On May 10, 2019, a Chicago-based resident filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) about a rental-related cryptocurrency scam. According to the complaint, they sent $1,000 in bitcoin Airbnb payments to an individual through the website abodo.com.
Only after sending the funds did they realize the transaction was fraudulent.
Via Freedom of Information Act requests, the Reader obtained more than 2,100 such complaints that Illinois residents filed with the FTC and other regulatory agencies between January 2017 and June 2022. Complainants alleged that they lost more than $45 million to cryptocurrency scams. And in that time, multiple major cryptocurrency entities toppled in 2022, including Voyager, Celsius, BlockFi, and FTX, the latter of which had an office in the West Loop.
As the cryptocurrency industry rose in prominence over the past few years, some Chicago and Illinois government officials sought to bring the industry to the city and state. But as they pursued this emerging industry and its promises for financial inclusion, Illinois residents were taking huge losses.
Emails sent by Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s staffers between December 2021 and September 2022 illustrate the mayor’s desire to position the city as a hub for the cryptocurrency industry.
In a March 10, 2022 email to multiple representatives of Northwestern University, the cryptocurrency exchange Coinbase, Byline Bank, the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, the trading firm Jump Crypto, and other organizations, Samir Mayekar, Lightfoot’s deputy mayor for economic and neighborhood development sought to organize a meeting to “discuss the future of the cryptocurrency industry in Chicago.”
“A bit of background: for the past two months, our team has been strategizing around Chicago’s role as a leading ‘crypto city’ in a way that feels distinctive to Chicago and will help advance the economic prospects of all Chicagoans,” Mayekar wrote in the March email. “We now want to start testing our findings with a group of leading thinkers related to crypto, financial inclusion, and economic development in Chicago, including leaders from the crypto and financial services industry, academia, and the nonprofit sectors. We’ve included you because we’ve either directly spoken to you about the future of Chicago’s crypto industry, or your name has come up as an expert/leader in this space.”
Such discussions extended beyond its partnership with FTX to launch a program for previously incarcerated Chicagoans, the future of which is now uncertain following FTX’s collapse. In a February 17, 2022 email, Mayekar introduced Harrison to Cresco Labs CEO Charlie Bachtell to explore possible cryptocurrency and cannabis collaborations.
The emails also offer some insight into how City officials aided in FTX’s public perception. In a May 31, 2022 email to Mayekar, Harrison requested some feedback on an op-ed he had cowritten (with Joe Bankman, a Stanford University professor and father of indicted FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried), and inquired about whether Mayekar would like to be listed as a coauthor on the op-ed. In response, Mayekar wrote:
“Hi there thanks for sharing – few comments:
1. I think in order to preserve your authentic voice (the “our”) will be tough for me to co-author, but we can bump this on social media as its important for folks to see this response
2. Maybe consider 1 sentence on anti-laundering / vice transaction risk for sending $ cross border
3. Could add a sentence on how you’re glad this pilot program was embraced and conceived in Chicago – a city with a history of embracing financial innovation which is core to our DNA (commodities, derivatives, etc) and a core reason why FTX located is US HQ here
Let me know how else I can help here!
In response to a request for comment the Reader sent to the mayor’s office, a spokesperson for World Business Chicago, an economic development arm of the City, declined to comment. They wrote, “as this is very much a fluid, evolving story; we are not entertaining interview requests.” Instead, the organization offered a statement from its president and CEO Michael Fassnacht touting the promise of the fintech industry.
“You can see in our proprietary research document 2022 Fintech in Chicago research report that the Fintech sector has tremendous growth potential. It is supported by one of the city’s largest industries, the Finance and Insurance industry, that is accelerating by the industry’s shift to be more tech centric,” Fassnacht wrote. “This sector generates $53B in annual output and employs over 240,000 people. Fintech is a component of this overall industry, crypto a minor segment. You will notice that we didn’t even mention FTX in our research overview. We continue to believe that the broader Fintech sector has a bright future in Chicagoland.”
Illinois was one of numerous states that passed new laws to account for the cryptocurrency industry. According to a June analysis by the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), 37 states addressed legislation pertaining to digital or virtual cryptocurrencies and other digital assets during the legislative session. The new laws have generally been taking basic steps to define cryptocurrencies, update their statutes on money transmitters or other transactions, or decide whether people in their state can use these assets at all, said Heather Morton, director of the NCSL’s financial services technology and communications program. Morton added that she expects to see more legislatures introduce cryptocurrency legislation this year.
“States often do look to other states to see what they’re doing. And of course, why re-create the wheel in some respects?” Morton said. “Look to see what’s working in other states and what’s not working in other states, and then they can use that information to then decide what they want to do in their state.”
While federal lawmakers try to sort out cryptocurrency regulations, states that allow the cryptocurrency industry are serving as a regulatory incubator, said Tony Zhang, finance instructor at the University of Illinois’ Gies College of Business. Doing so could allow states to work on the technology while also trying to create protections for U.S. citizens and investors.
