Crypto ATMs are popping up throughout California

When you think of buying or selling cryptocurrency, maybe you think of high-tech trading floors. Maybe you think of state-of-the-art apps.

What you probably don’t think of is an ATM in a gas-station convenience store or payday-loan shop.

Increasingly, however, that’s how many working-class people are encountering crypto.

And consumer advocates say this may not be a good thing.

“These ATMs are being put in places where retail consumers who don’t have a lot of information about investing, but are excited about cryptocurrency and want to get involved, are most likely to find them,” says Mark Hays, senior policy analyst for the advocacy group Americans for Financial Reform.

There are roughly 2,000 crypto ATMs in Los Angeles, mostly dealing in Bitcoin. They allow people to exchange dollars for digital currency – for a roughly 15% fee.

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with investing in Bitcoin or any other cryptocurrency. It’s just that it’s risky. Very risky.

Remember this commercial for featuring Matt Damon? Since the ad debuted last October, Bitcoin has declined in value by about 60%.

In other words, if you invested $1,000 following Damon’s advice, you’d now have maybe $400 to show for it.

“This is something weird,” Anas Elshahawy, a cashier at a Crenshaw District convenience store, told me.

He says about a half-dozen people use his shop’s Bitcoin machine each week.

Crypto ATMs can be used to transfer money abroad, particularly to El Salvador, which made Bitcoin a national currency.

Critics say they’re also used by drug dealers and fraudsters to launder cash.

The industry says the machines allow people without bank accounts to dabble in digital currencies.

“We’re well aware that there is the belief that only criminals use it, that only nefarious activity and scam victims go to ATMs,” says Seth Sattler, executive director of the Cryptocurrency Compliance Cooperative, an industry group.

“So as an industry, we’re trying actively to prevent that to the best of our ability.”

Hays at Americans for Financial Reform says there may be nothing untoward about most crypto transactions. But he emphasizes that largely unregulated digital currencies are often more like gambling than investing.

“Putting your money into a Bitcoin ATM and hoping that you’ll watch the line go up and make bank, it’s equivalent to going into a casino,” he says.

“Sure, you can make some money. But the odds are generally stacked against you.”

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