As Bitcoin continues its move towards the mainstream and Bitcoin businesses experience rocky relations with bankers and regulators, now is a good time to look at previous leaders in the digital currency world.

In the late 90’s and early 2000’s, e-gold was the industry leader.  As one of the world’s first successful online payment systems e-gold was a pioneer using many now standard practices such as SSL connections and API’s.  Brought down by a run in with regulators in 2008 the e-gold story is required reading for anyone involved in the digital currency world.

Sent in by Wikipedia editor Cadwallader, below is a thoroug review of the e-gold story.

e-gold (deliberately spelled with a lower-case ‘e’) was a digital gold currency operated by Gold & Silver Reserve Inc. under e-gold Ltd. that allowed users to open an account on their web site denominated in grams of gold (or other precious metals) and the ability to make instant transfers of value to other e-gold accounts. The company was founded in 1996 and had grown to five million users by 2009, when transfers were suspended due to legal issues. At its peak in 2008 e-gold was processing more than USD 2 billion worth of precious metals transactions per year [1], on a monetary base of only USD 20 million worth of gold (~2.54 metric tonnes) [2], indicating an extremely high monetary turnover (velocity) of about 100 times per year (similar to M-PESA). e-gold Ltd. was incorporated in Nevis, Saint Kitts and Nevis with operations conducted out of Florida, USA.

Beginnings

e-gold was founded by oncologist Douglass Jackson and attorney Barry Downey in 1996. The pair originally backed the services accounts with gold coins stored in a bank safety deposit box in Melbourne, Florida.

The company, which was launched two years before PayPal and had obtained over one million user accounts by 2002, and was the first successful digital currency system to gain a widespread user base and merchant adoption. It was also the first website or payment service to offer an Application Program Interface (API) enabling other services and e-commerce transactions to be built on top of it. [3] e-gold was used by both individuals and merchants for services ranging from metals trading, online auctions, to online casinos, and a donation platform. By 2001 several dozen companies and individuals began offering third party exchange services between national currencies and e-gold, allowing e-gold to become a company with an international user base.

e-gold, which allowed transactions as small as one ten-thousandth of a gram of gold, was also the world’s only successful micro-payment system. The company’s payment statistics were published live and showed hundreds of thousands of micro-transactions were being made daily by computer programs using the API.

Governance

e-gold was unique at the time in that they created the “e-gold Special Purpose Trust” which held title to the physical bullion on behalf of the users. [4]They also created a real-time statistical reports page [5] that showed the total holdings of each metal in the trust account, list of gold bars with serial numbers, the total number of accounts, as well as the total number and value of transactions in the previous 24 hours. This transparency enhanced e-gold’s reputation and popularity with their users, and also enabled many observations to be made about how e-gold was being used.

Imitators

e-gold’s market success by 2001 spawned a wave of imitators. These included Goldmoney.com, e-Bullion.com, CrowneGold.com, Pecunix.com, INTgold.com, and several others including a multi-million dollar Ponzi Scheme with no gold at all called OSgold.com. [6]

Crime Wave

e-gold’s early success also proved to be the cause of its demise. e-gold’s store of value and large user base made it an early target of financial malware and phishing scams by increasingly organized criminal syndicates in Eastern Europe. The first known phishing attack against a financial institution was made against members of the e-gold mailing list in June 2001. [7] The technique was refined with attacks against the digital gold systems like e-gold and later used to attack other financial institutions starting in 2003.

The Rise of the Romanian Hackers

With no effective means of verifying the identity of account holders, e-gold began to suffer from an increasing rate of criminal activity mainly perpetrated by Eastern European hackers against its users. In addition to phishing, the attackers made widespread use of flaws in the Microsoft operating systems and Internet Explorer web browser to collect account details from millions of computers to compromise e-gold accounts. [8]

Jackson’s theory was that e-gold is a book-entry system with account histories, making it simple to conduct an investigation to track down misappropriated funds after the fact. [9]However, the public perception, similar to that of Bitcoin today, was that e-gold accounts were anonymous. (That perception was erroneous, as is the similar belief that Bitcoin is anonymous.) e-gold accounts were “pseudonymous”, [10] allowing the creator of the account to use any name or label he wished to use. However, the account history was permanent, and e-gold could in most cases correlate a person’s real identity to an e-gold account when they funded or liquidated an account with G&SR, e-gold primary exchanger to US Dollars.

Unfortunately, e-gold users did not enjoy the same ability to determine the real identity of the owner of an e-gold account, and this is what facilitated the explosion in auction fraud and other types of identity fraud using e-gold accounts.