Tonantzin Carmona, David M. Rubenstein Fellow at Brookings Metro, attributed Chicago’s crypto embrace as part of the city’s efforts to appear “forward-looking, pro-tech, [and] pro-jobs.” Illinois State Representative Margaret Croke (D-12) also toldthe Reader that she thought the state could benefit from cryptocurrency-related jobs, including research and development.
Carmona, who researches racial equity, civic technology, wealth, and inequality, noted that the promises for financial inclusion for marginalized groups don’t quite make sense upon close examination. On one hand, cryptocurrencies have been promoted as a tool for low-income consumers to use as an alternative to traditional banks, but the volatility of cryptocurrency prices makes using them for everyday purchases impractical. Cryptocurrencies have also been touted as a tool for building generational wealth, but that requires consumers to buy and hold digital assets instead of using them for transactions, she said.
According to the 2021 FDIC national survey of unbanked and underbanked households, only 8.4 percent of respondents said the main reason they don’t have a bank account to preserve their privacy, and 13.2 percent of respondents said they don’t trust banks. Another 21.7 percent said they don’t have enough money to satisfy minimum balance requirements. Six percent said bank fees are too high, and 1.5 percent said fees were too unpredictable. Those findings suggest that a key barrier to financial inclusion for many consumers is the fees, Carmona said.
“Cryptocurrencies don’t necessarily address [fee issues], and so it’s not even addressing the main points,” Carmona said. “And then it comes with a ton of risks because it’s underlying is rife with technology scams, hacks, bugs, cyberattacks, all sorts of things, and then you see the platforms are also rife with scams, fraud, and hacks. And all the while this is happening without adequate consumer protection.”
One of the agencies trying to address cryptocurrency scams arising in the state was the Office of the Illinois Attorney General, which released an alert in August 2021 warning residents about a ComEd-related cryptocurrency scam. In a statement to The Reader, the agency’s spokesperson noted that it has received some cryptocurrency complaints in recent months but has not found “any discernible patterns at this time.” The agency is also working with state and federal agencies to address cryptocurrency-related issues, the spokesperson said.
In a statement, the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation said it has reviewed complaints from cryptocurrency scam victims to assess whether the agency has authority over the companies’s named in the complaint. For instances when it does not have that authority, it refers those complaints to the appropriate regulator.
“While IDFPR does not directly regulate cryptocurrency transactions in Illinois, we are working with other state and federal regulators to identify and address gaps in laws and regulations to ensure consumers are protected,” the IDFPR spokesperson said in a statement. “The Division of Banking has recently issued a letter to state-chartered banks in Illinois with guidance to contact the Division of Banking so appropriate controls are put in place before entering the crypto-asset sector. IDFPR continues to evaluate other measures to address risks to consumers and financial stability.”
Even as cryptocurrency fraudsters were taking advantage of consumers, multiple cryptocurrency firms and projects began to topple. Before the Bahamas-based cryptocurrency exchange FTX collapsed and subsequent bankruptcy proceedings commenced, the city of Chicago developed a friendly relationship with the crypto firm, as the 313 pages of emails obtained by The Reader via Freedom of Information Act request appear to illustrate.
In May 2022, the company opened an FTX U.S. headquarters in Chicago’s Fulton Market, and Mayor Lori Lightfoot attended the opening ceremony. Between December 2021 and early January 2022, Samir Mayekar, deputy mayor of economic and neighborhood development, and Kyle Schulz, executive vice president of business development and global strategy at World Business Chicago, worked to arrange a lunch with former president of FTX U.S. Brett Harrison at the Chicago Club on January 7.
In reference to the casual style of FTX leaders, “FYI dress code is business casual (e.g. just no jeans/sneakers) . . . it’s a little old school!” the calendar invite noted, according to emails obtained by the Reader.
Despite the collapses of Terra and Luna, FTX, and Celsius, Croke said she doesn’t think the industry will disappear, adding that she hopes that the industry can facilitate international remittances. Regarding the FTX bankruptcy and the overall scams that Illinois residents have reported, she said the complicated relationship between FTX and its sister entity Alameda Research was different than the typical scams consumers have reported to regulatory agencies. The latter, for instance, may involve a prince asking for 200 bitcoins.
“We’ve got to recognize that some of these [scams] still have existed for a while, and they are just being emphasized because we’re using a different technology or a new financial technology to commit these crimes,” Croke said. “They’ve been problems for a long time.”
Rather than using cryptocurrencies, Carmona suggests that the policymakers could explore alternatives such as postal banking, real-time payments or free or low-cost bank accounts for unbanked and underbanked consumers. And as for closing the wealth gap, solutions such as reparations and subsidized college tuition could directly address the problem, she added.
“We’re doing things in reverse. Instead of first identifying the pain points, the problem, the group that we’re trying to help address, we are instead trying to figure out how to make crypto work and fit those needs,” Carmona said. “There are more direct ways that we can address financial inclusion concerns.”
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