There’s a curious machine inside an entrance to Vancouver Mall. It will give you cash, but it won’t take a debit card. You can give it cash, but the receipts won’t look too familiar. With the push of a button it will show your balance down to eight decimal points.
It’s a bitcoin ATM, and it’s meant to bring the complex digital currency to the masses right here in Clark County.
“There’s a whole spectrum related to bitcoin, and all the people I know use it for different things,” said Donn Lasher, a Vancouver man who installed the ATM at the mall in 2015. “It’s like a digital commodity.”
Bitcoin has long seemed the domain of the tech-obsessed, or at least of those with technical prowess. But anyone with a driver’s license or state ID can buy bitcoin or exchange it for cash at the ATM, which is run by a state-sanctioned company that takes a 5 percent cut of the transaction.
“Online exchanges require Social Security numbers, copies of utility bills, tying in a bank account,” Lasher said. “That immediately pours water on people’s enthusiasm.”
So the ATM makes it easier to get bitcoin in their digital wallet, in this case the Coinme smartphone and computer app. Then what?
“To the average person, the question becomes, ‘What do I do with bitcoin?’ ” Lasher said.
He’s obviously answered that question before, because he rattled off several answers while visiting the kiosk Thursday morning: Bitcoin can be used to more quickly send money overseas while avoiding costly fees — good for students or those working abroad and sending money home. It can be used in online retail to get around processing fees — more major websites are accepting the currency all the time — and it even can be used by two friends out at dinner to easily share the cost of a meal by moving bitcoin from smartphone to smartphone.
A few dozen different businesses accept bitcoin transactions in person in Portland, though none are listed on coinmap.org as doing so in Vancouver.
The cryptocurrency, as it’s called, has been around for several years and gained notoriety for its use in black market networks such as the now-shuttered Silk Road. It is more anonymous than normal bank accounts and credit cards, Lasher said, but really every bitcoin transaction is recorded and publicly accessible.
It takes expensive equipment to “mine,” or create, bitcoin, which involves computers verifying transactions in exchange for bitcoin. But the most common way to get bitcoin is by trading money, goods or services for it. Like any other currency.
Lasher, 45, started mining bitcoin at a profit in 2011 and decided to get out of that “rat race” by investing in the ATM. The value of a single bitcoin on the digital market has varied from less than $2 to more than $1,200 in that time.
When Lasher took $20 out of the Vancouver Mall ATM on Thursday, he didn’t need to spend much BTC, as bitcoin is abbreviated. Bitcoin, divisible and tradable down to eight decimal places, was being exchanged for $610.47.
Lasher continues to operate the ATM — one of three in the metro area — but earlier this year he sold the machine to Coinme, a bitcoin wallet company that operates several licensed bitcoin kiosks around Puget Sound.
“If I can make bitcoin easier, then I can make bitcoin bigger,” said Michael Smyers, one of Coinme’s founders and a passionate advocate for the decentralized currency. “And if bitcoin can be bigger, then we can make humanity better.”
Smyers sees bitcoin as “the first money you can’t go to war to conquer, you can’t do insider deals, you can’t do embezzling, you can’t do all these classic human-flaw things.”
There have been reports of bitcoins disappearing and hackers breaking through the network’s tough security, so giving out personal information online to trade in the small but growing currency still may not appeal to everyone.
“People have to take your word for what you’re doing at a certain level,” Lasher said. “Look at Target and Home Depot (and their recent data breaches). But we also have stringent regulations to follow at the kiosk — state and federal guidelines.”
Smyers says bitcoin won’t replace the dollar on a transactional basis — it is serving a purpose as a conduit for “fair money.”
“The value proposition of bitcoin is at the macro level — purchasing overseas, the anonymity, the security, the belief in the greater good that it does to the world” by democratizing money.