Mario Fantoni, Bitcoin ATM operator

Fantoni demystifies the world of virtual money

PHOTO by kate gonzales

Mario Fantoni’s foray into the cryptocurrency universe began more than 3,000 miles away in Mexico City. He had already studied engineering, owned a marketing company and ran an Italian restaurant in Grass Valley when his friend called him with an unexpected question: “Would you like to buy a Bitcoin ATM?” Fantoni did, so a friend picked the ATM up at the border and drove it up north to Sacramento for him. That was just the beginning and at the height of his Bitcoin biz, Fantoni ran seven machines. Now he has two—one at Broadway and 18th Street and another at the Express Liquor and Food in a small strip mall on Fulton Avenue. Fantoni recently met up with SN&R at the strip mall machine where he deposited $5 to demonstrate the process and demystify the world of virtual money. Well … sort of, anyway. Maybe we should just Google it.

How does your Bitcoin ATM work?

So before I start, I’m going to open my [digital] wallet, because I need to store this Bitcoin somewhere. Let’s say I want to buy $20. No. 1 is scan your address. So I scan the [QR] code, so now it knows where to send the Bitcoin—to this wallet. That’s step No. 1: scan code. Step No. 2: Insert bill. Step 3: It arrives. It takes 10 minutes to confirm.

What exactly is Bitcoin?

It’s a computer problem. It’s software. It’s public—the code, it’s there. There’s nobody, no Bitcoin foundation or organization, it’s just a program. Like email, there’s nobody behind email. Right? If I send you an email, who is sending the email to you? Nobody.

Is that the most common question you get about Bitcoin?

What is Bitcoin? No. “How can I make money with Bitcoin?” That’s No. 1. Because when you see something that goes from $5,000 to $20,000 [in value], they don’t even know what it is, it’s just, “How can I make money?” So people don’t necessarily care what it is. They want to know how to make money. And that’s why people are losing a little money, because they don’t understand what it is. And they want to make money, so there are a lot of scammers.

How does it work?

Well, nobody runs Bitcoin, but a lot of people approve transactions. … What does it mean to approve a transaction? If it’s a software, it’s here. Approving a transaction means solving a very complicated equation. So now they’re competing, everybody’s trying to solve this equation, whoever solves it first, approved. So whoever solves the equation gets a prize, and the prize is Bitcoin.

I’m not sure I understand it.

Me neither [laughs].

How was it developed?

Bitcoin was born in 2009. Somebody or something that called itself Satoshi Nakamoto released this computer program as a reaction to the 2008 [economic] collapse. … It was like a reaction. Like, we need to get out of this system, because it could have been invented before. The technology was there before, but nobody saw a reason. But then somebody … we don’t know [who], said, “This is too much, we need to get out of the system.” So [they] released the program on the internet, and this is Bitcoin. We don’t know who the person is. There are all these theories.

What are some of the scams or deceptions you’ve heard of?

How much time do you have? No. 1: Bitcoin is gone, I have a new coin. … This is it, you can get this now. It would be like getting Bitcoin in 2010. Except, it’s a copy of Bitcoin with a different name. It’s the same but nobody uses it, so people buy, buy, buy. It comes from zero to $10 [in value], so it’s basically like a Ponzi scheme. [Another] is ransom. You get a pop-up, your computer has been [compromised]. If you don’t pay half a Bitcoin in 24 hours, there is a software in your computer that will delete your information.

Why was it the right time for you to get into the Bitcoin business?

I didn’t know what I was getting into. It’s kind of a revolution—an evolution. It’s like the birth of email. Can you imagine if you were involved when emails came out? Like let’s say I explain email, somebody doesn’t know. What is an envelope? No. A telegram? No. It is a phone call? No. It’s email, and now everybody knows. So in maybe five years, everybody will know what [it is]. If not Bitcoin, something with a different name.

When do you think it will become more regular for people to pay with Bitcoin?

It will be like email. For certain things you will use Bitcoin, for other things you will use cash or credit cards. When it will be integrated into our financial system? Any moment. I hear a lot of rumors that Amazon is going to accept Bitcoin. You heard it here first.