The Berlin digital bank Nuri has been aggressively promoting a “Bitcoin income account” with attractive three percent interest per year for around a year. Anyone who has completed it can no longer get their money, because it ended up in the USA in a complicated way.
Sure, anyone who has read through the general terms and conditions of Nuri’s “Bitcoin earnings account” should not be surprised. But who gets that far when Berliner Bank still has sentences like “High returns are history” on its website? Not with Nuri’s Bitcoin earnings account. This increases the value of your bitcoins by up to 3% per year. And all by itself.” advertises?
In fact, it is now apparent that Nuri’s customers have no business relationship with Nuri at all. Because contrary to what the advertising suggests, investors in the “Bitcoin yield account” have signed a contract with the US company Celsius Network – and they have now stopped all payments to their customers.
The business model works like this: Nuri acted as an intermediary, offering the account on behalf of Celsius. Customers then concluded the contract with the Americans. They make a living from borrowing cryptocurrencies, preferably bitcoin, from their customers against interest payments and then lending them to other customers. Celsius makes a profit when their loans pay higher interest rates than they promised customers like Nuri’s.
The model works well as long as cryptocurrency prices rise. If they fall like they did last time, it will be difficult. Now, you could argue that this is true of any bank, but Celsius Network isn’t technically a bank. Legally, the company is more of a kind of exchange office. This means there is no deposit insurance for Bitcoins at Celsius. And now it’s taking its revenge. Because many customers demand their deposits back when crypto prices fall and Celsius had promised to always pay them out, the US company now has to cancel loans in order to have the necessary liquidity. This does not work sufficiently, which is why Celsius stopped paying out on Monday. The company is said to manage around $12 billion in cryptocurrencies.
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German customers of Nuri are also affected by the payment freeze. How many there are is uncertain. Nuri says it has around 500,000 customers, a fraction of whom have completed the “Bitcoin earnings account”, as Kristina Walcker-Mayer, the head of the neobank, told the finanz-szene.de website. However, the size of this fraction is unknown. However, even one percent of Nuri customers would already make up 5,000 people affected.
First of all, their money is not gone. It is likely that Celsius will release access to the accounts again as soon as the US company has more liquid money to process payouts.
But the case shows how risky doing business with such neobanks is. As shown, the Celsius business model does not indicate that this is not a bank. Even Nuri customers can only find out in the small print that they are not closing the Bitcoin earnings account with Nuri, but with Celsius and that there is no deposit insurance there. Also not transparent: Nuri itself is not a bank at all, but a financial service provider that uses the banking license and infrastructure of Solarisbank, which operates such a platform for neobanks. But Solarisbank also denies any responsibility for the business of Nuri and Celsius.
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The process shows how risky the crypto business is for investors. Although Nuri does not hide the risks of his Bitcoin income account, they are only visible if you read the terms and conditions carefully. Only then will it become clear that Nuri is not a bank that is lending funds to another non-bank with Celsius and that the umbrella organization Solarisbank also assumes no liability. In the USA, this business model has already gotten into trouble. Regulatory authorities have been prohibiting Celsius from opening new accounts here since mid-April. This does not apply to foreign customers, which is why Nuri continued to offer the Bitcoin income account. It can still be found on the website today, although no new contracts can be signed at this time.
Lesson for investors: Cryptocurrencies are based on the idea of deregulated financial markets. If you want to participate in this, you have to do without the protection known from the conventional banking system, such as deposit insurance. Accordingly, crypto investments are for experienced investors who can assess and hedge risks. Beginners should not be blinded by terms such as “earnings account” and comparatively high interest rates of 3 percent and more and, if in doubt, check very carefully who they are creating crypto accounts with and which routes the money takes there – and what security is offered to you.
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