On Feb. 5, Nova Scotia Supreme Court Justice Michael Wood granted embattled QuadrigaCX’s application for creditor protection. The embattled cryptocurrency exchange says it cannot access some $180 million worth of customers’ cyrptocurrency stored in virtual safes that may only be accessible through its defunct CEO’s encrypted laptop.
The court has ordered Ernst and Young, which has been appointed monitor in the proceedings, to take possession of the laptop.
But experts who have analyzed publicly available cryptocurrency transfer patterns say there’s little sign of digital vaults stuffed with millions that are linked to Quadriga.
“All the analysis done so far has turned up no sign of the cold wallets they’ve been talking about,” Max Galka, cofounder and CEO of Elementus, an analytics firm, told Global News.
“Cold wallets” is crypto lingo for virtual storage where companies often hold the majority of their funds. Because they’re held offline, cold wallets are deemed more secure than so-called hot wallets, which are maintained on servers and generally handle day-to-day transactions, much like the cash sitting at a bank tellers’ desk.
Instead, the company appears to have been transferring money from its hot wallets to other crypto exchanges, Galka said
While cryptocurrency exchanges like Quadriga may choose to store customers’ money on other exchanges rather than in their own virtual vaults, those transfers appear to be at odds with the business model described by the company in court filings. At least one other independent analysis corroborates Galka’s assertions, Global News has learned.
That research further complicates the picture around Quadriga, whose spectacular meltdown has drawn the eyes of the world to Canada’s cryptocurrency sector.
The crypto exchange, which launched in 2013, went into a tailspin after the sudden passing of its 30-year-old CEO, Gerald Cotten, who died unexpectedly during a trip to India in December.
Quadriga ceased operations in late January, saying it was facing severe liquidity issues. It filed for creditor protection in Nova Scotia on Jan. 31.
The company currently has only $375,000 in cash and owes to more than 100,000 customers a total of approximately $250 million, $180 million of which is in cryptocurrency, according to court documents.
Jennifer Robertson, Cotten’s widow, has taken the reins of the company but says she had no involvement in the business while her husband was alive, the filings show.
“The laptop computer from which Gerry [Gerald Cotten] carried out the [company’s] business is encrypted, and I do not know the password or recovery key,” Robertson’s affidavit reads. “Despite repeated and diligent searches, I have not been able to find them written down anywhere.”
The company even engaged an expert to try and break into the laptop in order to recover access to the funds but to no avail, the documents show.
Cotten ran the company’s business from his laptop and was exclusively responsible for transferring money between hot and cold wallets. He was Quadriga’s sole officer and director, according to the court filings.
But while the focus of attention has so far been the laptop, Galka and others have been looking at the blockchain, the digital ledger where cryptocurrency transactions are recorded.
Researchers can access publicly available digital records to follow money trails.
When Galka analyzed Quadriga’s history of transactions in Ethereum, he found no evidence of cold wallets holding millions.
There are about 60 million accounts on the Ethereum blockchain and only around 20 that hold the balance that Quadriga claims to have. But none of them seem to belong to the exchange, Galka said.
“We have looked at every single address on the blockchain that Quadriga transacted with — it’s hundreds of thousands of addresses — and, in our opinion, none of them even remotely fits the profile of a cold wallet.”
James Edwards, an independent cryptocurrency analyst who publishes his findings on a website called Zerononcense, appears to have been the first to flag a possible lack of cold wallets associated with Quadriga.
“It appears that there are no identifiable cold wallet reserves for QuadrigaCX,” Edwards concluded in a publicly available report.
At Elementus, Galka said he traced some funds likely coming from Quadriga to ShapeShift, a U.S.-based cryptocurrency exchange that has been the subject of a Wall Street Journal (WSJ) investigation into money laundering.
ShapeShift CEO Erik Voorhees told Global News via email that his company has found “a number of transactions potentially related to QuadrigaCX going back to 2016, though these may simply be Quadriga’s customers.”
As for the WSJ article, which claimed in September that “a parade of suspected criminals” had been using ShapeShift to hide funds, Voorhees said it was “nonsense.”
The company has published a rebuttal to the WSJ inquiry. More recently, it provided a report stating that it assisted with 60 law enforcement inquiries from around the world, a volume that it characterized as “pretty typical” for cryptocurrency businesses of its size.
Voorshees said the company would be ready to help with any lawful investigation regarding Quadriga.
Richard Niedermayer, a lawyer with Stewart McKelvey in Halifax who represents Robertson, declined to comment, pointing instead to Quadriga’s latest update on the court proceedings.
For his part, Galka said the fact that Quadriga’s cryptocurrency seems to have been transferred to other exchanges instead of cold wallets may be good news for users.
“Recovering the passwords from an encrypted computer — that sounds like quite a difficult task,” he said. “But it seems at least possible that the funds are just sitting in other exchanges.”