A cryptocurrency exchange in Tokyo has halted services after it lost $32m (£25m) in the latest apparent hack on volatile virtual monies.

Remixpoint, which runs the Bitpoint Japan exchange, discovered that about ¥3.5bn in various digital currencies had gone missing from under its management.

Cryptocurrencies are an alternative way of making payments to cash or credit cards. The technology behind it allows the ‘money’ to be sent directly to others without it having to pass through the banking system. For that reason they are outside the control of governments and are unregulated by financial watchdogs – and transactions can be made in a way that keeps you reasonably pseudonymous.

If you own a crypto-asset you control a secret digital key that you can use to prove to anyone on the network that a certain amount of that asset is yours. If you spend it, you tell the entire network that you have transferred ownership of it, and use the same key to prove that you are telling the truth. Over time, the history of all those transactions becomes a lasting record of who owns what: that record is called the blockchain.

Bitcoin was one of the first and biggest cryptocurrencies and has been on a wild ride since its creation in 2009, surging in value as investors piled in, drawing comparisons with the tulipmania of the 17th century before it crashed. Sceptics warn that the lack of central control make crypto-assets ideal for criminals and terrorists. 

The number of crypto-assets has grown rapidly, including from several major companies. JP Morgan has built its own cryptocurrencies, while trading in traditional financial assets that track the value of cryptocurrencies – such as derivatives and contracts for difference – has also become available. Facebook is planning to launch its own digital currency – Libra – in 2020.

Richard Partington and Martin Belam

The apparent hack emerged after an error appeared in the firm’s outgoing funds transfer system on Thursday night. It said the cryptocurrency went missing from a so-called hot wallet, which is connected to the internet, but that currency held in cold wallets that are offline was not affected.

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The exchange handles various virtual currencies, including bitcoin, ethereum and ripple. Remixpoint said it was analysing the loss and gave no further details on the incident.

This is the latest hack involving cryptocurrencies, which have become synonymous with vast fluctuations in value, being used in criminality and frequent theft through hacks.

Last year, Japan’s Coincheck was hacked and more than $500m-worth of digital currency stolen. In 2017, the South Korean exchange Youbit shut down and filed for bankruptcy after being hacked twice. The Tokyo-based MtGox exchange, which at one time handled nearly 80% of all global bitcoin transactions, was shut down in 2014 after 850,000 bitcoins (worth half a billion US dollars at the time) disappeared from its virtual vaults.

The Financial Conduct Authority has proposed a ban on financial instruments linked to cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin, warning that such products could cause huge losses for retail consumers unlikely to understand their risks or value.

Remixpoint said it would compensate customers for the losses. About ¥2.5bn-worth of the missing currency was customer funds, with the rest owned by the firm. Shares in Remixpoint plunged almost 20% after the announcement.

Japan has been relatively open to cryptocurrencies, which use a technology called blockchain, despite the high-profile heists. It has set up a licensing system to oversee their use.

Bitcoin has been a legal form of payment in Japan since April 2017.



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