There’s an ATM at Pioneer Place that turns virtual money into cash you can hold in your hand.

The machine allows you to buy Bitcoin—currency backed by no government and that exists only on computers—or cash out the Bitcoin you now have into $20 and $100 bills.

The independent electronic currency, often appreciated for its anonymity, arrived in 2008. But places to buy, spend and trade Bitcoin have been fairly limited. 

The Bitcoin ATM in Pioneer Place, installed Nov. 15, has by far the most prominent placement in Portland. (Another is at PDX Hackerspace, and  is open to the public only four hours a week and doesn't issue cash. A third, at Float On, is quite literally in an isolation-tank center.)

The ATM helps you set up a virtual wallet with a quick response, or QR, code to store your Bitcoin. The machine will exchange up to $3,000 of the currency for a 5 percent fee. It also accepts bills from $1 to $100. (The exchange rate is currently about $400 per Bitcoin, a value that fluctuates based on Internet currency markets.) 

The ATM's owner, Mike Fors, 37, of BitcoinNW, talked to WW about educating people about virtual currency, why he located his machine where he did, and the problem with dirty money. 


WW: Why Pioneer Place?

Mike Fors: If you want to bring Bitcoin to the masses, don't put it in a coffee shop or a hackerspace.

A lot of people are still leery of Bitcoin, or don't know what it is.

It was geared at first more toward the tech crowd. Now it's more mainstream. With a credit card, [the merchant] pays 3 to 4 percent in fees. With Bitcoin, there's little or no transaction fee. 

Aside from merchants, why should anybody use Bitcoin?

When you swipe a credit card with a merchant, they have all of your information. If you talk to anyone who had [credit card] information lost by Target or Home Depot or even Jimmy John's—they're not happy. Bitcoin doesn't have your personal information tied to it. It's all about privacy.

What's the response to the ATM?

We installed it Saturday afternoon, and within minutes someone had used it. On Saturday night, there was a thread about it on Reddit.

People talk about the amount of time it takes to verify Bitcoin purchases.

It's about 10 minutes—but for the price of a cup of coffee, most merchants are going to let it go through. Most exchanges now, they'll instantly mail you to say they've received a payment. There's not the big, long wait that there used to be.

How did you get started with Bitcoin?

My background is banking. I talked to customers who were tired of paying banking fees. I thought: There's got to be a better idea. Square came along, and when you swipe that you pay a lower charge. Then I heard somebody talk about Bitcoin. Whenever it came time to pay her rent, she'd sell Bitcoin. It's a currency anyone can use anywhere. It's not localized to a nationality.

You're going to Portland merchants and trying to get them to use Bitcoin?

A lot of small businesses say they will only accept cash, because it saves money. I don't like carrying around cash. It's dirty, and it takes up space in my wallet. Bitcoin's right there on my phone. I scan the QR code, and it's done. I don't have to fumble with dollars.

So what's your financial incentive?

If more people accept Bitcoin, more people use my machine.

Some people worry that Bitcoin's anonymity helps facilitate crime.

Bitcoin was originally completely anonymous. With the machine, we have to comply with anti-money-laundering laws. As a new customer, you have to put in your government ID, or it'll scan your passport. So that information is put on a secure server. If anybody wanted to use the machine to do devious activity—if they're a suspected terrorist, if they're on a watchlist—they'll be denied. But if somebody wants to get Bitcoin, they'll find a way. They're not going to use this machine in a mall.

So you don't expect to be the bank of choice for meth rings in Vancouver?

I think if anybody wanted to buy Bitcoin in a public place like this, with a machine, they're not going to do anything devious with it. Cash, you can already go out and buy anything in the world, obviously. We're hoping that being here in the mall, we'll bring Bitcoin into the mainstream, as a legitimate currency.