Sheep Marketplace itself had been operating successfully since around February 2013. And things only began to go awry during the last couple of weeks of November when users were no longer able to withdraw money from their accounts… but were still able to deposit. At first people blamed the glitch on an automated tumbler (using one is a bit like laundering your money; as whilst all Bitcoin transactions are anonymous, they are still public), but after the specified  time frame for the return of funds passed, the following message was placed on Sheep:

“Sheep is down. We are sorry to say, but we were robbed on Saturday 11/21/13 by vendor EBOOK101. This vendor fund bug in system and stole 5400 BTC – your money, our provisions, all was stolen. We were trying to resolve this problem, but were not successful. We are sorry for your problems and inconvenience, all of current BTC will be distributed to users, who have filled correct BTC emergency address. I would like to thank to all SheepMarketplace moderators by this, who were helping with this problem. I am very sorry for this situation. Thank you all.”

A couple of days later Sheep Market Scam – a plain text page sprang up – with equally horrendous spelling – but with real time information about the on-going scam. It seems shortly before the robbery, a number of vendors were offering huge discounts, bulk buys and new products that they’d never sold before. It all had the air of a giant pyramid scheme, with Sheep Marketplace trying to suck as much money into their coffers as possible.

“I owe $90K to some very nasty people…”

It was around this time that the panic set in. One vendor going by the name u/FearingForMyLife wrote “I am a large vendor on Sheep Marketplace, or I was until recently. I sold hard drugs in reasonably large quantities. I have around $90k locked up in the site. I owe some money to some very nasty people. I have until Monday evening. They have already threatened me with death. I have no doubt that they have killed before…I am 26 and I don’t want to die.”

At this point, ‘Internet detectives’ from around the web were hunting for the missing coins; something made possible by the fact that all transactions are public. Two Reddit users in particular, TheNodManOut and Sheeproadreloaded2 were quick to identify a large stack of coins that had been transferred out of the Sheep Marketplace.

By attaching tiny fractions of BTC, 0.00666 onto the pile of coins, Sheeproadreloaded2 was able to track where those transactions went next. By sending another ‘666’ every time the money landed in a different wallet he was able to keep on watching the money, posting the blockchain information on various websites, along with a selection of colourful quotes:

“I hope you appreciate what i just did for us. I’m not entirely sure, but I don’t think anybody has beaten a tumbler before today. Its like running a marathon through fog, listening for the footsteps of other runners. It helps if there are 96,000 of them, though! The FBI only got 29,000 of our coins. This guy is good, but he’s on his last legs. If he can sell a single bitcoin, I’ll be surprised.”

Riding Off Into the Sunset Versus Trying to Make Honest Profits

Unfortunately for those hoping for some cash back… or at the very least, some justice, the latest Reddit hunt (not for the first time) was seemingly chasing smoke and mirrors. What they thought was a thief trying to hide a big stack of cash turned out to be a currency exchange… the very currency exchange that the thief had used to cash in the booty. Not only that, but it also appears the thief managed to unload his stash – with no fuss whatsoever – and simply disappear into the ether.

On the back of this theft – and with factors ranging from the Chinese government to some much needed market corrections – Bitcoins dropped from a high of around $1200 to a low of $530 and is currently trading at around $710. With plenty of fluctuations between the two extremes over the last couple of weeks, there has been a massive increase of fevered trading for profit… mainly by people who haven’t got a clue what they’re doing. “Buy the dips, then sell high,” combined with nothing but guesswork has bred an abundance of winners and losers. One 23-year-old novice claims to have lost $410,000 in a relatively short period of time; whilst a glut of lucky traders are happily raking in rapid 5 – 10% profits on a daily basis… when they manage to get in and out at the right time of course.

This legitimate trading is all well and good… but it sure isn’t as risk free as good old fashioned – or rather, new-fangled – theft. In fact the levels of banditry involving Bitcoins since their inception has been exceptional, hardly any of the stories make the papers and nobody has ever been charged with any Bitcoin related theft.

Historical Bitcoin Crimes: Theft, Profit and Fever

A list of major Bitcoin heists has been compiled by bitcointalk which revealed that hundreds of thousands have been stolen. Some of the more recent highlights include: a Chinese Bitcoin exchange that went down taking $4.1 million of its customers’ cash, the US exchange Bitfloor being hacked out of 24,000 coins. Along with an 18-year-old Australian who ran an exchange service called Tradefortress that was apparently relieved of $1 million of its customers Bitcoins by hackers just a few weeks ago.

Theft will always be a problem when handling large volumes of cash.  The spotlight may well have increasingly turned on Bitcoin over the last 12 months, but really this has far less to do with this particular form of currency, and more to do with the way the world is gradually moving online. Still, with everything that has happened in 2013 who can blame us for our large dose of Bitcoin fever?


  1. Very effective in conveying an important message! Alerts us to the current situation. Been pursuing a course on Political & economic anthropology. I am sure that the tutor will be interested.


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