On Tuesday, buying a single bitcoin cost as much as $10,000 on some exchanges for the first time. The virtual cryptocurrency was priced at under $800 a year ago, and its spectacular rise is driving a frenzy of hype, with very late adopters rushing to get in what feels like endless upside.
It should go without saying that that is probably a terrible, terrible idea, but as captain of the U.S.S. Obvious, I am duty-bound to repeat the warning anyhow.
Bitcoin's boosters are talking about the digital currency or commodity or whatever finally breaking through to the mainstream, and new users have been flooding exchanges and brokers as the price has surged.
To more measured observers, it has all the classic signs of a rapidly inflating bubble that will inevitably burst. And not surprisingly, believers are egging on the speculation with talk of revolutions and new realities and other hype words. It's an environment reminiscent of the first dot-com boom in the late 1990s, the housing bubble that followed in the 2000s, and, believe it or not, multiple bitcoin price surges from recent years.
By the way, all that talk is not completely unfounded. Bitcoin and the technologies that built it, namely blockchain, likely are revolutionizing the way data and transactions move around the world as we speak.
But that doesn't mean that dropping your real coin on bitcoin as an investment right now is a good idea.
Bitcoin began its current upswing in mid-2016, around the time that Brexit and Donald Trump's march toward the Republican presidential nomination and later the White House were helping to stir up all kinds of uncertainty around the world. A corresponding spike in the price of gold was observed in mid-2016, but nothing has performed quite like bitcoin over the past 18 months.
It's hard to know where to start breaking down all the red flags surrounding bitcoin. Plenty of analysts can talk about the worrying lack of solid fundamentals behind it, or the fact that it's ostensibly designed to be a currency yet is one of the most volatile assets in recent memory.
You can find plenty of pontificating elsewhere on such topics, so I'll just relay my personal experience.
Like many today, I jumped on a rush of cryptocurrency speculation more than four years ago. At the time, bitcoin watchers looked on with awe as the price of a single bitcoin rocketed to several hundred dollars.
I got in early enough to capitalize on a little of that upside. But cashing out quickly became problematic, as the foremost exchange of the day, Mt. Gox, quickly collapsed amid a hack and bitcoins gone "missing."
The price of bitcoin was quick to follow suit and plummet as well.
I also experimented with using bitcoin as it was intended, as a currency. I ordered credit and debit cards backed by bitcoin that promised to maintain the anonymity and security that is one of the currency's favored features.
Accountability was not among these purveyors' featured offerings, though. After my currency was shuffled from one offshore bank to another providing a sketchy bridge to global credit card transaction networks, it eventually disappeared altogether. In retrospect, the whole experiment was a terrible idea.
There are lessons to be learned here, and fundamentally little has changed since bitcoin began its current unprecedented surge.
Despite the widespread attention it has garnered recently, the world of bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies is still the wild west, a place notoriously filled with snake oil salesmen.
Of course, to compare bitcoin to snake oil might be doing a disservice to snake oil, which is at least something you can see and touch.
So caveat emptor, my friends, lest your bitcoin wallets be left empty.