Cryptocurrency pump-and-dump schemes: What you should know about these scams

Don't be the victim of a rug pull.

Oscar Gonzalez Former staff reporter
Oscar Gonzalez is a Texas native who covered video games, conspiracy theories, misinformation and cryptocurrency.
Expertise Video Games | Misinformation | Conspiracy Theories | Cryptocurrency | NFTs | Movies | TV | Economy | Stocks
Oscar Gonzalez
5 min read
Cryptocurrency scam
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Bitcoin, ether and dogecoin reached record highs in value this year, cryptocurrency fans view them as the future of money for the globe. The underlying blockchain technology allows crypto to work by creating a digital ledger that records transactions, which would seemingly create a safer form of currency. But where there's money to be made, scammers aren't far behind. 

Crypto pump-and-dump schemes take advantage of people while making some big money for scammers. They can involve social media influencers who receive financial incentives for telling people to buy a certain digital coin in order to raise its value. Once the value goes up, the scammers and influencers sell their coins and pocket the profits, while everyone else sees their investments lose value. 

Last month, a group began selling coins based on the hit Netflix show, Squid Game. The $SQUID coin had no ties with the show or Netflix but that didn't stop many from jumping on the hype train causing the value from one penny to $2,800 and then free-fall back down to pennies minutes later. This resulted in the scammer making $2 million while those who purchased the coin lost money.

These schemes mark the latest twist in the ever-changing story of cryptocurrencies, which have created some millionaires while bankrupting others through their persistent volatility. With cryptocurrencies becoming easier to develop, scammers are taking advantage of people who have developed FOMO, or "fear of missing out," and are looking to jump on new crypto coins in hopes of getting rich. 

Here's what you need to know about crypto pump-and-dumps. 

What is a pump-and-dump scam?

A pump and dump is a securities scam usually involving stocks. Scammers create false hype about a stock in order to generate interest. Once investors start buying shares, the price of the stock goes up. When the price reaches a certain point, the scammers behind the fake hype sell all of their shares. This causes the stock price to plummet, which leaves new investors holding the bag. 

The movie The Wolf of Wall Street portrayed the infamous pump-and-dump scam conducted by Stratton Oakmont investment firm in the '90s. 

How does this scam work with cryptocurrency? 

It doesn't work much differently than with stocks. A certain crypto asset is pumped up by people in order to make the value increase. 

"As the prices rise, the pump creators dump their assets into the FOMO they've generated, resulting in a price crash that leaves the new buyers holding a bag of the assets that now have a lower value than they were purchased at, creating significant and often unrecoverable losses," said Douglas Horn, chief architect of Telos Core Developers.

What's different is what's used for the pump-and-dump. bitcoin, ether and dogecoin are well-established cryptocurrencies, and it takes someone with the following of Musk to increase or decrease their value. However, since creating a whole blockchain system for a currency takes a lot of time and effort, those knowledgeable about coding can create their own crypto tokens, which are digital assets using an already existing blockchain technology like Bitcoin or Ethereum. 

Watch this: Dogecoin explained: The joke cryptocurrency worth serious money

These tokens, also referred to as coins, can be created easily like Shiba Inu, which the developers have referred to as a "dogecoin killer" in a tongue-in-cheek manner. Developers can also create billions of these coins, which in turn means they go for fractions of a penny. One Shiba Inu token, for example, costs $0.000047, so you can buy 20,000 tokens for less than $1. 

Since someone can create billions of tokens easily that cost hardly anything, all that's needed is to convince enough people to buy these super cheap coins. This can be done through Discord channels, forums or social media, or by getting an influencer to promote the coin in exchange for their own trove of coins. 

If the scammers have 1 billion tokens worth $0.000001 then that's only worth $1,000. But if they can increase the value of a token by just one decimal point, their stash of coins is now worth $10,000. If they dump it quickly, that'll cause its value to crash. 

Another small difference with the crypto pump-and-dump is the term. While it's known as a pump-and-dump, in crypto circles the scam is referred to as a "rug pull," as in the rug was pulled right out from under the investors. Part of enticing people to buy these super cheap tokens is to say they're "rug-proof," which means there are measures in place to prevent people who have a large number of coins from selling them within a certain time period. 

What are some examples of cryptocurrency pump-and-dumps?

In July, four members of the FaZe Clan participated in a pump-and-dump for a token called SaveTheChildren. The pro gamers, along with other influencers, pushed the coin to their followers. Once the price increased, they began selling off the tokens they were given to be part of the scam, with some making an estimated $30,000. 

Another coin called SafeTrade was sold as "rug-proof" earlier this year. Once people started buying, the organizers sold their coins and left everyone else in the dust. 

A 2020 study from the University of Technology Sydney and the Stockholm School of Economics in Riga found 355 instances of crypto pump-and-dump scams over the course of seven months. The organizers of these scams made millions. 

Are pump-and-dump scams illegal? 

For stocks, yes. For cryptocurrency, no. 

The Securities and Exchange Commission is the government regulatory agency that investigates securities scams such as insider trading and pump and dumps. It doesn't yet have similar rules for cryptocurrency, and doesn't plan on implementing crypto regulations, at least for 2021. 

How do you avoid crypto pump-and-dumps? 

It's important to understand if FOMO is contributing to your decision on whether to invest in a cryptocurrency. It may seem like everyone is getting rich off of bitcoin or dogecoin, but that's not the case. 

The next is to do your homework. Crypto coins or tokens can be created fairly easily by people who understand coding. If there's a new coin that's supposedly going to make you rich, do some web searches to learn more. The initial coin offering, or ICO, will have a "white paper" that offers details about the coin, who's behind it, what their objective is and so on. 

Then there's a matter of the buzz that's being generated. A way scammers get the word out about their coin is going into spaces where people are interested in cryptocurrency, such as Discord channels, social media and forums. If all of a sudden some person starts hyping up a brand new token, there's a good chance they're pushing a scam. 

Be wary of any influencer who you may follow who hardly mentions cryptocurrency and randomly begins promoting a token. In the case of the FaZe Clan members, they promoted coins with a social media campaign and gave out thousands of free coins to their followers, which in turn entices other followers to buy coins -- FOMO strikes again. If you're going to take financial advice, get it from a professional and not someone whose claim to fame is being good at a video game.  

Last, if you're still interested in investing, then don't invest more than you're willing to lose. It's possible that with the right timing, an investor could make money off a pump-and-dump, but it's better to assume that the money you're using to buy tokens will be gone forever.