Call it a sign of the times, but something is definitely changing as face-to-face purchases of bitcoin are booming worldwide.
In addition to avoiding a sometimes cumbersome registration process with traditional exchangers, in-person bitcoin transactions allow you to meet interesting new people in your area – and discuss bitcoin.
Business colleagues and friends usually ask me the best way to buy and sell bitcoin. With the constantly changing regulatory landscape and the inconsistency of available payment methods, there is not always a straightforward answer. For the serious traders, I recommend both a U.S.-based exchange and an international exchange for diversification. Many choices are available with varying degrees of identification required. For the casual traders seeking more privacy, I recommend in-person trading through LocalBitcoins.com.
Established by Finnish software developer Jeremias Kangas, LocalBitcoins is the leading person-to-person matching service for people in various locales to meet and conduct bitcoin business. LocalBitcoins has steadily added new cities and market depth. "We currently have 142 countries and 1700 cities," Kangas recently told Bitcoin Magazine, "but that most definitely isn’t enough. We want to expand to at least 170,000 cities, and have LocalBitcoins.com-branded franchise exchange shops popping up here and there."
Including the capability to purchase and sell bitcoin online in addition to the in-person model, the company's statistics web page lists 244 countries with 2,004 different cities. The online option tends to support payment methods that are popular and available in that local region. Also, once you make an in-person exchange with someone, you might be more comfortable engaging online with them for subsequent trades.
LocalBitcoins offers an escrow facility and a rating system both of which can be extremely valuable for the first-time trader. The fees range from nothing to 1% for listing and a flat fee of 0.003 bitcoins (about 34 cents as of Friday morning) for wallet transfers.
According to the company, current trading volume is approximately 1,000-1,500 bitcoins per day, with 300 new users per day. Overall user count is now 45,000 and about 15,000 of those are active.
Given the robustness of trade in some large urban areas, it is entirely possible to earn a living from buying and selling bitcoin using the LocalBitcoins matching platform. The bitcoin provider sets the price markup and types of payment that will be accepted. After that is determined, the business elements include focusing on inventory and adhering to a convenient meeting timetable.
It will be interesting to watch how this business model unfolds, because it is also possible to be an in-person exchanger if bitcoin is given back as change during a regular purchase of goods or services. A gourmet food merchant in San Francisco currently offers two unique bitcoin services: "bitcoin back" from cash purchases and "cash back from bitcoin purchases," both integrated with the point of sale system. While the limits on these services are one bitcoin and $200 respectively, it serves as a great incentive to sample the merchant’s product and smartly acquire some bitcoin at the same time.
Bitcoin's price can exhibit extreme volatility and its value is not supported by any government's legal decree. It is admittedly still beta software. With a crippling "fork" of the block chain – the public transaction ledger maintained by a decentralized network of computers around the world – it could all be gone tomorrow. So, do regulatory bodies like the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network believe that virtual bitcoin sufficiently resembles real money for its exchange to be regulated under Money Services Business guidelines or money transmitter rules? Would Fincen also want to regulate the commodity-based exchange of rare gems and Tide detergent?
Bitcoin falls most appropriately into the property category of commodity, although it is an intangible commodity supported by mathematics and a distributed computing network driven by social consensus. Regulating an intangible commodity with unprovable existence places the burden of proof on the regulator since there is sufficient plausible deniability in the system for someone to deny holding bitcoin or even access to the private key required to send them from a given address on the network.
It remains to be seen whether the latest regulatory interest extends beyond the mere entry or exit point into the U.S. financial system. As exchange endpoints tighten up and authorities attempt to treat virtual objects as monetary instruments, the virtual objects might not re-enter the national fiat environment. Therefore, crypto-key disclosure laws may become the next battlefield for cryptographic financial products.
Treating bitcoin as a monetary instrument for purposes of regulation fails to understand the nature of math-based commodities that rely on reusable "proof-of-work" to verify and record transfers of ownership. In the general classification of commodity, bitcoin's trade is similar to any other collectible item, such as antique diamonds, celebrity autographs, moon rocks, Buddha figurines, and baseball cards.
People have even sold air guitars online (without the cases, presumably). Just like air guitars, person-to-person sales of bitcoin "transfer rights" will continue. Ultimately, until physical paper cash is outlawed, bitcoin will still be bought and sold in person just like any other commodity.
Jon Matonis is an e-money researcher and crypto economist focused on expanding the circulation of nonpolitical digital currencies. His career has included senior posts at Sumitomo Bank, Visa, VeriSign and Hushmail. Currently, he serves on the board of the Bitcoin Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @jonmatonis.