John Lee couldn’t believe his luck. The $1,000 investment he made in Squid, a new cryptocurrency project inspired by the dystopian Netflix drama “Squid Game,” had skyrocketed in price.
But within five minutes Monday, his money disappeared.
“I watched Squid fall down in a matter of minutes,” Lee, 30, from Manila in the Philippines, told NBC News. “There was no way to withdraw my funds intact.”
He was one of many investors who were caught in what has become one of the most high-profile cryptocurrency collapses of the year — and one that some industry experts are warning is indicative of a market that is ripe with scams.
The digital currency, called Squid, was launched in late October and quickly skyrocketed in price. It reached more than $2,860 per token Monday morning before losing all its value after the project’s unknown creators appeared to cash out Squid tokens worth more than $3 million, according to transaction details on a publicly accessible cryptocurrency digital wallet.
Since then, the project’s website, SquidGame.cash has vanished and its social media profiles have gone dark. Many investors who spoke to NBC News have accepted they’ll never see their money again. Some are calling it a scam.
“It was shocking but I know that in crypto, there is a huge risk involved, including dealing with scammers,” Lee said. “It was a good lesson.”
Archived versions of the cryptocurrency’s website show that it had promised investors that they would be invited to join a virtual game which was inspired by the popular Netflix series, in which people could win rewards.
But a number of clues on Squid’s website suggested the project was not all that it appeared to be. The token’s white paper — a document that outlines the project to investors — was riddled with spelling errors, and the website made unfounded claims that it had partnered with Netflix and Microsoft.
Microsoft and Netflix declined to comment, though Netflix told CNBC it had no affiliation with the project.
On Friday, the technology website Gizmodo warned that the tokens were a likely scam. That same day, the crypto price-tracking website CoinMarketCap warned potential investors to “exercise caution” after it had received reports that users were not able to sell their tokens.
CoinMarketCap then went on to warn that while the project was inspired by the Netflix series, it “is unlikely to be affiliated with the official IP,” in a reference to intellectual property.
After the crash, more than 40,000 people still held Squid tokens, according to data from BscScan, a blockchain search engine.
Craig Tinker, 49, of Philadelphia, invested $300 in Squid because he said he was falsely reassured by the publicity surrounding the project.
“It paints a very bad picture of crypto,” he said. “It’s sad for all the legitimate projects out there.”
NBC News contacted the Squid token developers through contact information listed on its website, but emails were undeliverable and bounced back.
Molly Zuckerman, CoinMarketCap’s head of content, said the token showed “all the signs of a classic rug pull,” which is a term in the cryptocurrency community for when creators abandon a project and steal investor money.
“A dark website, silence across social media accounts, a public excuse to ‘step back’ for some reason — all while the token’s liquidity and price is plummeting in the background,” she said.
Zuckerman added that developers had also created an “unusual ‘anti-dump’ mechanism” that prevented many investors from selling their tokens. Investors could only sell if the ratio of buyers to sellers was 2-1.
“I think that many investors probably weren’t aware of this mechanism, and panicked when they were unable to sell their tokens over the past week, not realizing that was something written into SQUID’s white paper,” she said. “Moral of the story? Always do your own research and never put in more than you are willing to lose, especially with a memecoin vaguely related to a hit Netflix show.”
Cryptocurrency garnered a new wave of younger mainstream investor interest in 2020 and early this year as more established cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and Ethereum, along with alternative coins like Dogecoin, soared in value.
However, more than $80 million has been lost in crypto-related scams since October 2020, according to a report this year by the Federal Trade Commission.
Steve H. Hanke, a professor of applied economics at the Johns Hopkins University, believes the Squid token is yet another example that cryptocurrency is increasingly a hotbed for criminals and fraudsters.
“You have these problems in the crypto space almost hourly,” he said. “The money just vanishes and nothing happens.”
“There’s a tremendous amount of systemic risk associated with the so-called crypto ecosystem,” Hanke added, “and the reason that the risks are so tremendous is that they are operating in a Wild West — no regulations at all.”
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