What happens to lost Bitcoin?

What is lost Bitcoin?

Bitcoin is considered lost on the blockchain when the owners of the assets are unable to exercise control over it.

Bitcoin (BTC) is a decentralized digital currency that stores its records among a distributed set of nodes that collectively represent a public ledger, also known as a blockchain. On the Bitcoin blockchain, private wallet users have a public address while holding a private key that enables them to control assets held within that address. 

There can only be 21 million BTC in circulation; this is designed and coded within the protocol. Bitcoin’s design is deflationary, where, over a period of time, the scarcity of the asset increases. Bitcoin’s value is partly maintained by a maximum limit on the total amount of Bitcoin that can exist and by periodically decreasing the rewards (via Bitcoin halving) given to miners for bringing new Bitcoin into circulation. 

Graphical representation of the estimated amount of Bitcoin lost forever

Any lost Bitcoin further adds to the deflationary process and contributes to the scarcity of available Bitcoin. It’s difficult to estimate the exact number of lost Bitcoin, considering that wallets could just be truly dormant. 

However, based on research performed by Chainalysis, a blockchain data platform, 17%–23% of the overall Bitcoin supply might be lost, which ranges between 2.78 million and 3.79 million BTC. The wallets of Bitcoin creator Satoshi Nakamoto are also speculated to hold up to 1 million BTC from early mining rewards, contributing to a percentage of these lost or dormant Bitcoin.

How can Bitcoin be lost?

Bitcoin can be lost due to user errors or malicious actions from third parties via scams, hacks or social engineering.

Some potential scenarios are listed below:

Private key compromise

Security failures such as negligence, falling victim to social engineering or being hacked can lead to compromised private keys, allowing bad actors to steal people’s Bitcoin. This can happen as part of any phishing, malware or other fraud scenarios.

Sending to the wrong network

This happens surprisingly often when transferring BTC; if users erroneously send it either to the wrong network or to an invalid address (missing a digit, etc.), it is completely unrecoverable. This is more critical due to the advent of Ordinals in the Bitcoin ecosystem, as some wallets have a different address from the standard BTC address.

Sending to the wrong address

When transferring BTC, if users send it to the wrong address, it could be very challenging to recover it. First, the key issue would be identifying the true recipient of the transfer and then having a reasonable mechanism to request a return, all quite difficult in a decentralized ecosystem.

Damaged wallets

If a user’s Bitcoin wallet is damaged or corrupted for any reason, they could potentially lose access to their BTC. However, there is no issue if the user has the private key; a new wallet can be set up again and restored with the private key.

User abandonment

Many dormant addresses on BTC have never had any activity for many reasons. One reason could be that owners have forgotten their private keys and cannot access their Bitcoin, leading to irretrievable Bitcoin on the blockchain. 

They could have potentially discarded their old computers, hardware wallets or deleted recovery files, which minimizes their options for restoring prior access.

Inheritance issues

This is another form of user abandonment. The private key owners might have sadly passed away, with no one else having access to the original private keys, leading to forgotten crypto holdings. This could happen for both private wallets and accounts on centralized exchanges if there is no clear nomination process set up or available for the next of kin.

Enforcement actions

Users can also lose their Bitcoin due to asset forfeiture by government authorities. These would be targeted actions based on the law, and in the case of private wallets, users would still be required to hand over their private keys for enforcement action to proceed.

Centralized exchange hacks

Centralized exchanges that hold user assets are also at risk of being hacked or losing assets due to insolvency, resulting in users not having access to their assets.

Consequences of lost Bitcoin

With increasing institutional awareness and interest, Bitcoin is gaining more recognition as digital gold and a store of value. Any lost Bitcoin can represent a severe loss of wealth for users over the coming decades.

Bitcoin has existed since 2009, and there is a general consensus among experts that it holds a unique position among digital currencies as a store of value. The launch of Bitcoin spot exchange-traded funds (ETFs) has brought tremendous institutional liquidity and interest into Bitcoin. These factors have led many experts to predict significant valuations for Bitcoin a decade from now. 

Users who have lost their BTC forever with no possibility of recovery may struggle with guilt and self-blame. There is generally a focus on narratives around gains and wins; however, losses like these, sadly, are also part of engaging with the cryptocurrency ecosystem. The industry should focus on multisig and innovative wallet solutions that can reduce the possibility of such losses for users in the future. These would help reduce fraud and accidental loss of keys and, in turn, encourage wider adoption.

The deflationary nature of Bitcoin adds complexity. All the lost BTC accelerates the scarcity of available units. Unlike some speculators, institutions and high-net-worth individuals tend to take long-term positions in Bitcoin rather than engage in frequent trading. The combined effect of these factors suggests a trend toward increased Bitcoin scarcity and potentially higher prices in the future.

Can lost Bitcoin be recovered?

All hope is not lost for users who have lost their assets; however, whether any Bitcoin can be recovered depends on the combination of what’s available to reconstruct and the background to the loss.

Here are a few potential avenues for users to explore to recover lost Bitcoin:

Data recovery services

Some firms specialize in the recovery of users’ lost cryptocurrencies. They usually deal with scenarios around drive issues or hardware failure, forgotten passwords, wallet corruption, data loss or incorrect recipients. They offer a variety of techniques, from brute force reconstruction of partial or entire seed phrases to reconstructing wallets, forgetting passwords, guessing and retrieving keys stored on a hard drive.

They generally tend to have a higher success rate when access to an existing computer or device allows these firms to reverse engineer access. Considering the cryptographic principles behind Bitcoin, a complete reconstruction of a forgotten seed phrase is extremely difficult with today’s computational abilities. 

Users must exercise caution and deal with reputed firms with verifiable reviews and a track record of success, as many of the services could also be outright scams or overpriced with no tangible returns.

Private investigation firms

These are usually involved in the case of hacks or scams that concern a large amount of money, have a vast array of investigative tools at their disposal and, in many cases, tend to collaborate with law enforcement authorities to pursue bad actors and retrieve some of the stolen Bitcoin. These are viable alternatives for users who have lost a significant amount of assets and would prefer to try and recover the lost assets.

What are the safest ways to store Bitcoin?

Cold storage, strong security practices and personal control of one’s private keys are essential for safe Bitcoin storage.

Using “cold storage,” which keeps private keys offline, helps store Bitcoin safely and prevent cyber threats. A hardware wallet is the most widely used cold storage solution, allowing transactions and providing superior security. 

Alternatively, for the highest level of protection, one may consider paper wallets, which print keys on paper. Regardless of the method used, it is imperative to have numerous secure backups of private keys.

Whether users prefer software or hardware wallets, they should always do their homework and select trustworthy options. Exchanges may not be a viable medium to store substantial funds because they are easy targets for hackers. Ultimately, phishing scam awareness and good password hygiene provide additional protection for Bitcoin holdings.

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