Rhonda Kampert was one of the pioneers.
He bought six bitcoins in 2013, when they cost about $80 each and were the talk of a niche internet site.
“I used to listen to a talk show on the radio and they started talking about crypto and bitcoin, so I got interested,” he says.
“Back then, buying them was very difficult, but I made my way and managed to get hold of some coins.”
Rhonda, from Illinois in the American Midwest, spent some of her digital money over the next year and then forgot about it.
He didn’t remember until the end of 2017, when he read those headlines announcing that the value of bitcoin had reached $13,000. She excitedly ran to her computer to log in and withdraw the money.
But there was a problem: he was missing some data to access his digital wallet , a program or device that stores a series of secret numbers or private keys.
“I noticed on the printout that my wallet ID was missing a few digits. I had a piece of paper with my password on it, but I had no idea what my wallet ID was,” says Rhonda.
“It was horrible. I tried everything for months, but it was useless. So I gave up.”
digital treasure hunters
By the spring of 2021, the value of bitcoin had surpassed $50,000, more than 600 times what Rhonda had paid eight years earlier. With a renewed determination to find her coins, she went online and found those who call themselves ” bitcoin hunter”, two digital treasure hunters: Chris and Charlie Brooks , father and son.
“After chatting online for a while, I trusted them enough to give them all the details I could remember. And I kept waiting,” he says.
At the time they made a video call, during which they accessed the wallet. “Chris opened it and there they were. I was so relieved!”
The three and a half bitcoins in there were worth $175,000 at the time .
“After giving Chris and Charlie their 20%, the first thing I did was withdraw $10,000 to help my daughter Megan with college.”
You have the rest stored in a hardware wallet , a physical security device, similar to a USB stick, that stores your keys offline .
Today each of his digital coins is worth $43,000 and he expects them to rise in value. It’s your retirement fund for when you decide to retire from trading cryptocurrencies and stocks, he says.
But there are many who, like Rhonda, need help. An estimate by the expert cryptocurrency analysis company Chainalysis suggests that of the 18.9 million bitcoins in circulation, the owners have lost up to 3.7 million . And as in In the decentralized world of cryptocurrencies no one is in charge, if someone forgets their wallet keys, there are not many places they can go.
Chris and Charlie estimate that services like theirs, which use computers to test hundreds of thousands of possible login ID and password combinations, could recover 2.5% of lost bitcoins, worth about $3,900. millions.
Chris started his business, Crypto Asset Recovery, in 2017, but left it for a while to focus on other projects. It was a conversation he had with his son Charlie a little over a year ago that prompted him to get it going again.
“I was on a break from college and had traveled a bit, and I sat down with my dad to talk about business ideas,” says Charlie, who is 20.
“We came up with the idea of getting the business back up and running, so over the next few weeks we brought the servers in-house and turned everything back on.”
They set up office in their seaside home in New Hampshire, and after bitcoin peaked in November 2021, father and son began receiving more than 100 emails and calls a day from potential customers.
Now the pace has slowed down, but they work on the cases that had accumulated.
The business is doing so well that Charlie has no intention of finishing his computer science degree.
However, the two joke that they spend their time in perpetual disappointment.
And it is that, due to the bad memory of their clients or their confusing paperwork, the clues lead them to solve only 30% of the cases .
Even then, they are often disappointed by what they find.
“Most of the time we can’t know what’s inside the wallet, so we have to trust the customer that there will be an amount in there that’s worth the work,” says Charlie.
“In the summer a person told us that he had 12 bitcoins in his wallet. We were very professional with him, obviously, but behind the screen we shook hands, excited about what we would receive on payment day,” he recalls.
“We spent 60 hours on the server, plus about 10 on the client, gathering leads. But when we opened the wallet during the video call, it was empty.”
Chris and Charlie say that only one of their clients underestimated what was inside his wallet. It turned out to be his biggest haul so far: $280,000 worth of bitcoins .
In the last year they say they have recovered bitcoins worth a total of “seven digits” .
The father-and-son team is one of many in a growing industry of “ ethical hackers “ using their skills to help people recover lost cryptocurrencies.
Joe Grand is too. He started hacking as a teenager and is well known in the hacker community for testifying before the United States Senate in 1998 about the first internet vulnerabilities under his username, Kingpin.
He recently made a viral YouTube video of opening a hardware wallet containing $2 million worth of a cryptocurrency called theta.
It took Joe months of preparation and practice hacking with other such wallets to find a method in his workshop in Portland, Oregon.
He ultimately succeeded in combining two previously discovered vulnerabilities with the wallet in question, showing that they can “fail” and reveal their PIN code if attacked with carefully timed electrical shocks.
“When you break a crypto wallet, really when you break any security device, it feels like magic. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve done it,” he says.
“Even though I had proven several times in my tests that I could hack this wallet, that day I was worried because you never know what is going to happen and we only had one chance, if it went wrong the coins would be lost forever.”
“Opening the wallet was a huge adrenaline rush. I guess it ‘s like a technical version of a scavenger hunt .”
Joe’s day job is teaching manufacturers how to protect their products from hackers, but he says he now gets a lot of calls from people hoping to recover lost cryptocurrency.
“If there are wallets big enough and treasure big enough to spend my time on,” he says, “then we’re going to give it a try.”
- Joe Tidy
- BBC News cybersecurity reporter