Turkey on Saturday detained the chief of one of the country’s biggest cryptocurrency firms after launching a manhunt for the founder of another exchange who fled to Albania.
The Turkish crypto boom threatens to go bust quickly as companies fold and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government prepares to rein in the unregulated digital currency market.
The volume of crypto purchases in the nation of 84 million people rose 10-fold between November and March as Turks sought ways to preserve their savings during a steady drop in the value of the lira currency.
But the market began to unravel when the Istanbul-based Thodex exchange’s founder Faruk Fatih Ozer fled to Albania holding a reported $2 billion in investors’ assets this week.
Thodex reportedly shut down while holding investments from nearly 400,000 users.
Turkey issued an international arrest warrant and detained dozens of Thodex employees in raids staged across the country on Friday.
Officials also blocked the account of the Vebitcoin exchange – one of Turkey’s five-largest – and launched an investigation after it abruptly ceased operation citing financial reasons.
Local news reports said police detained Vebitcoin chief executive Iker Bas and three other company employees on Saturday as part of a broader fraud probe.
“Due to the recent developments in the crypto money industry, our transactions have become much more intense than expected,” Vebitcoin said on its website.
“We would like to state with regret that this situation has led us to a very difficult process in the financial field. We have decided to cease our activities in order to fulfil all regulations and claims.”
Data shared with AFP by the Chainalysis and Kaiko crypto analytics firms show the daily volume of all crypto purchases in Turkey rising from around 500 million liras ($60 million) in November to as much as six billion liras in March.
Coinhills ranks Turkey as the fifth-biggest crypto market in the world.
But Erdogan’s government is reportedly preparing to quickly tighten regulations after deciding to ban crypto from being used for purchases of good and services starting on April 30.
The Turkish central bank warned last week that cryptocurrencies “entail significant risks” because the market is volatile and lacks oversight.
“Wallets can be stolen or used unlawfully without the authorization of their holders,” the central banks said.