Internet Culture

The 'Free Money' guy from the '90s bursts your bitcoin bubble

Matthew Lesko made his name in the 1990s in a question-marked suit yelling about free money. But he’s not sold on cryptocurrencies.

Matthew Lesko, better known as the "Question Mark Guy" from the 1990s, isn't sold on cryptocurrency.
Matthew Lesko

This is part of "Blockchain Decoded," a series looking at the impact of blockchain, bitcoin and cryptocurrency on our lives. 

You probably don't know the name Matthew Lesko, but you might recognize a man in a question mark suit holding wads of cash.

Lesko, an author based in Washington, DC, was a snapshot of the 1990s, much like Milli Vanilli and Pogs. He gained national recognition as the "Question Mark Guy" for his Riddler-esque suits, which he wore in his commercials yelling about getting free money from the government.

If you're not familiar with his ads, here's a taste:

While his commercials disappeared with the decade, the promise of easy money remains. Consider the lure of cryptocurrency, a digital technology touted as an alternative to the money issued -- and regulated -- by governments. Bitcoin, the best known of the bunch, has soared in value over the last year, reaching a peak of nearly $20,000 in December before settling to about half that value in recent weeks.

But where there's the promise of a fast buck, there's also risk -- and sketchiness. Facebook recently banned ads for cryptocurrencies for being misleading. Buzzfeed published an article calling out James Altucher, a self-proclaimed bitcoin expert, and alleging deceptive practices. In an interview with Inc, Altucher denied the allegations. 

Lesko said that with so-called blockchain experts today he sees the same exaggerations he used in his come-ons. In 2004, the New York State Consumer Protection Board criticized Lesko's commercials and books, writing that many of his readers couldn't get the "free money" he promised.

I had an opportunity to chat with the Question Mark Guy and get his thoughts on how cryptocurrency experts today echo his antics from more than 20 years ago.

Q: What do you know about blockchain and cryptocurrency?
Lesko: I do a lot of online chats and live broadcasts, and so many people are interested in it. I really help people who want to get ahead in life and what programs are available, and so they ask about bitcoin.

If you're not an expert, this is a hell of a time to get involved in it. You're playing with sharks right now. This is the beginning of something, [and] no one knows where it's going.

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If you have money to lose, OK, go ahead. But if you don't have money to lose, just stay away from stuff like this. These people who are running it, and hoping the market goes up, think about this 24/7 and they've been at it for months and months and months.

It's like going to the Super Bowl and thinking, "Oh, this looks like a fun game, I'll just put on a helmet and go out and play."

If you're not well-grounded in this information for months, it seems silly or close to stupid, if you don't have the money to lose.

You made your name in the '90s with books on government grants for virtually anything. Your books on "free money" offered plenty of opportunities. Are there any for blockchain?
Lesko: There are grants for any kind of business. If you were starting your own cryptocurrency, yes. The government will help you get that money. Say you needed to invest in a gazillion computers, there are offices in the government that have free counselors that help you get that money.

There's nothing specific like, "Let's pass a grant program for cryptocurrencies." The people on Capitol Hill probably can't even spell that yet. But there's money to start businesses. It's the reason they have these programs, because you're going to create jobs.

Do you think cryptocurrencies are a scam?
Lesko: Realistically, it's that way. Everyone is hoping there's another sucker. It keeps going up as long as somebody else thinks it's worth more. It's all about getting in and getting out. A lot of the stock market is that way, so who the hell knows.

There's no regulation like in a dollar bill, it's not backed by anything that you can get the money back if someone screws you over. That's the other thing -- if there's no regulation, you get screwed, you get screwed.

Do you think the hype around cryptocurrency is a bubble?
Lesko: Yes, but it's their money, they can do what they want with it. The bad part of it is that it's playing on people who can't really afford it.

I don't mind the hype for people who can afford it. It's the hype for people who can't afford it, and they hurt themselves by getting involved in this, instead of selling something more real, developing a skill that can contribute to society.

How are people getting sucked into cryptocurrency?
Lesko: We're so good at selling in this country. This is our talent. It's not making shit, it's selling shit.

We can sell anything, and that's the problem. You become so good at selling, it doesn't matter what the hell you're selling. How do you guard against that? The average person is not equipped to deal with somebody who spends 24 hours a day thinking of every answer to a question you have.

You can't pick through that bubble yourself. They're thinking every day about what motivates you to give them money.

But you made a living off being that person. Your commercials had a lot of energy and a lot of hyperbole. Do you see the same thing going on now with cryptocurrency?
Lesko: Yes, and that's unfortunate. I did it for the same reason they do, to get people's attention. Sometimes you don't have a lot of time to explain all the ifs, ands or buts on things.

But for me, what I do, is, I have a philosophy. If 10 years from now, you think I screwed you, I'll give you your money back. That's the honest thing to do.  

If bitcoin were around during your "free money" book days, would you have been one of these salesmen?
Lesko: No. I wanted to show people the tools to improve their life. Bitcoin right now is a gamble. I don't see how that improves anybody's life, gambling.

So why haven't you written a book helping people with cryptocurrency and blockchain?
Lesko: I don't wanna write about cryptocurrency, I'm not sure it's of value yet. I know there's real programs to help people. I want to show people about the real help that's available. For someone in Arizona who's four or five months back on their mortgage, there's money for that.

But for them to invest in cryptocurrency [thinking that] because by the next payment, they're gonna have all that money, no, they're just going to lose that money.

Would you rather have $2,000 from a government grant or invest $2,000 in a cryptocurrency?
Lesko: Three weeks ago, you would have been right to invest in cryptocurrency. A week ago, you'd be wrong. That's why it's so unstable.

If someone in your family wanted to put half their life savings in a cryptocurrency, what would you say to them?
Lesko: Ha -- that they're stupid. If your life savings were $10 million and you lost $5 million, that wouldn't change your life much.

If your life savings were $10,000 and you lost $5,000, you could have done a lot with that.

Updated at 9:01 a.m. PT: To include details on James Altucher.

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