One unique aspect of Bitcoin is a user’s ability to self-custody his coins.
But like any financial asset you custody yourself, it is possible to lose it.
There are probably hundreds of would-be millionaires who can tell you all about it:
When a wallet is lost, it’s usually gone forever - depending on how one loses it.
It also happens far more often than you think.
It is widely believed that around 4,000,000 coins (or about 20% of the total issued supply) are lost forever.
In this post, let’s explore the ways a Bitcoin wallet can become ‘lost’ and explore the most famous cases of these lost wallets.
By the end, we should have a good idea of how we can learn from what went wrong so we don’t lose our Bitcoin wallet too.
Bitcoin wallets can be lost through a variety of circumstances, each with its unique complications and implications.
Here are the most common:
This is the most common way a wallet can be lost.
Bitcoin wallets require ‘private keys’, a kind of digital password, to access and manage the coins.
You can think of them like the password to your email account. If you lose your password, you can’t access your account and read your email until you reset the password.
There’s just one problem: in Bitcoin there is no password reset. Once you lose your password (private key), you can’t access the coins ever again.
However, when someone claims to ‘lose’ their private keys, it is very difficult to verify, since anyone can claim they owned any publicly visible Bitcoin wallet and lost the keys to it.
It would be like pointing to a random car on the street and saying, “I own this car. I just lost the key to it.” Hard for anyone to prove one way or the other.
Sometimes, coins may be lost due to theft.
This happens when a user accidentally or carelessly exposes their private keys, allowing a thief to steal their coins.
In most cases, these are the result of exchanges poorly managing platform security.
But individual users frequently experience this theft as well.
Coins could also be “physically” stolen through coercion, known as a $5 wrench attack, where someone attacks you in person and threatens to hurt or kill you if you don’t send your coins to them.
In this scenario, the user can easily prove their ownership of the wallet (by signing a message from the wallet using the private key).
The tricky part here is proving the coins were stolen as opposed to the user choosing to transfer them.
That’s because whether the coins were stolen or voluntarily moved by the owner, it looks the same on the blockchain.
This is an often overlooked but very real way a wallet can be lost.
If a Bitcoin holder dies without leaving information about their private keys or plans for the transfer of their coins, those coins become inaccessible.
Consequently, the wallet is essentially lost.
Some wallets are considered lost because the coins in them have not moved for an extended period. It’s possible that the owner has chosen to ‘HODL’ their coins (a crypto term for long-term holding), or they’ve lost access to the wallet. Either way, from an outsider’s perspective, these wallets appear lost.
Identifying the biggest lost wallets can be challenging due to the anonymous and decentralized nature of Bitcoin. Still, here are some known instances that fall into the categories outlined above:
The pseudonymous creator of Bitcoin, Satoshi Nakamoto, reportedly owns around one million Bitcoins that have not been moved since they were mined.
While it’s impossible to confirm if these wallets are genuinely lost or if Nakamoto has chosen not to use them, they represent the most significant potentially lost Bitcoin wealth.
Other speculate that Nakamoto died and the keys were lost with him.
That is because he very abruptly left the development scene, and he never left another message ever again.
When you mix this with the fact that he never moved the coins, it paints a dreary picture of what might have happened Bitcoin’s mysterious inventor.
As Bitcoin Developer Luke Dash Jr. tweeted:
“If he isn’t dead, why would he allow frauds to masquerade as him unchallenged (it would be trivial for him to prove them liars with a PGP or Bitcoin signature)?” he said to Decrypt via Twitter. “Would he really hoard his stash while development lacks funding? If not dead, at least he must have lost his keys…”
One wallet from the Mt Gox hack houses over 80,000 Bitcoins and not a single coin has ever been spent from it.
As the coins stolen from Mt Gox are watched very closely, it would be very difficult to sell these coins. For that reason, the wallet is considered essentially lost.
It would be too risky for the thief to do anything with these coins at this point.
Stefan Thomas, a programmer, allegedly lost his password for a digital wallet containing about 7,002 Bitcoins.
The wallet’s security mechanism threatens to “encrypt” the data after ten unsuccessful password attempts. As of early 2021, Thomas had made eight attempts without success.
As stated before, it is very difficult if not impossible for anyone to verify Thomas’s claims. He could be making the whole story up and there might be nothing on his hard drive.
Many have questioned the story, focusing on why the hard drive wouldn’t be encrypted by the password itself. Since, were it not encrypted by a password, it should be fairly easy to extract the key.
James Howells, an IT worker, accidentally threw away a hard drive containing the private keys to 8,000 Bitcoins.
Despite numerous attempts, he hasn’t been able to recover the hard drive from the local landfill, effectively losing access to a substantial Bitcoin fortune.
Gerald Cotton, CEO of QuadrigaCX, died unexpectedly in 2018 while on honeymoon with his wide in India.
He was the only one who had access to the private keys for the company’s wallets, holding an estimated $200 million in cryptocurrency.
The coins have never been recovered, symbolizing a considerable lost wallet due to death.
Many were not convinced this was the full story, believing that Cotton may have faked his death simply because he lost the coins himself and couldn’t keep the exchange solvent.
They may have been half right…
Since Cotton’s death, some 100 Bitcoins inside of the exchange’s wallet were transferred to other wallets.
This has led many more to believe Cotton attempted to fake his death so that he could take the coins for himself.
The list of lost wallets in this article is by no means exhaustive. There are likely thousands (if not tens of thousands) of lost wallets.
The important thing to know is there are many ways to lose a wallet.
Some are due to user error, while others stem from theft.
In either case, it is always on the user to make sure their funds are safe and accessible.
That is the responsibility of holding Bitcoin.
If you can’t accept that responsibility, don’t be surprised if you get added to this list next.
BuyBitcoinWorldWide writers are subject-matter experts and base their articles on firsthand information, like interviews with experts, white papers or original studies and experience. We also use trusted research and studies from other well-known sources. You can learn more about our editorial guidelines.