But the coin I ended up owning the most of was Cronos—Crypto.com’s own. Marszalek’s app subtly but insistently guided me toward offers to stake Cronos. To access Crypto.com’s higher Visa card reward tiers, I had to buy at least $400-worth of Cronos, then hold it for a minimum of six months. This was a risky proposition: Cronos had traded between $0.09 and $0.90 in the 12 months before my purchase, and was down more than 50 per cent from the peak it hit following the debut of Damon’s advert. But in return, I got a branded prepaid debit card.
For a $400 stake, Crypto.com will send you a “Ruby Steel”–tier card, pay for your Spotify subscription each month, and reward you with cash back on all purchases. (The cash back is denominated in Cronos, of course.) For a $4,000 stake, Crypto.com will send you a “Jade Green” card, cover your Netflix subscription, pay interest on your stake, and boost your cash back. For a $40,000 stake, Crypto.com will send you an “Icy White” card, and for a $400,000 stake, the company will send you an “Obsidian” card, each with increasing benefits. Stake enough money and at some point you might even meet Kris.
In addition to the cards, the Crypto.com app has a gamification element, in which users complete “missions” to earn “diamonds,” which can be exchanged for “mystery boxes,” which contain Cronos. Crypto.com also offers to exchange small lots of other cryptocurrencies, like Bitcoin, into Cronos for free. It felt like the longer I used the app, the more likely I was to end up owning Cronos, perhaps even inadvertently.
Cronos is one of the 20 most valuable cryptocurrencies by market capitalisation, with a present total value of around $5 billion. Granted, there is more money stored in Dogecoin than Cronos, but given that over 18,000 cryptocurrencies have been launched since 2009, ranking in the top 20 is a commendable achievement. And even if Cronos is not the most widely used blockchain, Crypto.com does appear to have the most widely used crypto-linked prepaid card. Visa recently announced it had processed over $2.5 billion in crypto-linked card transactions in the first quarter of 2022. “I would say about $1.7 billion of that was our card,” Crypto.com spokesman Matt David told me.
One of the nice things about cryptocurrencies is that most of them use public ledgers, permitting snoopy users like me to monitor the fattest wallets. Using the analytics platform Etherscan in April, I saw a couple of single-signature wallets, each with over a billion U.S. dollars of Cronos stashed inside. I wondered if, perhaps, one wasn’t Marszalek’s wallet, but when I asked him, he wouldn’t tell me. When I asked him again, he still wouldn’t tell me. When I asked him, directly, how much Cronos he personally owned, he told me, “Just a bit.”
Cronos has a controversial history, and has gone through two rebrandings. It started life as the Monaco token and attracted a small base of early users. After Marszalek acquired the Crypto.com domain name, the company introduced a new token, called the Crypto.org coin, which traded under the ticker symbol CRO. For a time, Crypto.com sponsored both currencies, but, after stating he would keep the two tokens separate, Marszalek ultimately decommissioned Monaco, effectively forcing outraged Monaco holders to swap their holdings for CRO. More recently, the Crypto.org coin was renamed Cronos, after Marszalek removed it from the Ethereum network and ported it to its own blockchain.
So Cronos, like most cryptocurrencies, was advertised as “decentralised,” but for a time Marszalek acted as its central banker. Lacking expertise, I turned for help to Rich Sanders, the co-founder of CipherBlade, a blockchain-analytics firm. “There is a common phrase in the industry: ‘Token not needed,’ ” Sanders said in an email. “I can tell you that CRO doesn’t need to exist.” (Crypto.com contended that there are over 700,000 blockchain addresses connected to CRO and over $4 billion in value locked into CRO as of April 2022.) Sanders also reiterated a common criticism of crypto exchanges in general – that they were exploiting unsophisticated suckers like me. “Companies of this nature specifically target new investors,” he said. “They just know that a lot of people got rich quick with cryptocurrency, and they want to do the same.” (“Our mission is cryptocurrency in every wallet,” David said in response. “To achieve this goal, we must build a trusted, secure platform for everyone.”) Sanders’s biggest concern with Crypto.com, though, was the aggressive interest rates it offered on customer accounts: “The only way these companies can offer these high rates is because they’re performing higher-reward (albeit much higher-risk) activity.”