Bitcoin ATMs Are a Mixed Bag in Houston

A BitStop machine in the Inner Loop
A BitStop machine in the Inner Loop Photo by Jef Rouner
Would you buy a volatile currency popular with criminals from a convenience store kiosk next to the beer cooler? Especially if it meant putting in a lot of personal information? That’s a question Houston is struggling with when it comes to bitcoin ATMs.

Bitcoin is one of the most divisive currencies in the world. Those who bought some of the blockchain online dough when it was first introduced have seen their investment value shoot through the roof, and the worth of a single bitcoin (BTC) has risen from $0.08 in 2010 to more than $31,000 as of this writing. It’s also highly controversial since the currency is popular with people selling drugs and other illegal items. Approximately one-quarter of all bitcoin transactions are for illicit goods or services.

The financial markets are still divided on whether bitcoin is a solid investment or just a twenty-first century shell game waiting for a crash, but if you’ve been in a gas station lately you might have come across the new bitcoin ATMs. They’re sleek, garish, and usually extremely cutting edge compared to your regular ATMs that connect to boring old banks and their uncool dollars. Houston already has dozens of them waiting for someone to roll up and try to buy a share and see if they’ll be able to get rich from the climbing price.

They are popular. I visited convenience stores this week to check them out as well as ask cashiers how popular they have been. None would allow me to quote them by name as they didn’t want to be seen as speaking for the company, but the consensus is that around 50 people a week use the kiosks, with 10 visitors in a day being considered busy. None of the cashiers I talked to had actually tried one for themselves yet.

I did begin to, but I admit I chickened out halfway through the process. There is something far more invasive about using them that you don’t get from similar electronic dealers like conventional ATMs and electronic parking meters. Setting up an account is easy enough. You just need your phone number and a custom four-digit PIN. That said, the wild west attitude of the currency made me too leery to trust it far enough to try and actually purchase any bitcoin myself. Call me a statist sheep, but I do find comfort in knowing that the FDIC and a few mega-corporations are monitoring transactions.

Even if you finish setting up an account, it might not be as simple as you hope. Houstonian Langdon Alger tried to buy some bitcoin as joke Christmas presents for friends at the Buzzy Bee gas station at South Belt and Genoa-Red Bluff and found the whole thing an unsatisfying hassle.

“I attempted to buy from a gas station ATM, but after three tries the machine came back with an error stating it was out of BTC then it offered up three other currencies that were ‘in stock,” he says.

There’s also the question of how accurate the machines are. For instance, when I visited on Monday the BitStop machine listed the current value of bitcoin at $31,903.58 when on my phone $31,413.30. That is a pretty significant difference, and it didn’t make me feel any safer about opening an account.

Still, the bitcoin revolution is likely not going anywhere for a while. Bitcoin of America just installed its 500th machine in this country, and there are over 16,000 in the United Kingdom. If the viability of blockchain currency lasts (and the power needs of generating it don’t lead to an energy crisis), then perhaps buying some on the same trip you use to get your Flamin' Hot Cheetos will become the norm.
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Jef Rouner is a contributing writer who covers politics, pop culture, social justice, video games, and online behavior. He is often a professional annoyance to the ignorant and hurtful.
Contact: Jef Rouner