STEM Shoutout: Dr. Marie Vasek

You may have heard recently about the growing popularity of cryptocurrencies including Bitcoin. Dr. Marie Vasek, an assistant professor in the department of Computer Science at UNM is a specialist in computer security who studies cybercrime. Besides leading StopBadware, an anti-malware organization she began working for in 2011, her work and findings have recently been featured in many news outlets, such as Buzzfeed, New Scientist, Coindesk and Coin Telegraph.


Vasek deals with Ponzi Schemes, which are types of fraud found in nonexistent enterprises, such as markets that use Bitcoin.


“I have done some research into online Ponzi schemes, particularly those that accept cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin. While Ponzi schemes are nothing new (and have been around the Internet almost as long as the Internet has been around), I can measure the amount of money brought in by those that accept Bitcoin using the public Bitcoin blockchain. We can also notice trends in transactions, like how most profitable Ponzi schemes die right after a large investment by a single person is brought in. I also have looked into which people invest in these scams and how social platforms prop up some schemes and not others.” Vasek said.


Ponzi schemes are instances in the cryptocurrency world where a person may send a sum of money to a cryptocurrency investor, expecting a payout in due time. The investors say they will hold the money for a certain amount of time, often times allowing the person being scammed to  view their ‘growing balance’ of currency. However, the person running the Ponzi scheme often takes the pool of money and disappears without a trace.


“Bitcoin-related Ponzi schemes can be hard to spot — look for guaranteed rates of return, larger rates of return than traditional competitors, referral schemes offering high returns for referrals, and schemes that hold your money and won’t let you pull it out at all for a period of time. In general, don’t invest in things you don’t understand. Some people are brought into Bitcoin Ponzi schemes because they’ve seen how people have made a lot of money off of cryptocurrencies; they don’t understand that that money earned was risky, not guaranteed. Scammers try to exploit this.” Vasek said.


Now, Vasek is investigating altcoins, which are cryptocurrencies other than Bitcoin. Her work is currently focusing on identifying scams and fraudulent markets with these different types of cryptocurrencies.