A Bitcoin Mogul Goes Broke

Death, Sex & Money

By WNYC Studios

A Bitcoin Mogul Goes Broke

Wednesday, 1 November

When Charlie Shrem was growing up in an Orthodox Jewish family in Brooklyn, he learned a lesson about money the hard way. "I got a credit card in the mail [...] the day I turned 18. I had a $6000 credit limit. And I was taking people to Vegas," he told me. It was a lifestyle that got him in ten thousand dollars worth of debt. He repaid that debt in full, and then started looking for a way towards financial independence. 

He landed on Bitcoin. Charlie was an early adopter of the cryptocurrency, and his gamble paid off. By the time he was 22, he had co-founded a company called BitInstant, which helped its users convert dollars into Bitcoin. It made Charlie rich, but it also landed him in legal trouble. One of Charlie's customers was making a profit reselling Bitcoin purchased on BitInstant on Silk Road, an underground marketplace known for illegal transactions. Charlie knew about it, and ended up being arrested for it. He plead guilty to a reduced charge, and served a year in federal prison. "When you're in prison, it's not like TV where everyone's like, oh, I'm innocent," Charlie told me. "Everyone tells you they're guilty. I'm guilty. Because to say you're innocent minimizes all that hard work you're doing to get out." 

I talked with Charlie about money, prison, and ultimately leaving his Orthodox community live onstage at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles. Our conversation took place in conjunction with an exhibit there called Generation Wealth. It's a series of photographs by Lauren Greenfield about money, status, and the ways we show them—you can learn more about that exhibit and see some of the photographs here

Watch Anna and Charlie Shrem in conversation at the Annenberg Space for Photography. 

 

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