Fourteen Flavors of Fraud

Various fraud artists from Western countries were also able to take advantage of the e-gold system as a means of funding their schemes, enabling for the first time in history, international ponzi schemes, calling themselves “High Yield Investment Programs” or HYIPs. [11] DGC Magazine Editor Mark Herpel identified the probable source of e-gold’s mysterious micropayments as automated interest payments made by ponzi schemes to their tens of thousands of members. [12]

Perpetrators of auction fraud on e-bay who were based in Eastern Europe and would sell fake or non-existent items on the site. These criminal syndicates preferred their victims to pay in e-gold because it was the fastest and easiest way for them to move the funds overseas. [13]

The wave of online crime that engulfed e-gold led to a steady stream of complaints to government authorities by defrauded account holders, who often did not understand the difference between e-gold and the fraudulent person or company that encouraged them to open an e-gold account and wire money to fund it. [14]

The Systemic Problem

As an online transactions system with exchange agents worldwide, e-gold enabled criminals and hackers in Eastern Europe the ability to quickly and easily move money from victims in America back to the country from which the attacks were originating. Several of the cyber crime gangs that plagued and used e-gold were based in Râmnicu Vâlcea, Romania. [15]

e-gold was unknowingly part of a larger systemic problem with the banking system. The banking and credit system in the United states were not designed for a digital environment, and are therefore fundamentally insecure and highly vulnerable to identity theft and check fraud, as well as trust based attacks such as phishing. The willingness of credit card companies to allow people to apply for a card without being identified in person enabled the massive growth of identity theft. [16](Ironically, not verifying the identities of account holders would be one of the main criticisms raised against e-gold.)

The Internet made it possible for organized crime networks outside the United States to used strategically placed members in financial institutions in the United States to perpetrate billions of dollars worth of financial crimes, primarily through identity theft. [17]The money from these crimes then needed to be laundered and transferred back to the headquarters of the perpetrators in Eastern Europe. This is normally done through bank wires from big american banks, such as Bank of America, [18]and traditional money transmitters like Western Union. [19] However, e-gold and other digital gold systems, with their low cost instant clearing payments and international network of exchange agents, provided a much faster and cheaper conduit for getting the already laundered money back home. Therefore, certain crime gangs started using the digital golds as the return conduit for part of their operations.

The Public Relations Problem

In 2001 Goldmoney.com was founded by James Turk and became a competitor to e-gold. Turk, who had filed patents on a digital gold payment system in 1993 but launched his system five years behind e-gold, took a two-pronged strategy to outmaneuver e-gold. First, he sued e-gold for patent infringement. [20] Though this action failed in court, Turk had successfully positioned himself in the market as the “inventor of digital gold” even though Jackson was the one who had taught himself how to program and written the first version of e-gold himself. (Turk sat on his patents for several years, and eventually hired a software company to build his “invention” because he is not a computer programmer.)

Second, Turk recognized the e-gold crime problem and began positioning Goldmoney as the “white glove” gold system that required identity verification to open accounts, versus e-gold as the irresponsible “wild west” operator riddled with crime. [21] This marketing strategy worked very effectively for Goldmoney as it drove e-gold founder Jackson to entrench himself in defense of his libertarian principle that the user is responsible for his behavior and the courts are the way for disputes involving allegations of fraud to be resolved. Ten years later, e-gold would be out of business, shut down by the US government, but Goldmoney would be sitting on USD 1 billion worth of gold and millions of users. [22][23]

While Goldmoney succeeded in becoming the world’s largest gold storage system, and held four patents for a gold payment system, [24] they were never able to replicate e-gold’s success as a payment system, because they were so fearful of replicating e-gold’s success as a magnet for criminal activity. Goldmoney prohibited the development of independent exchange agents, which greatly limited their global reach. In January 2012 Goldmoney turned off the ability to make payments from one account to another citing “insignificant” demand for P2P metal transactions as not justifying the high cost of regulatory compliance. [25]It was e-gold’s usefulness and ease for payments combined with their international network of exchange agents that made it a magnet for crime.

