A Crypto Alchemist Made Me an Accidental Billionaire

Few things can turn around a boring winter afternoon like receiving a billion dollars. The amount is there, in its 10-figure glory, glaring from my phone screen in white characters against a charcoal background: $1,112,172,834.

Visions of WIRED’s gift and hospitality policy float before my eyes: Staff may not accept “gifts, meals, discounts, travel expenses” over $30. I’d had no plans to become a billionaire. And yet the man messaging me on Signal has decided that sending me a billion dollars in cryptocurrency is the best way of proving his point about the legitimacy of a crypto app. His plan is to exploit a possible vulnerability in a cryptocurrency wallet app to squeeze money out of thin air, and in the process, expose the app as either shoddy or fraudulent. A few minutes earlier, he had written that he wanted to become an “alchemist.”

His name is Valentin Broeksmit. His own balance exceeds five trillion dollars.

I’ve heard of Broeksmit before: A musician and founder of a band called Bikini Robot Army, in press shots he affected the indie-singer look as a lanky man in his forties wearing shades and a fedora. His real claim to fame, however, was as a financial whistleblower. In 2014, after the death of his father, Deutsche Bank executive William Broeksmit, Broeksmit Jr. began to leak a trove of documents on the bank’s inner workings to journalists and FBI agents. While the value of his material has rarely been questioned, his sometimes erratic behavior is notorious. He’s tweeted documents (which he retrieved on Reddit) that had been stolen in North Korea’s 2014 Sony Pictures hack, eliciting the company’s ire; The New York Times reported that he met with US congressmember Adam Schiff to help him investigate Donald Trump’s finances in 2019; he was reported missing by his girlfriend in 2021, and was technically still a missing person when we spoke.

Early in the day after he makes me a theoretical billionaire, Broeksmit calls me from his loft in downtown Los Angeles. The three-hour conversation is one of the oddest in my life: Broeksmit spins a story of financial derring-do, spiced with fast-paced tangents about his favorite pub in London and the org chart of the KGB. His live-in partner, visual artist Marie Peter-Toltz, occasionally chimes in—sometimes in Spanish—to dispute the sequence of events. The call ends and restarts several times, once because Broeksmit’s cigarette has burned a hole in his pillow, filling his loft with down feathers. Broeksmit comes across as a skilled raconteur, but also erratic and impulsive. The pooled balance of several different crypto coins, amounting to a billion dollars, is still in my wallet. How did he do it?

Broeksmit tells me he and Peter-Toltz had started looking into crypto in the winter of 2021 because they were “broke as shit.” During his research, Broeksmit chanced upon Incognito Wallet, which developed a blockchain where people can exchange and trade cryptocurrencies via peer-to-peer payments or through a decentralized exchange (DEX), which allows cryptocurrencies to be swapped directly without going through intermediaries. Run by an anonymous team mostly based in Vietnam, Incognito styles itself as privacy-conscious, open source, and decentralized.

Incognito also lets users mint their own cryptocurrencies, Broeksmit says. One just has to pick a name and ticker symbol and provide information about the purpose of the coin in order to launch it as an asset tradable within Incognito’s ecosystem. Incognito suggests that businesses can create these coins to drum up publicity or dole out promotional rewards to customers. Normally, these coins appear to have a value of zero dollars, as no one is seeking to trade them for pricey mainstream cryptocurrency on Incognito’s exchange.