Bitcoin: Cash or con? - New York News

Bitcoin: Cash or con?

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TAMPA (FOX 13) -

It's Wednesday night and the bar is so crowded that the group of two dozen or so strangers sits outside.

As other tables down beers and discuss pro sports or the chilly weather, this gathering of informally dressed strangers is focused on a completely unexpected happy hour topic: Currency.

"We're like-minded nerds," said Chad Milios, one of the attendees.

The discussion centers on Bitcoin, the new, unregulated cyber-currency that has rocketed in value from a few pennies apiece to a peak of more than $1,000 late last year.

"The Bitcoin community is very strong," said Jonathan Simms, a Bitcoin trader.

Bitcoin offers a method for direct online payments –- minus the three- to five-percent fees that credit and debit card companies charge.

"You don't need a middleman. You can send someone money without anyone else involved," said Matt Branton.

Branton, who organizes the monthly meetings, runs a start-up company called Coinlock.com, which helps businesses embrace Bitcoin.

"It's amazing, really, how much it's grown in the past few years. And how much more it has to grow," he said.

Instead of trading traditional paper cash or metal coins, Bitcoin holders exchange lines of encrypted computer code to transfer their funds. And recently, the currency has taken big steps toward mainstream adoption.

Overstock.com is the first major retailer to accept it; beginning in March the Sacramento Kings basketball will allow fans to buy NBA basketball tickets with Bitcoin; and in Canada, the first Bitcoin ATM has just made its global debut.

Still, Bitcoin remains a stranger to most consumers. Though it is no stranger to controversy.

Several high-profile Bitcoin pioneers have been arrested and accused of using the currency to launder money. It's fodder for financial bloggers.

And the pub.

"It is shady. It is shadowy," conceded Milios. Yet, he wonders whether Bitcoin is any more sinister than greenbacks.

"How much cash is stolen every day," he asked. "How much cash trades hands in illegal activity?"

The discussion is vibrant. And the crowd grows each month.

Simms, who cheerfully describes his obsession with Bitcoin, predicts each Bitcoin will top $5,000 in the very near future.

"I stay on top of it day and night, hour by hour," he said.

But not everyone is so enthusiastic.

"The lust will be lost in the long run," said Dr. Reza Razavi, vice president of American Family Legacy Group, a wealth management firm.

Razavi also teaches economics. As he conducted a recent lecture about precious metals, he displayed a wide array of collectible coins for his students.

The gold and silver discs are tangible history. They have withstood the test of time and have held their value. Razavi says Bitcoin has no place among them.

"Does it have a hardcore money value to it? It really doesn't," he said. "At the end of game, I believe it's a Ponzi scheme."

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