There were early reports where e-gold had actively helped to catch and collar cyber criminals, such as the one who stole Cisco Systems’ firewall code and offered it for sale to be paid in e-gold. [26] And Jackson claimed to have “aided 300 investigations and reported 3,000 suspected kiddie porn buyers to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.” [27] However, Turk’s PR strategy was highly successful, as first Goldmoney, and then federal law enforcement agencies began to characterize e-gold as the payment system of choice for criminals, terrorists and child pornographers. [28] (In reality, the US Dollar is by far the most popular transaction medium for criminals of all types. [29] US Banks are the most popular institutions for money laundering, on the order of USD 500 Billion per year, dwarfing e-gold’s transaction volume by two orders of magnitude. [30] )

Criminal Prosecution

The Changing Definition of a Money Transmitter

The USA Patriot Act, passed in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist hijackings more than five years after e-gold had been launched, made it a federal crime to operate a money transmitter business without a state money transmitter license in any state that required such a license. At the time a “money transmitter” was in most states defined as a business that cashed checks or accepted cash remittances to send from one person to another person across international borders, such as Western Union or MoneyGram. For example, prior to 2010, California regulated money transmitters under the “Transmission of Money Abroad Law”. [31] One of e-gold’s competitors, the e-Bullion company, applied for a money transmitter license from the State of California in 2002, but was informed by the State of California that their business which dealt in gold accounts did not fall under the state’s definition of a money transmitter.

In 2004 G&SR (the parent company of e-gold) requested that the US Treasury Department conduct a compliance examination in order to clarify what regulations, if any, e-gold fell under. [32] The Treasury issued a report on January 11, 2006 confirming that e-gold accounts were excluded from the definition of “currency” under the USC and CFR definitions. The Treasury did not want e-gold to be acknowledged as money, which made it impossible to obtain a money transmitter license.

However, in its actions from 2006-2008 the U.S. Treasury Department in conjunction with the DOJ stretched the definition of money transmitter in the USA Patriot Act to include any system that allows transfer of any kind of value from one person to another, not merely national currency or cash. Using this new interpretation they then proceeded to prosecute the USA-based gold systems, e-gold (and later e-Bullion) under the USA Patriot Act for not having money transmitter licenses, even though these companies had previously been cooperating with regulatory authorities and told they did not fall under the definition of money transmitter. (Although the charge of not having a money transmitter license was eventually dropped against e-bullion.) Several years later FINCEN further expanded this definition to apply to foreign companies allowing US persons to open accounts, which forced Jersey based Goldmoney.com to suspend the ability to transfer value from one holder to another in December 2011. [33]

e-gold The Black Sheep

e-gold was in many ways the philosophical predecessor of Bitcoin. Unlike PayPal, which ran on top the USA banking system and therefore posed no competitive threat to the banking system, e-gold was a maverick outsider with no allies in the banking establishment, whose founders self-consciously viewed themselves as offering an alternative to the banking system. While banks suffer from the same problems with criminal activity, phishing, ponzi schemes and money laundering on a much larger scale [34], and some of the biggest banks have even knowingly participated in money laundering with apparent impunity [35], e-gold’s iconic status as a controversial alternative currency system loved by cypherpunks and libertarians made it an attractive target for US law enforcement agencies, with a big pile of assets to seize and few political allies.

While e-gold had begun implementing much stronger controls against abuse by users of the system by 2005, and was actively combating the use of its system for child pornography as a founding member of The Financial Coalition Against Child Pornography [36], the Justice Department had apparently made a high level policy decision to blame e-gold themselves for the malignant activities of a small minority of their users. [37] In 2007 the proprietors of the e-gold service were indicted by the United States Department of Justice on four counts of violating money laundering regulations and knowingly allowing a transaction to purchase child pornography. [38]

The government also claimed that e-gold was a ponzi scheme that did not have the gold to back the accounts. However, that claim was later shown to be false when judge rejected any charges of fraud regarding the e-gold user agreement and confirmed the veracity of the company’s gold reserve audit – showing that e-gold was fully reserved.

Resolution

The case against e-gold was brought under Title 18 USC section 1960 in UNITED STATES OF AMERICA v. E-GOLD, LTD, District of Columbia court. e-gold filed a motion to dismiss the case on the grounds that they did not fit the definition of a money transmitter. The court ruled against e-gold, stating that “a business can clearly engage in money transmitting without limiting its transactions to cash or currency and would commit a crime if it did so without being licensed.”[39] This ruling enshrined in case law the Treasury Department’s expansion of the definition of a money transmitter to include any system by which stored value of any kind may be transferred from one person to another, even if the stored value is not cash, or national currency.

After vigorously contesting the charges for a year, in July 2008 the company and its three directors accepted a bargain with the prosecutors and plead guilty to one count of “conspiracy to engage in money laundering” and one count of the “operation of an unlicensed money transmitting business”, in exchange for the other charges against them (allowing a transaction to pay for child pornography) being dropped. [40] The company was ordered to pay fines of $3.7 million.

In November Gold & Silver Reserve CEO Douglas Jackson was sentenced to 300 hours of community service, a $200 fine, and three years of supervision, including six months of electronically monitored home detention.[41] He had faced a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and a $500,000 fine. Judge Rosemary Collyer said the men deserved lenient sentences because they did not intend to engage in illegal activity. Jackson’s lawyer claimed Jackson was spared the heavier fine because he is deeply in debt – the Judge said “Dr. Jackson has suffered, will continue to suffer, and may never be successful with E-Gold”. Reid Jackson, Douglas Jackson’s brother, and E-Gold director Barry Downey were each sentenced to three years of probation, 300 hours of community service, and ordered to pay a $2,500 fine and a $100 assessment.

Gold Seizure

Initially the US Attorney’s Office of the District of Columbia entered a motion to seize and liquidate the entire gold reserve of e-gold under asset forfeiture law. This would have allowed the law enforcement agency to add the proceeds of the sale to their operating budget. At the time e-gold held more gold in its vaults than the bottom third of the countries on the IMF list of central bank gold reserves, which would have made it one of the largest asset seizures in history, comparable to invading a small country and seizing its gold reserves. However, the federal judge in the case denied the motion and ordered the reserves to be held and liquidated for the e-gold account holders who could prove the origin of their funds.

e-gold was placed into receivership and the gold reserve was liquidated for USD 90 million. The court ordered “Rust Consulting”, a private company in Maryland, to organize refunds to account holders who could prove legitimate sources for the funds. The balance of unclaimed funds will be claimed by the US Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia under the asset forfeiture law. A three month window has been set from June 3rd, 2013 to October 1, 2013 for e-gold account holders to submit a claim on their funds. [42]

Aftermath

After the e-gold and e-Bullion cases, California (2010) [43] and several other states amended their regulations to follow the federal precedent to define all digital value transfer systems as money transmitters. However, California’s new law is so broadly worded as to define a very wide range of Internet startup companies, such as the room booking service AirBnB, as “money transmitters”. [44] If the law were consistently applied many more Internet start-ups might be subjected to the same kind of prosecution that e-gold experienced.

After the resolution of the criminal case, the directors of e-gold Ltd vowed to continue operations following the new Federal KYC guidelines. They applied for a money transmitter license for the company, but it was denied because the directors are now convicted felons. Jackson and Downey have continued trying to find a way to sell the company to persons eligible for a money transmitter license in order to recoup some value from their once wildly successful internet payment system.

Conclusions

e-gold was one of the first, if not the very first pioneer of Internet payments. While e-gold received a lot of bad press due to the criminal case against them, it is important to recognize e-gold’s place in Internet history as the world’s first successful online payment system which pioneered many of the systems and techniques that e-commerce users now take for granted, including making payments over an SSL encrypted connection, and offering an API to enable other websites to build services using e-gold’s transaction system.

e-gold presaged Bitcoin as an alternative internet transaction system that operated completely outside of and independent of the legacy banking system. This proved that alternate financial systems were possible and that a significant number of people would enthusiastically use such a system.

Though e-gold was ultimately shut down by the US government, the federal judge on the case ruled that the founders of e-gold “had no intent to commit illegal activity.”

Founder Douglas Jackson failed to foresee the ways in which criminals and hackers could exploit an internet payment system by manipulating the appearance of identity (identity theft and fraud). Their payment model failed to include a web of trust that would enable users to have some degree of confidence of whom they were dealing with, and to eliminate bad actors. In retrospect e-gold’s tardiness in addressing the identity issues allowed the criminal syndicate to grow so large that the resulting crime wave ruined the company.

e-gold’s failure was ultimately due to the inability of their business model to provide a system of reliable user identification and the failure to provide a workable dispute resolution system to identify and cut off illegal and abusive activity in their user community. Other transaction systems such as Webmoney.ru [45] and Goldmoney.com [46] learned from e-gold’s mistakes and were able to successfully field similar systems with low rates of abuse by addressing these deficiencies. While PayPal has done a better job of addressing abuse than e-gold did, they now suffer from [47] and battle against the same crime wave that took down e-gold. [48] Financial cryptographer, Ian Grigg, has observed that Bitcoin has repeated the same fundamental errors that e-gold made and that despite its decentralized nature the cyber crime-wave may bring Bitcoin to a similar ending.[49][50]

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